Following the explosive revelation of something everyone already knew about—the serial abuse upon countless women in Hollywood by Harvey Weinstein—the simple request online was for any woman who had experienced sexual harassment or assault to respond with “Me, too.”
The numbers of women who typed those two words was harrowing and maddening.
Most men online were either silent (that was my response) or typed in response “I believe you.”
The onslaught of women online opening up about the crap treatment they’ve received was overwhelming. It was inspiring in that these stories have been routinely suppressed for a variety of reasons over the years. It was frustrating to note that, in an effort to be a part of things, a lot of women couldn’t help but put catcalling and condescension on the same level as sexual coercion and rape.
Likewise, the number of men who jumped in the fray with the placating of meaningless belief (because the declaration of belief in every voice, regardless of context or specificity is the very definition of virtue signaling and nonsense to boot) was daunting.
Neither the declaration of contextless assault nor the insincere blanket belief is particularly helpful. It is the activism of the internet—looks good but generally doesn’t amount to much. It also, like so many examples of the voiceless crying out for a sense of justice, ignored the fact that a black woman rather than a white actress from the nineties started the “Me, too” tag about ten years ago and was roundly ignored by the mainstream.
These matters, like all sociopolitical issues, demand context as they are a bit more complicated than the “Look at How Evil Men Are” simplicity of the online sharing.
I was 13 years old in 1979. My mother had been married a couple of times by then and I had witnessed my first step-father, Dennis Coley, routinely beat my mother with his fists, with a belt, with a cast iron skillet. In terms of toxic masculine behavior, I had a front row seat to the freak show.
One would think that being audience to that would have an effect. One would think.
Sherri Stevens was a girl that lived down the road from us. She was in my eighth grade class out in the tiny country school in the middle of Where are We Again, KS. At first we were friends but, like so many adolescent things, I said something to her or she said something to me or something misinterpreted. I honestly can’t remember how we became enemies, but enemies we were.
The trouble lie in the fact that we lived on the same stretch of country road and we had to ride the bus together to school every morning. We had to wait for it or we weren’t getting to school that day so we were both out on the cross section of dirt roads every morning around 6:30 a.m. I threw rocks at her on most mornings.
I don't know why. It was the thing she and I did every morning. She would insult me in some way or I would call her fat, she would call me stupid and I'd start flinging rocks at her. She was six inches taller than I was and would chase me but I was fast so I’d run, taunting her and throwing gravel at her as I bolted from one side of the road to the next. Once in a while, she’d catch me and pummel my stupid boy head. Which meant that the next day, I had to come up with better insults and bigger rocks.
Her mother witnessed this one day and immediately went to my mother to make it stop.
My mother let me know that that behavior was not acceptable. To be fair, my tiny spitfire mom didn't tell me this quite so politely—I pretty much had my ass handed to me for taunting a girl because of her weight and throwing rocks at her at the bus stop.
As any 13-year-old boy would, I felt maligned and angry... at Sherri. SHE had gotten me in trouble. It was HER fault! She called me stupid and she laughed at my clothes! She was so fat! And I hated her guts. It was her fault that my mother had read me the riot act and I got grounded for doing NOTHING WRONG!!!
I was 13 then. Three decades and some change later, I was bullied by another former friend turned enemy online. I unfriended her on Facebook—apparently a hanging offense in the digital high school—and was subjected to a mob of accusation and name calling by 50 or so of her friends, most who had never even met me. I was a sexist. A racist. I used her as a token Latina. I was never her friend. I used her and everyone else. And on and on.
And I threw digital rocks at her. I fought back with words meant to hurt. To be fair, I never went to the place of gendered insults. She was an asshole and a bully—you know, gender neutral descriptors. But they were still rocks, and apparently I hadn’t really learned anything from Sherri. I got grounded, in the adult sense, not for enduring her toxic crap but for fighting with a girl and being unable to stop fighting back. And I blamed her just like I did Sherri.
Just like Harvey and Bill O’Reilly and Bill Cosby and Donald Trump blame the women they threw rocks at.
One day at the bus stop, I restrained myself from taking my unfocused masculine rage out on our neighbor. And I came home, proud of myself. I told my mother that I hadn't thrown any rocks at Sherri that morning. And all I got was a nod. "Can I be ungrounded?"
I'll never forget what she said in response to that.
"Donald. You don't get rewarded for not doing something you know is wrong. Your reward is that you are a better human being because you didn't bully that girl. Your reward is that you weren't an awful person... this morning. Make not doing the wrong thing a habit and you just might not be killed by your mother before you graduate eighth grade. Your reward is being allowed to live."
I’d love to say that that was the moment of clarity required to see the error of my boys-will-be-boys ways but I’d be lying.
I did connect the dots and was self-reflective enough to never use any physical force on women ever again—my stupid monkey brain was at least that evolved but it never occurred to me that even that attitude was still patronizing. I felt that by declaring and adhering to a stance that violence against women by men was forbidden, that I was to be rewarded. By not doing the wrong thing, I should be seen as righteous.
The question becomes what do I do to be a better person when it comes to my relationship with women?
I mean, I’m not as evolved as I’d like to be. I’m quite happily married but I’m not immune to checking out attractive women young enough to be my offspring. I watch porn once in a while. While I’m no predator or rapey type, I’ve been known to follow the John Hughes model of “Stalk Her Until She Relents” mode of courtship in the past. My sense of humor runs to the offensive and I’ve been known to be pretty racey without regard to the gender of those receiving it. Most of my bosses have been women so I’m pretty certain I’m not threatened by that but I wonder sometimes when I disagree vehemently with one. Sure, I can type “I believe you’’ but I can’t promise that I will or I do in every instance.
So I return to the words of my mother. Make not doing the wrong thing a habit. I can and do acknowledge that I am a guy in a system that rewards me for my gender and skin color and the best I can do is not be an awful person... this morning. And then again tomorrow morning. And the next morning.
Not for any external reward or for props in the online world but because my mother allowed me to live past 13.