It’s been a tough autumn for men in America. For weeks now, hardly a day goes by when the name of another prominent man isn’t splashed across the headlines, accused by one or more women (and sometimes by men) of making unwanted, often-crude sexual advances, in some cases many years ago. The tidal wave of allegations started with movie producer Harvey Weinstein and quickly spread to others in the film and TV industries, business and politics. Award-winning actors like Kevin Spacey and Jeffrey Tambor, journalists like CBS-TV’s Charlie Rose, sitting politicians like Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) and Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) and many more have taken flak. Most of them have tried to come clean, so to speak, by offering their apologies at the least and declaring their intention to seek counseling at the most. Some men, like actor/director Ben Affleck, have tried to get ahead of the curve by confessing that there were one or two incidents in their recent past for which they are now sorry. Others, like Alabama senatorial candidate Roy Moore, have been defiant, denying everything thrown at them.
It may be a coincidence, but this all seemed to start right after the September 27th death of Playboy magazine founder Hugh Hefner, who had spent the last 60 or so of his 91 years living a flamboyant, hedonistic lifestyle that he celebrated in the pages of his magazine and on his TV shows. Playboy debuted in the early 1950s, and within a decade was selling millions of copies as American men started learning the joys of what Hefner called “the great indoors”: fine wines and liquors, fast cars, celebrity-filled parties, and of course a lot of beautiful, willing women. The main selling point of Playboy was its Playmate of the Month, a lovely young woman who was more than ready to show us all of her charms unencumbered by clothing. The magazine also regularly featured up-and-coming actresses from the movie and TV worlds, seeking career boosts by taking it all off for Hefner’s photographers. If the reader bothered to get past all the skin, he could read advice columns, interviews with cultural movers and shakers, fiction penned by well-known writers, and even what passed for investigative journalism. There were cartoons and jokes and lots of pictures of Hefner enjoying a lifestyle that was there for the taking by any man ambitious and smart enough to jump in. Young men bought into this philosophy by the millions.
I should know, because I was one of them.
The hutchmaster’s influence touched a lot of men.
We will never know for sure how much Hefner’s influence played a part in the current travails of men like Weinstein, Franken and Tambor. But there’s no doubt at all that Playboy led the way out of an era when things like depictions of nudity were confined to art galleries and poorly edited magazines that were available only at seedy stores on the other side of the tracks. Human sexuality was a subject restricted to a few college classes, but mostly to married men and women and confined to the bedroom, to be discussed, if at all, only when a father gave his teenage son the “birds and the bees” talk (and the mother did the same with her daughter). Films of such activity might be seen only in smoky back rooms of bars hosting a “stag” party.
Hefner changed all that. By the mid-seventies, mainstream Hollywood movies frequently featured nude scenes, often played by famous actresses. It became almost fashionable for couples to head down to their city’s X-rated movie theater for ground-breaking films like Deep Throat and Behind the Green Door. Major publishing houses started offering fare like The Happy Hooker, the autobiography of prostitute Xaviera Hollander, and The Harrad Experiment, a novel about a private college that put men and women in the same dorm rooms and conducted its coed physical education classes in the nude. In fact, prostitutes even got a new, more sophisticated name: “call girls,” or the even higher-class “escorts.”
Of course, the vast majority of men have lives that aren’t anywhere close to the life Hefner led, a fact we tend to find out pretty quickly. But we grew up in an era where women were supposed to be not only amenable to our advances, but just as aggressive as we were. Because they were liberated from the stuffy old moral code of their mothers and grandmothers, teenage girls and adult women were supposed to recognize that we were just trying to engage them in healthy, guilt-free sex.
It didn’t take long for men of my generation to discover a few things about women. The great majority of them really weren’t that interested in being entertained in dorm rooms whose walls were covered with pinups of nude women who were all more attractive than they were. They weren’t too impressed with the suave pickup lines that the men in the magazine used, and most of them were interested in something a lot more fulfilling than a one-night stand.
