The Souls of Menfolk
Lifting the Veil of Patriarchy
When girls are inducted into womanhood, what is it exactly that they have to say that must be silenced? What is the truth women carry that cannot be spoken? The answer is simple and chilling. Girls, women — and also young boys — all share this in common. None may speak the truth about men.
— Terrence Real
Sex is where many men act out because it is the only social arena where the patriarchal promise of dominion can be easily realized.
— bell hooks
Can Implies Ought
When I was in the 8th grade I had a crush on a Mexican girl named Nora. She dated Jerry, one of the really popular black boys at school. I coveted her. Once I found out she wasn’t with Jerry anymore I was too afraid to make a play for it. Didn’t know how. Afraid of rejection. One day towards the end of the school year, I asked her for a hug in the hallway after the bell rang. When she leaned in to hug me I reached down and grabbed her butt. She jumped back and hit me on the arm. I flinched and smiled. She smiled too. I felt I had reached a milestone. But she still wasn’t mine.
In a given school year, 58 percent of 7th-12th graders experience sexual harassment
I was twenty when Brian, a neighborhood friend, told me and a group of guys a story about this girl with the fattest booty. He was the charismatic type so his storytelling was always animated and his stories were always embellished. He described how he “palmed her ass” in salacious detail. Said she turned to him to protest, but that he didn’t shrink away or run. He stood brazenly and said, “So what, I don’t care. You shouldn’t have been walking around in them jeans like that. What did you expect me to do?” I laughed. We all did. Said, “man that’s crazy”. Thought to myself, I’d never have the balls to do something like that.
One in three college men said that they would force someone to have sex if they could get away with it.
What gives boys and men the notion that they can seize a girl or woman’s body without her consent? What gives them the notion that her body is something to be seized in the first place?
Last year I wrote a treatise deconstructing white identity entitled The Souls of White Folk. I based my analysis on an essay of the same name from W.E.B. Du Bois’ anthology Darkwater: Voices from within the Veil. I compared white folks’ cult like commitment to whiteness to idolatry and called for mass apostasy. This year I’m calling for apostasy from another form of idolatry: the religion of patriarchy.
Another little known essay in Darkwater is called The Damnation of Women. Du Bois begins it by recounting four women of his boyhood, which, for him, represented four archetypes: the widow, the wife, the maiden, and the outcast. He says of them, “They were, in color, brown and light-brown, yellow with brown freckles, and white. They existed not for themselves, but for men…they were not beings, they were relations.”
In the Indian subcontinent, Sati was practised from the medieval period on into modernity. Widows committed suicide voluntarily or by force after their husband had died because with his death she no longer had reason to live.
In ancient Assyria, rape laws punished women for being forcibly raped or coerced into unwanted sex. If the male perpetrator was unmarried he paid a fine. If he was married, the punishment was for his wife to be taken out and “sexually ravished.”
Cities in sixteenth century Europe began to view women living independently as a moral, as well as an economic problem. They were “masterless,” that is, not members of a male-headed household, at a time when greater stress was being laid on the authority of the husband and father, and so were perceived as a possible threat to the social order.
Every state in the U.S., with the exception of Nevada, criminalizes sex work, which is overwhelming performed by women. Punishment includes fines and/or jail time.
All womanhood is hampered today because the world on which it is emerging is a world that tries to worship both virgins and mothers and in the end despises motherhood and despoils virgins.
— W.E.B. Du Bois, The Damnation of Women
During the period of chattel slavery in the United States enslaved people did not have ownership or control over their bodies. From wealthy white male slaveholders, to their mistresses, to poor white slave patrols and catchers — every movement of black peoples’ bodies was policed and exploited at will. This socio-political arrangement resulted in routine, normalized physical and sexual assault that extended well into the 20th century — and arguably continues to this day.
When the American colonies declared independence from Britain, they adopted English legal theorist, Sir William Blackstone’s, ideas about women’s social and political status in society. According to Blackstone, women experienced “civil death” in marriage, and their husbands acquired unqualified rights over their wives’ bodies. Husbands, for instance, had the legal right to rape their wives from the 18th century until the early 1990s because it was believed that women gave irrevocable consent to sex through marriage.
