By now, it’s clear that the #MeToo movement has created a cultural shift in this country—one that may forever alter the ecology of gender relations. The voices of supporters have been loud and immensely validating for female survivors of sexual assault and harassment. In a stunning cultural reversal, these survivors are being believed, rather than blamed or dismissed, and their alleged attackers are facing serious damage to their careers and reputations. The movement has been so significant that Time magazine named a gathering of sexual assault silence breakers its illustrious Person of the Year. But while #MeToo continues to move the needle for women, what is it bringing up for the other half of the population?
Most men may publicly support the movement, but privately—very privately, often too privately even to share with their intimate partners—they’re disoriented and wrestling with questions about how the norms that shape their relationships with the various women in their lives have changed. Indeed, as more and more women make their voices heard about the pervasiveness of everything from power imbalances in the workplace to toxic masculinity to full-blown sexual assault, men haven’t exactly rushed forward in droves to become part of the conversation. This relative lack of representation can make it tough to be a man confused by the personal implications of such a broad-ranging social movement. At a time of cultural turmoil like this, having a good therapist can come in handy.
Therapy, that precious space where we pay someone to be on our side, whatever we’ve done or think or fear, has quietly begun to help men do some soul searching. But advising them has meant working without a net for many therapists. After all, helping women with issues arising out of #MeToo has been fairly familiar work. Long before there was a hashtag, before even the internet, as long as men and women have interacted with each other and the modern age of therapy has been around, therapists have been counseling survivors of sexual assault and intimidation. But what are the definitive guidelines for helping couples, supportive but befuddled men, even nonsupportive men, figure out how to rethink their relationships and notions of masculinity now that taken-for-granted norms are being challenged not just in the workplace, but in the intimate arenas of family and the bedroom?
It turns out that behind the scenes in therapy land, practitioners are cautious about answering such questions prematurely. Our field has seen social movements hit hard and then fade away. Even the feminist wave of the ’70s and ’80s eventually ebbed. As noted couples therapist Terry Real joked in a Networker article called the “The Long Shadow of Patriarchy” last year, “As a feminist family therapist, I was obsolete twice over. . . . I mean, who cared about feminism anymore? The points had been made, the lessons learned, and to some degree at least, the battles won—or at least were on the way to being won. Feminism seemed to be old news. As for the impact of traditional gender roles on couples, on society—as for conversations about patriarchy and its effects—psychotherapists seemed largely to have lost interest.” Then, he writes, the 2016 election happened.
And then, on its heels, #MeToo happened. At this point, many therapists, whether they see couples or individuals, are reaching out to each other for advice on helping clients deal with the issues Real argued we’d mostly lost interest in. They’re huddling in mixed-gender groups at cafés, hosting professional panel discussions, and asking for guidance on social media.
The more one talks to therapists around the country and tunes into conversations online, the more it becomes apparent that the #MeToo movement has, at the moment, generated more probing questions for the field than definitive answers.
Hearing Men who Say “That’s Not Me”
Couples therapist Marianne Tamulevich had been seeing clients Miranda and Phil for a few years before the 2016 election. After Phil’s year-long emotional affair with an old girlfriend from college had brought them in for help, the pair—together for decades and the parents of three grown kids—got to work learning to treat each other more lovingly. But seemingly small things could still send Miranda spiraling into emotional despair—an ’80s love song on the stereo, a blonde resembling the old girlfriend walking into their favorite café, Phil retreating to another room to take calls from old college pals.
The affair may have precipitated the therapy, but Tamulevich soon saw there was more than the betrayal to work on. Phil was a perfectionist, and Miranda had spent most of their relationship tiptoeing around him, rarely expressing herself when she disagreed with his views or when he made important family decisions without consulting her.
Over time, Tamulevich helped Miranda find a stronger voice in the relationship, and Miranda was starting to say how she felt and what she wanted with a regularity that was working for the couple. Phil had never been crazy about Miranda’s passivity, and he hated feeling ambushed when her anger would suddenly boil over, so this change was a relief for him. But he did worry out loud in sessions that Miranda still saw him as uncaring and untrustworthy, and he sometimes wondered how long he’d have to repent for the emotional affair he’d carried out, mostly over text.
Tamulevich was impressed with Phil from the start. He seemed to value fairness in all things, and as the white husband of a Latina and the father of mixed-race kids, he was sensitive to social justice issues and the inequities in the world. As therapy progressed, however, the gender component of those inequities was suddenly writ large in the culture, first during the presidential election and then with the #MeToo movement. Despite all their good efforts, Miranda’s anger at Phil started bubbling back up.
