The Trump campaign unleashed a torrent of news stories about sexual harassment and abuse of women by men. As Rebecca Solnit points out in her book of essays on the topic, “Men Explain Things to Me,” male aggression against women is a long-standing feature of global culture, and in the United States is the leading cause injuries to women aged 15 to 44. She unapologetically uses the term “rape culture” to describe the all-too-frequent experience of many women.
As a man, I can only imagine how it feels to be a woman: on-guard, cautious and always on the lookout for predatory men. I’ve had some experiences that might approximate such fears; in the 60s my long hair drew plenty of negative attention, and as Jew, I’ve lived with a sense of free-floating anxiety, “looking over my shoulder to see if the Cossacks are coming.” I’ve never felt threatened sexually, however, and unlike one-in-five women in America, I’ve never been raped.
Solnit correctly points out that 90% of violent behavior is male-based – against women, men and children. I’ve had to ask why this is, and to what degree can I touch the roots of such violent impulses in myself. I am, after all, a male human being within a competitive society, and I know first-hand how aggression feels, sexual and otherwise.
I was born into a middle-class family, though my father grew up in Brooklyn and had memories of the great depression. He was a scrappy guy, but he did not glorify fighting nor did he encourage physical aggression on my part. He did encourage a sense of competition, and promoted values centered on self-assertion, including sex. I got the message early on that for him sex was largely about conquest. He proclaimed himself a “master swordsman.” This was not untypical of men of his generation, and I was not immune to its effects.
I am not my father, however. I’ve never engaged in the type of sexual “contest” he boasted about, though he never went so far as to describe himself as crudely as Donald Trump has done on tape. That said, I and most of my male friends sometimes talk about women and sex. Such conversations often contain a form of gleeful energy, lasciviousness and a revealing tendency to objectify women and women’s body parts.
The argument that male sexuality is naturally aggressive is reinforced by observations made in nature. Male bears, house cats, and mice all display sexual aggression towards females, and forcefully compete against other males; sexual aggression is biological. The counter-point is that what separates human beings from other animals is our ability to overcome biological impulse with reason and self-restraint. Accordingly, we suppress aggression; most men don’t commit murder, steal the possessions of others, or rape women. That said, male violence is too widespread and sexual violence tolerated too easily.
Overcoming aggressive male tendencies requires honest recognition of them and an examination of their roots. I find getting to the bottom of my own male aggression an uncomfortable, humbling process but the deeper truth is more important than my mere current understanding. That deeper truth is that male aggression is not just inflicted upon women, but upon our planet itself. Coming to terms with male violence, therefore, is not simply a matter of preserving culture, but the preservation of humanity itself.