5 December

It’s A Men’s Problem. Learning What No One Ever Taught

by Jon Katz
It’s A Men’s Problem

When I was a teenager, I experienced some of the most powerful and troubling physical impulses of my life.

They were sexual, I had entered puberty in my mid teens and was perpetually aroused and tormented. It felt as if my body had gone mad, beyond my control.

I remember having erections that were embarrassing – they were often visible – and kept me from sleeping for weeks on end. I was often afraid to go to school or without a jacket covering my groin.

I remember that these feelings were not pleasant, but painful and intensely uncomfortable. There was little I would not have done to release them or be rid of them.

These sexual impulses were overwhelming, and at times, barely controllable, even uncontrollable.

My friends and I pursued women whenever we could and tried to have sex with them whenever possible. That was almost always foremost in our minds.

We masturbated whenever we could and as often as we could. I suppose our parents knew but never spoke of it.

It was the closest I have ever come to feeling like an animal and being like an animal.

As aroused as we were, my friends and I never, to my knowledge, forced ourselves on anyone, although we tried often to persuade women to have sex with us. We were sometimes pushy and obnoxious in that way, it was always on our minds.

That was the way in which we came to know women, and the beginnings of the failure of many men to understand them or see them as equal human beings with the right to dignity.

I wish someone had prepared me for it.

One of the interesting things about that period for me was that I never once mentioned what I was going through to anyone – my father, my mother, my family, my friends, my teachers, or uncles.

No one ever spoke to me about these impulses, or ever discussed the dangers of acting on them, or appropriate ways to respond to them.  No one talked of the importance of understanding no, only the importance of yes. To have sex was a victory, to fail a defeat.

At times, that was my only understanding of women – as a way to get relief from the impulses that seemed to have taken over my body. I never thought once about how women felt about me or the other men, nor did we ever speak to them about their feelings about sex and love.

These impulses were often stronger than my own reserve and moderation, my own innate sense of decency.  There were no rewards for restraint.

I do not claim to understand what these powerful harassers in the news today were thinking or feeling, but I do  wonder about the impulses and addictions that they could not control. I was a journalist for many years, and while I can’t speak for all men, I can say with some confidence that these men knew better, they knew what they were doing was wrong.

What, I wonder, overcame their morality and empathy?

This is a secret world I am talking about. It is simply never discussed.  In fact, this is the first time I have ever mentioned my own early sexual experiences to anyone other than Maria.

We do not have any secrets from one another.

I have no harassment stories to confess to or apologize for from back then, unless it is the growing understanding that almost all men are complicit in this brutalizing and exploitation and harassment of women.

It seems to be built not only into the biology of men, but into the cultural and political structures of the country, and the way in which men are raised.

To me, harassment is a men’s problem, not a women’s problem. They are victims, but the problem is men’s to own and talk about and fix. Since we do most of it, we must work to stop it.

More than 99 per cent of all rapes are committed by men in America.

Without men, rape would hardly exist in our society.

When I was an executive producer at CBS News, I saw the corrupting and corrosive effect on men of power. Power is dangerous, it is an aphrodisiac, it does make some men feel invincible and entitled and immortal, it does transform them and quite often brings out their worst angels, or perhaps demons is a better word.

I saw that a lot, it was a major reason I was eager to leave television, along with my bosses’s eagerness to have me go.

These powerful impulses left me long ago, and I do not really know where or when it was I got the idea that abusing or exploiting women in this way was wrong.

I must have come to it myself somehow, since no one ever talked to me about it, or told me what was right or wrong when it came to men’s treatment of women. I just seemed to know that it was wrong,  that kind of cruelty and domination did not ever seem like sex or love to me. What kind of man – what kind of person – treats another human being in that way? The answer is many people, and they are mostly men.

It seems to me, this has nothing to do with sex, but mostly with power.

I knew what it felt like to be dominated and assaulted and harassed, I could not do it to anyone else.  All my life, I have heard men speak in awe and wonder at other men who brag about their sexual conquests. I have rarely, if ever,  heard a man praise another man for treating women well and with sensitivity.

Over these past few weeks, as the harassment issue becomes more and more politicized – the existence of a “left” and a “right” seems a far greater threat to the country to me than the Russians – it has become even more difficult for us to come to understand what is happening inside the psyches of men that causes them to harass and dominate women, often in the most brutal and degrading of ways.

Harassment is now okay  on one level – approved at the highest levels of politics – if it advances a political agenda. You can harass all the women you want in the name of the left, or the right. It doesn’t matter if it’s wrong, there is no wrong in that shameless world.

That is not the message young men need to hear. Some things – harassment and rape – are much worse than a legislative defeat.

This week, I finally e-mailed a friend and mentor who has been accused of sexual harassment, and has admitted that the accusations against him are true. He was fired, and lost everything. He thinks he may never find work again. His wife is terrified, they can no longer pay the college tuition for their son.  He said he was ashamed of himself.

I wasn’t sure what to say to him. I avoided him for weeks.

I asked him how he was and expressed the hope he was getting help. He was  sad, and seemed very regretful in his messages. He referred to impulses and needs that had simply overtaken his moral judgment and ethics.

