"He alone bears the burden of his conduct and alone should suffer the consequences.” – Sen. John McCain
“No.” – Women
It is tempting to blame Donald Trump for Donald Trump. But, Trump is a creature entirely of our making. He and people like him thrive because others don’t think girls and women – our bodies, our dignity, our rights, our anger, our humiliation, our fear – are important enough to disturb a deeply sexist “peace.” We are here today because we wouldn’t admit to our own deep-seated and pervasive cultural misogyny.
Long before Trump started his politically motivated and public spouting of hateful, denigrating language and rhetoric about racial, ethnic and religious minorities and people with disabilities, he was gleefully spewing sexist slurs and insults and sexually harassing and bullying women. Few blinked, most laughed. Every awful revelation of the past six months has been met, given the profusion of past examples, with an odd pearl-clutching shock. In a rare display of honesty, Trump put it succinctly: his sexism has always been “entertainment.” American institutions - in the corporate world, media, religion, and politics - cultivated Trump and his supporters, or dismissed his behavior, albeit “crass,” as “normal,” “to be expected” and trivial, allowing him to generate status, money and ratings not just for himself, but for many others.
Women appear to get it, but, still, it appears, not most men. That sexism, objectification and the harassment and rape of women might have to do with high ideals like equality, state security, and the proper function of democracy still hasn’t sunk in. Consider a Facebook analysis of trending topics during last Sunday’s presidential debate. Women’s top five topics were 1) Trump’s 2005 video, 2) ISIL, 3) government ethics, 4) education, and 5) race issues. Men, meanwhile, were interested in 1) Wikileaks’ release of emails, 2) guns, 3) Russia and Ukraine, 4) the economy, and 5) government ethics. The tape didn’t even make the list. This is not a small qualitative study, but involved tens of millions of people. Like it or not, it is a meaningful gender gap with ugly implications. This matters because men, not women, hold the reigns to corporate and institutional change. If they don’t care, nothing changes.
While there are clearly men for whom Trump’s and Billy Bush’s behavior was the final straw, most men who are neither Trump supporters nor explicitly invested as allies to women, continue to mainly express one or more of four ideas: 1) Trump’s behavior is horrible, he should be punished, 2) I am not like that, don’t tar me with that brush, 3) It is terrible that women have these experiences, there is little I can do and, besides, I don’t feel privileged. 4) This is overwhelming and tiresome, can we move on now?
There many good reasons why this is the case.
First, privilege is difficult to acknowledge. Sexual harassment, rape and the culture that support them create systemic male advantage in education, the workplace, media, technology and, well, every institution that we live with. All men benefit, regardless of whether they feel privileged or not. Women are forced to cede ground in entire fields because of sexist and usually sexualized hostility and violence. For women of color, subjected to the double penalty of gender and race/ethnicity, the deleterious effects are extreme, costly, and often absurd. Until we address rape as a social phenomenon related to inequality – racial and gender - men’s greater ability to be hired, paid more, be leaders - comes largely at the expense of women’s physical integrity, safety, health, finances and economic security.
Second, the revelation that so many women feel enraged and vulnerable challenges masculinity, which men must feel deeply and personally. A significant aspect of being a “real man” is being a protector. Our cultural ideas about honor, valor, strength and power are masculinized along those lines. So, what does it mean when the girls and women around you are saying that they have been repeatedly threatened, groped and violated on streets, in school and at work? It might be construed to mean that a man is not fulfilling the most basic learned masculine responsibility. This is one dimension of why so many men respond to threats like Trump’s by referencing “mothers, daughters and sisters.” It’s also a component of doubt: if we maintain that what women say is not true, than this protection hasn’t suffered. In a particular irony, many women say that they do not tell their fathers, brothers or male spouses what happens to them because they don’t want them to “feel bad” about dynamics that they have no control over.
Third, no one likes giving up power, and the revelation that harassment and rape are, after all, about power, is a hard one to digest. The provision of male protection is the quid quo pro for male public authority. This is particularly true in our society, deeply committed to patriarchal religions and notions of sexual “Complementarianism,” the belief that men and women are equal in Gods eyes, but differ in their dignity and personhood. It overwhelmingly results in male authority in the home, in faith and in public office. The Trump tape was spectacularly corrosive to this bargain because if men’s ability to protect the women around them is invalidated, especially men who use words like Trump’s – he loves women, cherishes women, adores women, puts women on a pedestal – words we frequently hear justifying male moral and political intervention in women’s decision making - so, to is the legitimacy of these men’s public authority. Women are explicitly connecting their harassment and abuse, and their effects, to their lower status, another way of saying that men are exploiting their higher status.
Fourth, men are processing what it means that they often know the perpetrators of abuse or may unintentionally be the perpetrators of abuse. While all women are hypervigilant to stranger aggression, most who suffer violence, violation or threat do so at the hands of men they know, most often those with some power over them: teachers, coworkers, religious authorities, uncles, fathers, brothers, coaches, employers and intimate partners. We have to live and work with the people who threaten, abuse and humiliate us. The men around us know these people, too.. This represents interpersonal challenges that stranger dangers don’t. It is, in fact, often much harder to confront people you know than people you don’t know.
Fifth, it is impossible to overstate the power of fraternity in our culture. Predatory and abusive men like Trump count on in a culture where the denigration of women is a profitable and common male bonding ritual. It is difficult for one man to call out other men, to sever ties with teams or be the only one in the room saying, “Hey, this isn’t acceptable.” It’s unpleasant to be the humorless one, the uptight one, the spoilsport, the “prude” or the “pussy.” There are reasons why, for example, men in college fraternities are three times more likely to rape. If you break a fraternal code at work, another man might even lose his job, yet another violation. Supporting his victim becomes perceived not only as a disproportionate response (a common trivialization of the harms that accrue to women who are harassed), but also, a major political issue in this country at the moment, an emasculation. No one wants that to happen. Everyday women lose their jobs or are forced out of them by harassment and assault, but we don’t think that that fact is serious enough to address as a society. It’s not good but, really, it’s not that big a deal. However, when men lose jobs, even as the result of their own malfeasance, the sky will fall in to crush us all and the nation will be brought, as Trump, given his automatic default to eroticized male dominance, might say, to its knees.
John McCain is wrong. Trump alone does not bear the burden of his conduct. Millions of women are routinely silenced and hurt not because of Trump’s personal ugliness and abuse of power, but because of systemic failures to believe women and prioritize their rights as a public and private good. Men, and many women with them, have to overcome these obstacles because no matter how understandable, none of these reasons, once rationally thought about, justifies not prioritizing them and taking action, including, importantly, corporate action.
What women, regardless of where they live, what their politcs are, how they look, what jobs they do, are saying is that our systems fail them time and time again. While corporate cultures, legilsative bodies, the criminal justice system, the education systems, and media are all complicit in the silencing of women, they are also remarkably powerful sites of transformative change. But, not if they remain as lacking in diversity and gender parity as they are now and not if good men don’t break code and disrupt fraternal business as usual.
Our fraternities – and that is what most of our institutions continue to be at senior, decision making levels - are still optimized to protect the entitlements, rights and livelihoods of high status men. Today, Dobbs is untouched, Trump maybe president or do considerable damage failing, Bush is likely to get a $10m payout, and Roger Ailes has been given a $40m award in the wake of harassing women subordinates. In the meantime, women are losing jobs, suffering emotional pain, going into hiding, and paying dearly for therapy, moves, unrecouped income, and their loss of dignity and rights.
If men, because there simply are not enough women in places that matter, are unwilling to accept what women are saying and make corporate commitments to change beyond this election we have gone through this traumatizing process for nothing.