These type of racist and misogynist ideas and practices have percolated in American culture for centuries. One effect it has had is the development of a deeply embedded subconscious notion that women’s bodies — especially black women — are the collective property of men. In her book, The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity, and Love, bell hooks makes the point that “most men have not consciously chosen patriarchy as the ideology they want to govern their lives, their beliefs, and actions.” Nonetheless, this hidden patriarchal curriculum is why boys and men feel entitled to grope, grab, rape, beat, and exploit women’s bodies for their benefit.
It’s why I believed as a boy, and Brian as a man, that it was acceptable — a right of manhood even — to do what we wanted with women of color’s bodies. This is the patriarchal script all boys are socialized to act out and model for the next generation. Like white supremacy, patriarchy permeates every institution in our society — from education to law to religion. Like white supremacy, it is a system that is invisible only to those who benefit the most from it. Like white supremacy, it’s covered up because to face the truth is too costly a proposition.
In Dave Chappelle’s recently released Netflix special, his routine included commentary about sexual assault in the black community. Specifically, he theorized about why more black women’s voices hadn’t been heard in the #MeToo movement. He claimed that black women do not tell on black men because of the legacy of slavery. They are protecting black men from the cruelty of white America, he said. A black Muslima friend of mine said it felt like “a praise and a plea”. Y’all don’t tell on us.
Chappelle’s argument is not entirely baseless, considering that rape and sexual assault — overwhelming perpetrated by men — is underreported. However, the flaws in his argument are manifold. First, it assumes that white America cares about the abuse of black women (they don’t). It also assumes that white America even needs a reason to unleash terror on black men (again, they don’t). Most importantly, black women been told on black men but who has listened?
Though Chappelle was trying to offer important social commentary about #MeToo, in doing so, he missed an even more urgent point: black boys — all boys — are being raised in our culture to be predators. As bell hooks explains, they learn to hide the predator within through acting as “benevolent young patriarchs.”
This mask that menfolk wear covers only pain and rage that we unleash on girls and women in our private lives — and in our professional ones too. The pain and rage, bell hooks says, stems from a profound dissatisfaction with our lives trying to measure up to patriarchal standards of manhood. What the #MeToo movement has done is unmask all menfolk, not just wealthy or renowned ones that have been called out in the media.
And the backlash is real. Men across race and class lines are grasping at straws in order to remain hidden. One common defense is to project blame onto objectified women that have been sexually assaulted. Men assign equal or greater blame onto women due to their “provocative dress”, despite the fact that empirical research has found no link between sexual violence and dress. Or they blame women by claiming they sent “mixed messages” about interest in sex, though studies have found that men have a “sophisticated ability both to issue and to ‘hear’ subtle, but still clear and direct, refusals of unwanted sex.”
We use binaries in the way we talk about sexual abuse. As one brother put it, “Ansari ain’t Weinstein”. What this facile analysis doesn’t do is account for the myriad ways women experience abuse. The reality is that there is a spectrum of abuse that all men, at some point in our lives, have been on. Thinking about sexual abuse in this way allows us to more honestly assess our— as well as each other’s — past and present behaviors towards women. It is only then that we can examine the degree to which we have been morally culpable in the ongoing abuse of the women in our lives — from strangers at parties to colleagues to significant others to friends and relatives.
It is true that we are not all Weinstein’s or Moore’s or Cosby’s. They represent the extremes of the abuse of privilege and power over girls and women. That doesn’t mean we are innocent. Most of us fall somewhere in the middle — a veritable gray area. This is what made the Aziz Ansari story so contentious. When I first heard about it I was skeptical. I shifted into binary thinking by reading articles on “both sides” to try to get a “balanced view.” I found Bari Weiss’ article on Facebook. I was looking for a mask and I found it in her “feminist” critique of Grace’s account. Where’s her agency? I thought to myself. Why didn’t she just leave if she felt unsafe? Then I stopped to listen to some of the women that I know that had a problem with this analysis. They told me giving into coercion is not the same as giving consent. They told me about how some women consent to sexual violence as a means of harm reduction. It made me think about the Jim Crow South. About how black folks were socialized to follow unwritten rules and customs in their interaction with white folks for their safety. This was their normal. Women have had a similar socialization regarding men. This is their normal.
