This morning’s Virginian Pilot ran a story regarding a movement started by actress Alyssa Milano regarding sexual assaults. Given its placement in the paper (front page above the fold) it was clearly the day’s top story. However, as I read the story I couldn’t help but think as I have for decades, that we really don’t get it. While the facts regarding sexual assaults are reprehensible, we tend to cherry pick what and when we truly care about this epidemic.
I don’t care how you dress it up or rationalize it away, our consumption of and enjoyment of activities that devalue women is rampant. Heck, Hugh Hefner made a business out of objectifying women, yet Late Night Talk Show hosts dedicated a significant part of their opening monologues to making light of his lifelong commitment to devaluing women. In fact, I’d wager to bet that many of the same Hollywood "royalty" that are publicly crucifying Harvey Weinstein were regulars at the playboy mansion, without one thought of what their presence alone represented. And while I’ll admit that Hefner’s death was not headline news on the major network nightly news broadcast I watched, it was nonetheless reported without one negative observation of his life’s work. Where was the disgust and outrage?
Whether we want to admit it or not, sexual assaults (men against women) come in part from the clear double standard in how we (Americans) view men and women. Catcalls and jocular, lewd comments about women are seen as normal male behavior, even a form of male bonding, and women are often expected to tolerate them as such (“That’s just men being men.”). The implicit message is that, sexually speaking, men are the consumers, and women are there to be consumed, whether they like it or not.
I’m tired of the random outrage to not only sexual assaults but the longstanding acceptance of the pervasive male attitude regarding women. For me, it looks and smells like every other bias, whether it’s racial, ethnic, or against anyone who’s "different". Watch almost any sports talk show on ESPN and male analysts routinely make references to strip clubs or other accepted male pastimes that serve to objectify women without the slightest hesitation or hint of personal shame or embarrassment; often while sitting mere feet away from a female co-host who always seems to take it without so much as a roll of her eyes. All this and now we’re suddenly aghast at the rate of sexual assault; that’s because activities that devalue women are seen as normal male behavior, if not a path to real manhood, and rationalized away ad-nauseam.
I spent more than twenty-five years in the military and never one time outside of a sexual awareness month did I ever have even one leader remind anyone that their participation in activities that objectified women were incongruent with the Navy’s expressed goal of equality amongst all who serve.
Even more recently I reached out to a Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Advocate with my thoughts on how to go about attacking the issue of sexual assaults in the Navy and was shocked at her reaction. I was told the program was about education not prevention! This same leader of the program there to support and, at least I thought, prevent sexual assaults went on to relate a story how she would send her husband adult magazines with her face pasted on top of the women in the magazines, telling her husband that if he were going to look at other women, she wanted him to at least be thinking about her while he did it. I say again, people truly don’t get it!
As the Commanding Officer of two warships I approached the subject of sexual assaults and the general treatment of women by relating my Sailors’ (officers and enlisted) frequenting of strip clubs and brothels to the world’s demand signal for sexual exploitation of women and then asking them if they wanted their actions to add to that demand signal.
I went on to explain that the act of exploitation almost always leads to suffering. Yet the world’s sex industry—the roots of which lie in exploitation—is reported to be in excess of $98 billion annually and growing. Sex traffickers, brothel owners, participants in the insidious world of child pornography—we righteously condemn such players. But even the passive enjoyment of adult pornography fuels demand in an inherently exploitative industry, no matter our attempts to rationalize and justify our consumption. As a leader in a predominantly male culture that historically permits and even glamorizes the sexual appetites of sailors as they extend to the consumption of adult magazines, pornography, and live adult entertainment, I could not ignore the ramifications of this mindset. Its effects on the supply chain and on the ship’s atmosphere, especially with regard to respect toward female Sailors, disturbed me deeply.
I think it’s a cop-out when people, especially leaders, hide behind the line that they won’t legislate morals. As a service, the Navy mandates what tattoos are acceptable, both in content and body location. They enforce a zero tolerance for drugs, even while marijuana is legal in some states. They limit the number of earrings someone can wear, the length of one’s hair, and even its style. Uniform standards are applied right down to the style of undershirts sailors can wear. Yet they shy away from setting a standard for human conduct and decency, even though they acknowledge that people’s conduct and behavior is expected to represent only the highest standards. Even though there is a policy and process for dealing with sexual harassment and misconduct, no one ever tells Sailors to stay out of strip clubs or other establishments that overtly condone subjugating others, unless those establishments just happen to be a location on the “off-limits” list. Think about it; if an organization that spends so much of its time speaking to its commitment to eliminating sexual assault won’t take meaningful steps to stop it, how can we ever expect a civilian organization with much less influence on their employees’ behavior to lead the way?
I acknowledge changing the pervasive attitude of men is not the cure-all for a problem with so many insidious layers. However, it is perhaps the most important first step in stemming the tsunami of sexual exploitation. We should be appalled at the number of women who are sexually assaulted, but until we acknowledge and change society’s acceptance of male behavior the problem will never be truly addressed. Trust me, I know my perspective is not widely supported by men, but give your attitude towards women the “mirror” test and then tell me I’m wrong.