Change isn’t so scary, and that’s great, because it’s urgently needed
(post contains sexually explicit content)
It’s a generalization to say that all men sexually assault women, but it is also true that a rapist doesn’t weigh victimization heavily enough to not sexually assault, eschewing a level of empathy requisite to choosing differently, and that’s a level which rises and falls as we sweep across the breadth of men, rapist or not, if we begin with the generalization that one cannot fully know the experience of another. It’s not just that the capacity for rape exists in all of us, it’s that we don’t understand that capacity. And while eliminating sexual assault isn’t the sole component of our more equal future, it is, as we close the year 2017, an urgent rallying point.
For so many, that more equal future, featuring in this case gender equality, is terrifying, even apart from the racist inflection of the term “utopia.” It’s the invading force of feminism into the bubble of status quo, that any change, and specifically this one, requires deviation from comfort and things well understood. Those afraid of this social change take on persecution complexes whether believed or just for show, but at the heart of their frequently outsized claims lies an anxiety-kernel of truth.
What’s true is that us men will have to roll back parts of ourselves, and in our various speculations on the prospect, in the corner, knees to chest, we’ve probably imagined the ultimate and ironic horror of role reversal. I think the actual outcome will be more nuanced, as feminists have, I hear, always promised equality. And at the moment, we have a compelling, inviting basis to speculate more critically, and then begin to actually sketch out our future selves. It’s not such an unfamiliar reflection, but its differences are meaningful.
That basis is the very recent criminalization of, or at least, the novel discomfort with, sexual assault, on the wave of the #metoo movement. Much has been written about this unfolding period in history, and I’m certainly not alone in recommending Rebecca Traister’s work, who wrote this in November:
Since the reports of Weinstein’s malevolence began to gush, I’ve received somewhere between five and 20 emails every day from women wanting to tell me their experiences: of being groped or leered at or rubbed up against in their workplaces. They tell me about all kinds of men — actors and publishers; judges and philanthropists; store managers and social-justice advocates; my own colleagues, past and present — who’ve hurt them or someone they know. It happened yesterday or two years ago or 20.
The sheer scale of the reports is overturning a massive infarction in the heart of our kind, which is our instant tendency to discount women’s voices, no matter how despairing the timbre. This domino of powerful men revealed as sex criminals, raising our suspicion and bracing us for the next allegation, itself having spun out into the brief but rightly maligned ‘allegations’ that men like Tom Hanks are indeed still good (since dated), the sheer number of men tumbling forth and downward helps us realize that when these rumors swirl, when women are labeled ‘difficult,’ these patterns likely end in the same revelation. Likely enough, anyway, to at least inspire the otherwise self-sacrificial lending of an ear.
A common theme among reactions to #metoo is an overwhelmed feeling, for those with platforms who’ve had to make triage decisions because, high or low profile accusations, they’re simply too many, and also for men who’ve largely been compelled to answer either A or B: “Yes, I knew this was going on in my sphere, it’s terrible,” or “I had no — gasp — idea.” And it seemed like both answers were wrong, with such high stakes.
In the midst of the broader movement, we were offered another outlet for response, with the implicit understanding that men pass responding through their gills and may drown if silent. However, the #ihave hashtag, in which men were encouraged to respond grammatically appropriately to #metoo with accounts of victimizing rather than victimhood, presented an immediate dilemma which provides a perfect micro for our terror of the feminist future: the implications of truly “rolling back the self.”
While initially determined to share my account, I realized how damning the admission would be. And so, my thoughts sputtered and twitched; by that time, there were hundreds or maybe dozens of women following me on Twitter, including one magnificent showrunner/actress. Staring at the confession in the little white box, ready to send, I thought about this handful of women, with whom I’ve exchanged pleasantries on occasion. How would they react when they saw this? I have a sense for how kind they are, and so, do I want to demand this test of tolerance for them, stopping their nightly scroll with a startle?