Why had I found merit in an argument so clearly reifying the same old misogynist narratives about women and girls? It was because of what was at stake for me if Ansari really was a bad actor. For to accept the truth of Ansari meant accepting the truth of myself. Among the scant relationships I’ve had with women in the past, I’d never done anything illegal. But had I coerced any of them into doing something they didn’t really want to? Had I, so intent on what I wanted, ignored cues that indicated apprehension or discomfort?
I’ve known for some time now that, as a man, I have certain unearned advantages in society. But I didn’t believe I was superior to women. And more importantly, I wasn’t like Weinstein or Cosby or any of these other men. That was my consolation. Grace’s account and the women who became her interpreters dispelled my illusion of exceptionality. It’s true, I wasn’t Weinstein. I was Ansari. And the Reckoning is for me too— whether women of my past come forward or not. This has been a painful and embarrassing realization. I feel almost paralyzed by it, afraid — like so many girls and women have been— to speak the truth of it. Silence, though, would make me no better than the white folks that I excoriate for worshipping the idol of whiteness. Now I see that I have my own idol to smash.
My first summer fling was in 2005. It didn’t start out that way though. I wanted a relationship. Thought she did too. She ended it because I was “too much of a good guy.” When I pressed her on what she meant she said I was too nice to her and that that made me weak. I needed to “get hurt,” she said, because it would make me strong. A few days later she cursed me out and threw something personal I’d shared with her about my father in my face. Determined, I suppose, to make me strong.
Reflecting back on this experience and others like it — romantic and platonic — I’ve come to understand that patriarchal masculinity is forged in the crucible of relationships. The messages I’ve received all my life was that to be a man meant embracing emotional stoicism over emotional availability. It meant using physical or emotional violence periodically to remind girls and women who the boss is. It meant making it hurt sometimes because girls like for it to hurt a little. It meant learning how to get her to say yes when she was still a no. It meant bending her to my will.
This is what some feminist theorists call psychological patriarchy. What they’ve been calling for us as a culture to do is reconstruct a masculine identity that is the antithesis of the toxic one we all embody to varying degrees. This reconstruction involves a reclamation of what bell hooks calls the “essential goodness of male being.” In the Qur’an, God says that humanity was created from a single essence, that the proclivity we all have is towards righteousness. That means if boys and men today are perpetrators of assault it is not because they are inherently predators. Rather, their behavior is due, in large part, to how our culture teaches them to think about what it means to be men.
Many traits considered “feminine” and therefore despised for men to embody under patriarchy must be re-integrated into our being. Men wedded to patriarchy have complained of the effeminization of men. Yet this, ironically, is exactly what has not happened but is in fact what is needed. This is not a call for men to don “feminine” dress or adopt mannerisms stereotypically associated with women. Rather, it is call for men to practice empathy, develop emotional intelligence, and relinquish the perceived need to dominate in order to feel like a “real man.”Why? Because it is only when we access the full range of our humanity as men that we can respect the full humanity of the womenfolk in our lives.
At lunch one day last year, three of my black students — all boys — came to visit with me.
“What you and your wife having?” one of them asks.
“We’re waiting till the birth to find out,” I say.
“Oh you having a baby Mr. Leeper?” another one asks. “I hope it's not a girl!”
“Yeah, me too,” the first boy adds.
“Why?” I ask.
“Girls are super annoying. I can’t stand them. Not like that though, I do like them like them. It just would be better if you had a boy. Boys are better.”
“Why do you feel this way about girls? Do you feel this way about your mother too?”
“That’s different. She raised me and stuff.”
“Girls, you just go out with them. But that’s it. Other than that, they just complain and cry.”
It’s time to end these