As a 77-year-old male, if I am heading toward the crotchety, defensive, unconsciously privileged territory of the President, Mr. Kavanaugh, and some of the Senators on the Judiciary Committee, please take me out and shoot me.
The Kavanaugh hearings have been an opportunity for an honest look back at one’s own high school and college years. Mine happened to have been spent at single-sex schools on both levels. Fortunately the alcohol-drenched culture dominant at my university and a dominant theme of the Kavanaugh hearings never appealed to me. The repellent post-weekend stench of stale beer and vomit in dormitory stairwells stays with me to this day.
But even subtracting alcohol from the equation, the college-wide context of relationships in the 1960s with female peers was deeply conditioned by implicit male assumptions, often making for initial encounters with women that were drenched in awkwardness, male narcissism, manipulation, oblivious entitlement, and blinkered obtuseness about women as people.
I’m not talking about attempted rape of the kind experienced by Dr. Ford, but about what one might call insincere seduction, false intimacy, the kind where casual sex occurs and when the partners run into each other the next day, they awkwardly pretend as if nothing had happened—or even relationships that might last longer than a one-night stand but disparate emotional assumptions are never discussed, causing one or both parties puzzlement or hurt. Of course it works both ways.
In the present world of Tinder and casual hookups, probably puritan scruples about behavior a half century ago sound silly, even downright Victorian. Such male behavior, whatever else it meant, surely implied an underlying fear of women in their full intellectual, emotional and sexual autonomy.
The question of what constitutes a healthy erotic life occupies a cultural landscape in constant flux and containing unavoidable tensions. Monogamous marriage is a choice that inevitably requires giving up the interesting chaos of single life in favor of something tamer and steadier which has both its own reward and its own price.
One stereotype that seemed just about universal in the 1960s that may no longer be so universal was that women are the more vulnerable gender emotionally and need the steady and trusting state of mutual monogamy to flourish.
And yet all these years of supposed sexual liberation have surely resulted in more women who are confident in their initiation of erotic intimacy and laugh at the notion of being passive victims, even as there seem to be more abused women willing to voice their hurt and anger.
It was energizing to listen to the teens on an NPR podcast about their reactions to the hearings, as they confidently invalidated stereotypes like “boys will be boys” and spoke of the unambiguous messages they had received from their parents and teachers about healthy consensual relationships.
The future belongs to women—and men—who are confident in their self-image, educated in their capacity for intimacy, and able to make their outward actions consistent with their inward feelings—able to unambiguously refuse what they don’t want or unambiguously assent to what they do.
If one doesn’t get it from one’s parents or teachers promoting good sex-and-relationship education, or, at least potentially, from the everyday contact provided by co-ed institutions, one still has the opportunity to get it from the slow dawning that one is not the center of the universe, but rather than the universe contains a myriad of other centers of equal value and equal vulnerability.
As the cry of collective pain grows louder from mistreated women across the nation, let alone around the rest of the world, the depressing, anguishing Kavanaugh hearings, including the president’s barbaric mocking of Christine Blasey Ford, have felt like an urgent opportunity for men to assess just how far we still have to go.