(Warning – there are things I would definitely consider TMI in this essay, were I not writing about a topic that clearly demands a lot of information. Sorry if it makes you uncomfortable the next time we meet up. Or – don’t read it. That’s ok, too.)
I’ve done it. Not “I’m sure I’ve been complicit” – I have two very specific recollections of my own inappropriate sexual behavior. One was a friend crashing with me, on whom I kept making advances and who had to keep rebuffing me (I think I’ve apologized for this one more times than I can count – she offered me forgiveness years ago, but I’m still beating myself up over it.) The second was a young professional who had the grace to simply ignore my “soft pass” and, in doing so, totally let me off of the hook with far more maturity than I displayed in that situation. I’ve been lucky enough not to be allowed to go too far.
And those are the two times I know I’ve actively sexually harassed someone. I didn’t even know all the ways in which I could make someone sexually uncomfortable until I took the Princeton Sexual Harassment training class last year, which was one of the most enlightening hours I ever spent in front of a computer.
We do it, men. We do it to the people in whom we’re sexually interested, whether that’s women or other men. I’m sorry, guys. I’m sorry “Men’s Rights Groups” or whatever you want to call yourself. And I’m sorry to the one guy over there in the corner who can tell me, truly and honestly, that he never did it. But – Perfectman – double check before you stake your soul on it. Was there a waitress or bartender you flirted with, who really didn’t want sex to be an ingredient in the basic food/money exchange that is a meal being served in a restaurant? An intern that you thought you were joking with when you dropped innuendos in response to their offer to grab you a coffee? Or a female who offered to trade backrubs because SHE ACTUALLY WANTED A BACKRUB, and was down to swap them with you, because that’s a fair medium of exchange, but you wanted her to make out with you as her payback?
For those guys, who, like me, want to pat ourselves on the back for the fact that we’ve been in many situations in which we could have been predatory, and weren’t? HEY, GUESS WHAT? This just means we were simply professionals doing our jobs with other professionals. Stop spraining your arm over there – it’s not a worthy backpat…
Oh – and I’ll also say this – sure, there’s been plenty of consensual sex with colleagues in all of our lives. It’s still theater. It’s still going to happen. It just has to happen when both people are interested, equal in power, and sober (or, one might argue, equally drunk – but that’s another debate for another day).
The first porn I saw was when I was 12. I found my dad’s VHS stash. I only watched it when I could manage to be alone in the living room, with a guarantee of no interruptions. Which means I watched it a lot. By 13, I figured out a way to dupe his tapes, using a well-off friend’s video camera, and I was selling copies of it on the playground. I had a subscription to Playboy that I shared with my brother, since we were always the ones to get the mail. I began masturbating to these images before I could even ejaculate.
And I grew up before Internet porn. Now, it is EVERYWHERE. I delete friend requests on Facebook that are clearly some sort of porn-fishing (I still don’t actually understand those). There are links to softcore stuff embedded at the bottom of news article. I have a friend proud of his 500 gigabyte hard drive full of porn.
By the time I was 18, I had definitely seen more naked women on the page or screen than I had in real life. And I had a kind of sweetly active sex life for quiet teenager.
Every time I work in NYC these days, I am overwhelmed by the size, shape and variety of ads that borrow an immense amount from all that porn I watched as a kid.
It’s not that NYC is more sinful or horrible – it’s just the density that’s overwhelming. And I’m not just talking about fashion ads – I’m talking about ads for prime time sitcoms, for movies, for food, for vacations, for… well, for everything.
And it’s not just on the streets. The other day, I went to the website of a major microphone manufacturer – a company that sells elements that we theater people think of as perishables for $500 apiece. The picture on their mic page shows a lavalier clipped to a shirt collar… of a woman, about 6” above her breasts, with the next button down unbuttoned. It’s a classic cleavage shot – very classy (she’s wearing black) and you don’t see her face – just her hair, which comes down at least to mid-breast. And I thought really? Really really? Is this how you sell microphones, too? (It’s also in a crappy mic position. It’s too low…)
I didn’t just come to the idea of objectification. I’m not new to it. But I am struggling with it. Not only for the noble cause of trying to raise my boy to become a man who respects women, but because I know it affects me, too. I can track the changes to my own behaviors, the longer I’m out in areas with lots of images of females as objects. I can feel my head swiveling in that way that my father’s did, so embarrassingly, all those years ago. I’ve been trained well enough to win my battles, but I know I have to fight leaning in too close, looking in the wrong places, evaluating bodies that are not there for me to evaluate when I’ve been immersed in too many images like this. I truly believe that there is a direct cause-and-effect relationship between mainstream objectification of women and sexual harassment of women, and I’ve never heard a successful opposing argument.
When images of power are images of men with visually attractive women. When images of success are images of women in sexually available poses. When images of wealth are images of women as display objects for the items you want to buy. Then society keeps banging on the same drum – sexual desire is object desire. And objects don’t have feelings. You can’t harass an object.
The most hopeful counter I’ve encountered is sex-positive feminism. A movement that is striving to say that, yes, women are sexually active, engaged, and full of desire. But that desire is theirs AS WOMEN – it is the desire of equals. Of partners and playmates and casual romances. Women who, as conscious, choice making humans, dig their own bodies and choose to share them. Women who are not the objects of desire, but sharers of desire.
Because that, in the end, is exactly what feminism is – it’s the expression of simple human equality. That women and men should be the same. That, at work, we all have the same missions and agendas of success, and at play, we all have the same needs and desires. Sure – those desires vary from person to person, but that’s the whole point – we’re people! Individuals! Not objects.
And, beyond that? Beyond the hope that somehow, our society will accept women as equals?
Well, the weight of that change lies on us as artists – on me and all my friends and colleagues in the business of culture. On graphic designers, moviemakers, songwriters, novelists, playwrights and video directors. On the people who generate the images (whether in print, word or imagination) that affect our understanding of. We are the shapers of society. We are responsible, men and women both, for how the vast swath of humanity sees women. And, maybe, just maybe, we need to really walk the liberal walk, and start seeing these images, ideas, and portrayals for what they are – destructive, detrimental, retrograde. To start replacing the objects with humans in the mainstream media, not just in small liberal theaters, but on big musical stages. On billboards. In songs. In videos, film, tv. The change has started (I look at some of the great characters on shows being run by women these days) but maybe it has to go deeper. Maybe it has to be in everything we make, to counter everything that is being made to reinforce it.
I don’t know.
All I know is that I want to stop the chorus of “Me, Too” in this generation. Not by silencing them, but by ending the abuse.