How do we love men right now when it is hard to love and yet love is so desperately needed?
This is a question with which I am wrestling in the aftermath of the recent U.S. Supreme Court confirmation hearings and nearly a year after the #metoo movement was catapulted into global prominence.
It’s not entirely a political issue. My heart wants answers. I am a single, childless, cis-gender, heterosexual black woman in her 40s who reads Jane Austen novels, has cherished friendships with men, and still believes a long-term, committed, romantic, partnership is possible.
But I don’t know how to love men right now.
There is a tendency to believe that “our men” are the good ones. Our father, husband, brothers, sons, uncles, boyfriends, cousins or besties would never sexually assault or harass a woman. “Our men” would never engage in or passively witness male-bonding rituals designed to strengthen friendship among men at the risk of the health and safety of women. Yet, the sheer number of stories from women who have been the survivors of such behavior suggest otherwise. Somebody’s man did, including, and quite possibly, “our men.”
I had a series of heartfelt conversations with my cis-male friends about their perspective during the Supreme Court hearings. Some of them admitted to participating in locker-room talk. One friend revealed he was accused of sexually harassing a female co-worker, which ended his career. Another said he wrongly dismissed female concerns about a male colleague because the guy was his friend.
While the details of their stories differed, shame, regret and a desire to do and be better were common denominators. It was at this point of naked vulnerability at which I could meet them. I accepted and held space for their truths while sharing the raw honesty of what it’s like to be a survivor of sexual assault and harassment. Our conversations taught me that we are all in pain. And yet, together is the only way we move forward.
I am angry, too. But I cannot indulge my rage. I am not dismissing or excusing sexual harassment and assault. Nor am I suggesting forgiveness as an anemic response to the visceral, emotional pain many of us feel. Nevertheless, there must be an honest and full-throttled reckoning. The way we treat ourselves and each other is not working for anyone.
The gender roles to which we currently conform and affirm do not support our sustained, loving existence together. A man must not be measured by the way he dominates and controls people and resources. A woman’s worth must not be based on the degree to which she submits to her own oppression. The many, varied, and beautiful expressions of gender identity between the two polarities must be afforded full and equal respect, rights and protections.
It is said that “love” is a verb. Listening, speaking truth, and reflecting are my favorite “love” verbs right now. I listen to the courageous women coming forth after years of terrified silence. I also listen with compassion to the stories of men who feel crushed by the expectations of masculinity. I speak the truth to the men in my life who harmed me and other women. I reflect on how to be a better human.
We have to do more because the problems we face are not just matters of interpersonal relationships. The violence and abuse we visit upon each other spill into our societal, political, and economic institutions. These corrosive and outdated beliefs govern who gets heard, who gets helped, and which people are deemed important.
Understanding the messiness, including the violence, of our shared humanity while maintaining healthy boundaries provides fertile ground for reconciliation and healing to grow. Cultivating this soil daily is the only way I can love men right now. Or, as my friend Marissa said, “You know, Kerra, there are other alternatives.”