on fear

Maybe Men Will Be Scared for a While

Not everyone is online all the time. This is why it was only several weeks after the “Shitty Media Men” list first appeared, and disappeared, and engendered a frenzy of coverage that my husband found himself discussing the list with an older colleague.

Well, she said (as he recounted the conversation to me). Women have been scared of men for a long time. Maybe men will be scared of women for a while now.

He recounted this as a calm statement of fact, which interested me; it seemed accurate, and it also seemed like a stark contrast to the way I’d seen similar assessments delivered elsewhere. In general, in the weeks following the Times’ and The New Yorker’s reports on Harvey Weinstein, the prospect of men being newly scared of women tended to loom as a sort of horrifying, unnatural worst-case scenario. What if men were now too scared to take meetings with women? Too scared to professionally mentor women? Too scared to be friendly? Too scared to flirt? The price of any misstep: a life “ruined” (although what, exactly, it meant to “ruin” a life tended to pass without scrutiny).

Implied in these scenarios was less a fear of women’s power than a fear of their irrationality, their suggestibility, and their failures of understanding. The subtext seemed to be: So are women just going to get upset about whatever now? Are they going to start reporting men for “misconduct” willy-nilly, ignoring all subtleties and good intentions in favor of freaking out?

This implication was, in its way, almost as dehumanizing as the outright misogyny of the behaviors that were supposedly being policed. It suggested that, even if they weren’t sex objects, women were perhaps still not quite functional adult humans. Perhaps now the women had been somehow reprogrammed, like deranged robotic accusers, their sensors set on high alert for unauthorized male advance. (WARNING: HAND-TO-KNEE CONTACT DETECTED. ACTIVATE ASSAULT REPORTING.) Or perhaps they were partaking in some old-fashioned hysteria, high on scandal, slander, and self-righteousness. (Girls gone wild, Salem-style!) Or, perhaps, like preschoolers coached to recover memories of satanic abuse, they were just apt to be misled. In any case, they could not be understood to inhabit and interpret their own experiences with basically the same capability as men.

Because I knew women not to be deranged robots or misled children, it did not seem to me like the end of the world if, for a while, men were a little scared of women. I say this not because I cherish any of the condescending subtext described above, but because fear also seems like it might contain the potential for something else. Fear seems like a crude prerequisite for actual equality. Fear seems like the inchoate beginnings of respect.

A few years back I remember fixating on a passage in Heidi Julavits’s book The Folded Clock in which Julavits — an acclaimed writer, a Columbia professor — describes two male writers she knows discussing a third. One of the men calls the third “not a threat.” Julavits begins to wonder if these men would discuss her, or any female writer, in similar terms. Later she asks one of the men to tell her whether he considers her “a threat”; she presses him, but he won’t do it. The conversation is left (tellingly, uneasily) unresolved. It raises the possibility that even men who apparently esteem women are — on an immediate, instinctive gut level, the level at which it might impinge on their own self-conception — unaccustomed to seeing them as true rivals, peers, or equals.

I wondered if the fear men now felt was borne of an alarming recognition: that women whom they may or may not have seen as equals could nonetheless prove a threat.

I arrived at college after seven years of all-girls school. And while seven years spent floating in the warm amniotic fluid of Girl Power had not made me love STEM or aspire to start a business, it had left me with the habit of assuming that people saw me as a person — rather than specifically as a girl. So I entered the world of on-campus heterosexuality under strange and lucky circumstances.

I was prepared to embrace sexual freedom with open arms, my complete lack of relevant experience notwithstanding. The good fortune of my upbringing had maintained a fundamental innocence and idealism: I understood myself as a person with eyes and a brain that I trusted, and pursued sex in this spirit. Those times when I was given to understand that others might not see me quite the same way — when they seemed to see only a freshman girl, with all that implied — I was somewhat at loose ends. I don’t really know how to be that, I might as well have shrugged at the misunderstanding —uncomfortable, perhaps, but fundamentally unchanged. The primary fear I felt around boys, as I put myself in sexual situations, was of humiliation: of not knowing what I was doing and so revealing myself as ignorant, misguided, or boring; a disappointment, finally, as a human being. It did not occur to me to fear that I would be forced to do anything I didn’t want to do, that my preferences could result in a man’s violent displeasure, that I might experience physical harm. I feared being revealed as foolish and naïve because, by any objective measure, I was.

