I was just reading an article on Vox (link) about a Feminist Professor who sexually harassed her male grad student, and a few thoughts that have been fermenting were sparked. Here goes:
I'm a raised-feminist man, and I went to uni in 1990. Up till this current era, that time was the most concerned with identity politics I've seen. The issues were the same, really, at different levels of zoom: who gets to decide what people are called; how should the priveleged and the powerful behave; the beauty myth; canon vs. progressive literature; safe spaces (not called that yet); racism and race. In the middle of my first year, Marc Lepine murdered 14 women in Montreal, in the first mass shooting I knew of.
Being a very empathic guy (I am not bragging, it's an irritating condition), AND a straight white man, AND socially progressive, all of that weighed on me, and I worked to get through it, to figure it out. I encountered confusion in the doorway of the no-straight-men-allowed LGBTQ Centre: "...my friend is in here ... I'm trying to drop something off to her ... yes, I'm straight ... okay ... Can you just give it to her?". If I found myself walking down a dark road behind a solo woman, I took to stopping and waiting so she didn't have to worry I would attack her, which felt terrible and reasonable. The Mean Girlfriend I had for much of undergrad yelled at me that all men were secretly paedophiles because we preferred shaved legs (and I didn't, even!). (I wonder how she's feeling now that pubic baldness is nearly a rule.) I thought about this stuff a lot. I argued in the student press about what "political correctness" was and meant (a bullshit term). I struggled with the complicated politics of the White Ribbon campaign. (Just because it's interesting: Jian Ghomeshi was the Student Council President my first year. I hated his bullshit, ingratiating smile. Some assholes you can see coming.)
I was given Iron John by my mother, with an inscription that said it might teach me the things she, as a woman, could not. It impacted me, mostly by instilling my hatred of old white "new age" charlatans in patterned vests who dance around in the woods and write shit poetry. Disappointing role models have been a big theme in my journey.
I even almost got involved with "the men's movement"! I answered a flyer on campus that offered a discussion of the issues I was considering, but the "meeting" was largely unattended - just me and the Poetry Prof. We turned out to have different agendas. I wanted to discuss how to be a better kind of man, and how men could support the women's movement without fucking it up or trying to run it (White Ribbon Campaign). He wanted to complain about his threatened status and whine about his feelings. His progeny are the bitter little pricks on the internet, I suppose. I told him off and left. I considered entering the Women's Studies program with an eye to studying Gender, but was dissuaded angrily by the same mean girlfriend. That was HER thing. I studied English instead.
I took Post-Colonial lit, Native lit, Queer lit - anything that could teach me about other people's experiences. I made an effort to mostly sit back and learn with humility. I learned a lot, especially about humility. Sadly, I never found a mentor. Yes, I'm still bitter about that. The people I thought might teach me the real stuff carried all of the intellectual flaws of their age: my gay lit prof focused on Tom of Finland and Proust, and didn't believe someone could be a gay virgin; the post-col professors got angry when I suggested that oppression might be toxic for the oppressor as well as the oppressed; the men studying gender were total pussies*, unable to do the real work of accepting and considering their privilege. My Creative Writing prof, because I was a good little writer, accused me of plagiarism (untrue). My parents were self-involved. Whatever. I mostly hated going to York and should have gone to a smaller school like Trent, but I dug learning and I got through.
The Music I Was Listening Tothat carried me through this period was only a little instructive. The Indigo Girls were big for me - I gravitated to acoustic songwriters pretty hard at this time - because they sang about good ideas and thoughtfulness as well as the usual stuff. I find them overwrought now, but I'm glad I had them. I was one of a handful of dudes at the Ani Difranco shows, but mostly I dug her crazy guitar playing and her Righteous Babe label/personality. Her songs were just about being alive, just as Joni Mitchell's were, but not as good. Joe Jackson had some thoughts about gender, and I lapped those up, but they were ten years older, and less instructive by 1991. They mostly asked questions: Who are the Real Men? How is it Different For Girls?