Just days after the election results were finalized and not five minutes into their arrival, Miranda, leaning nearly out of her chair with fists balled in a barely contained posture of fury, said she was disgusted that a man who’d assaulted women and sexually objectified his own daughter could be elected to the highest office in the land. Tamulevich nodded her support, but Phil was noticeably quiet while his wife vented. Miranda finally turned to him and asked, “Why aren’t you speaking?!”
He dropped eye contact and said, “Look, I agree with you, I’m just not going to get as emotional as you. That’s not me.”
Miranda’s anger overflowed. “That’s not me!” she spat back at him. She called him insensitive and ignorant and, when he shook his head, she launched an attack about his privilege as a man in the world. He snapped back defensively that she couldn’t pin what was happening in the wider world on him. “That’s not me either,” he insisted, “I’m not one of those men who harass women!”
Tamulevich had seen this dynamic play out in many other couples. Women often felt that the muted responses of their partners exposed a fundamental difference between the genders, with men having the taken-for-granted luxury of not understanding or allowing the humiliation and pain of constant objectification to register with them.
While Tamulevich understood Miranda’s anger and recognized that some other therapists would be inclined to get a man like Phil to express more emotion in reaction to it, she knew they could work on that later. In the moment, she chose a different approach to help this couple: stepping in to defend Phil.
“You know I can say this because I’m a woman,” Tamulevich said to Miranda, “but I hope you can see that in a way, you’re doing to him what’s been done to you as a woman in the world. By telling him he’s not sensitive enough, not passionate enough, it’s like how we’ve been told over time we’re too emotional, too sensitive, too passionate.”
Miranda was quiet, so Tamulevich paused for a moment before continuing, “You can’t blame him for growing up the way he did in the culture he did. You can, though, help him understand what the effects of it may be on you and your marriage. Hopefully, he’ll listen to you, and you’ll listen to him when he tells you what he doesn’t get about the way you’re feeling.”
Miranda nodded at her. “Okay,” she said, sitting back in her chair. “All right.”
Tamulevich didn’t stop there. She encouraged Phil to take this as an opportunity to start really seeing the gender imbalances in our culture—and between the two of them—and to engage with Miranda when she wanted to talk about it, rather than just staying quiet. Phil said he’d try. In subsequent sessions, he said he’d spoken up a little more when he felt that Miranda was judging him and all men unfairly, but he admitted it wasn’t an easy thing for him to do. First, there was the reality that he did know men who treated women terribly. Second, he didn’t know how to insist that he was not one of those men without seeming dismissive of Miranda’s feelings and experiences, reopening old wounds around his affair and sending her down a path of further anger. It was easier, he admitted, to keep his mouth shut.
“Men like Phil,” Tamulevich says, “may feel defensive about being lumped in with some pretty bad guys in our culture, or feel scared or confused by their partner’s feelings, but they don’t know how to express that, so they swallow it. You might ask, so what? #MeToo is a movement to ensure that women’s voices are heard. Why should we care about how these men are feeling? Why do we need to give them room to have a voice? Because if we don’t, then their partners end up feeling like these issues are theirs alone,” Tamulevich says. “It’s a lost opportunity. #MeToo is not only a positive for the culture and for workplaces, but for the intimate lives of couples.”
To get men like Phil to start showing up emotionally and have honest conversations, Tameluvich says it helps to “encourage curiosity, rather than judgment. So you remain curious about what your partner is saying about her own experience of being a woman in the world. You try not to feel too implicated. And I tell them that’s both a good and a very difficult thing to do!”
Selling Clients on Consent
Of course, some men find it easier to talk about the deeply personal effect #MeToo is having on them when their partners are out of earshot, especially when it comes to sexual behavior.
Sex therapist and sexologist Valeria Chuba’s client list is heavy on both single and coupled men. Privately shaken and sometimes concerned about their own complicity, many of these men are now worried about how the movement will deepen the gulf of understanding between them and the women in their lives. When the cultural conversation veers into disgust at the darker side of male sexuality, they struggle with feelings of sexual shame and worries about their past behavior.
“The men I see really care about being decent people. I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to them” Chuba says. Early in the therapeutic process, she often asks them to describe their sexual fantasies, because the sex-positive work she does is founded on cutting through stereotypes and normalizing sexuality for them. They’ll regularly pause the moment they veer beyond the straight and narrow of conventional sexuality and ask her, “Am I grossing you out?” or “I hope this isn’t too much,” or “I’m being inappropriate, right?”
“Just like female sexuality, there’s nothing inherently criminal or pathological or violent about male sexuality.” Chuba says. “It’s just there. But even before #MeToo, we’ve tended to pathologize it, and made men fear that they’re being thought of as violent, offensive, perverted, or creepy.”
