I have a coworker who is fond of saying “men are trash” after any man makes the news for the wrong reasons. I am occasionally mildly annoyed by it, because I’m a man, and, well, I’d like to think I’m not trash.
But I have to admit that she has a point. Lots of men are trash, regardless of age or race or income or any other demographic attribute. There are trash old white men, like Bill O’Reilly. There are trash old black men, like Bill Cosby. There are trash Republican men, like Donald Trump. And there are trash Democratic men, like Harvey Weinstein. There are trash men I abhor, like the recently departed Roger Ailes. And there are trash men whom I admire, like (probably) Louis CK.
But what is the difference between saying that “men are trash” after the latest stomach-curdling expose of decades-long bad behavior, and saying that “Muslims are trash” after the latest terror attack by a Muslim?
It seems obvious that the set of people who would agree with both phrases is vanishingly small. The traditional liberal defense of Muslims is 1) that most Muslims (particularly in the U.S.) don’t support violence; 2) that Muslims are responsible for stopping many would-be attackers; and 3) from a practical standpoint, even if the charge is true, alienating Muslims by blaming them for terrorism would be gravely counterproductive.
And if there is a key difference between men and Muslims, it is in count #2. Jia Tolentino writes in the New Yorker about a Google spreadsheet documenting the misdeeds of “shitty media men” that was sent around the internet in the wake of the Weinstein fiasco. The spreadsheet is a poor solution to the problem of trash men, as nearly everyone, including Tolentino, acknowledges. Allowing people to spread unverified claims anonymously seems like a recipe for trolling, and any true allegations are likely to be swallowed by the torrent of so many false ones. But critics of the spreadsheet, Tolentino argues persuasively, are probably missing the point. She writes,
Last year, the nonprofit organization vida: Women in Literary Arts published deliberately “de-identified” accusations against a poet. At Jezebel, where I worked at the time, I reported on the story at length. In talking to people about the fallout from the incident, I felt crushed by the extent to which male sexual misconduct had been configured, once more, as a women’s problem. Then, as now, women who agreed on almost everything—about the extent and urgency of the problem, about the failures of existing institutions—found themselves at war over methodology.
Sexual assault should not be a problem for women alone to solve. That’s the ludicrous aspect of the backlash to the Google spreadsheet. Women came up with a tactic, albeit highly imperfect, to fight the depredations of trash men. And men responded not by trying to help, but by dismissing it entirely.
I’m reminded of a story I read in the wake of the University of Virginia rape allegations about how fraternities protect rapists. It was written in Jezebel, also by Jia Tolentino, oddly enough. The article meanders and digresses and I don’t agree with all of it, but this passage struck me as important:
I, like the majority (but certainly not all) of the current and former UVA women I talked to while writing this piece, never felt unsafe at a fraternity party.
But neither did my college friend Kelly on the night that she was raped. Neither did UVA alum Jessica Longo, forcibly penetrated while unconscious in her own bed, by a guy in a prestigious fraternity who everyone jokingly called “Predator.”
“There are guys you know are creepy,” Charlotte Cruze told me. “Not just at UVA, I mean, but everywhere. There are guys whose behavior you question. But the thing about those guys, the ones who really warrant your fear—the problem that makes it so hard to do anything about them—is that they would never hurt someone out in the open. They would never, ever tell.”
And there’s the rub.
If there is a system-specific problem with the Greek system, it is not “the existence of rapists.” It’s the practices that make these rapists invisible. Many people I talked to cited a well of survivor support at UVA but little acknowledgment that the perpetrators of this violence are embedded within student society. The Greek system is not a hotbed of sexual criminals, but rather a hotbed of people invested in a tradition and lifestyle that inherently allows a tremendous amount to go unseen.
The statistics back her up.
While the Justice Department estimates that one in five female college students experience some form of sexual assault, the other half of the equation is far more circumspect: Only 6 percent or so of male college students commit sexual assault, with each committing nearly six rapes on average, according to the psychologist David Lisak, who’s conducted extensive and widely cited research on sexual assault. That suggests that many sexual assaults on campus are committed by serial predators.
In other words, criminality is not widespread, but being a victim is. And if there is a problem with frats, it is not that they are overrun with bad actors, but that they are overrun with enablers.
I think these statistics have a lot to do with why the “men are trash” statement is so nettlesome. It is very likely that a man has never committed a rape, and that none of his close friends have sexually assaulted someone. (I know that’s true about me, and I believe very strongly that it’s true of my good friends as well.) To him, the claim that “men are trash” looks like an attempt to blame people who are wholly innocent for the misdeeds of a small fraction of assholes and creeps. But, conversely, it is quite likely that a woman has either been raped or that one of her close friends has been. And she views the silence of men – or worse, their defensiveness, peevishness, and pushback – as a sign that 50% of the population doesn’t perceive the problem of sexual assault to be serious.
I’ve been alternately silent, defensive, and peevish about being lumped in with trash men. I’ve hated feminism and the way it creates men-haters, the way it seems to elide nuance in favor of generalization and prejudice against men. I’ve even claimed that I wasn’t a feminist after getting into enough angry arguments with them that seemed to go nowhere. But after seeing sexual assault happen again and again and again and again, I’m forced to concede that much of my annoyance was misplaced. I’m no longer angry at the women who are angry at me. I’d be angry too, if I were them. Now, I’m angry at men. Not just the ones who are trash, but the ones who abide it. I’m angry at the dudes who jokingly called someone the “Predator” and who let him be a part of their stupid, “prestigious” frat club. I’m angry all of the Hollywood men – Quentin Tarantino, Ben Affleck, George Clooney, Russell Crowe, Matt Damon, Brad Pitt, Daniel Day-Lewis, Michael Moore (and the list goes on) – whose response to the Weinstein allegation was no response at all. I’m angry at the Weinstein Company’s board of directors, who certainly knew about the settlements for sexual harassment and assault, but abandoned the company only after the truth finally came out, not before, when it might have mattered. And I’m really angry at the guys who pretend to be woke and sympathetic but who are actually in denial about their own complicity. One of the many stories written about Weinstein was by Zoe Brock. She manages to implicate not only Weinstein but also the men who helped him. Men like Rick Schwartz, who arranged the whole encounter. After Weinstein cornered her in his hotel room, naked, Brock forced him to drive her home, and she and Schwartz talked alone:
Rick took the opportunity to apologize to me.
“I’m so sorry,” he said. “I want you to know that of all the girls he does this to you are the one I really felt bad about. You deserve better.”
This comment made me nauseous. It was an admission of his sycophantic enabling. I could see the guy felt truly remorseful. He was near tears. But I could also tell that he had no idea how messed up this ‘apology’ was. How many girls were there? Did this shit happen every day?
I mean, what else is there to say? Schwartz’s head is as deep up his own ass as Paul Ryan’s, when he claimed that Trump’s “heart is in the right place” and that “he’s learning [about race]” following his appalling post-Charlottesville comments. I don’t expect Trump or Weinstein to behave well. They are deeply narcissistic, sociopathic individuals who abuse their power to get what they want. But not all men are narcissists and sociopaths. Most of us have a moral compass, a conscience, a sense of what is right and what is wrong. Is it too much to ask us to use it?