Not all men are rapists or abusers; not all men sexually harass women at work. But all men internalize sexism to at least some degree.
Waking up to sexual harassment or assault allegations against public figures has become a near-daily ritual. Today the subject of these allegations was typical nice guy Matt Lauer, host of the “Today” show on NBC, and Garrison Keillor, 75-year-old former radio show host of “A Prairie Home Companion.”
“Today” co-anchors Savannah Guthrie and Hoda Kotb announced the news of Lauer’s firing during this morning’s show. Both were emotional as they emphasized how these allegations don’t mesh with the man they know.
Guthrie said she was “heartbroken” for Lauer and the “brave colleague who came forward to tell her story and any other women who have their stories to tell.” Kotb added that “it’s hard to reconcile what we are hearing with the man who we know, who walks in this building every single day.”
“How do you reconcile your love for someone with the revelation that they have behaved badly? I don’t know the answer to that,” Guthrie said. “But I do know that this reckoning, that so many organizations have been going through, is important, it’s long overdue and it must result in workplaces where all women — all people — feel safe and respected.”
I should be heartened that NBC and Minnesota Public Radio immediately did the right thing by firing Lauer and Keillor; I should be angry that these women allowed Lauer’s nice-guy persona to influence their reactions to the news. But I’m neither heartened nor angry. I’m weary. How many more women will have to suffer harassment and abuse by these men? How many more women will be tempted to give men a pass?
Last summer, the alt-right lost its shit when I wrote that men aren’t emotionally safe. While their outrage was wrapped up in concern for my sons, their outrage stemmed from what they called my “sexism.” How dare I paint all men with the same brush? Not all men are rapists or abusers, they reminded me.
My critics were right about that much. Not all men are rapists or abusers; not all men sexually harass women at work. But all men internalize sexism to at least some degree. And it’s that internalization that renders them emotionally unsafe — at least a little bit.
This doesn’t mean that women are terrified of men. It means that there’s a boundary we know we can’t relax with men. No matter how nice they might seem. No matter how long we’ve known them. No matter their relationship to us. And while that boundary is necessary for our emotional well-being, it’s a boundary that shouldn’t have to exist.
When I’ve spoken to men about their sexism, many of them react with anger. No one wants to be the bad guy, and they’re defensive about the idea that they may have behaved poorly in the past. What man hasn’t made a sexist joke or laughed at one? How many men can say they’ve never made an inappropriately sexual comment to a woman? Or looked the other way when he saw a woman being mistreated by another man? Or told a woman she was being too emotional?
If that makes men uncomfortable, they have two options: They can deny that it’s true or they can confront their own sexism. It’s easier to deny the problem but that’s not how progress will happen. Progress will only occur when men commit to doing the hard work of dismantling their internalized sexism. And the first step down that path is listening to women. Not reacting, not becoming defensive, not denying their lived experiences. Truly listening.
But men know this. They’ve been told about our lived experiences. They’ve seen the same news cycle I have. If men aren’t doing the hard work of dismantling sexism, it isn’t because they are ignorant. It’s because they’ve chosen not to. They’ve chosen the easier path at the cost of the women they profess to love.
There will be more allegations of sexual harassment and assault. More public figures will lose their shine, for at least a little while. As some of these men lose their jobs, others will reconsider their own behavior. But make no mistake — those men aren’t committing to change. They are covering their asses.