In the heat of Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation battle, President Donald Trump stoked fears of an all-out gender war: "It is a very scary time for young men in America,” he warned at a recent press conference, “where you can be guilty of something you may not be guilty of.”
With the midterms in view, some conservatives have accused Democrats of launching a “long-term plan” for a “war on men.”
From living rooms to water coolers to cable news, a lot of guys have been talking like the world is coming to an end. As if a great big harpy with #MeToo emblazoned on her wings is liable to swoop down and snatch them up in her talons.
Should they be afraid?
A few months ago, stories circulated that #MeToo might result in men refusing to work with women. These tales were refuted by recent research, however, such as a study showing that the hiring of women has gone up.
But in the wake of the Kavanaugh hearing, the terror now seems far more primal, striking deep within the male psyche. “They’re coming for our gonads,” remarked one older man I know.
In reality, men have little reason to worry about false accusations of rape. Such cases are uncommon — about two percent, according to the FBI. Far more common are women who are afraid to report sexual assault: Research shows only around 15 percent to 35 percent of survivors ever go to the police. Christine Blasey Ford, for example, stated that she did not report Kavanaugh in high school because she was “too afraid and ashamed.”
This, however, doesn’t mean men have nothing to fret about. After all, their world is changing — even with Kavanaugh headed to the U.S. Supreme Court. It’s no longer so easy to blame youth and alcohol for assaults on female classmates. To embrace the kind of masculinity that pushes past female objections to get them to “give it up.” The hearing proved that the older, male-oriented world is facing challenges. And rightly so. Even among the rich and powerful, the casual attitude of droit de seigneur looks increasingly suspicious, like a nasty old man hiding in the hedgerows.
Male identity is under pressure. Beliefs and expectations concerning things as fundamental as sexuality are newly open to questioning.
The unease of guys is understandable — especially white guys. Change is always unsettling, especially when there is something to lose. The person who enjoys an unfair advantage is always nervous that the exploited will rebel. The lord watches the peasant closely. The master fears the slave. Those who have the most to be afraid of are the ones determined to keep all the goodies and privileges for themselves.
That’s one reason for the rising tide of male backlash articles flooding the media. A recent Economist headline channels fears among conservative men that the #MeToo movement has gone too far: “From MeToo to Screw You.”
Fear is not a pleasant thing, but transformation usually requires it. Coupled with empathy, it might lead men to imagine how women must have felt for eons — always fearful that they would be branded as sluts, or forced to give birth against their will, or experience sex as violent assault. Women carry these anxieties in their emotional DNA.
Some men are now finding out that it’s not fun to be afraid.
Journalist Molly Fischer points out that male fear may be growing because #MeToo has forced men to see women as agents, as people who have the power to say what they will and will not put up with. Is it really so Earth-shattering to challenge the habit of perceiving women as objects to be acted upon rather than real human beings with rights?
Some men fear diminishment, that their strength and sexuality will become less vibrant, less appreciated. Sigmund Freud made the terror of castration central to his model of male psychology. But unsexing men is not what #MeToo is after. What it seeks is to upend the notion that strength and sexuality should be used to express dominance over others, to serve the ego.
Men, your gonads are safe. What women want is not a reversal in which they wield all the power. They just want, in the words of the immortal Aretha Franklin, a little respect. They want fairness. Accountability. A basic recognition of their humanity.
They want it understood that sexual activity must be consensual. Really, is this too much to ask?
The men who believe their world is imploding can relax in the knowledge that institutional change has actually been fairly minimal so far. Congress has not passed any laws whatsoever related to sexual harassment in the workplace since #MeToo. Men still dominate the Congress, the Forbes 400 list, and the Supreme Court, where Kavanaugh will enjoy a lifetime position from which to threaten women’s rights.
But the fight to get the male boot off the female neck not going away. One notable change is that many women are less afraid to talk publicly about injustices long hidden away. After the Kavanaugh hearing, law professor Jennifer Taub wrote an essay for CNN about her experience of rape in college. In an open letter to Christine Blasey Ford, journalist Connie Chung acknowledged her own molestation by a family doctor. Even Kellyanne Conway, a close advisor to Trump, recently admitted that she was a victim of sexual assault.
Plenty of women are willing to listen to male fears — they are amply conditioned for this kind of emotional labor. But they also demand to be heard. As men vent their fears, they might do well to catch their breath and perform some emotional labor of their own. Like asking questions and entering the perspectives of the women in their lives. The kind of stuff women do all the time, free of charge.
Men may have something to lose as social norms and expectations inexorably shift, but ultimately they have much more to gain. A fairer, more egalitarian world opens up opportunities for mutual trust and expansion between men and women — better work lives, better politics and even better sex.
That’s worth facing a little fear, isn’t it?