There’s about a hundred reasons to not publish this article. Ninety seven of which are some variation on the fact that I have very little to gain by doing it (but, also, very little to lose). Though I must insist, here at the beginning, how much easier it would be to say nothing. And maybe I should, since the last three reasons of the hundred are self reflective. Maybe my own points are ill considered. They go against the general written narrative of people who write articles for the internet. So I have to consider the possibility that I’m probably the one who’s in the wrong. My arguments are a bit weird, but considering the cyclical nature of sexual misconduct stories I figure it’s an issue that’s never really ever going to be fixed and I have a guess why.
Look, ladies, aside from rape, I, and a good percentage of men like me, have a hard time caring about your sexual misconduct stories.
I want to make doubly clear, here, that I am not in any way being a rape apologist. That would be completely indefensible (except for on the literary battlefield, where a Kundera character can say things like; “Rape is part of the essence of sex. Castration is its negation.”)
I don’t mean to defend any kind of inappropriate sexual behavior, which the derogatory take on the phrase boys will be boys seems to imply. I just want to describe one of the things that might be running through a man’s head when he hears about a sexual misconduct incident.
Most importantly, this article is about telling public stories and what any one of us is supposed to think about personal distaste.
There’s a very specific starting point to this article. I had my own sets of opinions on the MeToo movement (like: what made Harvey Weinstein so easy to hate was his brutish ugliness). Yet I can and did easily set aside these opinions to listen to women’s stories. That was the point, to listen. And I think that this listening did have an impact, not only for me but for other men. However, a few months ago I bumped into a story which had me questioning whether the woman telling it wasn’t taking the whole thing too seriously. To her own detriment and ours, since I think stories like this are negative reactions of fixation.
It was a story a few months ago on This American Life. It really rubbed me strangely. It’s the last 13 minutes of their episode 669 Scrambling to Get off the Ice. What follows is a brief summation. A woman named Jessica Hopper goes in to the hospital to give birth to her second son. A anesthesiologist comes in to apply an epidural. The doctor inappropriately cups and touches her breasts while applying the epidural. This woman, Jessica Hopper, calls him on it. He leaves the room. She tells her husband. She tells all the doctors and staff that this guy felt her up. To her credit she even makes a joke saying “that she was so happy to have an epidural she almost didn’t mind that the doctor felt her up.” She then goes on a binge of telling people; people at the hospital, the ethics review board, the police, her story. Many hear, almost all do nothing (including, most egregiously, the husband). One detective gives her the cowboy act, lying about the efficacy of their investigation. She gets a lawyer. This goes on for years. Jessica does not let it go. This includes feeling anxious about going to other health professionals, which presumably she had done for many years before, but one creep, and now she can’t go to the dentist.
Jessica deeply wants other people in her life to take this more seriously. Which leads me to a rather unfair, but realistic, rhetorical question. So, Jessica, do you think everyone in your life is ignoring this out of some social injustice that only you can right? Or, do you think maybe you were taking it too seriously?
And then there’s my third question, having to do with us. Why does this need to be on the radio? Why are we supposed to care about this? If you’re like Jessica and you’re confused why there isn’t more outrage, I’m going to give an explanation. You won’t like it.
First of all, you know, she’s clearly in the right telling people in the hospital. They have to work with that guy, they should have that kind of information. She’s in the right telling her friends and husband. Eventually, after five years, Jessica gets her day in court. Another woman has come forward. The doctor gets suspended and Jessica ponders the nature of trying to get people to believe you. The problem isn’t getting people to believe you. We believe you, but let me explain what it’s like being a man.
A few days after hearing this story I was out for a walk. I saw two boys playing basketball in their driveway. The more aggressive one was threatening the more passive one. They were friends, clearly joking, messing around with each other. And yet there was this dark, competitive element, shading the whole interaction. The more aggressive boy hooked the basketball into his elbow and hurled it with his whole body force at the other boy. The other boy turned his back and howl/laughed as the ball pelted him in the shoulder. The interaction transported me back to highschool. A place where on regular occasion I got nipples pinched purple and had ballsack slapped. Once, slapped so hard, on purpose, I curled up in the fetal position for 15 minutes. Where I played football. Where I often bled openly, was humiliated, and tried to dish out as much as I got.
Now I know this is not exactly a fair comparison. I understand that for a woman getting fondled; it’s mixing a sensation of fear and vulnerability with a sensation that’s supposed to be pleasurable, but, on a simple one to one basis of physical sensation, it’s hard for a man to get upset about your breasts being gently fondled. We’ve been through worse. One is inclined to say to Mrs. Hopper; ‘Suck it up.’ If, as a society, we had to prosecute and punish for every physical, inappropriate and painful thing that happened, the whole world would be prisons of young men (which, you know, it kind of is anyway).
