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Re-defining Manhood

Harvey Weinstein and how his toxic manhood is our toxic manhood, too

As I’ve watched the Harvey Weinstein saga unfold these past few weeks, and the stunning roll call of accusations of rape, sexual assault, and sexual harassment pile up, from Hollywood royalty, from actresses who never achieved fame, from women and men both, I cannot help but think of my mother, for two reasons. First, when I was a little boy my mom, ever-honest, real, raw, told me that when she migrated from the American South to New Jersey, where I was born and raised, she, like many working-class women of color who’d made the same trek north, worked as the help in the home of a wealthy white family, across the Hudson River in Westchester County. One day, when all other members of that family were gone, the husband appeared before her clad only in a bathrobe. Suddenly, in the sickening manner that Harvey Weinstein has now made infamous, he sat down in the living room across from her, with his private parts dangling in full view. Why my mother told me this tale at such a young age, I do not know. What I do know is she repeated it often yet never went beyond that ugly moment in her storyline. To this day I do not know how she managed to escape that man.

I also know my mother, now seventy-four years old, forever carries the ugly trauma and scars of my father, the only man she ever fell in love with. He was eleven or twelve years older than her; she worshipped him, and he lusted after her. My Aunt Birdie later told me that my mother was terrified when she became pregnant with me. My father’s wildly unpredictable role in their relationship meant that, when my twenty-two-year-old mother was about to birth me, she had to call a cab to take herself to the hospital.

This reckless and callous distance was to be permanent. I saw my father only two or three times in the first eight years of my life. He never bothered to make good on the promise of marrying her, and my mother, with her limited formal education, was forced to raise me in poverty on government assistance for much of my childhood and youth. My main memory of him was one rainy day when I was eight years old: my mother grabbed me by the hand and took me to the local drugstore to call my father, because we were too poor to afford a phone in our tenement apartment. On this day—the last day I would ever hear from my father—he told my mother, as I stood there, that she had lied to him, that I was not his son, and that he would never give her another nickel for me. He then hung up on her. My mother lifted herself slowly from that phone booth, her plump short frame trembling: she was devastated, angry, humiliated, and she would come to say these words over and over, in her very pronounced Southern accent, words that echo loudly in my ears as I have thought about Harvey Weinstein, film director James Toback, former Amazon Studios chief Roy Price, R&B superstar R. Kelly, disgraced and ousted Fox News host Bill O’Reilly, and all of us men like them: “Men ain’t no good.” And she would rush to underline that sentiment, whenever the image or name of my father struck her heart like a hammer, “Do not be like your father.”

Here I was a boy child being raised by a single mother, with no male figure to be found anywhere—not a stepfather, not a role model, not a mentor in sight. But what I did have—what we all have, whether we have fathers or not—is the intensively male-dominated tone of our common culture: television, film, books, magazines, comic books, religious institutions, music, sports, the mass media. And these forums all, in turn, reflect back the messaging we learn in school, within our families, within our communities. We are outraged, and rightfully so, by the heaviness and sordidness of the allegations lodged against a Harvey Weinstein, a Bill Cosby, a Woody Allen, an O.J. Simpson, a Roman Polanski, a Mark Halperin—and against the many men whose names we will never know who engage in similarly toxic behavior daily, across the globe.

The Pummelings of Privilege

The offences of destructive men align along a gigantic spectrum of dysfunction, from pressuring a woman to a hotel room to committing acts of domestic violence, from police brutality and racial profiling to suicide bombings and mass shootings. (Indeed, it’s very rare for the perpetrators of mass shootings not to have at least been rooted in a past pattern of domestic violence.) But we have got to also understand that none of this behavior is new. That was the enduring lesson of the incident involving my mother, way back in the 1960s.

The hard and fast fact is across much of the civilized world, we men have been taught from boyhood onward that we are superior—and, as a repercussion, that women and girls are inferior, are second-class citizens, or worse yet, not worthy of being viewed as anything other than sexual objects, punching bags, or caretakers to us and our needs.

