The Misogynist Within

The Misogynist Within

Sexual harassment expresses power dynamics from which all men benefit.


I’m a misogynist. I’m a black man who likes to think of himself as a feminist. I’m a progressive. I’m gay. Hopefully, I’m a relatively decent guy; I certainly mean well. Still, I’m also a misogynist.

How could I not be? I’ve spent my entire life in a society that, by every imaginable measure, devalues and dismisses women. It’s the case for politics: In the nearly 230-year history of the US Senate, we have elected just 50 women to serve; nearly half of that number are in office now. It’s the case for wages: Women still make roughly 80 cents on the dollar that’s paid to men. It’s the case for families: “Single mother” remains a casual, if coded, slur in a great many minds, shorthand for a jezebel who’s damned her offspring by failing to get and keep a man. It’s even the case for our diversions—in sports stadiums and movie theaters and museum galleries and comedy clubs, and on and drearily on it goes.

We’ve gone so far as to organize our gods around misogyny. The evangelical South’s support for Roy Moore has drawn shocked, breathless comment. But the white South’s Christian faith has always been malleable, bending to accommodate the power of white men.

As Christine Leigh Heyrman lays out in Southern Cross, her study of the Bible Belt’s origin story, women and young single men initially dominated evangelical Christianity in Revolutionary-era America with a doctrine that rejected slavery. But these upstart congregations struggled to gain a mass following in the South, because their power structure threatened to undermine a society built around married white men—the lords of the South’s women, children, and enslaved workers. So by the early 1800s, Southern Baptists had stripped women and black people of all decision-making roles. Once the new faith tradition had aligned itself with a white-supremacist patriarchy, it flourished.

Our national history is full of such stories. America is rooted in misogyny, and thus so am I. I have spent most of my adult life trying to acknowledge these facts and correct the way they shape my own behavior.

It has been said that we’re living through a reckoning with sexual harassment on the job. One powerful man after another has been outed as a predator, and my own workplaces have not been spared. This reckoning with sex as a tool of male power has also generated questions about complicity: Who watched and did nothing? Who enabled such bold behavior? When the morning-show anchor turned his office into a dungeon, somebody surely noticed. Certainly, each of these men had active accomplices in management, and those people must be held accountable.

But if we’re honest, the complicity is broader. The dudes flashing their dicks at co-workers and forcing their tongues into people’s mouths are physically acting out the power structure in which they know they live. All of us who are male-identified need to ask ourselves: What role do we play in creating that structure?

We don’t have to be Billy Bush to be part of the problem (though I have let more vile objectification of women pass without challenge than I care to recall). I often think the most damaging way in which men are complicit in patriarchy is by receiving our many privileges as normal. For years, I comfortably accepted the starkly gendered division of caretaking labor in my family, allowing me a freedom of movement that my female cousins did not have. I recall managing teams in which I thoughtlessly rewarded male entitlement, while allowing equally ambitious but less aggressive women on the team to linger in support roles. Learning to undo rather than reinforce gender hierarchies is a permanent project.

As is often the case, I only made contact with the problem when I felt how much I’ve also been hurt by a society built to diminish women.

Masculinity operates like whiteness: It demands control over any space it enters. It plants itself in the center and shoves anything coded as feminine to the edges. In a man’s world, decisive is better than deliberate. Bold is strong; cautious consideration is weak. Reflection invites regret, and that’s weak, too. Ditto collectivity—the rugged individual only joins a group in which he can be the reigning hero. And he keeps his emotions in check. Better to strike out in rage than sit in your sadness. I spent far too many years accepting these falsities as obvious truths, wearing them like a straitjacket around my own humanity.

And just as these ideas confine the minds and hearts of men, they corrode public life. They are at least part of the reason that we have an economy organized around greed, a culture that frames collectivity as a threat to individuality, and a politics that approaches nuanced problems with rigid yes/no debates.

Donald Trump is many things—a white supremacist, a crony capitalist, a fluent liar. We likely will be living with the consequences of all those traits for a long time. But the blunt force of Trump’s destructive impulse is drawn most powerfully from his gender identity: He is also a man’s man.

Progressives wrestled with representational politics in 2016. We fought mightily over what, if anything, the fact of Hillary Clinton’s gender should have meant for voters. Trump’s voters were clear what his gender meant for them. It meant a reassertion of patriarchy. It was morning in America for the white man: Grab ’em by the pussy and give a rebel yell.

And so now we face a reckoning. Let it be more than a coming to terms with sexual harassment. Yes, let’s bring the abusers to justice. But let us also consider the many ways in which we’ve organized ourselves around misogyny—in our workplaces, in our families, and as individuals. Maybe then we can mount a movement larger than Democrats and Republicans, and start talking seriously instead about things like peace, justice, and equity.

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