by Lawrence Bush
EVER SINCE the Harvey Weinstein scandal broke, and wave upon wave of sexual abuse stories have polluted the shores, I’ve been waiting for this righteous uprising of women to be derailed by rightwing drivers of opinion — Oh, come on, can’t you tell the difference between sexual assault and some harmless flirting!. . . These women, they’re trying to turn men into well-behaved zombies who always keep their hands in their pockets! Preventing this would require worthier drivers of opinion, and in particular men, to begin to ‘fess up to the ubiquity of sexist behavior and attitudes among us — and to identify it as a festering social problem, not just the failing of individuals.
Yet now that the waters are gathering around Al Franken’s knees, I find myself tempted to shout, It was just a bad joke! Don’t you get it? He’s playing with the trope about men’s obsession with breasts! She’s in body armor, for heaven’s sake!
Then my wife sees it and says, Ooh, that’s disgusting. She’s asleep. This is just so classic. I’m so sick of this kind of sexism.
Maybe so, I reply — but he’s our sexist! And then I go rabbinical on her: how it’s hard for a man to be a mentsh …
INDEED, IT IS. We are surrounded by a culture (music, images, movies, literature, porn, fashion) that portrays women, first and foremost, as sexual prey (and that persuades or even compels many women to portray themselves as such). It takes most men many years, and even the slackening of certain hormones, to apprehend women first and foremost as human beings, more like us than unlike us, and to stop applying a screen of sexual evaluation to every sighting of a female.
It takes years to learn sexual self-restraint, and to feel an elevation rather than a diminution of our masculine confidence when we confine our sexuality to appropriate moments. Yet exercising that discipline is an absolute necessity if we are to spare women the burqa and other hobbling, confining impositions.
Most men, even feminist men, will fail at this task at one time or another. We are goaded by the culture to do so, and we receive virtually no social support for being sexually disciplined and restrained. So we play ball; we make jokes; we get caught up; we take advantage; we see what it’s like to be a wolf. If we are mentshn, we come to regret such moments for the injury, humiliation, and second-class status they inflict on women — and the harm inflicted on own mentshlikhkayt (humanness, decency).
I can confess to a couple of times when I have sexualized a situation with a woman when I had no real business doing so, creating awkwardness. Perhaps I could argue about who flirted with whom, but given the uneven power relations in most interactions between men and women, I should’ve known better. No, I’ve never groped anyone, or imposed a French kiss on anyone, or taken a leering photograph of anyone, or committed any of the sins with which Al Franken is now confronted.
You never would, says my wife.
Yet we would have also thought that about Al Franken.
WHAT, NOW, SHOULD be done with him?
I have no issue with the ostracization and legal prosecution of blatant sexual predators like Weinstein or Bill Cosby or Roger Ailes or Kevin Spacey. Even in our hypocritical and sexually commercialized society, they are repeat offenders in sexual violence and criminal behavior. Weinstein was a major funder of progressive causes? Tough noogies, he’s a rapist. But I do think it would be politically suicidal for liberals to allow an ally like Al Franken to be brought down based on this incident. Yes, if he proves to be a repeat offender, off with his head. Otherwise, Franken has owned it, apologized for it, and has been forgiven by the woman he harassed. Let him now step up and help to lead the necessary public self-examination in which men, society-wide, should be engaged.
Am I subordinating justice for women to other issues? Yes. Al Franken’s removal from, or neutralization within, the Senate would at this point guarantee years of suffering for millions of people.
Am I practicing a double standard? If we’re going to go after Roy Moore for his creepiness with teenage girls four decades ago, should we leave Al Franken alone for his groping in 2006? My wife says that I’m just more comfortable with show-biz sexism than with Alabama-style sexism, and I reply, No doubt about that! So consider me to be condescending to the South; consider me to be culturally biased. I know the direction in which I want my country to go politically, and it doesn’t include KKK sympathizers making laws while lying about their sexual crimes.
What I want to see is not simply Franken dodging the crushing wave and scrambling to safety, but setting an example of a man ‘fessing up to sexism and inspiring our country to start altering its culture for the sake of us all. It’s time for Al Franken to reincarnate Stuart Smalley, his “Daily Affirmations” character on Saturday Night Live, and talk to himself in the mirror, out loud, on national television.
Lawrence Bush edits Jewish Currents. To read his article, “Sex and the Hearts of Men,” click here.