Men, Step Up in Today’s Sexual Upheaval

Those of us who are shocked by the abuses can help foster better standards of conduct.

 The revelations of the past year have come as a life-changing shock. Hard as it may be to believe, we did not know.

Let me be precise. We were aware of disrespectful behavior in the workplace—men talking over women in meetings, taking credit for their ideas and their work, paying them less than men doing the same jobs, and passing over them for assignments and promotions they deserved. As we too slowly became sensitive to these practices, we did our best to oppose them.

But we were not aware of gross indecency. I cannot imagine why a man would deliberately expose himself to a woman—at a party, in a hotel room, anywhere. But it seems that this misconduct is not rare.

.. We were even less aware of the pervasive abuse of power to coerce unwanted sex. We had heard about Hollywood’s casting couch. But those of us outside the entertainment industry had trouble distinguishing legend from fact. Because I had spent decades in academia, I knew of cases in which professors and students had entered into intimate relationships, and I supported rules that prohibited such relationships in a wide range of circumstances, even when they could reasonably be described as consensual.

But taking advantage of a hierarchical professional relationship to obtain sex is different. So is taking advantage of another’s inebriation. So is pressuring a woman to drink too much, or to ingest drugs that make resistance impossible. So is scheduling an ostensibly professional meeting in a hotel room and creating an atmosphere of intimidation and fear. So, of course, is rape, and the attempt to commit it, whether or not it is successful.

No doubt others knew what was going on and chose to overlook or suppress it. Men like me were ignorant not because we stopped our ears or averted our gaze. We were clueless because fear and the dynamics of unequal power created a zone of silence and a cone of darkness.

Several young women with whom I have discussed this column find it hard to believe that people like me were so unaware of what was going on around us. All I can say is, we were. There may well be a duty of care—which begins with active, willed awareness of our surroundings—that we failed to discharge. That we needed to be told may be an indicator of failure.

Still, had any woman ever come to my office with a story of harassment, abuse or assault, I’d like to believe that I would have reacted strongly. It never happened. Only now I can begin to understand why it did not.

But now that people like me do know, we cannot remain on the sidelines. We have a responsibility to act. What can we do? How can we become part of the solution?

First, we can help bring about a situation in which the survivors of harassment and abuse feel safer and freer to tell their stories. (I cannot say “completely” safe or free because the malefactors and their sympathizers will always find a way to harass those who come forward.) When serious allegations emerge, independent fact-finding inquiries should be standard, not optional, whether the venue is business, academia or the Senate.

Second, we can step back and allow those whose voices have been diminished to take the lead. Women constitute a growing share of the House of Representatives and many other institutions, including my own. We should support their efforts to transform these institutions.

Third and most important, we can help crystallize the current moment into new norms of conduct. For example, schools are critical norm-forming institutions, and they should instruct children and young people about appropriate conduct in classrooms, on playgrounds and at parties.

When I get to my office every morning, I look at the pictures of my grandchildren that adorn my bookshelves. In one of them, two of my little grandsons are wearing matching shirts that read “Boys will be boys: kind, caring, respectful.” This is more than a wish: It’s a prayer—my prayer. I’ll do what I can to make it a reality.