This is an incredibly toxic definition of manhood, spread across centuries, continents, civilizations, races, cultures, religions, politics, communities, and families. This beast-mode model of male experience has erupted time and again, like a deadly disease, in all those spaces and places so organically, so rapidly, that it’s a virtual rite of passage. Indeed, when I was reading about the many instances of Weinstein showing his penis to women, or clutching at women, I immediately thought back to my youth, as a boy, when I was merely ten or eleven, and how I and all the other boys my age would prowl the halls of our school and summarily grab at the buttocks or budding breasts of our girl classmates. We laughed off any protests from the girls—we just did it.

We laughed off any protests from the girls—we just did it.

And we were never stopped from doing it—not by teachers, principals, parents, or any other adult. Nor were we taught any differently even on the rare occasions that our behavior might rank a passing scolding from our elders. Why and when we began to do this, I don’t know. We just did it, because it was what so-called boys did. And should we fail to follow this standard boys’ script a certain kind of male policing kicked in, with peers and male adults physically or verbally abusing us in viciously emasculating and homophobic terms. If any of us were to seek to stop the behavior (which none of us dared to do), we’d be instantly expelled from this boys’ club we so desperately wanted to be a part of. To be a boy, to be a man, was to fight, was to grab, was to shove and push, was to one up each other every chance we got, was to brag about our material things, our status, was to harp on our sexual conquests (incorporating both truth and lies), was to declare war in every form imaginable: on each other, on those we despised. Manhood certainly never involved viewing women and girls, not even our own mothers, as our equals. Women and girls, were simply there to cater to us, to support us, to do what we pleased, even (and in some cases, especially) if doing our bidding meant hurting or destroying those women and girls. Because manhood for us, ultimately, was about power, and that taste of power was totally intoxicating.

The Rules of the Game

This real-life modeling of male privilege shaped our identity throughout our developmental years. Our schools rarely bothered to include women as equals in terms of intellectual achievement or career aspiration—which meant that many of us, from generation to generation, from Harvey Weinstein to me, came of age thinking that the only lives that have mattered in history, literature, math, science, religion, and any other sphere of endeavor or influence have been the lives of men—unless someone intervened and told us differently. Ask the average man of any background even today to name ten or twenty women in the history of his community or country or culture who have done amazing things, in any fields, and he would be hard pressed to reach five. I know this to be true, because I have done this simple exercise in many places throughout the country and the globe. Not only are we grossly mis-educated on what it is to be a man, but we are also severely mis-educated on who women are. To find out why we men and boys traffic in the egregious attitudes and behavior toward women and girls, look closely at how we’ve been taught and socialized from the moment we were able to speak as little children. We pass this toxic manhood among each other as if we are kicking a soccer ball or tossing a football. And like in any sports setting, the tribal rites of toxic manhood present themselves as a sort of second nature—as the rules of the game. The simple equation of manhood with boundless freedom is acutely embedded in who we are, and who we think we are; it is the background faith behind the supernatural belief in our invincibility and superiority as men and boys, with the world, including women and girls, as our play area for pleasure and power and privilege.

The simple equation of manhood with boundless freedom is acutely embedded in who we are.

This is why when we men get to college or jobs or careers, we have indiscriminate and emotionless sex, only view women from the neck down, and change partners the way we change our pants or shoes. This is why we men, unchecked, have sex with women who are drunk or drugged, and do not consider it rape. This is why we men will ignore a woman saying no or saying nothing as she suffers sexual assault at our hands—because we’ve got no clue what the word consent means. This is why we men, steeped in the ritual of violence as a form of power and control, hit women, slap women, belittle women, rape women. It’s why we feel entitled to push a woman into a bathroom door, as I did to a girlfriend when I was a very young man back in July of 1991. And this is why we men, like Harvey Weinstein, like the many men in Hollywood and media and politics and corporate America now, find ourselves terrified that we will be outed for harassment or sexual assault: because we know what we have done, and what some of us still say and do to women, every single day of our lives. Or, just as bad, we use our privilege to continue our own complicity—when we hear and see our male peers say and do cruel and inhuman things, we remain silent. We thus fail to see that even if we do not directly engage in evil acts of shameless sexism, our deafening silence means we are in agreement, and with that silence we are just as guilty.

