How can anybody know
How they got to be this way?
“Daughters of the Soho Riots,” The National
This is my sixth decade as a human, as a white, straight male.
Here I want to attempt confession, possibly seeking greater understanding, but fully aware of the huge complexities of making these claims, raising these personal struggles in the context of my many privileges.
I am treading lightly but committed to rise above the problematic satire of Ben Folds’ “Rockin’ the Suburbs”—which both speaks to me and makes me cringe:
Let me tell y’all what it’s like
Being male, middle-class, and white
It’s a bitch, if you don’t believe
Listen up to my new CD
My formative years over the 1960s and 1970s were spent in the redneck South. Just as I was reared to be a racist, I was taught very clearly to objectify women, even as that was tempered in my immediate family by direct and indirect messages about respecting and loving women/girls.
Growing up, I was a Mama’s boy, I was very close to my sister (my only sibling), and I had strong and warm relationships with aunts and my maternal grandmother.
As a so-called pre-sexual boy, then, I genuinely learned to feel deep and healthy affection for women/girls—to whom I have always been drawn more strongly than any male bonds.
As a teen, however, I was significantly enculturated into objectifying women, sowing the seeds for potentially behaving in ways that fed into and participated in predatory masculinity and even the various degrees of rape culture.
My classroom was, at first, superhero comic books and then soft-core pornography (such as Playboy and Penthouse)—but the wider popular culture was always reinforcing the worst possible models for how men treat women.
But as all this colored my attempts to be a sexual person, seeking out romantic relationships throughout high school and college, I was also being shaped in how I interacted with the world aesthetically, notably in that I was actively teaching myself visual art by drawing from both comic books and nude photography in the euphemistically named men’s magazines.
One can see a theme in my adolescent artwork:
As a teen and young man, I was certainly trapped in very unhealthy but subtle patterns that could only be overcome by gaining critical awareness over my mid-20s into and my mid-30s (when I completed my doctoral program).
Some of that critical awareness was powerfully acquired through my commitment to learning from and teaching important literature such as Alice Walker’s The Color Purple and Margate Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale as well as poetry units I taught on Adrienne Rich, Anne Sexton, and Sylvia Plath.
Ultimately, writing an educational biography grounded in feminist theory stands in hindsight as the crowning experience as I approached 40 for a healthy awakening into fully appreciating toxic masculinity, predatory men, objectifying women, the male gaze, and rape culture.
Just as I would explain about my racial awareness, my sexual and gender awareness remains a journey, and as such, I find myself often paralyzed because, as a man, I represent still the potential for abuse through my status, the threat men pose for women in a society that continues to objectify and marginalize females—especially in terms of failing to listen to women who risk telling of their experiences with predatory men and rape culture.
My adult life has been spent as a partner, friend, parent, grandparent, teacher, and coach—all requiring me to monitor my status of power granted by being male and by my professional and familial positions in relationship with females.
As a coach and teacher, I have been (and continue) to be prone to call young women “darling” in casual moments—rightfully prompting some of my closest friends and colleagues who are women to call me on the language, the positioning.
I remain aesthetically drawn to photography and artwork of women nudes—entirely unsure if I can disentangle my toxic past from what I consider non-objectifying appreciation of art.
And so, as I noted above, I stumble toward 60, a man with good intentions who understands that is never enough; I am often reduced to paralysis in how to navigate the world in ways that are equitable and healthy for everyone regardless of race, gender, sexuality, or class.
I am genuinely terrified of ever making any woman/girl feel discomfort because of my masculine presence, my inadvertent gaze, my language, or the implicit threat of my status in relationship to her.
Often these days, I must confront these tensions as I snuggle with my granddaughter who I dearly want to grow up with healthy views of gender and sexuality, who I want to avoid any sort of predatory world.
My daughter was raised without corporal punishment, and now her children have been gifted that same dignity.
I work hard to practice what I preach and feel I make contributions small and even large to a kinder and more compassionate world—a world in which women and children need not ever fear men.
But even the best men walk in the wake of the worst men have given this world—the worst men continue to give to this world, and the women and children who must suffer for that.
Each man must moment by moment examine how he is culpable, where and how he stands in this world in relationship to women and children.
The dilemma of navigating the world as a man is couched in the unearned privilege, the potential for an abuse of unearned power that shouts out “First, do no harm.”
For a man committed to that, however, how does he live a full life without being paralyzed by the worst of being a man, behaviors that often go unpunished and even masked to protect some men from consequences.
This remains a rhetorical question for any man with an ethical imperative for his life—not a question for any woman or any child to offer their compassion.
For any man, for each man, this is ours to confront, to answer, and to act.
As long as men hold most of the power that shapes the world, it is ours to build a consensual environment in which human dignity supersedes the brute force of power.
Between acquiescing to the basest of male behaviors and paralysis is the true way, about which Franz Kafka wrote: “The true way is along a rope that is not spanned high in the air, but only just above the ground. It seems intended more to cause stumbling than to be walked upon.”
Pause. Listen. Look carefully before taking any step.
For Further Reading
The Predatory Men of Academic Creative Writing, John Warner