“Yeah, that was during that period when you hated women.”
One of my closest female friends, who I’ve known since college, responded to some conversation that we had had, about I don’t remember what. We must have been talking about something absurd I had said a long time ago or that I was trying to reconcile with how differently I see things now. I was taken aback, but not offended. I hadn’t thought about it that way before, but she was right. I was even more ashamed in that moment that whatever phase I was going through, I was comfortable enough with it to not even bother to clean it up for or hide it from her.
Last week, actually before the #MeToo hashtag, I had been dealing with a lot of guilt and shame surfacing. I don’t know whether it was the climate we are currently operating in or just some sense of the wave that was cresting. But I was thinking back to a time when I acted very much like the men that we talk about today, that we look down upon, but that we do very little about.
This isn’t an attempt to receive pats on the back for my seeing myself more clearly. This is something I’d frankly rather not write. People think I have it together, generally. They see the way I treat my wife, the way that I generally treat women, and the way that I at least talk about gender and gender privilege. I don’t want to risk being viewed as just another toxic male, or a fraud pretending to give a damn to make himself look better. I even toyed with giving this post the pithy title “I Was A Teenaged Toxic Male”, but after the tenth or so Me Too story, it seemed inappropriate to be too clever or lighthearted.
When we experience regret, it’s usually the thing that we can’t do anything about that looms largest. I had a story prepared, but it wasn’t a story to be proud of overcoming. It was a story about how, long ago, I was a perpetrator. It wasn’t sexual assault or abuse, please know that, even though it doesn’t make it any better. It was just unwanted advances, repeated, repeated, rebuffed on multiple occasions. It was just my entitlement and disregard for her full humanity, accelerated by a few drinks. It was me being a person that turned a fun nighttime place into a hostile environment for one woman I kept running into there.
I’m not even sure why I did it, or what I was thinking. Maybe I wanted to date her but she was too far afield from who I thought I should be with. I don’t know what it was I saw in her that made me feel that I could act like a person I didn’t typically act like, a person I would hate, and on a very good day, intervene to stop, if I saw them from the outside. I don’t know.
She carries what for her was probably yet another minor incident on a heap of incidents that she as an average woman deals with just for being a woman. And I carry this lie inside me: this lie that I’m better than these men who brazenly abuse their influence and power, or the men on the street that are looking for their next encounter.
I always strove to be a nice guy. When the guys in elementary school were touching girls’ butts against their will as a game, I abstained. When the teenagers around me were looking for their first time, I was looking for romance, or at least a TV and film caricature thereof. I did what I was “supposed” to do. I acted like I thought I was supposed to act. And when I didn’t get the girl like the shows told me I would, I was mad.
They’re lying, I thought. They say they want a nice guy, but they want a bully, a thug, a macho man with no substance. In me, too many of them saw a sweet little brother. The inability to be seen in my fullness rankled. Ironic, considering how few women get to be seen in their fullness. Doubly ironic, in that I inevitably picked the women least likely to actually be interested in me in the way I wanted, the same crime of which I accused the objects of my desire.
Of course, as my mother says, there’s a sock for every shoe, and some women did see me. Of course, I couldn’t see them. I was supposed to choose, hell, I was supposed to have my pick. The very fact that they saw me must have meant something was lacking, right? Because my niceness was all about seeking my worth in someone else, and then having bitterness about the fact they didn’t have what wasn’t theirs to carry in the first place.
That’s really the heart of it, for men. The world tells us that we are superior, that we are the standard, and women are objects in our peripheral vision, only to be locked into our sights for conquest and consumption. We’re raised on that sour, false nourishment, and if we’re lucky enough to not have it poured at home, then it’s still poured at school among friends, or from the taps of our music and entertainment. It’s drilled into us, a mantra. How many times did I sing along with NWA in high school? With Dr. Dre’s Bitches Ain’t Shit in college and after? How could that not alter my perception? And it’s not just one form of “entertainment”, by the way. If it wasn’t hip-hop for you, maybe it was rock and roll, or the endless cavalcade of sexualized bodies across a screen selling household products and consumer goods, or video game characters that somehow manage to twist their backs like the neck of an owl to be sure you can view all of their body parts at once.
What’s worse, when the lie is exposed, when women prove to be autonomous beings with their own hopes and desires and free will rather than servants to men’s will or flawless projections of our hopes, it makes us mad. How dare they not want us? How dare they not live up to our fantasy? I bought you a meal. I said you were pretty. I deigned to touch you. Some of us turn it inward, to bitterness or depression. Others turn it outward, to verbal, or emotional, or physical assault. We hide our emotional disfigurement like a switchblade, unsheathing it when we feel threatened, and hoping to hurt someone worse than we are hurting.
It was only in realizing my agency over my own life, as well as everyone’s autonomy over theirs, that I began to heal some of the toxicity that filled my spiritual and emotional bloodstream. The work I’ve been doing in the racial reconciliation space took on a new level of empathy when I began to understand how my privilege as a man was similar to privilege of those born white in America. And as I encouraged white people to lament and repent, my own heart began to answer the same call.
I don’t want praise for working on being a decent person. I am even concerned about centering my story when we should be doing more listening and lamenting than talking. But this is a piece of my repentance.
I’m deeply sorry for the harm that I’ve caused women that I’ve known or been acquainted with, for the carelessness with which I treated them. I grieve with girls and women who live in a hostile and terrifying world that appears like a nightmare unfolding out of a happy dream as soon as the first signs of development hit them. I feel confused and don’t know how to be most helpful, but I’m just trying to not be a bystander anymore when I see the old evils unfold.
I do not ask for forgiveness, and I’m not owed it. I pray instead that the wounds I’ve caused are long healed and forgotten, and that those women do not think of me at all.