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In 2017, we learned what men should not do. But clueless guys don’t know what’s next.

  • Author: Charles Wohlforth
    | Opinion
  • Updated: January 1
  • Published January 1

In 2017, a cultural movement crested for the protection of women from harassers. But it will be some time before we understand what that means for men.

Many of us men are socially incompetent, shy, inexperienced or clueless. Often, we lack both self-awareness and perceptiveness for the signals coming from others. We grew up valuing strength, self-reliance and integrity, not sensitivity.

Country music understands these facts. Pickup truck manufacturers rely on them for sales.

But despite the obvious flaws in male social skills, the culture still gives men the primary role in initiating the subtle, implicit communication of heterosexual courtship. Following the current wave of rapid, overdue change, it may be a little while before men figure out who we are supposed to be again.

I'm up for it. The age-old inferiority and abuse inflicted upon women in our society has lasted much too long.

Nearly half of women report they have been harassed at work at least once in their careers. My female friends have told me stories that brought me to tears of rage and made me ashamed to be a man.

Before the reputational death penalty of the post-Harvey Weinstein era, harassers inflicted their dominance largely with impunity. It is a myth that the legal system addresses sexual harassment. Hiring a lawyer and making a case is virtually impossible for average women.

Intellectually, I disagree with Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand's formulation that all forms of sexual misconduct are equivalent, from Weinstein's grotesque predation to Sen. Al Franken's sophomoric joking. But do I see how positive change can emerge from the fear of the indiscriminate career guillotine.

Short of falling victim to a false accusation, it's easy for a man to stay on the right side of the rules. They're written down and you can memorize them.

A rigorous survey published in The New York Times used those rules to ask men about their own behavior. About a third admitted doing something at work in the last year that would qualify as objectionable behavior or sexual harassment.

Interestingly, women were not that far behind in this misbehavior, although far fewer men report being harassed. Which is evidence of my initial point, that most men are clueless.

Even without carrying the rules on a wallet card, it's still simple: avoid any sexual or gender-related behavior or communication at work.

Garrison Keillor bemoaned that ending sexual harassment would mean the death of workplace flirtation. That's right, and if you didn't know it in 1991, after the Anita Hill controversy, you weren't paying attention.

But with all that agreed, our culture still hasn't figured out men's proper roles or what we want our sons to learn. True equality will require a much deeper change than stopping misbehavior.

In the 1970s, feminists often advanced women by demonizing men. I grew up in those years with the sense that women were better than men. I don't think that did me any good.

It took a while before parents realized that "Take Your Daughter To Work Day" was excluding boys and making them feel inferior.

Today, boys' academic performance lags in school and in college admissions. In my years volunteering in schools, I saw traditionally masculine qualities meet with subtle disapproval from all-female teaching staffs.

Boys who feel devalued and alienated don't become good students.

Today, you would be labeled a sexist to say men are better leaders than women, and rightly, in my opinion.

But how often have you heard it said that if more women were in positions of leadership, the world would have less conflict and more collaboration and peace?

If both statements are true — that women lead as well as men, and that women have different qualities that produce better results — then women must be inherently superior.

Or, on the flip side, if women are fundamentally more sensitive and collaborative and men are more aggressive and goal-oriented, then that must mean that men are inherently better as leaders in those roles that require decisiveness, such as generals, ship captains or CEOs.

I don't believe that, so I reject to contradictory premise of, "Equal, but…"

We're also stuck in these inconsistent beliefs in dealing with changing sexuality.

Current feminism values women's sexuality. I agree that women should be able to dress and express themselves however they like.

But in the context of traditional gender roles, the change is unbalanced.

Traditionally, women's sexual expression was limited and men were expected to be gentlemen. Appropriate dress and good manners were like the net and lines on a tennis court so everyone understood the game.

In the emerging world, women can dress more sexually but men are more constrained to react — except when they aren't. Away from work, the rules aren't clear. The lines are still there, but they may not be visible.

On campuses, alcohol takes an even greater role than it used to in lubricating this confused situation, often with bad results.

Some female commentators have expressed satisfaction that with the fall of so many harassers, men will feel as fearful and unsure as women already did. That's probably true, but having everyone anxious and uncertain doesn't seem like the best outcome to me.

True equality may take another couple of generations.

Someday, more men will be open to their so-called feminine side. They, too, will have close friends with whom they share their feelings and will develop their social perceptiveness.

Women will be raised to respect their so-called masculine side: tough and assertive. No one will talk about electing more women to end warfare — which was always a stupid idea.

Any gender will start the courtship dance, as is already true among some younger people.

We've just started on the a long road to true gender equality.

The views expressed here are the writer's and are not necessarily endorsed by the Anchorage Daily News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)adn.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to letters@adn.com or click here to submit via any web browser.

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