A Letter to the Good Men
I work evenings in a hospital that focuses on mental health treatment. Many nights, I am the only one on my floor. Recently, as my day-shift counterparts were packing up and heading home to their families, a male coworker stopped in my doorway. “Hey, I was just wondering, how do you feel about being here alone at night? I could work longer if you’d like me to.” His face was sincere. He gets it, I thought.
Another day, I went for a run by myself in the woods. Surrounded by silence save my own footsteps, I turned a corner and was startled by a tall, white man in a beanie, walking his very large dog in my direction. I stopped. (Is it just me, or is a lone white man in a beanie categorically creepy?) To my surprise, he stopped too. He waited for me to turn around and increase my distance before taking his next step. I noticed he made sure not to follow in my direction. He gets it, I thought.
As the sexual harassment scandals pile up, with ever-diminishing waves of shock, not much has changed for women. We’ve always known that deep down, men are still wild animals. Most of us were introduced to your bestiality long before we wanted to be. As Amy Schumer deftly phrased it,
“We’ve all been a little bit raped. …Like, not totes consench. I certainly wasn’t screaming, ‘YES!’”
We know what men are capable of, and we learn early to protect ourselves. While we sharpen our senses to spot your perversions, we also have laser eyes that lock onto a decent man when we find him.
Good men, we know you’re still out there. We see you. You ask us questions and don’t interrupt us. You look in our eyes and take an interest in who we are, not whether we please you. You value family and home life. You let us get angry, even at you. You take responsibility.
We intuit the work you must have done to get there. We can imagine the mental discipline it takes to make your thoughts — not just your eyes — go here and not there; the energy it must require to focus away from your throbbing penis and think about math or baseball or whatever you do so that we can reach orgasm first. Believe me, we appreciate it.
There is a hard truth about your struggle, however. While you work on becoming better men, and we praise and shame you right along, something important can get lost.
That something, to put it simply, is you. You — and we — develop a brilliant ability to pay selective attention to your personality. An unconscious pact forms, which asserts that pieces of you must be torn asunder and never brought to light.
Nevermind that the corridors of your memory often contain painfully dark corners. Nevermind that you live with a slow numbing of your life energy, a dull ache of loss. Nevermind that the drives you buried deep down inside come out in all the wrong ways.
When Good is not Enough
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
-Mary Oliver, “Wild Geese”
Recently, during a group therapy session, the conversation lit up around a common theme. Two men in their 40s, both struggling in their marriages, both suffering from depression and anxiety, spoke up. “I thought I was doing the right thing by trying to make her happy,” one confessed. “But somehow we both just ended up miserable.”
This struck a nerve with the second man. “I don’t know how to answer my wife when she asks how I’m doing. For years, I’ve just been thinking about what she wants. I go to work, pay the bills, play with the kids, but then I have panic attacks. I have no idea what makes me happy anymore. Even sex sucks. She tells me so, and I know it.”
You hear women complain about men’s selfishness and aggression. You respond with the best of intentions and mold yourself into One of the Good Ones. But after a while, we complain about that too. We ask you to be more emotionally accessible, more present. We ask you to be passionate.
You are caught between seemingly contradictory expectations. On the one hand, we want you to be nice, upstanding citizens. On the other, we want hot sex. We want you to transform into initiative-taking, un-self-conscious, virile lovers at a moment’s notice.
Somehow, we miss the dead body in the room: half of you is dead and we have killed him.
Behind closed doors, we lament that the best men often are the most inhibited. Somehow, trying to be good doesn’t translate into happiness. It also doesn’t make for good sex.
Of course, we would prefer repression over selfishness, inhibition over predation. After years of bad experiences, we may even encourage you to hold back.
Hang on, you say. Don’t forget that women have been shouldering the same Madonna-and-whore expectations for centuries, with far worse consequences. Spare me your pity party for men who manage not to rape people.
You are absolutely right. By no means do I think men’s anguish is greater than the soul-killing devastation patriarchy has wrought on women.