Things have changed, I’m told, from those tie-dyed days back in the 1970s. Today, kids are exposed to hard-core pornography at an early age thanks to the internet. It’s becoming commonplace to hear stories of kids as young as 12 or 13 sending nude selfies back and forth from their phones. The one-night stand we rarely engaged in during our day has now evolved into the much more common “hookup.” The sexual freedom that Hefner championed, both in personal behavior and through the media, has given us a culture where anything goes. Ironically enough, Hefner was so successful in helping knock down those walls that his own business empire suffered. He had to sell his private, black-painted jet, along with his night clubs. His magazine, now considered relatively tame, lost millions of subscribers, first to more explicit magazines like Hustler and Penthouse, and then to soft-core publications like Maxim that were designed to appeal to a younger readership more interested in junk food and video games than cocktail parties and classic movies.
More importantly, the cultural sea change Hefner helped usher in has backfired. Instead of giving birth to a loving, egalitarian Age of Aquarius, which we were assured would happen once we threw off the shackles of our puritanistic forebears, we have a culture where coarseness and crudity have shouldered their way to the forefront of personal behavior, both online and even in actual face-to-face interactions.
Is it any wonder, then, that many men consider women to be their personal playthings, to be propositioned and groped as if they were toys? After all, the porn a lot of today’s young men grew up consuming usually showed women willing to do whatever the men wanted, however degrading it might be for them. But maybe this behavior isn’t necessarily the result of the sexual revolution. In fact, it’s been around a lot longer than that.
The Mad Men generation lives on.
My son was in college during the mid-2000s when he first told me about a new show called Mad Men. It was a slickly-produced look back to the early 1960s through the lens of a New York City advertising agency. Jim told us that in a class on film at his school, UW-Milwaukee, the professor screened the first episode, which showed well-dressed, well-educated, supposedly-sophisticated men treating female subordinates in their office as sex objects, to say the least. The young women in the class, Jim said, were shocked, but the male students were somewhat amused, even wistful about the good old days that their granddads must have enjoyed.
I decided to see what the show was all about. My own father began his professional career in 1960, the first year depicted in the show, although he was a teacher, not an ad exec. As I watched Don Draper and his pals swing through their days and nights, I wondered if that’s how it really was. I read articles that said yes, the show was pretty accurate in how it depicted interactions between men and women in the workplace. What apparently was commonplace back then, I thought, would result in a man being thrown out a window today, and if he survived the fall he’d get hit by a lawsuit.
But apparently our modern workplaces, if the adventures of Weinstein and Franken are to be believed, are not as enlightened as many of us think they are.
Empowering revolution, or witch hunt?
Utilizing the breathtaking power of social media, the backlash against Weinstein and his fellow travelers spread like wildfire. The hashtag #metoo became a rallying cry for women willing and sometimes eager to post their own allegations, often anonymously. Quick to follow the trend as always, some news organizations ran their own investigations and analyses of the phenomenon, often promoting the narrative that sexual harassment is not only on the rise, but prevalent across the spectrum of American workplaces. Men began hunkering down at work, cautious in their interactions with their female colleagues, lest a quip or a glance, or especially a touch, be misinterpreted by the woman on the receiving end.
But like just about everything else in our overheated culture, it didn’t take long for things to get out of hand. Quickly forgotten were high-profile incidents where women who accused men of bad behavior were found to be exaggerating the incident or even lying outright about it, such as the 2014 Rolling Stone article about an alleged gang rape at a University of Virginia fraternity house that turned out to have been largely fabricated. Some women began posting tweets that said if some innocent men had to go down in order to root out the real perpetrators, that was okay with them–evidently willing to include men like their own fathers, brothers and sons in the roundup. And of course the issue became politicized. When many liberal commentators started going after Moore, conservatives counterattacked by bringing up Bill Clinton, whose own sexual shenanigans during his 1993-2001 presidency led to his impeachment, an effort Clinton defeated thanks in large part to the support he received from members of Congress, the media and the culture who considered themselves progressives and were willing to look the other way. One woman journalist back then even publicly stated she’d be willing to have sex with Clinton, just to thank him for protecting her right to have an abortion. But that counterattack seemed to do some damage, as some liberal pundits began to publicly question what in many cases they themselves had said in support of Clinton back then.