For Chuba, much of the secrecy and shame around sex for men and women could be mitigated by embracing a practice of consent. The idea of two or more people saying a willing “yes” to sex before getting busy has long been a fundamental sex-therapist teaching, and entire generations of sexually active adults have now have been schooled in the practice to some extent.
Most Gen Xers, along with Millennials and the newly adult Generation Z, came of age after Antioch College, a progressive institution in Ohio, famously created consent requirements in an effort to end sexual violence at the school. Readily adopted by the students, the rules were widely derided in the larger culture, even though the concept was already being taught in some version by sex educators around the country.
The sticking point for Antioch’s critics—and a gaggle of gleeful ’90s comedians—was that offering consent not just at the start of sexual activity, but at every amped-up step along the way, seemed not only preposterous and a sexual buzzkill, but an overly simplistic, tone-deaf attempt to legislate passion and desire.
These days, a full 25 years after Antioch wrote up its rules, #MeToo has enlightened us to the prevalence of sexual assault and harassment. Companies are racing to update sexual harassment procedures and trainings, and the Department of Education finds itself conducting investigations into how more than 80 elite colleges fumbled sexual assault prevention and complaints. Even so, the same arguments about consent killing passion, and women’s struggles to be clear about their desires, are still being bandied about.
But Chuba thinks we’ve gotten consent all wrong. To her, it’s not only essential for harmonious coupling: it’s the Holy Grail of good sex. Men and women in the larger culture may roll their eyes or pen editorials about how reigniting the consent discussion via #MeToo will drain sex of fun, but in the privacy of their bedrooms, Chuba’s clients are discovering that consent is the secret to the fun sex life they’ve never had.
“The way I’ll talk about consent with men is to explain that no and yes are interlinked,” Chuba explains. If women are empowered to say no, and that no is respected, then they’re also empowered to know when they’re ready to offer a definitive yes. A certain yes is a big win for both partners, since, she says, women’s sexual pleasure is deeply important to most men, and when it’s women choosing and asking for it, everyone feels more satisfied and respected in the end.
The tricky part for therapists, according to Chuba, is explaining that consent goes beyond negotiating sexual acts. It means helping clients grasp women’s fundamental experiences of being overly sexualized in the world, and the conflicting feelings that go along with that.
“In a lot of the conversations I have with male clients, I’m literally a translator. I’ll translate woman into man, and help them develop empathy. This tends to mean helping them understand the reality of female sexuality and desire, which is often different from the way male desire works. A big chunk of it is explaining that reality in terms of safety, boundaries, and a possible history of #MeToo moments for women in our culture.”
For instance, Chuba says, a lot of men have no problem understanding sexual assault, especially incidents like Harvey Weinstein’s alleged behavior. But it normally doesn’t occur to them to question their way of asking their wife to have sex with them by grabbing her breast or her butt out of the blue. The context may be different, the intent less assaultive and more puerile, but it often feels invasive and disrespectful to their partner.
They’ll revisit these moments with Chuba, saying, “I don’t understand why she gets so angry with me.” Or “It’s never the right time to approach her.” She’ll then ask them to consider that when a woman is grabbed, even by a loving partner, it can remind her of how some stranger may have grabbed her in a bar, or rubbed up against her as a teenager on the bus, and she couldn’t easily escape.
Chuba’s clients usually dig in, countering that it’s just play. And not only that, but women can come across as frustratingly uneven about being okay with that kind of play, as well as their desire or readiness for sex. This, Chuba asks clients to consider, may be because of a lifelong practice of defending themselves against sexual advances. They’ve usually spent many years, Chuba tells them, responding to sexual requests or someone else’s desire for them without having the freedom to choose when they want to have sex. “That’s going to interfere with how they feel about sex with you,” Chuba says.
#MeToo seems to be priming some men to really hear this possibility for the first time, and Chuba relishes using these teachable moments to clarify her point. “I’ll often say something like, ‘I’m sure you understand, if you’ve heard a lot of the stuff that’s come out in the press lately, that the reality of women’s lives is a lot more complex than men realized. And that means that there’s a lot of traumatic stuff going on out there that can ruin sex for decent men like you.’”
“I also tell the men that to connect with your partner, you need to create space for both of you—for each of your needs and fantasies. What are the ways you can come across as inviting her to share pleasure, rather than whatever your partner associates you with: pressure, begging, a sense of obligation? We want her to associate you with pleasure, a sense of relief and safety from the world. If you want to have a successful sexual relationship, you need to help your partner feel that.” Chuba also wants to help men recognize that sex doesn’t have to be a pressure- or performance-ridden experience for them either. It’s an opportunity for them to experience the same degree of relief and safety as women should.
