Over the last month this country has been going through a spate of revelations about men in power (including elected officials, Hollywood celebrities, captains of industry, spiritual leaders, you name it) being accused of having abused their positions of influence to pressure women into sexual relations. It’s pretty disgusting.
As an older white guy, I have a number of thoughts about this.
I. Tip of the Iceberg
As bad as the revelations have been so far—which are terrible—you can be sure that the total scope of what’s happened is much worse than we know today. Most abuse never gets reported, or is hushed up when it does.
One of the more pathetic excuses being offered by Roy Moore and his apologists is that they do not find the allegations against him to be credible because the incidents happened almost four decades ago. Surely, they argue, occurrences that bad would have been reported right away. Huh? If they knew anything about the psychology of abuse, they’d appreciate how hard it is for the victim to come forward. There is no correlation between delay and authenticity.
On the positive side, each time a woman finds the courage to tell her horror story it gets a bit easier for other victims to speak up as well. Though I am not at all happy that abuse occurs, I think we need to shine a spotlight on it if we’re going to make any significant cultural change. In this current surge of revelations, a number of brave women have been doing the hard work of speaking up, and that should be celebrated and supported.
II. A Person’s Right to Their Sexuality
After more than 60 years on this planet I’ve come to understand that the breadth of human sexual orientation and turn-on is incredibly varied and complex. While I believe that, in the ideal, everyone should have the freedom to express sexual desire (to extend an invitation) whenever they want, I think that’s incredibly dangerous unless there is a concomitant commitment to responding respectfully when invitations are declined. If you can’t hear “no,” don’t ask the question.
While I’m generally fine with individuals exploring auto-eroticism to their heart’s content*, if you’re wanting to interact sexually with others then you need their willing participation (for more about coercion see Point III below). As easy as it is to write that, however, there are a number of complications that need to be recognized.
Sexual abuse is mainly the misuse of power to gain sexual favors. If the power imbalance among potential partners is too great, how can you be sure you have consent (as opposed to acquiesence)?
Let me lay out four versions of this:
• If the age differential is too great
I know an intentional community that developed a guideline for teenagers that they needed to be within two years of each other for sexual contact to be acceptable (above and beyond mutual consent). For adults I’ve heard it proposed that sexual contact be considered inappropriate unless the younger person is at least six years older than half the age of the older one.
Frankly, I don’t know where the line is with respect to age differential, but there is one, and it’s a dynamic to be reckoned with.
• If there is an implied threat to safety, or possible retribution (say loss of a job, or a withheld promotion)
Suppose the invitation comes from a bodybuilder who is known to be prone to anger. Or from your boss, and you need the job, or covet a special assignment. Even though you want to say “no,” you might hesitate.
And it can be even worse than that. If the person grew up in an abusive family (perhaps where the father beat his wife and kids), they may be sensitized to the danger of a male losing his temper, and may overreact to a raised voice because it triggers bad memories. I’m not saying it’s the man’s responsibility to know that ahead of time, but you can commit to paying attention to how your words and tone are landing, and making appropriate adjustments.
• If the invitation comes from a guardian or protector
If you receive a sexual invitation from your father, your minister, a police officer, or district attorney (shades of Roy Moore)—someone you’ve been taught to expect safety from, it can be very tricky ground to navigate.
• If the invitee does not have the capacity to give informed consent
It’s inappropriate to have sexual relations with partners who are not able to respond thoughtfully to a sexual invitation due to incapacitation (think of Bill Cosby), or who do not have the cognitive ability to understand what’s being asked.
For all of these reasons, it’s important to develop clear norms about what kinds of sexual invitation are appropriate to extend.
* Even with masturbation there should be limits. I believe it’s abusive, for instance, if you’re pressuring others to watch (a la Louis CK). Also, I’m aware of an instance where a man tried to heighten his pleasure through near-strangulation and failed to stop in time. His accidental death left an incredible mess for others to clean up. The standard, I believe, should be sensitivity to how your self-focused act may place others in an awkward or compromised situation.
III. A Person’s Right to Freedom from Coercion
If a sexual invitation places the recipient in a dilemma—where they don’t feel safe to decline, or they anticipate having to pay a price for “no”—that’s abuse. It is not enough that the powerful person did not mean to be coercive. It is incumbent on them to look ahead of the curve, at how their invitation may be hard for the recipient to handle.
In essence, the more power you have, the more circumspect you should be about extending sexual invitations, or even being available for sexual liaisons invited by the person with less power (because of the potential for the dynamic being misunderstood by observers if, say, the secretary seduces the boss, or the student their instructor).
IV. What’s a Reasonable Strategy to Get from Where We Are to Where We Want to Be?
If we envision a world in which men and women and are equally powerful, does it make sense to flip privilege—where we preferentially support women being more aggressive than men—in order to close the gap more quickly? And if so, for how long?
Sandra Day O’Connor had to wrestle with this question when, as a Supreme Court Justice, she had to lay out guidance in support of affirmative action as a legally defensible tactic in the battle to eradicate racial inequality. She chose 20 years.
While I have no idea how long it will take to dismantle male privilege (or even if it’s possible in this day of alt-right Neanderthal politics and throwback gender roles), I am sympathetic to the argument that women deserve to be treated better then men, at least for a while, in order to counterbalance the negative impact of a lifetime of disadvantage.
In the world of intentional communities, where I have spent most of my adult life, there is an important distinction between groups that have a spiritual focus, and ones that do not. Among secular groups there is a strong commitment to creating feminist culture (by which I mean gender blind, not pro-female). However, spiritual groups can be all over the map when it comes to gender: anything from Old Testament patriarchy to New Age there-is-the-divine-in-all-of-us.
As my experience is rooted in the secular side, my work is slanted toward creating feminist culture. As an older, college-educated, Protestant, heterosexual, able-bodied, articulate white man, I am oozing with privilege, which means I’m susceptible to misunderstanding (or being oblivious to) how the field is slanted in my direction. As someone who has been active in the Communities Movement I’ve always understood that my privilege was going to be scrutinized under a microscope.
I’m OK with that. I don’t want to be the recipient of unearned advantages, and I’d like to help develop models of appropriate male behavior—even though I’m still in the process of figuring out what those are.