What began the turn away from unthinking male privilege was that episode in the early 1990s when I’d pushed my girlfriend into that bathroom door. She and I were in the middle of an argument—about what I no longer recall. But what I do remember is that the more she was winning the verbal scrum, the more my temper boiled, until it exploded with my shoving her, hard, into our bathroom door. She screamed and ran, barefoot, from our Brooklyn apartment, and I stood there, shaking and sweaty. The recognition of what I had done then dropped me, like a dead weight, to the floor with shame and guilt. She eventually came back, and she and I continued to live together for perhaps a month longer, but the damage had been done, and our New York circle of fellow writers and artists and activists knew. Once I had moved out I saw her on a street in Manhattan a week or so later, and I cursed her badly because she tried to avoid me. Here again the classic script of toxic manhood had seized the day, making it appear that my woefully underdeveloped male ego was more important than this woman’s trauma.

She eventually filed a restraining order to keep me away from her—a legal proceeding that made the totality of what I had done, what I had become, daunting indeed. Women friends challenged me to seek therapy, to get help, and I did. A few men who were allies to women and girls said the same. I was told, point blank, that I was a hypocrite, as a “woke” writer and activist, for talking about social justice issues while engaging in sexist behavior that was harmful to half the world’s population. I was told it was clear I knew little to nothing about women and girls. Undeniably, after I had looked back on my stint in college and I was forced to concede that I had never read more than a couple of books written by a woman. I had no clue who bell hooks or Gloria Steinem or other legendary women thinkers were; nor did I have a single notion about what the feminist movement was. I had become, essentially, what my mother had told me not to be; I was, like my father, and like many men, “no good.”

Boys to Men

I was challenged to take ownership of my actions; my friends and allies-in-the-making assured me that apologies were empty without growth, without deeds. So eventually I wrote about it, all of it, in a short essay for Essence magazine entitled “The Sexist in Me,” a very public confession. The responses to that piece were startling, because women wrote me directly—either (mostly) to thank me or to share their own tales of violence and abuse at the hands of men or boys. I had no clue. I had been asleep all my life until that point, never grasping what my mother had been saying to me all along. That realization, and the support of those women who could have easily given up on me as just another no-good man, sparked something in me, and I began to study women’s history, women’s literature, and women’s political movements. In those beginning stages of my own feminist odyssey, I was uncomfortable, and terrified. Most of all, I was unsure of myself as a young man being told, in no uncertain terms, that the very definitions of manhood that had shaped my experience in the most powerful and intimate ways were toxic to me, to women and girls, to men and boys. I couldn’t initially bring myself to accept that I was fundamentally living a lie.

In those beginning stages of my own feminist odyssey, I was uncomfortable, and terrified.

It is not easy to evolve or to change as a man in this world, because there really are not many examples of it. What I realized, as I was going to therapy for my anger and my violent behavior, was how little I knew about myself, as a man, and how I really had no definition of manhood that had anything to do with being healthy and sane. I’d been traumatized by the very definitions of manhood that had been passed down to me, and I was confused about which way to go. I also began to realize, then, that my definitions of manhood were also tangled up in my family history—the actions of my father, the trials of my mother, the pain (literal and metaphoric) that she felt from his treatment of her, and how much of that hurt had been taken out on me. My mother did what she knew, and acted on what she felt for the very simple reason that there were no safe spaces, no healing spaces, for women like her—no outlets whatsoever. She raised me the best she could, and I am quite clear, today, that I would not be who I am without her. Without her being familiar with the terms or any movements my mother was, for sure, the very first feminist, the very first womanist, I ever met, I know now. In rejecting the ways of my father and men like him she was saying to me “You’ve got to go a different way.”