(Published at midnight, EST)
I’m not sure how many of those women saw this, but I didn’t lose a follower, not even a spambot. If this was indeed a test of tolerance, well, they’re reified as kind. This couldn’t and shouldn’t be true for every #ihave, and I almost — almost — wish there was some reprisal, because what the entire days-long, lip-biting ordeal surrounding this single tweet taught me is that this is an exchange. That after this year, this movement, after this tweet, I can’t be the same guy who produced it. Publicly confessing to violence isn’t like “set it and forget it,” it’s just the beginning.
(For the record, I’m not an idiot. I realize my #ihave isn’t the worst ever, as it isn’t even physical, but it’s among the worst a virgin can offer, and holds as a violation. I don’t want to say it haunts me as a panhandle for pity, but rather because it’s intermittently true.)
And this transformation thing has always been the case, it’s just taken on some weighty reality. So in looking forward, we only have to look back. To varying degrees, we are not the same men we were ten years ago. We owe this to the invisible process of political correctness, or rather, we’d say ‘culture.’ It was simply adjustment, bit by bit, lesson by lesson, to the climate of the day. Our next adjustment is a big one, but that’s how each one has looked: if you’ll remember when “retard” was first considered the “R word,” or when “gay” was losing its pejorative luster.
This reconciliation with the concept of political correctness coincided with the end of one of my best friendships, during college, around 2014. Here was a guy who was basically me, but in third-person mode. We’d known each other since middle school, where we bonded over our shared childhood aspirations to one day be film directors. He was the first person in my life with whom I shared passionate interests, and it wasn’t just ‘film,’ but films; our tastes aligned so eerily it threw into existential doubt the sanctity of individuality. Perhaps mankind is simply a hivemind, some terrible collective geth consciousness occasionally manifesting in bespectacled Asian or freckled white platforms.
Oh, and the book of inside jokes we crafted, now scattered to the sea. Things I still think of and chuckle at, like how microphone distortion at CCD was a guy in the other room moaning into a conflicting microphone, or how during close competition in video games, we’d say we were ‘necking’ as a mutation of being ‘neck and neck’ (surely you’ve read the homosexual undertone by now. Never really got there, though).
I’m sure he’d agree, but I was definitely the more sensitive of the two, both in temperament and politics. As such, we made the perfect pair for experiments in mutual telekinesis. I could say anything to him because I couldn’t possibly offend his hardened or indifferent sensibilities. In turn, he could say anything to me on account of those same sensibilities. After having lived so long without that kind of outlet for expression, I was discovering myself, and finally felt comfortable, to some extent, to be me, unconditionally.
We attended film school together, beyond the supervisory eye of our high school friends. There was no insecurity between us whatsoever. We talked about our dreams, our nostalgia, and everything in between, delighting in the irregular similarities we shared, as generally irregular people. And yet, without missing a beat, we also talked about “who was hotter, actress one or actress two?” or “Actress X is so hot, she could dot, dot, dot.” We talked about how, because of Oldboy, I could never return to my ancestral Korea and have sex with a random passerby. He noted the very same for Ireland; too much family there. “What if Young Ae-Lee was my biological mother, man? All that spilt jizz. It was incest jizz.” I mean it: nothing was taboo. To stay on theme here, I told him how, plagued by nocturnal emissions as a product of my refusal to masturbate, I once also refused to ejaculate coming out of a dream whose content I objected to, and it stayed in. It’s possible. In that context, what the fuck could possibly be sexist, or offensive at all?
While there may have been slight ideological rifts between my college friend and I, they never felt insurmountable. However, I was becoming gradually interested in feminism by way of being suddenly horrified by sexism, reading The Gender Knot and following Anita Sarkeesian’s work. And generally, the Internet community I most associated with was developing in kind almost imperceptibly, moving from a dialect arguably native to male communes in West Philadelphia toward sensitivity to minorities and an interest in women as creative players and partners. That’s how sensitivity worked for me, as a one-two: I learned the stakes, the reality, the 101, and then people I cared about and looked to for guidance demonstrated it wasn’t some terrifying change, it was just a way of life.