I did not think until much later that the fears I brought to sex might in some sense be masculine ones — might be, in their way, lucky ones to have. These are the fears of a person who assumes they will be treated as a person. And, as perhaps makes a certain amount of developmental sense, I comported myself during those early months of college in the way you might expect of a horny and socially maladapted teenage boy: Given the opportunity I’d eagerly kiss, remove clothes, dry-hump, then flee, and thereafter strenuously avoid conversation. I remember the day when it became clear that this strategy was not long-term sustainable. There was a boy whose lofted twin bunk I’d visited a few times, whom I liked making out with but feared I did not actually like personally. I’d managed mostly to dodge him during daylight hours, until the afternoon when I found myself exposed, standing in the middle of a courtyard, unable to evade his approach.

“Why are you being so weird,” he asked — reasonably, not unkindly. “I don’t know,” I said, miserably, because it was true. All I’d wanted was to get naked and solve the problem of sex. I wanted to do this as efficiently as possible, and ideally without embarrassing myself in the process. But embarrassment, it turned out, was inevitable. Embarrassment was part of the bargain. Actually dealing with men —determining what in fact I did and didn’t want, conveying as much to another human being, imagining what he might be experiencing, holding up my end of a clothed conversation, and, throughout, risking seeming dumb or lame — that was going to be the hard part.

Such was the cost of being a person. Rather than regarding men as ciphers and accessories to my sexual self-education, I would be obliged to treat them as people, too.

Traditionally, as Margaret Atwood has put it, “Men are afraid that women will laugh at them,” while “women are afraid that men will kill them.” The weight of this aphorism tends to fall on its second half —on the danger women live with. But it also suggests the sheer terror of sexual humiliation, a terror that’s hardly limited to men, but which, in our discussions of men, tends to take on an outsize gravity. When reference is made to men’s lives being “ruined” by allegations against them, this seems to be what’s implied: not all (or even most) of these men lose their jobs or their families or their money, but they have all been revealed as somehow sexually incompetent — unmanned. If your flirtatious banter comes across not as witty but as “creepy AF,” then you have failed at flirting. If your sexual conquests do not feel that they succumbed to your charms so much as acquiesced to your badgering, then your conquest is not so impressive. And this is the underlying fear men must now countenance: that perhaps they are not as good at sex as they previously believed, and that, in an instant, the whole world could know.

Critics wary of #MeToo have worried over the possibility that eros will be destroyed — that flirtation and seduction will be the casualties if we reconsider sexual boundaries and norms. And yet, almost uniformly, what is striking in the accounts of famous men’s “misconduct” (the catchall for accusations short of rape) is not their subtle erotic flair but their mortifying clumsiness. Mark Halperin, rubbing his fully clad crotch against unwitting female colleagues. Louis C.K., forthrightly producing his penis and then masturbating. Aziz Ansari, deploying a digital maneuver his date described as “the claw.” Whether you read the Ansari story as “a bad date” or coercion, nothing about it makes him sound like an appealing person to spend a night with. But also: Who among us would ever, ever want the world to see our sexual behavior recounted in such merciless detail?

These stories are being discussed publicly because of their bearing on women’s ability to make equal lives in the public sphere. In that important sense, our “reckoning,” our “#MeToo moment” is in an essential way about work, not sex, as Rebecca Traister has written. Still, sex is the lens we’re looking through, and thinking about sex allows us to consider the human frailties that make all these matters so fraught. One such frailty is fear: women’s fears of sexual exploitation, men’s fears of sexual humiliation. Technology has altered the stakes for both, as the Shitty Media Men list made clear. For the women who contributed, the spreadsheet presented a revelatory new kind of solidarity — the chance to bring fears into the open and share them. For the men who appeared (or wondered if they did), the spreadsheet presented a terrifying new kind of exposure. The list did not last; the fears hold in counterbalance.

Fear, though, is a crude instrument. Probably we would all prefer not to live in a world governed by mutually assured destruction at the interpersonal level, with an implied standing threat to cause pain. But we have been running headlong into the unfinished work of the sexual revolution, and in the absence of the old rules, it seems implausible to imagine new ones wouldn’t evolve. How to define the ethics (and erotics) of being a person, having sex with someone you also know and feel to be a person?

The true impractical starry-eyed utopians aren’t the college students advocating for affirmative consent, or the women articulating a vocabulary for their values and boundaries. The true utopians belong to an earlier generation: the ones who imagined that a landscape of sexual freedom might persist untrammeled by new conventions or hard conversations, and who think, even now, that we might return to a bygone status quo.

Maybe Men Will Be Scared for a While