I met the man I have come to think of as my Harvey Weinstein when I was around 13 years old. He was the head waiter at the catering hall where I worked, and he spent the next three or four years groping and fondling me as often and in as many ways as he could. Once, when we had back-to-back jobs to work and had almost no time to sleep, he gave me Black Beauties to take so I could stay awake. This was when Black Beauties were really Black Beauties, not the diet pill that later had that name, and he hinted very hard that I owed him something in return, and that, if I couldn’t afford to pay him money, there were “other ways” he’d agree to be compensated. Nothing ever came of that, though. I think he backed off in part because he was sort of a friend of the family and he was worried what would happen if I told. It’s important to remember that, at this time—around 1978 or so—while people were beginning to talk more openly about sexual violence against women, no one was talking about the sexual abuse of boys. Even if I had wanted to tell someone, there was no language in which to describe what he was doing to me as the sexual assault that it was. I literally did not have the words to understand and name my own experience.
I’ve been thinking a lot about this man lately, as I’ve been thinking about the significantly older male colleagues of mine who, when I was first hired at 27 at the college where I teach almost thirty years ago, would pull me aside at the beginning of every semester to ask, “How many really hot women do you have in your class?” When I refused to answer, which I did every time they asked, they would look at me incredulously and tease me by saying that I wasn’t answering because I probably had my eye one or more of those women. I have often wondered at my own silence back then, which—while it was a form of resistance—was a relatively passive one, in that it did not confront those men with an open and explicit refusal of the sexist, exploitive male bonding in which they were trying to engage me. In the late 1980s, there wasn’t much of a language yet—I’d say it was just starting to develop—in which men could confront other men on those terms. It wasn’t that I didn’t know what was going on, but I didn’t yet have the words to assert and insist on my own disloyalty to that male code.
Those are just two examples of how impoverished our language for talking about not just manhood and masculinity, but also male sexual vulnerability, was back then. That language is far less impoverished now, and I have been listening to and reading the words of men who are using it to talk about who Harvey Weinstein is, what he did, and what he represents. It is heartening. At the same time, though, I am very aware that, because the people Weinstein targeted were women, this talk, from both men and women, tends to render my own experience with my own Harvey Weinstein invisible. It is, in other words, explicitly heteronormative—a fact that poses a serious challenge.
On the one hand, it would be dishonest and irresponsible to hold sexual violence against women and sexual violence against men as entirely equal in every respect. Regardless of what may be true about the frequency with which men experience sexual violation, or the kinds of violation we experience, it is not the case that sexual violation is used against men in the pervasive and systemic way that it is used against women as a class, to keep them silent and subservient, to hold them back, etc. We have to be able to talk about what Harvey Weinstein did and what he represents as part and parcel, and as perpetuating of that system, and we have to be able to have that discussion without it being diluted by calls to pay simultaneous and equal attention to sexual violence against men.
At the same time, though, if we do not find a way within the larger context of this discussion to give sexual violence against men and boys the weight it deserves on its own terms (not in a weighted comparison to women’s experience), then we will be telling an incomplete and ultimately impoverished story about sexual violence in our culture. Not only would that be doing real harm to the men and boys who, like me, are survivors of sexual violence (or, perhaps more accurately, not only would it perpetuate the harm that is already pervasively being done); it would, in the end, precisely because of its heteronormativity, perpetuate many of the notions about manhood and masculinity with which all too many people seek to normalize, excuse, rationalize, justify, and/or minimize what Harvey Weinstein did and what he represents; and that would do real harm to the women whom men like Harvey Weinstein continue to target. Not to mention how much more difficult it makes things for those men who are working out ways of being men that are not exploitive, and for those men and women who are trying to raise sons who will stand in opposition to the Harvey Weinsteins of the world.