As I get older, I try to keep the sense of my own decline from infecting my view of everything else. Solipsism is a vice more commonly associated with the young and their often reckless insistence that nothing outside their own minds can possibly matter. They pinball their way through lives, their own and others, until the damage caused and encountered finally breeds a little caution, a realization that there is wisdom in the experience of others, that there are more things on heaven and earth than they had dreamt of in their unseasoned and hormonal philosophies.
There is solipsism in aging, too, the false triumph of experience over memory. The idea that your own creaky knees are the only knees, that the litheness and grace of youth were lies and that decline is truth. The ease with which the optimism and hope you once envisioned is now blotted out by the inexorable yawning maw of the grave.
In short, just because you have your third colonoscopy coming up in a week, you don’t get to assume the whole world is going to shit, too. Your life is esoteric; it’s history that’s universal.
As a younger man, I viewed the arc of history as incontrovertible evidence of the march of progress. Writ large, it still is. Most of us, certainly almost anyone reading this blog, live lives of luxury and privilege that would be the envy of kings and princes in centuries not too long past. Diseases that have been the scourge of man since the dawn of time have been largely eradicated. Instead of regularly confronting starvation we deal with obesity as our bodies, tempered through evolution and tens of thousands of years of scarcity choke on the unexpected largess we have wrung from nature. Politically most of us in the developed world no longer suffer the constant and capricious whims and crushing repression of tyrants and live instead with a balance of security and liberty that, even a few centuries ago, would have seemed the unattainable Utopia of idealistic fools.
As a boy, I watched bull-necked sheriffs turn dogs and fire hoses on my fellow citizens because they dared march for their rights. I saw a huge swath of Chicago burn in riot and rage when their champion was shot down on a Memphis hotel balcony. But I saw laws change, attitudes change, realities change – not enough, not yet, but a lot and in the right directions. Nigger was still common currency in my youth, still tossed around casually by many of my race. Now I only hear it in rap songs.
Fag, homo, queer – these weren’t just pejoratives. For a high school jock in the 1970s they were pedagogical tools. Not tough enough? Not man enough? Then that’s what a coach would call you to goad you back into your rightful place in the world of real men. A coach, an officially sanctioned symbol of authority and the guy who also taught history, who would pound the podium in righteous indignation when decrying the treatment of blacks, of the American Indians, hell of pretty much everybody. In my youth, it would have been progress for homosexuality to even be considered a mental illness. Then it was just a disgusting perversion, one I assumed, given the seeming unanimity of that opinion, to be exceedingly rare. It never occurred to me that, every time those words were used, some of my own team mates, my own classmates, for Christ’s sake my own friends, suffered in shamed and secret silence. It never occurred to me to even think about it. I wasn’t tortured with any horrid homophobia beyond maybe a passing thought that the sexual mechanics of it seemed, well, gross, but in hindsight, I was pretty comfortable with the idea that, should I ever encounter and actual fag, I’d know him right off by his limp wrists, lisping voice and mincing manner. And I wouldn’t like him much.
Until college, until I heard the whispers that the guy down at the end of the dorm room hall was gay, him and the other guy, the guy from the other dorm who used to visit him a lot. Well shit, they both seemed, I dunno, normal. I mean the one guy, he played sports and everything. And maybe, just maybe, if that’s what being a homo was, then it was nothing more than whatever the two of them decided to do while they were behind that closed door. Maybe everything I’d been taught was wrong.
Thirty-five years on, I’ve seen laws change, I’ve seen attitudes change, I’ve seen realities change. Not enough, not yet, but in the right direction.
And then there were the women. Nobody hated them when I was a kid as far as I could tell. People loved their mothers. Most of us thought our sisters were OK. But yeah, things were different. In grade school, girls couldn’t be altar boys, couldn’t be patrol boys – well of course they couldn’t, right? I mean “boy” was part of the title. Girls didn’t have sports teams. They were the cheerleaders. When the nuns picked a handful of us to take an ad hoc field trip into Chicago to see these fancy new computer things our classmate’s dad ran, they just picked boys. Never mind that most of the girls had better grades. Never mind that the dad’s kid was a girl. It’s not like the girls were going to be running those things when they grew up. They were going to be moms. There was a natural order to things, that’s all.
I think I already knew that was wrong. I already knew my own sister was at least as smart as I was, that she wasn’t going to settle like that, and that she shouldn’t have to. By college, the idea that the women in my classes were going to do the same jobs as the guys when they graduated, that felt like a given to me. Yeah, they were going to have a harder time because the old farts who still ran things were dickheads, but surely that would all have changed by now, right? I mean my generation wasn’t going to perpetuate this bullshit, was it?