My goal is to imagine a better way. While women work to bring their full selves forward, we don’t have to sacrifice men’s. We have managed to envision a form of relating that is without violence, but not without cost. By splitting off parts of men’s personalities, we sacrifice deeper fulfillment.
We want relationships that are alive, not just nice. We want to thrive, not just be good.
Becoming Whole People, Together
Sexual desire and good citizenship don’t play by the same rules.
-Esther Perel, Mating in Captivity
A better way is possible. As Esther Perel articulates in her work on sexuality, and as David Schnarch hypothesizes in his book Passionate Marriage, the answer to growing dullness is to stop being nice and start being whole people. Both authors assert that in order to feel fully alive and fulfilled, each individual needs to cultivate a strong sense of self independent from the other. Each must bring the full texture of their psyches into their lives, in all its complex and uncomfortable layers. This means risk-taking, embracing discomfort, and radical honesty. It means creating space for tenderness and nurturance, as well as selfishness and playfulness and power and the ever-changing colors of our humanity.
Such an endeavor is inherently scary. It’s scary because it requires us to risk losing each other in the name of growth.
It’s scary for another reason, too, which often goes unsaid: our natures are capable of unbearable harm. In his recent New York Times article, “The Unexamined Brutality of the Male Libido,” Stephen Marche asserts that all men, even the most evolved, never fully lose their capacity for brutality.
Until we collectively confront this reality, the post-Weinstein public discussion — where men and women go from here — will begin from a place of silence and dishonesty.
Admittedly, based on how many men still victimize and how many women still suffer harassment and assault (nearly all), clearly we are missing something.
How do we reconcile the “grotesquerie” of male sexuality with the ideal of full self-expression? I ponder this question frequently. I think we start with awareness.
Dear Good Men: no matter how strong your moral compass, you have probably had sexual encounters that were not totally consensual. Rape culture is a wide spectrum.
I spoke with a woman who told me that she disliked sex with her (committed, ideologically feminist) boyfriend so much that sometimes she cried through it silently. He never even knew.
Charlie Rose stated in his “apology” that he sincerely believed he was “pursuing shared feelings.”
Many, many men believe their sexual encounters are consensual when they are not. How can this be? How could it be that men can’t tell the difference between the flight-or-flight response and lustful longing?
I wonder if the answer is not so mysterious. You have been socialized to control your emotional lives. Most men I have spoken with, even the most progressive ones, still believe stoicism is strength. Furthermore, they continue to limit physical affection to their sexual partners. Your bodies, and your inner worlds, thus remain relatively outside of your awareness.
I’m not saying you need to be socialized as women have been. I’m not trying to make you talk about your feelings all day or walk around holding hands with each other. I am saying that fixing rape culture starts with knowing yourselves. Only then are you capable of true empathy.
What’s it like to be you, right now? What parts of you are you hiding? What makes you feel alive? What gives you energy? Where do you feel stress in your body? What do you give out of pure love, and what feels like obligation? What quality of touch do you enjoy? Do you wish you could sometimes be selfish, revel in your own pleasure, stop taking care of others’ feelings? Have you ever asked these questions to yourself, or to your partner?
Grounding in yourself this way may feel selfish, but it is good for everyone. I’m talking about a different kind of self-centeredness, one that leads to mutual pleasure. When you can engage deeply with yourself, you’ll want to do it with the people you love, too. You’ll learn to recognize more nuance — a woman leaning away as you lean in, a raised eyebrow of attraction, the clenched jaw of fear.
True predators are replete with entitlement. They enjoy hurting others and rendering them powerless. This is not you (if it is, seek treatment yesterday).
I’m talking about allowing yourself more emotional and physical wiggle room. I’m talking about facing your demons responsibly, while following what gives you life and pleasure. This orientation represents an entirely different world from the perpetrator, who is rooted in ignorance and ill will.
The women around you are strong enough to stand on their own two feet. Pleasing them is not your job. Show them who you are and they can take it, or they can make their own choices. Respecting yourself allows you to respect them.