Ever the slow learner, I look back on those days with deep regret, especially how I behaved around my sole female friend, Cassandra, whose patience, then, I’d characterize with greeting card inflection, but fear that’s a chivalric cliche. Maybe worth it, considering the caustic spillover from the dorm room which hammered away at that patience with the unblinking stupidity of an alleged college student. A college student who didn’t suspect it might not make for silly banter to mention how “Actress X is so, so hot, that if she had a penis, I’d gladly take it up the ass.”
My friend and I, we knew generally not to bring politics to the literal dinner table, as we ate dinner every night together at college, discussing in turn Quentin Tarantino and David Cronenberg, his and my favorite filmmakers of the day, respectively. It was never an issue, so it was ironic that politics were the end of us, specifically, a dispute over cis tone policing. As odd as we were together, it was only fitting our friendship ended with such a random, peculiar fizzle.
I knew, that night, things would be different. I’d hung out with the guy exclusively for three and a half years in college, and never made an additional friend, because I didn’t need to. And because our friendship was so close, I mostly alienated our high school friends who couldn’t measure up. On top of that, I moved across the country anyway. Not only did it mean a fresh start in terms of making friends, I doubted I’d ever meet anyone like him, someone with whom I could truly be myself. Say anything, wonder out loud.
It’s the kind of thing many people erroneously consider “freedom of speech.” Its origin is in the Constitution, but really, it’s born of our camaraderie with the people we care to be free around. Beloved friends and family, although, to be clear, it’s never everyone: it’s not our parents, probably, it’s not our bosses, usually, and it’s not our coworkers, ideally. Even during college, I didn’t speak openly about ejaculation accidents in class; I checked this so-called “freedom” throughout the day, without conscious thought.
2015 now, living in a new city, I spent a long time in solitude, speaking to two or three people one or two times a week, through text. If my life were a movie, we’d see this in a sad montage where my beard grew long and pointy, or at all. Wasn’t quite so dramatic, but finally arriving upon the beginnings of real human contact, especially with women, I realized I had changed. Maybe it was just the fact of new contact, that I hadn’t made a new friend in ten years, and proceeded extremely gingerly. If someone, for a dumb example, mentioned a movie I hated, I wouldn’t interject to state my opinion like I would at the dinner table years earlier. If someone went on about a subject that bored me to tears, I’d keep the conversation going. That does just sound like being an adult, but after a while, I was losing my grasp on who I’d be otherwise. And in that regard, this may sound troubling, especially if you’ve had a conversation with me in the past two years. Is it even ethical to withhold parts of yourself, to be less than true?
What that period of solitude and no longer having a jizzy kind of friend really taught me was restraint. That it was literally okay to think before speaking, and specifically, that the manner of the thinking was to begin from the other person’s perspective. In that moment of pause, it’s not: “my opinions aren’t valuable, best not to share them,” but rather: “maybe my opinions aren’t yet considered.”
But I realize this prospect of considering things, for example, other people’s feelings, is an infringement on personal freedom. Not legally, but that’s not a conversation I’m interested in anymore, as it clearly doesn’t work. Let’s just take the anxiety at face value, regardless the erroneous language: these guys want to be able to make graphic sex jokes in the workplace or talk about moving on her like a bitch, which is, grammatically, a weird self-own, or wouldn’t it be great to be sodomized by my favorite actress packing heat, which is a new kind of self-own, but they’re all the same kind of gross.
The legal definition holds true though, that one can always say all of those things. However, there will be consequences. Not reprisal, but the consequence of having offended someone, or icing them out, or just being creepy. And as mentioned earlier, victimization doesn’t register, no matter the seriousness. This comes from that solipsistic, tunnel vision outlook, which is mathematically solved when that victimization, when the consequences, finally begin to matter to the perpetrator. And how might that happen?
It happened to me, rather than came about on my own doing. I began appreciating women’s voices once they began to reach me as content creators: filmmaking, video game criticism, singing/songwriting. It’s sad I couldn’t appreciate women without an exchange of goods, and I think that’s a distinctly American psychosis. But regardless, it happened, and their content was the gateway to realizing human beings on the other end, people with hopes and dreams and anxieties and hang-ups, many like those of my own.
