We are living in the midst of culture in which a large number of men seem to think they are entitled to harass women.
In the wake of the Donald Trump video, Karen Middleton produced a sickening litany of creepy, unwanted, and even criminal treatment she – a powerful and articulate and successful professional woman – has received and observed. The culprits weren’t sweaty, tattooed building workers. They were educated men with powerful jobs. They were wearing suits and ties. They had the community’s respect.
We laugh at the quaint sexism of Mad Men, with its bottom-pinching executives, because it depicts an another era in which lewd comments and groping were acceptable. We know better now, don’t we?
The culprits weren’t sweaty, tattooed building workers. They were educated men with powerful jobs. They were wearing suits and ties. They had the community’s respect.
But apparently not. A new report shows that sexual harassment cases in Australia have increased by 12.8 per cent since 2011. Now, maybe this represents an increase in reporting rather than an increase in incidents, and that’s positive. Even so, the reality is that we have no grounds for sneering at the quaintness of the Mad Men era. We are still living in it.
It also is indicative of the fact that there is a new legislative environment. Boundaries have been drawn. And, hopefully, the framing of rules will be a powerful statement that sexual harassment is unacceptable.
But the law does not change the culture which produces a Trump. What we have is in fact a problem with men, and how they think of women. We need to change men.
We could start with noting the very mixed messages that our culture is sending men. We find Trump’s speech about and behaviour towards women appalling, but at the same time we think that the denigration by the sex ‘industry’ (so-called) is entirely acceptable.
Indeed, the many of the very same liberal feminists who are outraged about Trump, would also be pro-porn. Given the hard science that is around about a) the ubiquity of porn use by men and b) its impact on men’s thoughts about women, is there any surprise that approach the women in their workplace with a sense of sexual entitlement?
Can anyone else see the double standard here?
But pointing that out shouldn’t remove the responsibility that men have for their sexual selves. And here I want to propose there is a need for a ‘new gentlemanliness’. We need the new gentlemen to step forward.
Don’t get me wrong. There’s a way in which the word ‘gentleman’ can be a word for a kind of creepy courtesy. Apparently, when Donald Trump was at the Playboy Mansion in the early 90s, he was 'he was a perfect gentleman’, according to centrefold twins Sia and Shane Barbi, even while surrounded by beautiful women.
A gentleman wouldn’t have been at the Playboy Mansion in the first place.
The new gentleman will realise that, even in the post-feminism era, it is very much man’s world. This is not a statement of how things should be, but how they are. To men is given the assumption of power, like it or not. A new gentleman does not use this advantage, conveyed on him by history, tradition, culture, and even by the natural strength of his body, except to allow space for those who do not have this power.
And what about manners? We associate gentlemanliness with the courtesies that seem now oddly out of date – stepping back to allow a woman to go first, for example, or standing for a woman on public transport. These little rituals came under fire because they seemed to indicate that women were weak and vulnerable creatures, dependant on men.
The new gentleman will realise that, even in the post-feminism era, it is very much man’s world. This is not a statement of how things should be, but how they are.
But these were social habits that taught something that words could not. They taught boys and young men than women were to be respected as equals. They taught them that their advantage in strength and size was to be held back. A gentleman knows that, generally speaking, his body occupies more space and his voice makes more noise. This is why today women have complained about ‘manspreading’ and ‘mansplaining’. And so the right thing to do, in the interests of equality, is to hold back. To make yourself smaller, not bigger.
In Christian thought, we use Jesus as the model of one who had power, but ‘emptied himself’, becoming a servant – a shocking idea in our day as it was in the ancient world. Nietzche thought that Jesus was effeminate – but here, in becoming humble, is the Christian ideal of masculinity.
And that teaches men about their sexuality, as well – how they relate as the possessors of male bodies to those whose bodies are different from theirs. The lesson above all is that sex is about full mutuality. We call this by the tepid word ‘consent’. Can anyone deny this as an ethical norm? True mutuality cannot be coerced, or purchased; and men are more often the beneficiaries in a culture where we use money and power to get what we want.
A new gentleman will understand that the true manly virtues are patience, showing respect, and authentic care for others. He will be able to imagine what it is like to not have what he has; and to imagine that women have things – experiences, abilities, powers - that he does not have.
Michael Jensen is the Rector of St Mark’s Anglican Church, Darling Point, and is the author of My God, My God – Is it Possible to Believe Anymore?