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Redefining masculinity in the age of sexual assault and sex scandals

In the wake of the Harvey Weinstein sex scandal – a scandal in which dozens of women have come forward with stories of allegedly being sexually harassed by one of Hollywood’s most powerful figures – an extraordinary hashtag has gone viral, with millions of women (and some men) sharing their personal experiences of being sexually harassed using #MeToo.

The campaign has captivated the world and brutally demonstrated how widespread sexual harassment and assault is in society.

#MeToo has great potential to affect societal change if it results in fewer women being sexually harassed and assaulted.

However, I have noticed a sense of vagueness in the discourse around the #MeToo phenomenon. There are regular expressions of moral outrage and generalized feelings of injustice, without discussing the standards we should apply to men in order to judge their actions.

This is a problem, as it looks like we’re going to miss an opportunity to channel this campaign into a genuine transformation in the actions that result in sexual harassment and assault.

What’s needed, in my view, is further discussion in three areas: articulating a standard of wrongdoing worthy of punishment, punishing the offenders of sexual harassment and assault, and exploring what it means to be a man in the modern age.

Let’s address these three issues in turn.

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READ THIS: Maria Reynolds: The woman in America’s first political sex scandal

Agreeing on a standard of wrongdoing worthy of punishment

The first and most important step of the #MeToo campaign has been to raise awareness of how prolific sexual harassment and assault is in society. It happens so often at a young age to people who are completely innocent, have done nothing to bring it upon themselves, and leaves a damaging physical and psychological impact sometimes for a lifetime.

It’s tragic, and it needs to stop.

The problem with the conversation that is happening right now is that so many people are content with expressing their moral outrage, but won’t discuss a standard by which we can determine that someone has been sexually harassed.

It’s not easy.

We published an article by Kat Dunn where she raised the provocative question, “Is it sexual harassment when girls say ‘yes’ because they have no choice?”

Dunn shares a story where an older gentleman refused to listen to her “no” and wore her down through a combination of persistence and psychological manipulation, and she relented.

Dunn concludes by suggesting that “‘no’ means ‘no’ and harassing your way into a ‘yes’ by putting someone under duress is actually still a ‘no’ too.”

We need more discussions like this, where men can become more aware of the lines of grey between consent and harassment.

To take this discussion a step further, for the purposes of now discussing the kinds of punishment that will fit the crime, perhaps as a minimally accepted standard of wrongdoing we could agree on is the following: no touching of women without their explicit consent. This is a standard to which I act by, and it seems a reasonable one.

This is not a standard that is currently in operation, however, and the #MeToo campaign is failing to surface these conversations so that men can know the difference between building rapport through physical touch and touching without consent.

Punishing offenders of sexual harassment and assault

The case that Dunn discusses lives in the “grey zone” between consent and harassment. It makes it difficult to name the perpetrators by name.

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This is why we need a minimally accepted standard so that we can be on sure footing in starting to identify the perpetrators of sexual harassment and assault.

When we can largely agree on a standard of wrongdoing, we can start to name names and call out behavior that violates these standards.

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As we have seen, Weinstein has been named, and it’s likely going to result in a behavioral change on his part.

The question I have is this: will it also lead to other men reading the accounts of #MeToo and then deciding to stop engaging in sexual harassment and assault?

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I don’t think so.

The most powerful way to change these men’s behavior is for them to first know they’ve violated a standard of wrongdoing, and then be shamed publicly based on what they’ve done.

This would result in victims of sexual harassment achieving even a small amount of restorative justice while potentially saving future victims of harassment by the offending individual.

To start naming names, however, we need to have a clear standard of wrongdoing.

Redefining masculinity in the modern age

This will perhaps be the most difficult conversation to have.

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Because the conversations are so vague, a consistent reaction by men is to express guilt for being a man, yet I rarely see a man using #MeToo to apologize for actions they have undertaken. (I may be wrong — perhaps you could share examples of this with me in the comments.)

This kind of guilt doesn’t do anyone any good, as it won’t lead to the actual perpetrators of sexual harassment changing their behavior.

Rather, I think we need to start talking more about what it means to be a man in the modern age. Because here are some statistics worth considering:

  • Men are 10 times more likely to commit murder.
  • They’re 9 times more likely to end up in prison than women.
  • Men commit 99% of the reported rapes and sexual assaults, as evidenced by the #MeToo campaign.
  • How about corporate crimes that are committed? Yes, men are more likely to commit white collar crime.

It’s not even controversial to say this indicates a crisis.

I think one of the root causes is the historical role of men in society. In history, our evolution depended on men competing over scarce resources and protecting the tribe.

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We were rewarded by our community for this, and the benefits of our aggressive behavior outweighed the costs.

Yet the times have changed. We’re not living with the existential threat of aggressive behavior and men’s biological advantage isn’t an advantage.

It’s not a man’s world anymore, and yet men are trying to behave as if it is.

In rethinking what it means to be a man in the modern age, we need to take account of the following:

  • It’s a biological fact that men and women are different and that this results in differences in the way we behave.
  • It’s also a historical fact that men have been rewarded for protecting and providing for our communities.

Men will continue to be driven by the incentives that have been created by societies in the past unless we can have a clear and honest conversation about what it means sexually harass someone.

By having a clearly articulated concept of wrongdoing, we can rethink the various virtues of men and encourage behaviors that are more conducive to the kind of society we want to live in. We can redefine what “protect” and “provide” mean in the modern age.

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By the same token, as men, we need to start having a similar conversation. What does it mean to be a man in the modern age?


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Written by Justin Brown

I'm the CEO and co-founder of Ideapod, a platform for people to connect around ideas. I'm passionate about people thinking for themselves, especially in an age of information overload.

Is it sexual harassment when girls say “yes” because they have no choice?

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