It’s been a year since the #MeToo moment evolved into the #MeToo movement. In that time, many individual men have been called out, fired, and socially ostracized for a range of behaviors— from sexual harassment to rape. As men working to redefine masculinity, we have welcomed this culture shift—a time when women are speaking out, being believed, and men are being held to account. Even though many men have known the sobering facts—that men’s abuse of women has long been rampant—it’s not clear how many of us have let into our hearts the feelings those facts evoked: the damage caused, the harm done. And, despite the enormity of the breakthrough #MeToo represents, too many media reports and social media posts still focus on individual men rather than the poisonous system that initially infected them—patriarchy, that age-old incubator of male domination and abuse.
It’s clear that profeminist men—indeed, all men—must not stay silent in the wake of #MeToo. But where should our voices be heard? What should we say? And, even if we know, are we ready to speak?
In early August, news broke that Michael Kimmel, a colleague and leading scholar in the profeminist movement, had been accused of sexual misconduct. At this writing much is still unknown about his situation; the university where he’s taught for decades (SUNY Stony Brook) is conducting an investigation. He is on leave there and has been suspended from the board of directors of Promundo-US and the advisory board of Voice Male.
I was part of group of profeminist men who signed a statement in response; it can be found at xyonline.net/content/profeminist-men-respond-allegations-about-michael-kimmel. Throughout August, many of us were in extended dialogues with one another and a number of feminist women about how best to fulfill our responsibilities to any possible victims and survivors, and to our colleague.
The profeminist sociologist Michael Flood drafted as a work-in- progress a detailed set of accountability principles to help guide men’s deliberations in this and other situations in which a man committed to feminist change faces allegations of sexual misconduct. You can find his suggestions at xyonline.net/content/when-profeminist-men-are-alleged-have-perpetrated-abuse-or-harassment. What is helping me enormously to get through this troubling time is talking with men and women who care deeply about the promise of feminism. What is helping me, too, is not holding back; sharing honestly about our movement’s strengths and weaknesses. Essential is acknowledging the experience of survivors. And also believing that those alleged to have done harm should be allowed—encouraged—to do personal inner work (whether or not anyone knows about it.) For now, I am “being” with the questions, as the poet Rilke recommended. If not exactly loving them, living with them. Not seeking answers which, if Rilke is to be believed, cannot now be given because I may not be ready to live them.
For many men, the past year has been a time to take stock, to conduct an internal inventory, to look back over the decades, asking ourselves if we did anything when we were younger—or even more recently—for which we need to make amends. While some men may have spoken about this with a partner or a friend, such vitally important inner work primarily has been done in isolation, if at all.
This is speculation on my part I admit, but speculation based on a long history of working with men in groups and individually; of observing over the past three decades the shifts in our understanding of men and masculinities; and as someone who has chronicled the profeminist men’s movement. I’ve concluded that a key action for men to consider taking comes from our history, from the early days of what we used to call the “men’s liberation movement”: men’s groups.
As a general rule, men see themselves as problem solvers; many of us have a lot of experience working on issues out there. For social justice activists, for example, it’s trying to change the world, but not necessarily ourselves. Take to the streets against the pipeline. March to end poverty. Speak out for impeachment. But consider changing ourselves? Not so much.
Men’s groups work. A man I’ve known for nearly a quarter century told me recently, “The groups I joined changed my life, and quite possibly saved it from being something far more negative and limited—saved me from being far less self-aware, and thoughtful, intentional, about my own assumptions, behaviors, choices. I’m sure they did the same for many others; in fact, I know they did.”
This moment is ripe for men to spend less time in our heads and more time in our hearts. Are some of us defensive? Scared? Confused? Yes, yes, and yes. But those feelings need not be experienced as an invitation to retreat, to leave the fragility of our hearts for the safe territory of our heads. Just the reverse. It is through unflinchingly investigating our discomfort that we will find the trail markers leading to a portal of honest reflection. We can’t do that work alone.
So what to do? Revive a men’s group you were part of in the ’80s or ’90s or 2000s. Or join an existing group. If that’s not an option, start a new one. It’s time we took a risk and sat in council with other men, sharing our feelings with each other in a world the #MeToo movement has cracked open.
Men’s groups are not the answer. But they represent an important next step. It’s time for straight talk with one another, for deep sharing and compassionate confrontation.
What’s next? Once our muscles of emotional honesty have been strengthened, it will be time for men to act, and that means confronting the gender knot, unraveling our patriarchal legacy, as the late sociologist Allan Johnson described it, taking on the power and privilege we didn’t earn, but received simply because we arrived on the planet in male-identified bodies. If we want a world where girls and women are safe and whole, and boys and men are whole and safe, we have to end patriarchy. Each of us has to take a long, hard look at ourselves, and ask, “Where is patriarchy alive in me?” If there’s any hope of making patriarchy history, we have to answer that question, holding ourselves, and each other, accountable. #MeToo one year later demands of us nothing less.
Rob Okun is the editor of Voice Male.