Sexual misconduct is not resolved by punishing one offender. It’s a pattern we all help maintain
I warn, as long as we stick to rhetoric about guilt and fines, and the debate remains limited to incidents, nothing will change
Seven million minus one I must say, because I had already given up on the first unrecognizable woman who talked about sex she didn’t want, but didn’t dare protest against. Not because it didn’t interest me, but because I could already outline what was to come. We’ve all been able to do that since #MeToo exploded in October 2017. The discussions at the talk show tables about who did what and whether women themselves are responsible when they get into someone’s car. The sensationalist media running after every incident.
That way nothing changes. Because nothing will change if we stick to rhetoric about guilt and fines, and the debate remains limited to incidents. These obscure what really matters: sexual misconduct is not an incident. It’s a pattern. And it is underpinned by social laws that we all uphold.
When I was 10 years old, I told my father that my youngest brother came to my room at night. It’s been 35 years, but I’ll never forget the scene. It was in our kitchen, after dinner. At dinner, my father had told my mother about his day, as he often did. He worked as a family doctor, sometimes having patients with stories he struggled with. That day a patient had come to him with the story that the boy next door was playing ‘dirty’ games with his daughter. Something with chopsticks. I pricked up my ears.
For years my brother had come into my bed at night to do things I didn’t understand what they were, but I knew I didn’t like. Dirty. Apparently my father was a man who could do something about it. So after dinner, when my mother and the rest of our family were out of the kitchen, I gathered all my courage. My father was standing by the dishwasher and I by the refrigerator. I fumbled on the edge of the fridge and said as softly as I could, “Dad, what you just told me about the boy next door, Thomas does that to me sometimes too.” “Oh,” said my father. ‘Then what does he do?’ My throat was so tight I almost choked. All I could get out of it was, “You better ask him.” Then I ran out of the kitchen.
It would be ten years before I realized that my father never did anything with the knowledge that his son (whose name is actually different) was touching his daughter. However, there were plenty of signs that things weren’t going well for me. I was an angry teenager. I didn’t let anyone or anything know me. I developed a hate relationship with my body. As a student, I ended up on the verge of anorexia with a psychologist, who one day wanted to see my parents. I can still see that scene. My parents silent to the psychologist behind his desk. ‘Do you remember’, he asked my father, ‘that your daughter told you something about your son in the kitchen?’ Yes, my father remembered that. “What did you do then?” My father said, “Nothing.”
Had my parents looked at me then, they might have seen how that one simple word hit me like a bomb. My father was my hero. It never occurred to me that he had done nothing to protect me. That my brother had nevertheless continued could mean only one thing: it was my fault.
Just as it was my fault that one day the old neighbor from a few houses down put his hand in my underpants and pulled me onto the couch, another neighbor stuck his trembling tongue in my mouth in the musty, narrow hallway of his house where the pictures of his late wife hung on the wall, that at 16 I was deflowered against my will by a sniffed British student who hurt me. It was all my fault.
“Why didn’t you do anything?” asked the psychologist. My father barely shrugged his shoulders. “I didn’t want this to happen to my family.”
I am not writing this to arouse pity. I’m not writing it down to put my father or brother in a bad light. Both are good people. My brother apologized years later when we were both adults and I continued to struggle with my past. He still regrets not being the big brother who actually protected me, and fully supports this piece. My father has amply acknowledged his mistakes and asked for forgiveness. When I called him to ask if he was okay with me writing this, he said without hesitation, “Sure, I see no reason why not. It’s true. And I think it’s only right that you tell this story.’
I must confess that I prefer not to, because I know that I run the risk that I will be taken less seriously as a journalist. Something bad happened to me, so I’m subjective. Everything I say about this is colored by my experiences. I’m writing it anyway because I think we’re all subjective when it comes to transgressive behavior. We are all colored. We don’t even need to have been abused to do that, nor do we need to have crossed the line ourselves. All we have to do is grow up in our society: a society in which sexual misconduct is embedded in our image of man and woman. I write it down because I think my father’s inertia faces a broader problem.
Boys will be boys
An estimated 14 percent of girls experience some form of serious sexual violence before their 18th birthday. The number of boys with similar experiences is estimated at 3 percent. Nearly half (47 percent) of young adult women have experienced some form of sexual violence, ranging from online harassment to rape. This applies to 13 percent of young adult men.
These figures are subject to change, as there are also cases of sexual violence that are not recognized as such or are not reported for other reasons. Male victims of sexual violence, in particular, are not quick to publicize their experiences. However, two conclusions are unreservedly drawn by science: sexual violence is a regular occurrence and affects girls more often than boys.
A genetic explanation is often put forward for the fact that the perpetrators are mostly men. After all, the man is a hunter, it is evolutionarily determined that he should produce as many offspring as possible. It’s why men get away with misogynistic talk under the guise of locker room talk . Boys will be boys.
