Donald Trump. Bill O'Reilly. Harvey Weinstein. Michael Oreskes. Kevin Spacey. Casey Affleck. Louis C.K. Roy Moore. Larry Nassar. The list keeps growing, and we know that for every big name accused of sexual misconduct there are countless more in the stories of millions of women who have been coming forward to say “me too.”
In this moment, it is crucial for men to be speaking publicly and unequivocally in support of standards for sexual behavior based on respect, meaningful mutual consent, and awareness of differences in power. But the scope and depth of the problem require more than this.
We need to understand the dimensions of sexual misconduct in order to have a real chance for lasting changes in men's behavior. There are three interconnected levels that we should recognize and address:
Individual responsibility: There is an understandable tendency for men who want to stand on the right side of this issue to psychologically distance ourselves from the misbehaving men in the spotlight. The opposite is necessary. We must not only collectively say that this is our problem as men, but individually, own it as my problem.
Every man should be doing what the folks in AA call a searching and fearless moral inventory. We must ask ourselves: What is the nature of my power relationships with women? What do the relationships look like from the other side? Have there been times when intentionally or not I have violated someone's boundaries? Times when I have been aware of another man's misbehavior and stayed silent? As men, asking these kinds of questions help us take responsibility for necessary changes in our own behavior.
A 2014 study found that almost a third of college men said they'd force a woman to have sex if they were sure they would get away with it.
Conflicting cultural norms: Efforts to address the problem at the individual level are not enough. Culture decisively influences individual behavior. We can't expect sweeping changes to take place if they are contradicted by pervasive cultural messages.
Our culture celebrates male aggression — including sexual aggression — at the same time that it condemns sexual coercion. Despite half a century of feminist struggle, we are still flooded with images that objectify women's bodies and communicate that women are vehicles for male pleasure. The culturally conveyed characteristics of “real men” — tough, in charge, physically and psychologically dominant — continue to be evident in politics, corporate practices, militarism, advertising, sports, entertainment and the peer groups of boys and men. One of Hollywood's most iconic scenes depicts the sexually insistent man and the soft yielding woman whose “no” melts into “yes.”
A 2014 study found that almost a third of college men said they'd force a woman to have sex if they could be sure they would get away with it. This represents a staggering percentage of young men who have not internalized basic decency and respect for women. Tellingly, the number dropped to 13.6 percent when the word “rape” was used in the question. Men who would force sex but don't want to see themselves as rapists are navigating without a moral compass in the crosscurrents of cultural messages about sexual behavior. And the percentage of young men who said they would rape if assured of impunity is still appallingly large, reflecting the influence of those aspects of our culture that endorse brutal male attitudes and behaviors.
We are a society that placed Donald Trump at the pinnacle of power a scant month after the release of the ''Access Hollywood'' tape in which he boasted of groping women, but treats men like Weinstein, Cosby and Oreskes as pariahs. This could only happen in a state of widespread cultural confusion about male sexual conduct. We need to create clear and consistent norms that guide boys and men toward respect for women so they can internalize nonviolent standards for behavior.
A shame system: Growing up into the traditional masculine role, boys learn that softness, vulnerability and all characteristics associated with femininity are shameful. Anger is the only acceptable emotion. When boys express their hurts, a commonplace parental response is to "stop crying or I'll give you something to cry about." Boys routinely taunt each other as “sissies” and “little girls” (two of the milder epithets). Shaming is central to what the psychologist William Pollack, in his important book, "Real Boys: Rescuing Our Sons from the Myths of Boyhood," calls the “male straightjacket.”
Shame provides the psychological fuel that energizes abuses of power — including sexual abuse — as boys grow into manhood and positions of dominance. Like hazing, the shame system for male socialization brutalizes boys as it steers them toward becoming men who brutalize. This does not in any way excuse male sexual misconduct, but it does point to a key piece of the solution: We need to decisively reshape the social meaning of masculinity to include vulnerability, capacity for empathy and the entire range of emotional experience and expression.
Because men are profoundly injured by the male script, it is in our self-interest to change it. The more deeply we understand this, the clearer it becomes that we share common ground with women in the effort to uproot sexual misconduct.