Reading and hearing the stories of sexual predator Harvey Weinstein’s assaults against so many women has been painful for all of us. The sense of powerful male entitlement to harass, abuse, or assault whomever they want, and by any means necessary, crosses political lines from Weinstein to Bill O’Reilly and Roger Ailes of Fox News, to Bill Clinton, to current President of the United States Donald Trump. From Hollywood, to the media, to Washington, to workplaces and college campuses and even churches in our country and beyond, this male predatory behavior is common. This Sunday’s Washington Post Outlook cover headline put it well: “A World of Weinsteins.”
Many male commentators say they are coming forward to speak out because “I have daughters”—they point to their daughters, wives, sisters, and other women in their lives whose assault or abuse would directly affect them. Of course, they want them to feel safe; I also have a wife and three sisters and understand that perspective. But I also am horrified by these realities because I have sons. The toxic masculinity that infuses our culture encourages and excuses the abuse of power. We parents and caregivers who want to raise boys into good men must be committed to challenging toxic masculinity with one centered on a commitment to nurture and defend people of all gender identities.
Sexual harassment and assault is overwhelmingly perpetrated by men against women. Those are just the facts. And a cultural commitment to changing these inexcusable realities will take more than women speaking out. Women and all assault survivors have been raising their voices for decades, from #MeToo to #YesAllWomen, to paint a picture of the daily abuse they encounter just in living their everyday lives. The onus shouldn’t be on them to continue to prove this type of abuse exists—it does, and we need to take responsibility for creating and participating in this culture of toxic masculinity, and commit ourselves to raising a generation of boys and young men who embody a nurturing masculinity instead.
We need to teach our sons not only that sexual harassment and assault are never excusable, but also that it is their responsibility to step up and call out their peers when they act or speak in sexist ways. We need to understand and teach our children that sexism, sexual harassment, and sexual assault are all related to each other and on a continuum. Unchallenged sexism creates the permission structure for sexual harassment, which in turn creates fertile ground for sexual abuse and assault.
As seems to be the case with Weinstein, men on the sidelines enable sexual harassment and assault, allowing it to happen as a function of their silence and denial, and sometimes through their active participation in facilitating or covering up these crimes. Male silence means sharing responsibility for these crimes against women. Accepting the legal systems that protect predatory men who settle sexual harassment or sexual assault lawsuits with agreements that require silence from the accuser keeps in place the power structure and culture that allows these crimes to happen in the first place. The fact that very few sexual abusers and predators are ever legally prosecuted is proof that we live in a culture that penalizes women for seeking justice and protects men who commit these crimes. If even a portion of the accusations against Harvey Weinstein are legally provable, the Hollywood mogul should spend the rest of his life in jail.
We also need to acknowledge that breaking down our culture of toxic masculinity must include rejecting the commodification of women and the consumerization of sex. When women’s bodies are seen as commodities, it can make “locker room talk” seem more acceptable. And embracing, excusing, or ignoring sexist talk makes sexual harassment and assault more likely to be excused or ignored by other men.
Men need to speak out about sexual violence and sexual harassment everywhere from the dinner table to the pulpit. Some churches are already doing this. In a powerful #HerTruth video, Rev. Stephanie York Arnold shared the stories of women in the Alabama UMC conference experiencing harassment, discrimination, and abuse in the church.
We need to take a stand against this. Young men can define a new, more human and more Christian masculinity by objecting to that cycle all along the way. As the blogger Nora Samaran says: “The opposite of masculine rape culture is masculine nurturance culture: men increasing their capacity to nurture, and becoming whole.”
This is about cultural intolerance of sexual harassment and assault. It is about a legal system holding men accountable to the law. It is about exposing men who use their power for abuse. It is about how we raise our boys into a new generation of men that rejects toxic masculinity and rape culture and embraces a culture of nurture. It is about asserting that men and women were made in the image of God and acting like we truly do believe that.
Jim Wallis is president of Sojourners. His book, America’s Original Sin: Racism, White Privilege, and the Bridge to a New America, is available now.