Why Are Men So Afraid to Talk to Women?

Photo by 青 晨 on Unsplash

In the classic Rogers and Hammerstein play Oklahoma!, the character Ali Hakim, along with a chorus of men, sings a song, with a purposefully incorrect article, titled “It’s a Scandal! It’s a Outrage!” What is the scandalous outrageous thing that provokes this sudden burst of singing from a group of men? To quote the song:

“It’s getting so you can’t have any fun. Every daughter has a father with a gun.”, and in another verse, “It’s a scandal! It’s a outrage! Jist a wink and a kiss and you’re through!”

The men bemoan that they are unable to have sexual relationships with women without the less than subtle prodding of a father and his shotgun. In essence, they are upset that they cannot take advantage of women with no repercussions.

As I sat and watched a local production of this musical last year, I was struck by the message of the song written more than half a century ago. It was so striking because the complaining cowhands and frontier men in the play sounded so similar to many men, including Henry Cavill, who expressed similar frustrations in the months before I saw the play. From the perspective of these men, interacting with women involved frightening, negative repercussions. Similar to the men of Oklahoma!, they felt that a flirtation, “Jist a wink and a kiss”, might give a woman the wrong idea. Except in the 2019 narrative, the punishment won’t be a protective farmer with a shotgun forcing an impromptu marriage upon the would-be suitor, it will be an accusation of sexual harassment or assault that will ruin a man’s reputation for ever.

The #metoo movement is now several years old, and it has done much good. Women and men alike who previously didn’t know how, or didn’t feel comfortable enough, to come forward have been able to find their voice and speak up about their experiences with sexual harassment and assault. These improvements haven’t come without backlash, however. A year ago, around the time I was watching Oklahoma!, The Economist published an article citing survey data that suggested Americans were now more skeptical than they were than the previous year about claims of sexual assault. While these skeptics were still in the minority of survey respondents, they had clearly grown as a group.

It’s now over a year since that survey was published, and though #metoo isn’t as common in public discourse, it seems that men’s fears of false accusations haven’t flagged much despite such accusations being rare. Many supporters of the #metoo movement, myself included, have dismissed these fears with statements such as, “Well, don’t rape or harass anyone, and you’ll have nothing to worry about.” While I feel this statement certainly applies to some men who seem to enjoy knowingly harassing women, there is a group of men whose anxiety and confusion I believe to be genuine.

In an article I wrote back in February of this year, I highlighted the ways our society was failing young men in talking about consent. I believe that conversations about and healthy demonstrations of consent happen far too late, and they almost exclusively happen in academic settings. This means that alternative sources of information are often all young men have to rely on. This means that sex and consent are being taught by the trifecta of bad examples: Movies, Porn, and Peers.

My first date in high school was to see a movie starring Taylor Lautner titled Abduction which has since fallen into obscurity due to it being horrendously awful. I actually remember little about it except for one memorable scene that was awkward for my little Mormon boy brain. After temporarily escaping the anonymous, suit-wearing bad guys, the two leads were alone and breathing heavily from the chase they had endured. Perhaps that heavy breathing was far too much to resist, though I could be remembering this wrong, and, without saying a word, they began making out. Their bodies became intertwined in clothed, PG-13 ecstasy while my body writhed in silent discomfort.

Consent-less scenes like the one I just described are played out over and over on the big screen, and they are actually some of the better examples of consent out there. Just as common, but far more dangerous are scenes like the one in The Notebook where Ryan Gosling dangles from a Ferris wheel by one arm and threatens to kill himself if a woman who has already refused his advances multiple times doesn’t agree to go out with him.

An example in the theater world from around the same era Oklahoma!, is The Music Man, in which a travelling salesman, whose intent it is to swindle an entire town in Iowa out of their hard-earned money, tries to gain sexual access to a librarian/piano teacher to distract her from his complete lack of even basic musical knowledge. The entire first act is largely focused on his continued attempts to win her affection, and there is even a prolonged scene in which he harasses her constantly at her workplace all with a cute soft-shoe dance set to music.

Do these fictional men get reported or held accountable for their lack of respect for clearly conveyed boundaries? Nope! They consistently “get the girl” and “win the day”.

Similarly, pornography blurs lines of consent and conveys a false sense of when it is appropriate to be sexual. The message is that any given situation can become a sexual one as long as you want it to be. In the world of porn, a babysitter, pool boy, pizza delivery guy, Uber driver, or stepsibling can all be your sexual partner if the mood is right. This message leads some young men to think that sexual interactions are as commonplace with strangers as asking for the time or directions to the nearest gas station. Since each scene ends shortly after the man concludes his business, we never find out if the babysitter, stepsister, lifeguard, or whatever reports him for sexual assault.

Finally, young men often turn to their other male peers to talk about sex. The problem here is that what young men say about their sexual practices in the locker room often doesn’t accurately depict those practices. Young men are more likely to falsely inflate the number of sexual partners they have than young women, and this sharing of fake conquests can increase their status among their peers. “Scoring” as often as you can may seem like the best way to become popular and asking for consent is likely to get in the way of hitting that home run.

Given these realities, when men young and old express their worry that they will be falsely accused of sexual harassment or assault, I believe them. I do not think that the women that accuse them are lying about what happened, but I do believe that the men who are accused are being truthful when they say they think they did nothing wrong. These men are simply using the scripts that society has given them, and until recently, they seemed to work just fine.

Now, several years post #metoo, society is working harder to hold men accountable for their actions. That work is incredibly important and hopefully continues to help survivors get the justice that they deserve. My other hope is that we can simultaneously help our young men understand the false narratives about sex and consent that they have seen and heard, so that hopefully we can prevent them from causing harm in the first place, but that work will require that we throw out the old scripts so common in our entertainment that normalize unhealthy behaviors. It will require that we talk openly and non-judgmentally about pornography and the lessons it teaches, and it will require that we encourage honesty and respect in locker rooms and online conversations among young men across the country.

This cultural shift will not be easy, but I believe that #metoo has primed the country for a big change. It’s up to us now to steer our culture toward healthier practices that will protect men and women from harassment and assault and hopefully ease the fears and frustrations of the men that our society has set up to fail.

Originally published at https://feministmasculinity.com on October 10, 2019.

Intersectional feminist social worker. Creator of feministmasculinity.com. Advocate for survivors of intimate partner violence.

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