Those who urged everyone to calm down were often ignored or shouted down. At the height of the fever, the panel on Fox News Channel’s Special Report with Bret Baier featured a discussion of the issue, and one of the participants, Mollie Hemingway of The Federalist, said it was time for everyone to take “a deep breath” and consider ways we can responsibly deal with these situations, alleged or real. Finally, I thought, a voice of reason.
So, is this behavior as common as it seems to be? Have we not made any advancements in the half-century since the time of Mad Men? I would say the answers are no, and yes. They’ve been slow to surface and are sometimes overlooked in the hyper-partisan atmosphere of our public discourse these days, but there have been other voices of reason besides Mollie Hemingway’s, like this recent editorial in the New York Daily News: A Panic is Not an Answer.
How are men to deal with this? First and foremost, I think, each of us must be willing to examine our own behavior. Maybe that off-color joke we told the other day, with women present, wasn’t as funny to them as it was to us. Perhaps that glance we threw at the gal in the next cubicle as she stretched her legs out was misinterpreted. (Or maybe it was interpreted correctly.) But a relationship, whether it’s between a man and woman at home or in the workplace, is a two-way street. Women should certainly not be subjected to anything close to what Weinstein and the others have admitted to, but they should also be understanding that sometimes men, like women, say or do things that could be taken the wrong way. Or what they do is simply stupid. Hey, we’re all human beings, we all make mistakes, sometimes whoppers.
I think I can safely speak for all men when I say we’ve all said and done things that we regret doing. I remember my high school days, when I was coming under the influence of Hefner’s magazine, and there are more than a few things I said to girls that I wish I could take back. About halfway through my four years at good old Potosi High, a light bulb started to come on, and I made some changes, which eventually started to pay off. I well remember being on a date with a girl I really liked, and she said to me, “You’re not at all like they say you are.” What she said made me feel good, because it was obvious she was enjoying my company, but it also made me feel bad, because I realized I had a long way to go. In fact, it would be a long time before I would find myself in a relationship with a woman that was truly one of love and equality. It was about that time, not coincidentally, that my collection of Playboy magazines, by then about 45 years’ worth, began finding their way up the driveway for the weekly garbage pickup. (No doubt my route was very popular for the several weeks it took to get rid of them all.)
As the above-cited article suggests, American workplaces are not being deluged with sexual harassment complaints. The current stampede of allegations has, I think, grossly overstated the problem. And it’s likely that this issue will recede to the back row when the next bright shiny object comes along that attracts the culture’s attention. It wasn’t that long ago, after all, that many in the culture were hopping mad about Confederate statues. Haven’t heard about them lately, have we?
As men, each and every one of us has to decide how we are going to conduct ourselves, every day of our lives. Every day we will be interacting with other people, many of them women. How do we want them to see us? A man of honor will act like one. I’ve read a lot in recent years about “toxic masculinity,” which usually refers to male behavior that involves drinking, fighting and other destructive traits. There’s nothing wrong with having a drink now and then, and once in a great while it might be necessary to fight to protect yourself or other innocent people, but there’s absolutely no reason why we can’t go through our lives with our heads held high. Not in arrogance, but in pride. Are we not men? Yes, we are. We can be strong and fearless, but we can also be compassionate, loving, and tender-hearted. A real man can be all these things, and he should be. That’s the kind of man other men can respect, the kind that women can love, the kind your children can admire.
Even if sexual harassment in the workplace, or elsewhere, happens only once, it’s still a problem. As enlightened as we think we are, we still have a long way to go, on both sides of the gender aisle. But if we work hard at respecting and understanding one another, working together when we have to and minding our own business if we don’t, we can get there.