A couple of years ago, I was shopping for jeans with Jennifer, and I noticed something new: men obsessing about the fit of their pants. Straight and gay, the men would come out of the fitting room and look to their friend or significant other, and say the classic line:
“Honey, does my ass look big in this?”
(PS – There is no right answer. Even for men.)
It was a joke, to be sure, but one that hit a nerve. And I think the Foley scandal has raised it to the next level. The Foley case is about young men being sexually harassed. And how we deal the fact that men get sexually harassed is going to say a lot about how seriously we take the issue. Men are the new women.
For years, women in the workplace didn’t even have words to define what sexual harassers did. It was word of mouth, and quiet warnings, and if something did happen, a woman would find herself alone and exposed, because other women were afraid to speak up – both in terms of protecting their jobs, and in terms of not being taken seriously while discussing often painful, disturbing types of conduct.
The Women’s Movement gradually changed this – sexual harassment of women was something that came out early on in the movement, and slowly, laws and systems were put in place to deal with sexual harassment. The apex of public acknowledgement of sexual harassment as an issue may well be Anita Hill coming forward to describe her treatment in the employ of Clarence Thomas. It was a feminist “click” moment, when many women identified the kind of behavior and inappropriate behavior of Thomas as something they understood, and in many cases, experienced.
Gloria Steinem has written, among others, that what the Women’s Movement needed was a Men’s Movement – a movement that also addressed the gender role issues that men have. I’ve long believed that gay men need to be more connected to feminism, because the gender issues women face are often mirrored in how society perceives gay men (as being like women, and thus weak, feminine, and easily dismissed).
Looking at the page case, the parallels are clear: here are young men, already clearly reluctant to come forward. They’ve spent years (this apparently goes back to at least 1995) talking among themselves, warning one another away from Foley. They felt uncomfortable with his unwanted advances. They felt they had nowhere to take their concerns. And now, as their identities come out, you see the identified trying to back away from the spotlight, afraid to back one another up in their allegations. Sexual harassment is painful; it’s embarrassing. The person harassed can often feel that she or he did something to instigate it. Add in the complications that at least some of these young straight men would have with attention from a man, and it’s easy to see how thorny this case will be to deal with appropriately.
I think what deeply flummoxes conservatives about the Foley case is that they have never seen sexual harassment for what it is at base – an exercise of power. What outrages them is sex and sexuality. The power dynamic doesn’t interest them nearly as much (and it’s the dynamic that makes the case against Bill Clinton more than a little disturbing, though I tend to think Clinton is not particularly a harasser). It’s what separates the Gerry Studds case from Foley’s – a one-time affair is simply not the same thing as a decade-long pattern and practice of systematically harassing young men
The question in the coming weeks will be how men, especially liberal men, follow up on this story. (Although I wouldn’t discount the fact that on a certain level, conservative men may be able to see the unequal power dynamic at play here as well.) Our natural discomfort as a society with issues of sex and power (look at how Anta Hill’s case ultimately shook out) may well lead people to try to minimize this as quickly as possible. “It’s isolated incidents.” “It’s not what we think it is.” “Why can’t this just go away?” But ask yourself – why do women and minorities and gay men seem to get this case so clearly? Why do the people who’ve traditionally been most affected by unequal power dynamics see past the issue of sex to the case of harassment?
I think the Foley case may initiate a sea change in how we look at sexual harassment, and indeed raise gender awareness generally for men, so that there actually is a Men’s Movement. Men are the new women. Think about it.
(With deep appreciation to my Mom, who helped crystallize my thinking around this.)