Shocked and amazed

There is a play by Moliere (The Bourgeois Gentleman, 1670) in which an unsophisticated character is astonished to learn that he had “been speaking prose all my life, and didn’t even know it!”

Like him, apparently, about half the population of the United States—the male half— is shocked and amazed to learn that the other half of Americans have been living with sexual harassment, pressure, innuendo, and sexual assault, since puberty or before.

Once we wise up to the situation, as women or girls, we mostly realize that we are in fact prey and men are the predators. Wherever we go some of the men around us are undressing us mentally, fantasizing about doing things to us, just waiting for the moment alone in the elevator, or the back office, or behind some bushes, or in his car, when they can act on these impulses. Of course until the looks or leers or remarks or lecherous acts begin, we might not know for sure about a particular man. But if there are half a dozen men in your workplace you can feel pretty sure at least one of them is in this category, and a certain intuition may pick up on clues. Or perhaps someone else, male or female, will bravely let fall a remark about being careful around so-and-so.

But they’re still the ones with the power even if you’re forewarned. It is not merely that most men are physically stronger than most women, it never comes to that in most of these events. It is that men with power, even a little bit of power, target women that they have power over. It might be the woman’s timid personality, it might be her youth and inexperience, or the man’s position. He doesn’t need to be Harvey Weinstein or Bill O’Reilly or Donald Trump or Bill Cosby or Bill Clinton, doesn’t need to be famous or rich. If you’re a counter worker or a sales clerk or a babysitter for his kids or someone whose life will be made very difficult if you speak up, that is all that is necessary.

And let’s face it, the flood of accounts of abuse that have come out over the past couple of years, over the past couple of months, mostly haven’t come as any big surprise to people who’ve been around these men or known of them for years. But the women knew what reception they’d get if they spoke out.

At least if you’re raped or humiliated by a rich corporate guy you might be able to get a lawyer and negotiate a settlement which will of course include a non-disclosure clause. Your silence for his immunity and continuation of the behavior. But right there, in that sort of case, it’s not just the woman and the man who groped her and made her feel demeaned who are in the know: quite a few people know something or everything, her lawyer and his corporation’s lawyer, and the bosses and co-workers of those people, and his corporation’s financial officer and risk management person and on and on. Maybe she tells her best friend, or her sister (not her husband, that’s a quick ticket to being damaged goods in his eyes) or maybe she just makes nonspecific warning remarks to other women she sees being drawn into the attack zone.

But mostly women keep quiet. And so, it seems, do boys and men who’ve been harassed or assaulted. As with children who are mistreated or sexually abused, the power and credibility is all on the other side. The coach, the scout leader, the church youth group pastor, the friend of your dad’s, your uncle or grandfather—when they deny it who will believe you?

It’s a jungle out there, guys, and it’s mostly you XY chromosome humans making it that way. Women as prey, women as property, women as less than whole powerful people; we’ve always lived with it. Now you men know about it too, or should I say, have no excuse for pleading ignorance any more. What happens next?

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