These are people whose opinions crucially matter to me, and so I’d never respond offensively with references to wet dreams and sodomy if they’d ever upset me somehow, because their opinion of me would crucially matter, too. In effect, they become the parents, bosses, and coworkers, another genre of people who demand a conscious use of language simply by being, and being cool and insightful and savage and, oftentimes, who I aspire to be. These are, then, the kinds of people whose reactions I feared with my #ihave in the hopper.
We might say, then, that for our individual journeys, it will always come down to a choice between my college friend and Cassandra. We can’t have both, or so goes conventional wisdom. But I don’t think there’s a chronological narrative between them, despite what happened in my life. It’s just that they’re affected or offended by different things. My college friend for example, couldn’t hang when it came to discussing cis tone policing, or whatever the hell. And as a result, the pastiche of sensibilities across a spectrum of not two sides but infinite means that we must also contain that infinity in order to properly interface.
It’s just a matter of translating the self, which is what communication has always been: translation, even to my college friend. Because in that infinite spectrum, nobody will accept one-hundred percent of you, and as such, your speech with them will never be one-hundred percent free. It never has been, and we’re not losing anything, ever. All that time I spent with my college friend, about which I’m hopelessly fond, I’d convinced myself that just because we could talk about jizz, something I’d never talk about with anyone else, that it was truly freedom of speech. But in reality, I hid parts of myself from him, those chasms of difference within the degrees of our political disagreement.
Can guys who exchange their locker room talk ever share their emotional vulnerabilities, or past traumas? Perhaps what we, as men, have long valued in this regard wasn’t so much a freedom, as its very appealing illusion, holographic light and color erected with some excitement by the fire down in Plato’s cave. And yet, and this is the crazy part, even with the illusion of “freedom of speech,” running through our fingers like escaping sand, we can still hold onto it, if we really, really have to.
For example, I’ve been able to transfigure my old self, elusive he may be, by discussing extremely personal details in podcasts, but with an analytical gloss that makes it at least personally acceptable. So in the end, while I’m a reduced self in some new relationships, it’s not only for a good reason, but that I can still express whatever I’ve had to hide away, I just have to be creative about it, and do it elsewhere. An unbelievably mitigated price for our shared future world, when it’d only be fair I pay one fully, and gladly, and have that Actress X shoot me square in the throat.
In our utopia, everyone will matter, and us men have to prepare for that. Because in reality, Cassandra’s patience wasn’t tested by accounts of my bizarre sex fantasy. She was excited to have a guy friend, and probably didn’t want to threaten that by calling out inappropriate behavior. I can’t say that for sure, but can say she never did. For all our lives, we’ve gathered at these dinner tables in college, at the locker rooms, in what we didn’t perceive as safe spaces because the space was everywhere, and in that time, we’ve never imagined that when other kinds of people sit down with us or clap their lockers shut nearby, that we’ll want to talk with them just the same. You may need a gateway like I did to find them interesting, and then human, but you may also be surprised by them, and that’s just the start of a parade of new feelings which obliterate the need to talk blue or hold onto male friendships as somehow separate and special.
And so, I see this dim-witted political correctness journey of mine as a microcosm for the broader journey of becoming post-2017, which will hopefully be the first step toward our utopia. It is a process, but I arrived happy on the other side. Transformation is always scary, and there may be costs, even as high as a friendship or two. But if you’re worried about staying true to yourself, it’s possible you haven’t explored yourself enough to know for sure you definitely can’t roll anything back. You, of all people, may surprise you, too.
For next year, when we meaningfully following up on #metoo, it’s not just about language this time, but sexual impulses and power. What will my life be like when movies and TV shows no longer constantly cater to my sensibilities, and even instead fill me with guilt for being male? In this future world, female politicians may seem to prioritize women’s issues over men’s, and there may be actual consequences to low-key stalking on a college campus. Could I survive that? I think so, because I know it’s a better world for people I care about, and it’s not like I’ll be unrecognizable, either.
A world of possibilities will open up and I’ll translate my likes and dislikes to a new lexicon. I’ve done it before, and so ultimately, our path forward is a simple algorithm: the motive to change + a comfort with transformation. The job is to reconcile both those pieces, and while I appreciate it’s a work-in-progress, for me as well, let’s hurry up.