They were much more powerful than he had recognized or seen.

He seemed sincere to me, he seemed broken, as if he had awakened from a trance.

He said it was all like being in a fever, he simply left his own self respect at times. He said he knew that was no excuse, that there was no excuse. It was an understanding that he was coming to.

He could not explain to himself how he left his morality was left behind as he abused women in gross ways and humiliated himself and his family. What will I tell my children, he asked me?

I said  nothing, but wondered to myself why he didn’t think of that sooner.

A good rule for men is to always stop and ask what their children might think of the way they treat women. I stopped myself from having an affair once long ago by doing that. It works.

My friend also never discussed his impulses with anyone, he said. There was no place for him to go. Women can now to go HR with complaints of harassment, he said, but men cannot go anywhere and talk about the sex drives and impulses that sometimes overwhelm their own moral values and humanity. No man who did that would be employed for long, or ever be promoted.

Yesterday, I read a heartfelt and thoughtful piece by Billy Bush, the TV host whose career was destroyed by his proximity to the bloviating Donald Trump and his Hollywood Access tapes. Surprisingly, I found Bush’s piece to be one of the best things I have seen men write about the harassment scandals wracking the corporate, media and entertainment worlds.

“I have faith,” Bush wrote, “that when the hard work of exposing these injustices is over, the current media drama of who did what to whom will give way to a constructive dialogue between mature men and women in the workplace and beyond.

The activist and gender-relations expert Jackson Katz has said that this is not a women’s issue – it’s a men’s issue. That’s a great place to start, and something I have real thoughts about – but is a story for another day.”

Amen to that.

Good for you, Billy, I thought, you are becoming a man.

You were debased and debased yourself by applauding  Mr. Trump and his disgusting comments to you.

In your response, you are reclaiming your own dignity and honor by being thoughtful and honest.

You have paid an awful price, and it seems to have done you some good. “Today,” Bush wrote, “is about reckoning and reawakening, and I hope it reaches all the guys on the bus.” Not yet, but maybe one day soon.

I watched Jackson Katz’s (no relation) Ted Talk about men last night and it also gave me hope that men may  begin to think and talk about how violent behaviors – in politics, the school yard, the NFL, and especially with women – are tied to the definitions of manhood that dominate our culture.

In Washington, winning is everything, there is nothing else. That’s what Katz means.

When I was a kid, we young men thought that pursuing women sexually and conquering them was a sign of manhood, of strength and virility.

It was something we were supposed to do if we were real men.

We were praised for it, it made us seem bigger, when it fact it was making us smaller. I can’t help but wonder if those weren’t the lessons so many men carried into their adult lives, when they should have known better.

Perhaps because of the abuse I suffered, I somehow came to see violence against women as a sign of weakness and cowardice, not of strength.

I had no role models to teach me this, and have rarely, if ever, discussed this with anyone.

I am in awe of these brave women who have put this issue on the dinner table of every awake home in America. They are so much braver than the men who assaulted and harassed them.

But I also believe that somehow, there needs to be a much deeper conversation with young men and now, I see, older men as well,  about their bodies and drives and impulses. About how to control themselves and not hurt women and upend their own lives.

We need to find better way of being real men and understanding and teaching manhood. Like nurturing our wives and children, listening to women, supporting their advance through society so they can protect us and others from ourselves until we can  learn to protect ourselves and others from us. And choosing leaders who stand for something other than themselves.

I have to take responsibility for what men are doing to women, to their sons and brothers, to the world. It all seems like the same thing to me, all of the same piece – our behavior is unacceptable and causing great harm, even catastrophe.

That does not have to be what we are about. It is not what I am about, but for a flick of fate, it could easily have been what I am about.

It is in me, too, I am sure of it.

Billy Bush showed us what it means to be a real man in his piece this  week. Our President could have done a lot of good if he took responsibility and did some thinking about something other than his own survival,  the way Bush, his enabler, did.

I think Billy Bush will be all right.

“On a personal note,” he wrote, “this last year has been an odyssey, the likes of which I hope to never face again; anger, anxiety, betrayal, humiliation, many selfish, but I hope, understandable emotions. But these have given way to light, both spiritual and intellectual. It’s been fortifying. I know that I don’t need the accouterments of fame to know God and be happy. After everything over the last yer, I think I’m a better man and father to my three teenage daughters – far from perfect, but better.”

I’ve said all of my life that the only men I can love are those who have been tortured as children or humiliated as adults. They have to be shocked into awakening. But it’s all in there, it has to be.

So this is all a message for men, who can’t be perfect, but can be better. Can we overcome so much baggage, thousands of years of seeing women in this awful way? I don’t know. Something is happening, and it is important.

This is our problem, almost every woman alive seems to have been hurt by it, but they can’t ultimately resolve it. That falls on us.

Bush has learned the hard way what nobody ever bothered to teach him. There are lots of lessons in that. And in so doing, he seems to have become a real man.

This is a men’s problem. Calling it a women’s problem takes men off the hook. Right now, it seems the hook is finding us.


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