But even with her voice there, challenging me, I did what boys did: I played sports, I played video games, I lusted after girls, and I suppressed the side of me that loved reading, that loved the arts, that was highly sensitive and prone to crying because, well, that was not what boys or men did. I thought of these things and more as I went to those therapy sessions. They also came back to me, powerfully, as I sat and listened, often with tears in my eyes, to one woman friend after another acknowledge having been raped or sexually assaulted in some form, or hit or beaten by one man or another in their lives, in several cases a male relative. I thought of these things as I began to re-assess, way back in the 1990s, my relationship to male-centered art forms like hip-hop and rock music, and our awful treatment of women. And I thought of these things as women confronted me then, as they confront and challenge me now, to be an ally, to be a voice urging us all to take a different path, one that knows and regards women as equals.

The Prisonhouse of Manhood

But most of us never get there, never even start, as clearly evidenced by thirty years of accusations against Harvey Weinstein. Change demands tough, fearless searches for the man in that mirror, self-criticism, and owning of all the things that toxic manhood sets out furiously to deny: our imperfections, our vulnerabilities, our easy lapses into male privilege. And meanwhile, that privilege, and the power that comes with it, is deeply tantalizing and addictive. In addition, our definitions of manhood are tightly knotted to violence and hate and division and war and domination, while a genuine spirit of feminist equality rests just as inextricably on the practice of peace and equality and love. And in the deeper reaches of our brains, so many of us men feel so incredibly inadequate in our own lives, so weak and powerless, no matter how wealthy or poor we are, that we have come, without apology, to view the abuse and control of women as central to propping up our puny egos and our punier sense of self-worth. To be a different kind of man means that we would have to give up any form of “power” that hurts us, other men, women and girls, the human family—that we would have to become honest, and vulnerable, and emotionally naked in a way that forces us to confront ourselves as we have never done before. This is what I had to do, what I do now, because I do not want to be in a box, in a toxic male prison, for the rest of my life.

I was told, point blank, that I was a hypocrite.

This is the real tragedy of Harvey Weinstein, and of all of us. These many years since that day and that incident with my girlfriend, I have become deeply versed in women’s history, and think long and hard about various issues around gender and women and girl empowerment. I have never relapsed into putting my hands on a woman in that violent way, and I never will again, I am sure of this. I’ve given countless speeches, and organized a wide array of workshops, blogs, forums, conferences on the connections between sexism and how we define manhood. I have done several years of self-healing work—therapy, yoga, meditation, my spiritual practices, conversations with circles of men who also grapple with the question “What is a man?”—and I still continue to wrestle with the spiritual and emotional legacies of my sexist past. I have, I would like to think, been a good and consistent ally. But I also know that I am still very much a man, a highly insecure and painfully sensitive man struggling to navigate a universe that does not reward men for being honest, or for seeing and treating women as equals. And I am still very much a man who grapples with how to relate to women, who thinks, more than ever, of each word and each action, because I must. Because, if I am brutally honest, and I am, I know countless men, myself included, have at some point in our lives, exposed our penises, said sexually provocative words to women we have worked with, offered a woman a hotel room, or one of the laundry list of things women are now coming forth with about Harvey Weinstein, about other men. So, I’m still learning—and struggling to remind myself in real time—when to listen, when to speak, when to be an ally, and when to say if something hurts or bothers me for fear of being called sexist or unsupportive. I think about this daily with my wife, with my mother, with my assistant, with all women I encounter. Do I hear them consistently, see them consistently, respect and honor them consistently? And when I do not, do I own that? Do I check my own self, and hold myself accountable as a man? And I challenge men, hard, as I challenge myself, hard.