I’ve seen laws change. I’ve seen attitudes change. I’ve seen realities change. Not just in the right direction, but, in this case, I thought maybe close to enough. I thought maybe society was over the hump on this thing. Sure, there were always going to be some reactionary troglodytes that would never get their misogynistic heads out of there asses, there would always be some bible (or Koran) thumping dickheads so drunk on Jesus juice that they really thought women were just spare ribs cooked up by the hand of their bizarre idea of god in the their science-denying Eden and left here for their use and pleasure. There would always be some of those idiots, but fewer and fewer of them, and more and more marginalized. I thought, as a whole, we were past that.
I guess I was sheltered. I’ve seen young women I know go to Division I schools on athletic scholarships. I’ve been treated by female doctors. In the fields I’ve worked in, women are so common, increasingly even in leadership positions, that the idea of them being sexual chattel in anyone’s mind just seemed laughable. I wasn’t paying enough attention. I was too ready to dismiss the idea that things had not progressed as far as I believed as the strident ranting of overly sensitive feminist types.
Then this Steubenville thing happened. Live and on camera. A girl, either unconscious or barely conscious, being used as a sex toy by a laughing, preening crowd so certain of the propriety of their revolting behavior that they not only weren’t conducting their rape in secret down some dark alley, but that they were taping it, photographing it, tweeting it, celebrating it. And the rapists weren’t products of some distant culture that had indoctrinated them into a woman-hating mindset foreign to our shores. They weren’t even deprived and impoverished inner-city youths desensitized to violence from an anti-childhood spent in an urban war zone. They were normal small-town Midwestern kids.
When their unconscionable acts were revealed, this horrific rape was not met with universal condemnation, but rather with equivocation, as a subject of controversy, as if there was some lens through which it could be viewed that made this rape other than monstrous, that made these rapists other than monsters. When these monsters were found guilty, but guilty as juveniles and so sentenced to one and two years, with the likelihood that their records will be sealed when they are adults, the focus was not on the scars that the victim would bear for the rest of her life, it was on how these fine young gentleman with their shiny GPAs and football skills would now face a tougher lot in life, as though the choice to commit a felony was a tragedy that had befallen the poor boys, not a conscious act of narcissistic and rapacious greed.
The people making these excuses? They weren’t hate-mongering Westboro-baptist nutjobs, they were reporters on CNN. Christ, they were people like me.
And it hit me. Things weren’t moving in the right direction. They were going backwards.
I’m no prude. I think sex is fine. I think it’s great. I think the US has an unhealthy puritanical attitude toward a normal biological impulse, an attitude that is far too influenced by religious traditions bent on the oppression of women and too little influenced by common sense. Paradoxically, we are also a culture that has taken the objectification of women to levels that far exceed those of my youth.
Sure, when I was a kid, women were often used as sex symbols, were often objectified – hell, were usually objectified. But there as the attendant idea that they should be protected. Neither idea was right. Sex should be part of being human, not what makes you inhuman. And nobody should be protected because she is a woman. We all should be protected equally because we are human beings.
Instead, the objectification of women has been amplified as our culture has coarsened. The sexualization is more overt, starts younger and is more constant as technology bombards us through more devices, with more types of media and with fewer constraints. Simultaneously, any idea that a man shouldn’t take advantage of a woman, should instead protect a woman, has been jettisoned as paternalistic sexist garbage. Steubenville is the predictable result.
Should mature, healthy adults be able to celebrate their sexuality in any consensual fashion they choose? Sure. But instead we seem to be raising a society of males turned into voracious sexual gluttons, too many of whom now see the female gender as a self-serve buffet of breasts and genitalia from which they have license to take whatever they want, whenever they want, and with so little fear of consequence that they can tape and tweet their rapes as if life was nothing but a YouTube video, each act itself just a momentary diversion, the reality of it gone when you click the next link. And we seem to be conditioning a generation of young women to accept this as their lot in life, or worse, to encourage and defend it, if the two young women just arrested for threatening the Steubenville rape victim are any indication.
The arc of history, it turns out, does not tilt automatically toward progress. It goes where we drag it.
When it comes to the right of women to control their own sexuality safe from coercion or outright force, when it comes to their right to be seen as complete human beings whose sexuality is no more or less important than that of someone with a penis, when it comes to their right to be treated equally and fairly, we are dragging history in the wrong direction.