Editor’s Note: Helen Benedict, professor of journalism at Columbia University, has written frequently about violence against women. Her latest book is “Wolf Season,” a novel. The views expressed in this commentary are solely hers.
I am having a serious case of déjà vu. Every day, when I switch on my computer, I, like everyone else, am hit by yet another exposé of a powerful male celebrity, industry leader or politician allegedly sexually harassing and assaulting women; and along with it, another slew of heartbreaking stories from the #MeToo movement.
Don’t get me wrong; I am thrilled that so many survivors are speaking out. But at the same time, I am saddened because, yes, I have seen this before.
Rape “speak-outs,” when women gathered together to tell their stories of rape and abuse in public for the first time, began back in the 1960s. Take Back the Night marches against sexual harassment and assault started in 1975. Susan Brownmiller, Kate Millett, Robin Morgan and other feminists wrote their seminal books about sexism, harassment and rape in the 1970s. The Supreme Court ruled that sexual harassment is a form of discrimination prohibited by Title VII in 1986.
In short, feminists have been having a #MeToo movement for nearly six decades.
And yet, each time the topic of sexual harassment comes up again, we – that is, women – seem to have to educate men about it as if for the first time. Just recently, I heard a journalist explaining that women don’t usually report harassment and rape because they are met with disbelief, scorn and punishment. I wrote about that same thing 35 years ago, in my book, “Recovery: How to Survive Sexual Assault” and again 10 years later in “Virgin or Vamp: How the Press Covers Sex Crimes.”
Why haven’t these decades of protests and books and discussions and laws sunk in? Why are we still raising boys to become harassers and rapists? Why has an accused wife abuser and gleeful sexual groper been elected to the White House? What the hell is wrong with us?
Too little, too late
Now the Senate has passed a resolution requiring interns, staff and senators to take sexual harassment training sessions – now, in 2017, when such training has existed on campuses, in the military and in many corporations for years.
I say, too little, too late.
Sure, go ahead and make our senators take these courses, if for no other reason than to remind predatory men that there will be – or, at least, should be – consequences – even if that reckoning is years in the making, as it was for Al Franken.
But let us be clear-eyed about the futility of forcing a bunch of guys, middle-aged or older, to sit through a one-size-fits-all harassment training session to learn what they should have learned at their parents’ knees. Especially given the fact that research shows that men who prey on women usually start doing so in their teens.
Let us also be realistic about how inadequate these sexual harassment training courses can be. Students and military recruits tend to laugh at them. And given that one in four women on campus and close to one in three women in the military is sexually assaulted, and that barely a woman exists who hasn’t been sexually harassed at work, at school or on the streets, the training courses clearly aren’t accomplishing much.
No, instead of doing too little too late, we should be asking ourselves these questions: How does a sweet baby boy turn into a predator? And what can we do about it?
What we get wrong about sexual aggression
Some like to blame male aggression on either testosterone, the genes inherited from our cavemen ancestors, or individual trauma. I say bosh. Most men are not rapists; many are not predators; most abused boys do not grow into abusers, according to recent research; and by far the majority of men prefer love to violence.
The fact is that men learn their predatory behavior from our culture, our institutions, our entertainment and even our very language. In other words, they learn it from us. Which means we can do something about it.
First, though, we must understand that sexual aggression is basically about men trying to hold onto their power by pushing women out of the way – not about out-of-control lust, as popular myth has it. And because sexual aggression is about power, most predators – whether celebrities, bosses, teachers, husbands or boyfriends – act under the cloak of institutions and traditions that condone and protect their behavior; sometimes overtly, sometimes by turning a blind eye.
The more male-dominated an institution is, the stronger its protection of predatory behavior will be. Women in the military, government, Silicon Valley, Hollywood and TV and the theater, athletics, Wall Street, fire stations and police departments – just to give a few examples – will attest to this.
But men don’t have to scramble for power at the expense of women. Any feminist will tell you that. And speaking as the mother of a son and daughter, and the wife of a feminist man, I know that boys, as well as girls, can be feminists. But I also know that we have to make a concentrated effort to make this happen because the culture is against us. We have to train parents and teachers how to raise boys and girls with mutual and equal respect.
And we have to start this at home and continue it at school, not wait until they are in college or an office. Or in the Senate.
How to make #MeToo stick this time
To make lasting change, we need to make our children aware of sexism and why it’s wrong from the very moment we buy them their first books and toys, just as we should with racism. We need to stop calling all the animals “he” when we take our children to the zoo. We need to stop giving children books and taking them to movies with only male protagonists.