Now is all of this right or wrong? I have trouble calling it wrong. There’s a type of tactile physicality that seems a healthy expression. That is to say; I can imagine worse sexual fixations arising if these types of interactions were eliminated from the life of boys. Yet I know it’s difficult for me to say, because as an adult with some perspective, the level of inevitability seems monumental. I try and think for myself. Like if you told me tomorrow that I had a choice of playing football again for one more day or having my chest and penis tickled by a strange dude, I’d pick the tickling (hoping that this was not a routine thing, mostly just because of the inconvenience).
I would like to ask Mrs. Hopper why she was compelled to tell her story in a very public way. I can imagine scenarios of coercion. The liberal producers of the show seeing a story that was ‘on message’ so to speak. When I listen to NPR this wouldn’t surprise me. A story I heard yesterday was warning parents about kids posting bathing suit pictures on their social media, cause heaven forbid if a pedophile saw a picture that was appropriate for anyone who wasn’t a pedophile. Maybe there’s just not enough real shit happening in the world. If there was anything like the classic wars of past times I can’t imagine we’d be hearing any of this. There would be so much more serious shit happening. Which, in a way, makes me feel hopeful for humanity. Good and forgiving of these kinds of stories, but, again, just because no one’s saying it it doesn’t mean a huge percentage of us aren’t thinking it.
I mean someone lightly fondles your breasts or kisses the back of your head and that becomes a descriptor for your existence? What good does that do anyone? What are you trying accomplish? How could we possibly care and why does it seem like we have to pretend to?
Are we, as a country, supposed to go about trying to fix minor sexual deviancy?
The whole thing confuses me and partly that’s, yes, as a man. As someone tells me a problem I assume you think it’s because it can be fixed. I get it, sometimes you just need to open up and talk to someone. But, to play for the side I’m arguing for here, that is not the point of the radio. Or really any kind of media. Yet in our world it’s all seeming to get jumbled. The news often citing Twitter as a real source of information.
But aside from all that, let me get into my more bizarre arguments.
Let’s pretend for a minute that everyone is an individual and of those individuals a certain percentage of people who wanted to get into medicine did it for less than altruistic motives (easily an understatement). Now, featured in that percentage is a sub-set who did it because they have weird feelings about the body and want to explore them in some way. Is that really any worse than someone who gets into medicine only for the money? I’m serious here, who would you rather have as a doctor. A doctor who almost has a sociopathic tendency to think of his patients like meat (cash cows) or one who has feelings and desire for your body and feels invested in keeping it whole? I’m not saying doctors should be encouraged to behave the way that one anesthesiologist behaved. The guy from this story was probably an asshole who thought he could get away with something. On the other hand he did invest huge chunks of his life to training in pursuit of what we all seem to agree is a pretty noble cause.
What if we got a break from our medical bills, a reduction in cost for each doctor visit but in exchange you’d get felt up a little bit. Nothing painful, gentle touching. I don’t know a single man on the planet (in my income bracket) who wouldn’t take that deal. By Man I mean adult. Intellectually capable of acknowledging some benefit of physical bartering.
And, you know, I’m more than likely wrong. It’s probably not true every guy would be cool with it. It’s probably the same percentage of men and women who would be into it. Us touchers. We might split the world into two groups. The people who think their could be more touching and those who think there’s already plenty. I have to admit, I’m of the first group. I think we’re the less vocal class. What’s newsworthy about a story that goes; a person I barely know touched me and I liked it. It transferred a feeling of the possibility of human bonding and affection outside our own personal designs. It’s going to happen, it will keep happening and the world seems a kind place.
Our world seems removed from the smaller, more touchy/feely communities of our ancestors. I remember being in my twenties without a partner, living on my own. There were huge stretches of time, months on end, where I’d touch no one except through accident. I’ve often thought that young male killers, incels, suffer mainly from a lack of physical contact. Much of society (whatever that means) pushes them to seek that contact from a female sexual partner, but I think often; the impulse of inappropriate sexual ideas, thoughts, or actions, doesn’t come from a desire to orgasm or even participate in the sexual act. I don’t even think that it’s a desire for the taboo. Touch, it seems to me, is a simple participatory idea. Like a mini validation of your existence in a community.
A little more touch and there’s less place for outrage, or hurt, or the attention of your strength as an individual. Pointless strength, often thrown needlessly at issues which, if not insolvable, recurrent on a theme. There’s benefit to understanding when or when-not to use one’s strength. Perhaps this is where a certain percentage of women are at in the world. Trying to deal with an old feeling of helplessness by taking public positions of outrage. But these are not universal public positions and pretending that they are, or expecting everyone to care about them and feeling bad when they don’t, is to deny some basic tenant of reality.
Like it or not we are physical beings and, some things, are never going to change.