Only: it’s not right. There is no such thing as a libido that needs to be satisfied, we know, among other things, thanks to the renowned sexologist Ellen Laan, who recently passed away. She fought tirelessly to dispel the myths about female and male sexuality. Men and women are not as different as we think, she used to say. Men, just like women, have no spontaneous sex drive, both are only aroused by stimuli.
It is also nonsense to call testosterone the male sex hormone, because also in women this is the only hormone that has a direct influence on sexuality. Although women have seven times less of it than men, they are more sensitive to it and have ten times as much testosterone in their blood as estrogen.
If men aren’t testosterone bombs, then how come it’s often men who exhibit sexually transgressive behavior? Because they get away with it, thinks Jackson Katz, an American gender scientist who puts sexual violence on the map as a men’s problem in a 2012 TED talk that was viewed millions of times. In fact, according to Katz, our Western culture nurtures the idea that masculinity is synonymous with dominance and misogyny.
This does not mean that individuals are not responsible for their behavior, but that we should not individualize the problem. We have to question our religious institutions, the heroes we venerate, our media, our advertising, our language, the mainstream porn that is accessible to everyone, the society we form and the way boys in it. are socialized to males.
Emancipation is complete, many say. After all, men and women are equal before the law. But our actions are not only determined by legal laws. There are also unwritten rules taught by our upbringing, by role models, by movies and television, by media and advertising. They shape our social norms and come with expectations closely tied to our gender.
For example, a woman is expected to be sweet and caring and beautiful, and a man is expected to be independent, ambitious and tough. We also expect a man to be happy to show off, while a woman is still expected to wait chastely until she is conquered by her prince.
As Harvard professor Cass R. Sunstein wrote in the mid-1990s, these norms largely guide our behavior because we are dying to live up to them. For example, there are male students at Ivy League universities who pick on women who they don’t find attractive at all, but who are considered ‘hot’ within their fraternity. They do this because they are afraid of being taken for a sissy. Those fears are not unfounded. For example, it appears that men who show empathy or who are vulnerable — which are not seen as masculine — are less likely to be promoted or even to get a job. And women who do not meet the ideal of beauty are sometimes treated downright aggressively. So these laws, though unwritten, are real.
Dangerous laws flow from the norm that men are callous hunters and women are chaste and sexy at the same time. Like: if women say A, they should also say B. And if they wear a short skirt or smile sweetly, well, they ask for it. But also: men are always in the mood for sex. And: men don’t have to take other people’s feelings into account. And: no actually means yes. And: women who fuck are sluts, while men are ‘a flirt’. And: women should not whine about advances from men, and jokes about their ass or tits are also tolerated — after all, it has to remain fun. And when they are 10 and their stronger brother crawls naked on them, then they have to shut up about it.
We are the society
The consequences are anything but innocent and are not limited to the stories that come out under the hashtag #MeToo. There is also the dissociation that occurs in girls as soon as they are seen as a sex object and learn that their feelings, their limits, don’t matter. The dissociation that occurs in boys when they are taught to suppress an essential part of themselves — their feelings — because it doesn’t fit our definition of masculinity. There are the concealed feelings of guilt and shame, about boundaries that have been subconsciously and unintentionally crossed. There are the countless missed opportunities for enjoyable, satisfying and intimate sex that can make you feel alive more than anything else.
There is no single perpetrator responsible for these dramas, nor will they be resolved if the single perpetrator is locked up. We are all responsible, because we are that society. And for now we are doing the same thing as my father did 35 years ago: we close our eyes.
The main reason we do that, according to science, is because our brains divide the world into stereotypes. When we think of sexual violence, we think of assaulters and rapists, and we place them in the category of bad people. On the other hand, there are the ‘good’ people, who we don’t have to be afraid of, who are nice and respectful, who are like us. It was difficult for my father to see his son as a bad person, just as it may be difficult for a John de Mol to see his brother-in-law as a bad guy , and as it is a challenge for most of us to to unite visions about someone.
The reality, of course, is that no one is all good or all bad, and unfortunately, molesters and rapists aren’t just evil men in dark alleys. Only a small part (7 percent) of reported abuse is committed by someone unknown to the victim, by far the largest part of the perpetrators come from family, friends or acquaintances.
A complicating factor in this regard is not only that men are expected to be out for sex, but also that we doubt whether something constitutes transgressive behaviour. Is a lewd allusion out of line ? One hand on one leg? Even if people suspect that something is unacceptable, they often don’t realize its impact. As my mother admitted to the psychologist years after that scene, “We underestimated it.” I can tell from my own experience that when others downplay it, victims themselves do too. But feelings of fear, powerlessness and anger cannot simply be trivialized. If they have nowhere to vent, they will find their destructive way in.
As long as we close our eyes, says Jackson Katz, we are all complicit. Let’s open them up and realize what we are all underestimating, downplaying or simply ignoring. Let’s take an example of what my father also did a few years ago. He was already in his seventies, but he lifted his frail body on the train to visit me and listen to everything I couldn’t say as a 10-year-old girl. When I finished talking, his eyes filled with tears and he said, “I can’t make up for the past. But what can I do to make it better now?’
*Based on a true incident.
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