One night in college, a friend summoned me to her room.
I’d been interested in her for some time – I wanted to be “more than friends” – but up to that point, things had remained chaste. It was late, we’d both been out separately, doing whatever it is we’d been doing, and when I got to her room, she was clearly drunk.
Twenty years later, I still remember how I felt that night.
This is why “NotAllMen” doesn’t matter…
I’ve written about the need to raise boys right, to reject rape culture, to be feminists, to see women as equal and to treat everyone with respect. And Mom and Buried and I are trying to do that. But as our sons grow up and reckon with the world around them, our lessons only go so far, especially in the face of a culture that teaches them something entirely different.
“Don’t cry.” “Don’t be a p*ssy.” “Don’t be a f*gg*t.” “Man up.” “Sack up.” “F*ck bitches, get money!”
The messages of “toxic masculinity” are everywhere. We hear them all our lives, directly and indirectly, from our friends, from our role models, from the media. The same way women are beaten over the head with impossible standards of beauty, brainwashed into fitting into someone else’s narrow idea of what women should look like in order to have value, men are expected to behave a certain way. It takes a toll.
I wasn’t the kind of guy who fit into that box, and I knew it. I wasn’t a jock, I wasn’t in a frat, and I wasn’t fixated on hooking up. But rather than being freed by that self-awareness, I was plagued by it. I felt the pressure, the judgment, the constant competition. I knew what was expected of me, what’s expected of guys in our culture, and I knew I wasn’t measuring up.
That night, in a girl’s dorm room, I had a golden opportunity to change that.
My friend was making the overtures I’d long been waiting for, and they weren’t entirely out of the blue. We’d been tiptoeing around each other, waiting to see what might happen if one of us had the guts. Suddenly I had ample opportunity to finally get out of the dreaded friend zone.
But she was very drunk, and it didn’t feel right. So I left.
You may wonder why I’m writing this. You may think that I’m bragging or looking for credit and praise. I’m not. Because I know I could just as easily be one of the men being called out now. We all could. That’s why the “NotAllMen” defense is bullshit. For decades, if not centuries, the system has been set up for us to behave that way and get away with it, and just because some of us don’t (or haven’t yet), doesn’t mean that we aren’t part of the problem.
Because here’s the thing: I didn’t feel like a good guy when I bailed. I felt like a loser.
By the standards of toxic masculinity, I’d blown it. And the fact that I felt like a failure is a much bigger deal than the fact that I didn’t do something terrible. I didn’t take advantage of my friend, and I’ve never assaulted a woman, but that doesn’t make me a hero.
I consider myself one of the good guys. But just because I didn’t do anything doesn’t mean it didn’t cross my mind. It crosses all of our minds, even the good guys. Even the NotAllMen guys! Because we’ve been conditioned by an insidious culture. (You want to know how insidious it is? There are probably people reading this who still think I blew it that night.)
We are all raised on the same media, in the same culture. We all grew up in an atmosphere in which men with many sexual conquests are prized, in which “the friend zone” is seen as a nightmarish limbo, in which we are inundated with positive depictions of “players” and lotharios and studs who “score.”
We’re trained to look for opportunities. Trained to wait for a “no!” rather than ask for a “yes,” to think it’s better to beg forgiveness than ask for permission. We’re raised on the idea of sex as conquest and to (effectively) treat women as prey. No wonder they’re so scared of us! And until we so-called allies out there stop hiding behind our ostensible nobility and take responsibility for the culture we’ve helped foster, they always will be.
Looking back, I know that I got lucky. Who knows what would have happened if I hadn’t left that night? I was 18, I was a late bloomer, I hadn’t had a lot of “fun” in high school, I was eager to change that in college. But I was conflicted, I was inexperienced, and I was nervous. So I left. I knew she wasn’t in her right mind, and while part of me did think honorably about that – I wanted our graduation past camaraderie to be an honest choice, not a drunken mistake – mostly I was just petrified. I got lucky that my better angels – and my insecurity – prevailed.
Eventually, we gave “more than friends” a shot. It didn’t last and we haven’t seen each other in years, so I have no idea if she even remembers that night. Thankfully, there’s nothing to remember. I’m glad I don’t have to contend with the consequences that so many men are dealing with now, years after some transgression they thought they’d survived. I left her with no painful memories for her to dredge up, nothing to be unblocked by the recent cavalcade of stories hitting the news every day as women finally unburden themselves, after years of fearful, shameful silence.
But my prevailing emotion isn’t pride. It isn’t NotAllMen. It’s relief. Because that night, even while I was leaving, I likely never considered any ramifications for her beyond embarrassment when she sobered up. That’s the culture we (used to) live in, and that’s a problem.
No matter how many men we pick off, nothing will change until the culture does.
Unless we – and this includes the self-righteous NotAllMen crew – take responsibility both for our actions and our attitudes and dismantle the toxic masculinity that has made this ongoing reckoning necessary, the change won’t stick. There but for the grace of god go all of us.
And, if we don’t change it soon, there go our kids too.