The band that really helped me was The Pursuit of Happiness (TPOH). Moe Berg, the cool-nerd leader of that band, wrote songs from the perspective that I myself had: some songs were about wanting to fuck beautiful women; some were about being terrified of them; some were about being friends with them. The people in his songs were either nice to each other, or not, like the people I knew. In a sequence of tracks, he sang about pure lust (Looking for Girls), violence against women (Walking in the Woods), and coercive relationships (Down on Him).
He wasn't a SNAG - a label I loathed. He was just a thoughtful guy in the early 90s. He called out women for their shit without padding it, and it was the same shit I was noticing: women were not superior in their behaviour. Their lives were not automatically more well-considered. In "Two Girls in One", he complained: "sensitive and vulnerable - that's the kind she likes best - but he's gotta have muscles, and a lot of hair on his chest". I cheered. I was discovering that while all of my female friends professed to want a man who could cry, they - and I - found it slightly disgusting when it happened. I tried it. I stopped. (To be clear: men should cry, but only when they must. Nobody likes a crybaby - of any gender.) Berg wasn't an asshole about all this - he was honest, funny, vulnerable. He talked about all the sides.
Meanwhile, Not at School ...
At the same time, I was abandoning my aspirations to be a writer, and learning that I was pretty great at working with misunderstood kids. I had a job - the one that led to the career I have - at a children's mental health centre. It was here I found the people who would be the closest to "mentors" I would have. (The mentorships couldn't advance very far, because I had the wrong degree - I'd lucked into a job that was really for Psych and Social Work students. Nothing personal.)
I learned an incredible amount there, and it changed my life. For the years I was in university, that centre was my base. I developed many deep friendships there, and found a role in life, and was welcomed and trusted even though I was dressed and schooled wrong (long hair, tattered jeans - quite a bit like Berg). I was friends with my supervisors - house-sitting, talking on the phone, attending BBQs. I needed family very badly, and I LOVED this. And at the very end of this period, the whole joint exploded in an ugly saga of sexual misconduct. The beloved big boss, a man I'd always thought was a smug asshole, had been fucking a lot of the women under him in the organization, including the Grad Students. Someone finally complained. The place went Ka-Plow.
One weekend, about a year before the scandal broke, my favourite supervisor - the woman for whom I had housesat - called me up. It was a little unusual, but not unwelcome. I really admired and liked her. She was a bit drunk, and if I had been ANY good at picking up sexual cues, it would have been a booty call. I am deeply oblivious to being hit on, missed all the cues, and the phone call ended with her realizing that the situation was fucked up, apologizing, and saying goodbye.
It left me feeling confused, guilty and strange. She was 30-something and I was 22; I did not find her particularly attractive, and we had never flirted even a bit - but if I had realized that she wanted me to come over and fuck, I probably would have. I regretted NOT doing so when I later clued in because I worried I'd hurt her feelings. We never discussed it and continued to work together. It was fine. A year or so later, when the Big Sleaze's Grad Student Harem exploded, she called me into her office and gave me a heartfelt apology. She connected the two situations and told me that her phone call had been an error, inappropriate because of our power dynamic. This was all news to me (pretty new to society at the time) and was the moment I finally understood for sure that it had been a booty call. I accepted the apology immediately, embarrassed that a person who'd been so good to me was apologizing for anything. She was forever a little more distant with me, and I was sad about this. But it was alright, professionally, and we still worked together well.
A few days ago I was rewatching Katherine Ryan's Netflix special - wonderful to me because she calls out our shared hometown (Sarnia) on an international stage. And she was speaking about my childhood hero, the rapist Bill Cosby, and explaining that she understood why the young black women he raped had not spoken up in the 1980s. "Tina Fey could be wearing me like a WATCH right now," she exclaims, and she'd be smiling and saying "thanks for all you've done for female comedians."
I get that. Relationships are so much more complex than we get in the news. Sex is definitely more complicated than movements allow for (not blaming the movements for that), and sex seems to me to be one of the areas of true blindness on the "left" (e.g., one can support the rights of sex workers without pretending that it's empowering to any but a tiny minority; some tendencies need examination, not indulgence). And POWER is barely understood in our society because we daily bathe in coercion and manipulation and deceit - that's our water, as they say. The airport is a Bad Feelings Factory. Bureaucracy is frequently abusive. Cars and cyclists and pedestrians can be equally disdainful of each other. People suck, when they're not being wonderful.
