The problems created by the frat bro rules found in so many aspects of our society go much farther than the recent documented episodes of sexual harassment and abuse and even much farther than the effect those specific actions had on some women’s lives and careers. The men guilty of those behaviors and the many other men who go along with them even if they don’t personally do such things share a contempt for women’s ambition and a lack of respect for women’s abilities – even, or perhaps especially, when the women in question are the smartest people in the room.
Jill Filipovic pointed this out in a powerful New York Times op-ed in which she reported that many of the men in the news media who have been accused of various kinds of sexual harassment were the ones who pilloried Hillary Clinton. Filipovic writes:
A pervasive theme of all of these men’s coverage of Mrs. Clinton was that she was dishonest and unlikable. These recent harassment allegations suggest that perhaps the problem wasn’t that Mrs. Clinton was untruthful or inherently hard to connect with, but that these particular men hold deep biases against women who seek power instead of sticking to acquiescent sex-object status.
In other words, no matter what women do and regardless of whether sexual misconduct is involved, a lot of men – and particularly a lot of powerful men – won’t like them, support them, or give them opportunities. And they’ll call them names, to boot.
The sexual nature of the current crop of scandals makes it easy to miss that underlying problem: Men, particularly powerful men, do a lot of things to interfere with women’s efforts to fulfill their ambitions.
Sexual harassment and assault are just some of the tools such men use. If a woman meets the test of fuckability, she gets the sex object treatment. If she doesn’t, she might get sex-related harassment anyway, based on the idea that no “real” man would have her.
But labeling a woman unlikeable, aggressive, or not a “team player” – that is, using the polite words for calling her a bitch – can torpedo a woman’s career (or her life) in much the same way. And it can be done behind the screen of “I’m fine with women in power; I just don’t like this one.” The fact that they don’t like any powerful women never gets thrown back at them, because they make these statements at different times.
And, of course, some people are unlikeable. Some really don’t know how to work well with others. Some are so aggressive they step on other people all the way to the top. In my experience, most of these people are men, but a few women do fall into that category.
Then there’s that damn reality that no matter what women do, they aren’t doing it right. Push for what you want and you aren’t “feminine.” Be modest about your accomplishments and be overlooked or seen as wimpy. Be firm when you ask for a raise, or you won’t get it. But not too firm, or you won’t get it because you’re pushy and “won’t wait your turn.” It’s always pushed back on women, and all the choices are always wrong.
This series of scandals is not about sex. It’s never been about sex, even if the men who do these things get sexual gratification from it. The sex just provides the creepy, sensationalist side that gets it heard.
It’s about power. The men who do these things – whether they pull out their penises or label a woman unlikeable – are planning to keep their realm a boys’ club.
It’s time we stopped them. Figuring out how to do that is going to be hard. I can teach you physical self defense and how to convey a strong presence in the world – important steps in this process – but I haven’t figured out how to keep men from rejecting you because of that strong presence.
Mary Beard’s delightful short collection of two speeches she’s given – Women & Power: a Manifesto – traces the history of silencing women who speak out back to antiquity. (Here’s a great review of Beard’s book by Julie Phillips. ) The various compromises women have made – from learning to speak in a lower voice to adopting the ubiquitous pantsuits (practical attire, but boring) – have only done so much to change it. We don’t know what a woman in authority looks like.
It’s way past time we found out.
I have an idea, just now taking shape in my mind: Let’s follow women, rather than men. Let’s vote for women, even if we don’t think they’re “perfect” (especially when their opponents are even more imperfect), read books by women, go to lectures by women, seek advice from women. Make choosing a man, or a work by a man, the exception rather than the rule. Men should join us in doing this.
I note that some people have done this with authors, but I’d like to see us go much farther than that.
Yes, women don’t have as much power as the problem men we’re talking about. In many cases they can’t give you the job you need, or even the right reference for the job you need. But strength in numbers is valuable. Following women leaders may not get us everything we need, but it’s a good place to start.
I’ll end with a quote from Jessica Valenti’s memoir Sex Object:
Who would I be if I didn’t live in a world that hated women?
The answer? I don’t know. I don’t think any of us know. But I really want to find out.