Educating Geraldo Rivera and the Men Like Him


On a recent appearance on Fox's show Outnumbered, Geraldo Rivera made the following remarks during a discussion about marriage:

I know this may provoke a Stephen Smith-like reaction, but I think essentially -- although there's an increase in two income marriages -- generally speaking, the man is the breadwinner, more often than not, though now increasingly women do work. But what I think a woman brings to a marriage more than anything else, to a relationship, is her youth. Youth is a fragile and diminishing resource. So if a woman were to invest two years into one of these marriages and then to be rejected by the man, I think that she has given up a valuable asset that is unequal -- in other words, the man gets everything and the woman gets nothing from this arrangement.

Stephen Smith is an ESPN commentator who implied that provocative women were to blame for rape rather than the rapist. He was attempting a defense of NFL member Ray White, who had knocked out his fiancee and was suspended for two games instead of being jailed for felony assault and battery. Smith apologized but did not specify what sort of attitude retraining he would need to overcome his motives for these outrageous remarks in the first place.

Again and again I am appalled to hear very public men make the same kinds of demeaning comments about women that I heard during six years of counseling batterers and rapists. "It was her fault." "She shouldn't dress up like that." "She made me do it." "I had no choice." "It was for her own good."

The root of the abuse of women -- in the U.S. a woman is battered every 15 seconds -- is not provocation by the victims. It is the culturally sanctioned attempt by immature and ignorant men to control, terrorize, and dominate women. Often these men grew up seeing this mistreament done to their mothers and sisters and internalized the attitudes that justify it from fathers who themselves never grew up emotionally. Psychotherapists refer to this as intergenerational violence. Add a sense of male privilege and you end up with a formula for violent sexism.

Acts of disparagement usually begin with objectification: misperceiving women as mere objects. The bulk of the mass media apparatus encourages this by sending the message that women matter only for their looks and youth. They are to be valued mainly as admiring and attractive mirrors of male greatness. (All five of Rivera's spouses have been much younger than he.) Older women, heavy women, lesbian and trans women, and women who don't exhibit the canned beauty of models are systematically and deliberately excluded from the arena of public value. How many Hollywood films can you remember that cast a wise elderly woman as the protagonist?

This warped value system damages everyone, including the attractive women it seems to prize, because it instils, "You are how you look," not what you achieve or how you see yourself beyond the sphere of the blithe male gaze. You are, as Rivera put it, an asset.

In group we challenged objectification and other attitudes that enable the disparagement of women. We confronted abusive terminology: "ball and chain"; "my old lady"; "my bitch"; "my whore." We insisted that the men use respectful terms to describe past and present female partners. We reminded them of the suffering their acts of domestic terror had caused their victims.

We required the men to select from a list of controlling and abusive behaviors commonly inflicted on female partners and to tell us which of these behaviors they habitually engaged in: shaming and blaming, beating down in argument, raising the voice, breaking objects, criticizing looks and weight, putting her on an allowance, imposing double standards, attacking her independence, scoffing at her aspirations, increasing her dependency on the relationship, threatening to leave, isolating her from friends and family, discouraging her from having a career, making all the big decisions, playing rescuer, sexist putdowns, ageism ("in ten years you won't look so good -- who will want you then?"). We gave the men exercises and practice in developing empathy for what women suffer at the hands of men.

We also confronted their mansplaining: authorizing ourselves to be experts on women's experience even though we are men. Rivera gives a revealing if unwitting demonstration of mansplaining by telling women their value to a marriage. Judging from their reactions, he is way off base, but he would be even if they sat in apparent silent acceptance. Space that might have provided him with valuable feedback from them shrinks instead to a final story about -- his mustache. Had they had time to confront him, he would likely have responded with narcissistic rage, whether overt or covert: a common reaction by men who feel entitled to be experts on "the fairer sex."

If we examine Rivera's other out-of-the-blue comments to these gainfully employed women seated around him on their own show, we note a number of parallels between his attitudes and values and those of batterers in men's groups. He begins, for example, with what seems a dim awareness that he swims in the same waters as Stephen Smith. When confronted, and usually only when confronted, misogynistic men will often admit to being at least somewhat conscious of putting down women. Sometimes they also admit to extreme measures of control. I once worked with a man who made friends with his wife's coworkers so he could stalk her by phone throughout her place of business. In a culture in which male supremacy is constantly reinforced by high finance, politics, religion, and the mass media, the spectrum of mistreatment from sexist remarks to extremes of abuse is primarily a matter of degree rather than of kind.

Like the men in our groups, Rivera then tries to justify the outdated idea of men as the primary breadwinners. His weak acknowledgement that some women work -- the ones around him, for instance -- does not counterbalance his clearly implied preference that they should not. He seems to think of working women as some kind of anomaly. One wonders what era he thinks he lives in.

What do women most contribute to marriage? (Leaving aside the issue of the many women who choose not to join the dynamic of shoring up the pride of insecure males.) According to him, their youth! The most transient and incidental of all possible contributions. Not women's wisdom, not their love, not companionship, hard work, intelligence, patience, insight, shared responsibility, commitment, courage, or even income. No: a woman is to be valued primarily for her looks, sexiness, and fertility, to put it more honestly than Rivera dares.

Blending his demonstration of objectification with a patronizing manner, Rivera pretends to empathize with women who so quickly lose their looks. Such a pity! It never occurs to him that wives offer much more than pudenda and idealization, that refusing to marry is a perfectly valid choice for many women, or that his own looks diminish as the years go on. The flagrancy of the double standard held by this 71-year-old male is breathtaking. (I recall an obese man complaining in group that his partner was getting fat. A more seasoned man asked him, "When was the last time YOU went to the gym, Bubble Butt?")

On the prospect of two-year marriages, the topic until Rivera took over the discussion, he finishes with, "The man gets everything and the woman gets nothing from this arrangement." As opposed to what? Spending half a lifetime with a man who talks down to his wife, looks upon her mainly as an object of his gratification, sits in constant judgment of her looks, and values her only for her "youth"? Presumably Rivera's four ex-wives have had a lot to say about his attitudes toward women, but he could never have taken it seriously.

I've come to believe that men who work hard on the lifelong task of becoming psychological adults instead of walking around like egotistical boys trapped in adult male bodies have an obligation to educate other men about the need to awaken ourselves to these blindspots and to hold each other accountable for them. We acquired them honestly enough by being raised in an eight-thousand-year-old patriarchy, but it's up to us to evolve beyond that. We are responsible for owning our immature attitudes, looking honestly at our self-congratulating values, listening to what women have to say about our relations with them, and learning to deal with women -- whether we desire them sexually or not -- with respect, empathy, and support that allies itself to women's strengths instead of undermining them under the guise of our being helpful heroes. We can and must do better. Some of us already are.

There is, of course, an additional benefit to learning these difficult lessons. (I am still trying to.) Have you read the news lately? Ongoing warfare, escalating terrorism, global warming, mass extinction, acidifying oceans, ballooning poverty, casino capitalism, gun violence, resource depletion? These and other disasters are largely the results of decisions made from the top down by dominating, short-sighted men who believed they knew how to run the world. Obviously, they did not.

Imagine what the world might be like if women and men made the big decisions together.