I had my eye on the prettiest girl at the party. We’d met a few months earlier in high school biology. When class had let out one day, I’d shouted her name, Lindsey, and said, “Good to meet you. It’s my lucky day, I guess.” She’d turned around as if she was on a runway, and her long, bright, blonde hair flipped, forming a frame around her beautiful face. She’d flashed me a smile. I’d felt volts of electricity charge my body.
Back at the party, as I broke the law by nursing a Miller Lite, I watched with bewilderment and envy as Lindsey flirted with a dork named Steve. All of our conversations before and after class, my attempts at charm and wit, my transparently weak excuses for greeting Lindsey at her locker before first period, had gotten me nowhere. I stepped outside to commit my second crime of the evening.
As I took slow drags off my cigarette, I heard a shout that contained subtle hints of Lindsey’s melodious voice—“Get off me!” Making my way around the house to the backyard, I noticed that the screams were becoming increasingly angry and desperate. A deeper voice issued vague commands—“Come on!” “Stop it!”
Steve had his hands on Lindsey’s hips as he pressed her against the aluminum siding of the split-level home. Without thinking, I threw my smoldering Winston into the grass, dropped my beer, and escalated my illegal activity. I pushed Steve away from Lindsey, and then punched him in the face. The blow knocked him back, but he managed to regain his bearings before falling to the ground. He spat some obscenities at me before walking to his car, which was in severe need of a muffler, and drove away.
A few minutes later, Lindsey gave me a kiss with more power than my right hook.
Between the noble exhibition of strength and the romantic affection from an attractive woman, the party had become a moment of idealized manhood. I felt as if I was Elvis Presley in the films I’d enjoyed watching on Turner Classic Movies every night before I went to bed. It’s abhorrent to view a woman’s pain and potential suffering as an opportunity for male edification, but there are moments when an evil act of victimization requires masculine intervention. Elvis’s characters lived according to that ethic, as did the literary hero whose triumphs I’d read during study hall, Raymond Chandler’s Phillip Marlowe.
Today, in the contemporary context of sexual misconduct, masculine intervention is the subject of fear, ridicule, and diagnostic examination. The deluge of harassment and assault accusations against major political, media, and entertainment figures following the exposure of Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein as a sexual criminal has understandably provoked many writers, especially of feminist ideology, to identify and lament the “crisis of masculinity.”
Slate recently ran an analysis of sexual harassment with the headline “Men Aren’t Monstrous, But Masculinity Can Be,” and a writer for the New York Times explored the “unexamined brutality of the male libido.” Charles Blow, for the same paper, declared, “We have to re-examine our toxic, privileged, encroaching masculinity.”
While it doesn’t hurt to negotiate and navigate the meaning of masculinity, contemptuous generalizations about men are unhealthy and dangerous, because they flirt with prejudice. Even Jessica Valenti, one of the most recognized and committed advocates of feminism, objected to the New York Times’ sloppy headline on the male libido, writing, “Men’s sexuality is not inherently predatory and claiming it is normalizes assault.”
Sweeping indictments of the masculine also deflect attention from one of the most elementary truths to emerge out of the reckoning of sexual predators. The crisis of masculinity is not one of excess, but scarcity.
Rich literary, historical, and cultural traditions depict masculine heroism as protection of the vulnerable and powerless. Stories of military valor, the selfless acts of bravery from firefighters and rescue workers, even the New Testament allegory of Jesus Christ rescuing a prostitute from the mob preparing to stone her, demonstrate that masculinity at its apex is the employment of power, force, and authority for assistance and guardianship of those who, at least temporarily, are unable to save themselves.
The most obvious of masculine virtues inform the presentation of masculine heroism—responsibility, gallantry, and integrity. Ernest Hemingway’s heroes illustrate an impervious stoicism that is easy to parody when coming from writers without his genius, but when done right, it shows the crucial connection between pride and manhood.
None of these qualities—only their polar opposites—are identifiable in the predation of Weinstein, Louis C.K., and their fellow offenders. Their behavior is so thoroughly reprehensible that many have missed its second most prevalent characteristic: it is pathetic.
One of the most baffling oddities to emerge out of these sexual harassment stories is how many men of power enjoy acts of indecent exposure. There is a juvenile “look at me” aspect to surprising a woman with a masturbatory act that, in addition to being odious and repugnant, makes it entirely unmanly. The nearest comparison is not to some high-testosterone lothario, but to an adolescent desperately craving attention through the humiliation of his subjects.
Even the womanizer possesses masculinity that runs in stark contrast with the pitiable onanism of these contemporary harassers. Masculine sexual charisma, whether visible in the charm and seduction techniques of a fictional character like James Bond or a real-life adulterer like Mick Jagger, is desirable because it attracts women and sparks sexual desire, leading to consensual and mutually pleasurable affairs. No normal teenage boy fantasizes about abusing his power to assault women who have no interest in him.
One of Weinstein’s accusers claims that after she rejected his unwanted advances, the film mogul cried, saying, “You rejected me because I’m fat.”
The stories of misconduct making headlines on a daily basis are not the triumphs of masculinity’s winners, but the woes of its losers.
It is clear that the bipartisan parade of groping misogynists lack the most fundamental respect for women, and in their moral failure to view them as human beings, treat them as toys for their own sexual amusement. They also lack the pride that is essential to the maintenance of masculine confidence and bravado.
In the process of harming women, these men have embarrassed themselves. One of the important questions, as always, is why? Why, even if certain men refuse to acknowledge the dignity and autonomy of women, does pride not prevent them from behaving as freaks and fools?
Resolving the sickly lack of masculinity, along with cultivating a culture that has no tolerance for the degradation of women, are the long-term solutions for sexual harassment. In the short term, it appears that many men could use a good punch to the face.
David Masciotra is the author of Mellencamp: American Troubadour (University Press of Kentucky), Barack Obama: Invisible Man (Eyewear Publishing), and the forthcoming Half-Lights at Evening: Essays on Hope (Agate Publishing).