And I think long and hard, given that I am recently married to a woman who is a feminist and creator of a choreoplay called SHE, about myself daily in new and strangely awkward ways—particularly since I’m collaborating with her as the producer of this work of art. I sit there quietly listening to my wife tell stories about herself, about women who’ve reached out to her for help, for support, who are survivors of violence and abuse. I sit there quietly after SHE performances and hear the many women and girls share, in this safe healing space, what they have endured. I think often, too, of the many women and girls in my journey from boy to man that I have hurt or wounded in some way, of the few I have been able to apologize to, to the ones who do not want anything to do with me ever again due to past behavior or indiscretions. I did apologize to that girlfriend I pushed into that bathroom door years later, and she did accept. And it’s my humble hope that my work, now, these many years later, can serve as a sort of life-long apology for myself, for other men who have violated women and girls in some way.

The Listening Cure

And this, finally, is where I believe real change must start, with me, with Harvey Weinstein, with all men: a willingness to listen to the voices of women and girls, and a willingness to take ownership of our behavior, to say we are sorry, that we want to learn, that we want to heal and do better and be better. Only at that point can we set about re-defining manhood in a way that does not wound women and girls, and that does not wound men and boys, either.

As I read the accounts of the many Harvey Weinstein accusers I cringed, because I have heard some variations of these stories so many times about so many different types of men in so many different types of industries—starting with my mother when I was a boy. And I was forced to recall the many ways in which we men choose to ignore the plague of our own spiritual and emotion corruption—how we always protect each other, and remain disgustingly mute when we witness these things. Here, too, I was among the chief offenders: One day in college I heard someone who would one day be my fraternity brother savagely beating his girlfriend behind our student organization building, and I never said anything, never confronted him. Many years later, I’d known of one close friend having an extra-marital affair in plain sight, with his wife eventually finding out and being shattered by it; I’d once again chosen the path of least resistance, and failed to check this friend as he proudly boasted of his escapades. These are but two disheartening examples from my own past of the way that so many of us carry this so-called locker room talk into every arena of power, up to and including a White House currently occupied by an admitted sexual predator. In Donald Trump’s America, despite the fallout from the Weinstein scandal, many of us men still feel supremely entitled to keep instinctively re-playing the rites of toxic manhood because we couldn’t care less about the interests of anyone except ourselves.

This is why I think if any good has come of the whole Harvey Weinstein affair it is the resurrection of the #MeToo campaign, begun by an African-American woman named Tarana Burke in New York City long before social media launched it into prominence. I sit quietly on Twitter and Facebook and digest one account after another, of celebrities and working-class women both, and it has been jarring—as jarring as anything in my wife’s choreoplay, as jarring as anything I’ve heard at women’s shelters, on college campuses, in the many messages I still receive to this day from women and girl survivors of male violence and abuse. Through the years of doing this work as an ally, I’ve been surprised whenever I meet a woman who has not been sexually assaulted—that’s how pervasive, and wretchedly normalized, this behavior is.

I also don’t know how any man with any sense of humanity could read these #MeToo posts and not begin to wonder what he can do to stop it. We keep shifting the burden to women and girls. We keep talking about how a victim of sexual violence dresses, or why she was in this place or that place at a dangerous time of night. We keep saying violence against women and girls. But what we need to be saying, to really begin to move the needle, is that we have to teach men and boys, worldwide, that we cannot and must not objectify, rape, hit, beat, hurt, and murder women and girls. We need to keep insisting, over and over, that manhood does not equal violence.

Harvey Weinstein may never understand this, because when you have been steeped in that kind of power and privilege for so long, and when the consequences of your own destructive behavior have been for so long unchecked and covered up, it would take a monumental shift in your soul to become a very different kind of man. I do not know if that is possible for him, or for any other men whose souls and minds are similarly lost to the debilitating addictions of power and privilege. But what I do know is that this toxic manhood we men and boys willingly participate in is a mental and spiritual kind of torture that has been damaging the whole world for far too long, and that it must end. And we men and boys have no other choice but to help make it end.