For many years I treated stories of male abuse of women as aberrations. I told myself that those asses who touch women inappropriately, who verbally abuse women, who treat women as inferior — these guys were bad apples, but didn’t represent anything more than a small minority of men. I heard the stories my wife and other women told me and shook my head in disgust, but never considered the problem to be broad. One asshole can hurt a lot of women, I told myself.
But with the MeToo movement, and more women coming forward with their stories, it began to dawn upon me that there might be a great many more such men than I had imagined.
I also had a personal experience that skewed my perceptions. For a few years, I enjoyed considerable fame in my field of work, as well as a lot of money. I was Mr. Big Shot. I think I did a pretty good job of not letting it go to my head. But the first shock came when a woman tried to seduce me. My first reaction was, “Who, me? I’m short, I’m ugly, I’m not in the least way sexy.” I just couldn’t believe it. Another woman tried to seduce me a year later. Again, I was incredulous; how could any woman be attracted to me sexually? What I learned was best expressed by Henry Kissinger: “Power is the greatest aphrodisiac.” Men are sexually attracted by physical beauty in women, but women are attracted by a more complex array of traits, including wealth and power.
This led me to believe that powerful men have plenty of women chasing after them, leading to lots of sexual couplings, some of which would ultimately end badly. I concluded that there would always be lurid stories of sexual misbehavior about powerful men, in which both the man and the woman would bear differing degrees of blame. It did not occur to me that this experience might teach wealthy and powerful men that they can have their way with all women.
The turning point for me came with the Kavanaugh hearings. I had been slowly shifting towards a more negative assessment of the behavior of men as a group, but the Kavanaugh hearings gave me a perception-shifting kick in the butt. It was obvious to anybody who wasn’t politically biased that Ms. Blasey Ford was telling the truth. Her body language, her voice intonation, her facial expressions — everything made it clear that she was honest and speaking in good faith.
By contrast, Mr. Kavanaugh’s behavior was just as obviously demonstrative of his guilt. Like any cornered male, he lashed out at in fury at the accusations. This is standard behavior among men caught red-handed; rather than admit guilt, they attempt to intimidate their accusers with their fury. Watching him, I felt as if he was screaming loudly, “I’m guilty and mad as hell that you caught me!”
How could I have missed the ubiquity of such behavior? I spent the next few months closely interrogating my female friends, trying to establish the extent and character of male mistreatment of women.
Then, just a few weeks ago, the information coalesced in a brainstorm. I realized that there are two types of men in this regard, and I already knew who they were. I went through a checklist of every man I had known: yes, yes, no, no, yes, no, no, no, yes, no… using only the behaviors I had observed in them, I could tell which men were abusers and which weren’t.
I cannot yet clearly articulate what makes the difference. The first approximation is ambition. There are some men who are always clawing their way up some unseen ladder, grasping for wealth and power. Other men prefer to let whatever wealth and power come their way through their own merits, but the abusers are always reaching for more.
My guess is that some of these men eventually learn the risks of excess ambition, and learn to suppress its observable manifestations. Mr. Kavanaugh strikes me as one such man. He was unquestionably a sexual predator in his youth, but appears to have reined in his darker side once he got married. Now that he has achieved the pinnacle of his profession and has little need to behave in a civilized fashion, his discipline may weaken. We may yet get the opportunity to impeach this animal.
I must emphasize that the majority of men, I believe, are of the second type, thinking and behaving in a civilized manner, eschewing overweening ambition. They might sometimes play along with the machismo of the predators as part of an attempt to be a member in good standing of the “cool guys group”. This flaw stems from youthful lack of self-confidence, not intrinsic evil. Most such men outgrow the desire to belong to the “cool guys group” in their twenties.
There’s a strong cultural component to this; has anybody noticed that accusations of sexual aggression are rarer in Europe than in America? I speculate that this is due to American exaltation of ambition. Europeans judge excessive ambition to be gauche; Americans laud ambitious men as pioneers. This places us on the horns of a dilemma. American adulation of ambition lies behind the pioneering entrepreneurial drive that has put America at the forefront of so many innovations. European reserve has held back what some economists call “animal spirits”. Those animal spirits lay behind much of American entrepreneurial creativity; at the same time, they encourage sexual predation. American culture puts testosterone on a pedestal; we should not be surprised when that testosterone breeds sexual predators.
I think it possible for us to establish strict rules protecting women from testosterone poisoning. We must make it clear that sexual predation is inimical to personal success. Men who abuse women must be cast down from the heights of wealth and power, exiled from the society of privilege, and ground under foot. We must heap abuse on those who abuse women. Our efforts must be publicly loud and forceful. Only when ambitious men understand that sexual predation will confound their ambitions will they start to behave in a civilized fashion. Only this way will our society be able to fully tap the energy and talent of half the population.