Women and Children Last

Edmund Charles Tarbell (American artist, 1862–1938)

I am always hesitant to suggest anything is unique to now, as if history isn’t right there for us to recognize our enduring human failures. So I will refrain from evoking “unique,” but I am convinced this is distinctly relevant for the now of 2017: In the U.S., the real and the satirical seem nearly indistinguishable.

Take for example Monologue: Dad of Newborn Girl Explains the Importance of Women’s Issues to a Table of Women at a Coffee Shop, a piece as brilliantly satirical as it is disturbing when revisited in the wake of revelations about Harvey Weinstein among a people who elected Donald Trump president.

On social media, I witnessed some misread the McSweeney’s article, missing the satire, and concurrently watched as many confronted the exact phenomenon occur in response to Weinstein’s sexual violence grounded in his wealth and power: Men expressing how they understand women’s issues because they are sons, fathers, or husbands.

Possibly my greatest existential angst as a white man is grounded in the weight of how often men have failed women and children through physical violence and sexual coercion and assault.

Weinstein has triggered my own discomfort and anger at Hollywood, personified for me by Woody Allen, and a powerful problem I have been wrestling with my entire adult life: the tension between the work of art (Can it still be “great”?) and the horribly flawed artist.

Several films, for example, remain burned into my soul because of this:

Cinematic rape and the killing of children — these films are nearly unwatchable for me, even when I appreciate their artistic value.

I have written about a similar tension when watching True Detective (HBO).

And I anticipate the same sort of discomfort I feel each time I watch Blade Runner (the aggressive kissing scene) when I eventually watch Blade Runner 2049, confronted for whether or not it portrays futuristic sexism or simply is sexist.

But this tension about art and artist as a problem, a question, is in no way concurrent in the reality of men as violent, as sexual predators.

There simply is no room for equivocation, as Allen and Oliver Stone, among many others, have offered.

There simply is no room to suggest these abuses are more about power than the men who are abusers.

The fact is that men have a default position of power over women and children; men as violent, as sexual predators and rapists, exist regardless of social status of those men.

Poor men hit their children, abuse their women partners, and poor men rape.

Only two facts exist with any credibility here.

First, as Arundhati Roy has explained, “We know of course there’s really no such thing as the ‘voiceless.’ There are only the deliberately silenced, or the preferably unheard.”

Therefore, the voices of women and children matter first, foremost, as the targets of violence by men.

Second, this is a problem nested in men and perpetuated by the social norms created by and maintained by men.

Therefore, only men can end rape culture, toxic masculinity, and the abuse of children.

Laurie Penny, in a piece that should be read fully, confronts the ways in which terms such as “consent” as well as a woman’s right to her sexuality are used in ways that are themselves oppressive even when they appear to be otherwise:

The first thing you need to understand about consent is that consent is not, strictly speaking, a thing. Not in the same way that teleportation isn’t a thing. Consent is not a thing because it is not an item, nor a possession. Consent is not an object you can hold in your hand. It is not a gift that can be given and then rudely requisitioned. Consent is a state of being. Giving someone your consent — sexually, politically, socially — is a little like giving them your attention. It’s a continuous process. It’s an interaction between two human creatures. I believe that a great many men and boys don’t understand this. I believe that lack of understanding is causing unspeakable trauma for women, men, and everyone else who is sick of how much human sexuality still hurts.

And while I have examined the importance of intimacy, privacy, and consent — not as well as Penny, however — I am more fully aware of the inherent flaws with the seeming chivalry of “women and children first,” a concept grounded in paternalism that acknowledges a sort of comparative vulnerability between women/children and men.

The real world, however, paints a different picture — women and children last.

Men who view the world, including women and children, as their spoils, to do with as they please.

Again, speaking as a man, we are the problem, and we must be the solution.