And the way you handle it - the sucking - if you're doing it right, is the way my supervisor handled it. She wasn't aggressive - she was polite and aware, even as she made the mistake of hitting on me. When she realized what the situation was, she apologized, even though I didn't know she should. And after that, she maintained my humanity in her mind, and remained respectful and friendly, and kept mentoring me.
On the other hand, the Big Sleaze at the Centre handled it the way most people do: denials, lies, betrayals, and pulling the walls down around him like an unadmirable Sampson. He probably started up again wherever else he went, because he was an asshole. My supervisor was ... just not an asshole. Maybe that's the thing we should be shooting for? #dontbeanasshole
Back to First Year...
When I was in first year, before I met the Mean Girlfriend, I had a really nice girlfriend. I was depressed and moody and hard to get along with (Reasons) and I wrecked it all pretty quickly. And once, as our relationship was failing, and she didn't want to have sex, I bugged her and bugged her and bugged her to have sex with me, saying that it would help (thanks for the advice, One More Night and 700 other songs), and eventually she consented, and we fucked. It was dreadful and quick and embarrassing and sad, and I wished immediately I had backed off. I apologized, and apologized again (for everything) about ten years later, and I still wish I'd known not to do that. It would shortly become part of the discourse, but it wasn't yet; mostly sex was undiscussed, and often fumbling, and often accidental. And she did not call me a rapist, or a date-rapist, or write my name on a wall. She said it wasn't as bad as I thought, just awkward and stupid and ugly, like much of the rest of first year. It wasn't my last shitty sexual encounter - learning to talk about sex was really hard - but it was the last time I bugged anyone into sex. I feel lucky that this happened at that time, and not this time. And I feel lucky that my supervisor hit on me back then, and not now, because it was able to be handled humanely, and privately. Because none of the people in these two stories were assholes, and not having the Internet meant having more time to gradually learn to be better. It's pretty sudden now (and fair enough - it's late!).
Forwards to Third Year...
One night, after an evening of fighting with the Mean Girlfriend, and then walking home worried about frightening the women ahead of me on the sidewalk, and listening to TPOH on my walkman, I called the Mean Girlfriend, woke her up, and told her that she was wrong: men weren't bad, and women weren't bad - humans were bad. People who treat each other badly are bad. Assholes are bad, regardless of their genitals, regardless of their upbringing. We have to be nice to each other, I lamented: THAT was the answer.
She freaked out, and it became one of about 100 times she broke up with me. After a couple more years of that, I finally realized that she was, in fact, an asshole, and I left her for real. I dodged a bullet - we were on a marriage track, and she hated me. I wish someone had taught me - in addition to "don't bug people into sex" and "you don't have to bang your boss" - to be able to tell an asshole from a kind person, because I could have saved years of incredible stress, and had more good sex with nice people instead. Maybe there should be a book - "How To Not Be an Asshole." I could contribute a couple of notes. But in the preface, I would make it clear: we are all assholes, sometimes, and it takes work, and it takes work, and it takes work to NOT be one.
I'm glad that the predatory, bullying Feminist Prof is getting called out - she sounds like an asshole - and I'm glad for the guy that he's able to tell his story, and I'm glad that we're all collectively learning, in a rapid way, to think about this shit. I'm glad that the Grad Student in the 90s spoke up, and that the resulting explosion taught a bunch of people a bunch of important stuff. The results of all these explosions may be a real reduction of assholery, and possibly the generation of a real list of helpful ways to avoid being an asshole and being around assholes. Here's a starter:
a. powerful people, when losing power, should not be pussies about it
b. sexual coercion is gross and shitty
c. interactions between people are really complicated
d. power dynamics should not be invisible
d. one can have deep, objectifying lust and genuine human respect within one heart, or on one album (it's called Love Junk)
e. if you can't find a mentor, Be Your Own
With that in mind, here's the other man who carried me through this period, singing hopefully about great explosions.