“It’s important to be sensitive to the high standards many men hold themselves to in working with you in therapy,” Chub adds. “I’ll always tell them ‘thank you’ every time they share something or ask a difficult question. I’ve had lots of clients tell me, ‘I’ve never told my wife this,’ or ‘This is the first time I’m saying it, and it feels good to talk about this stuff.’ It’s hard for them to be vulnerable, to trust. They weren’t raised to do those things.”
Helping Men Discuss Past Behavior
In October of 2017, soon after the #MeToo hashtag picked up steam, a young Australian journalist named Benjamin Law asked his social media followers to share what they’d do to support the #MeToo movement and the women in their lives. Alongside the hashtag #HowIWillChange, men pledged to believe women when they reported harassment and assault, no longer to be silent when other men disrespected women, and to listen more and talk less. The response in the Twittersphere and the mainstream press was positive, and Law and the posters who followed his lead were lauded.
But when some other men started using a short-lived #IHave tag to confess to having harassed or assaulted women in the past, the response was swift and condemnatory. Men were accused of using the cultural moment to appease their guilt and gain absolution. The fact that they felt they could share such acts without fear of reprisal was criticized as yet another instance of clueless male privilege at work.
Marc Andrews is a therapist in Portland, Oregon, who works primarily with gay men. Although a few of them are wrestling with sexual abuse histories that are triggered by the #MeToo coverage, the more consistent concern his clients are voicing is wondering if they’ve harassed others or been assaultive, and being too afraid to enter the #MeToo conversation to find out. All their anxiety around these questions could fade, he believes, if they could talk freely about them with the larger community.
“A lot of men say they’re reviewing every sexual thing they’ve ever done in life to see if somehow they’ve done something inappropriate. And these are not men who are sex offenders. I think they’re just expressing anxiety, confusion, and not feeling like they can talk about it. There’s frustration and panic. The biggest thing I hear these days is ‘I’m worried I did this.’ And also, ‘I can’t talk to anybody about it.’”
With gay men, Andrews emphasizes, coming clean publicly about harassing behavior or reporting another’s behavior is very fraught. “Gay men are a sexual minority. Historically, they’ve been diagnosed as mentally ill and imprisoned for their sexuality. That’s a pretty scary history to come from.”
Other therapists are also finding men want to open up about their sexual behaviors. Psychologist David Wexler, whose work is focused on men and masculinity, and who’s the author of When Good Men Behave Badly, says that both in his private life and his private practice, men are talking freely with him.
“The number one thing I see is every man doing a gut check. They’re saying, ‘Uh oh, what did I ever do that could get me into trouble?’ Or ‘Have I done things that at the time seemed like a funny joke or a prank that by today’s standards would be considered some sort of sexual harassment or abuse?’”
Wexler recently met with a man who was turning a pre-#MeToo business encounter over and over in his head. He told Wexler the story of visiting an office that had recently hired a beautiful young woman as an aide to a senior staff member. He was an important client of the business, and when the aide took him into a room to see some files, he said, “I can’t believe they’re letting me be alone with you!” He swears he didn’t make a move on her, that he was just being flirty, and that she didn’t seem scared or offended. But he still needed Wexler to weigh in: by today’s standards, had he done something wrong? Had he broken a #MeToo rule?
“Basically, the answer is yes, it was wrong,” says Wexler. “He was an important client of this business, so she felt she had to be nice to him, and he was abusing that. It wasn’t a criminal act, but that was an abuse of power.”
Wexler believes this client would never have brought such an interaction up in therapy prior to #MeToo. “One of the really cool things about what’s happening is everyday guys who might bumble into some situation in which they even moderately abuse their power are now paying more attention to their behavior and to what effect it might have on the woman,” he says.
He adds that when he confirms his clients’ fears that their behavior was inappropriate, rather than getting defensive, they thank him. They tell him it’s helpful to get a straight answer during this confusing time, and that going forward they’ll be more careful.
But how exactly do these discussions go? And how does he help them change this behavior? “My basic approach is to tell them, ‘We want to try to understand where you were coming from. What was your assumption in this situation? What were you feeling? How did you read the situation, and was there a particular emotional need that you had at the time? Did you need a little extra dose of validation or confirmation that a pretty girl might smile at you if you said something flirtatious? If that’s the need, you’ve got to be aware of it so it doesn’t get acted out, even in relatively benign ways,” Wexler says.
Getting Tough with the Guilty
Wexler, whose clientele includes violent offenders, says that for the most part, he’s seen men not only concerned about no longer offending women, but even ready to call out friends and coworkers that do. Still, he notes, a minority of his clients are giving him an earful of #MeToo backlash.
“It’s always going to happen whenever any attention is being paid to women’s experiences with men. Some men are going to say, ‘This is bullshit. If it was so bad, why didn’t these women say something about it before? Look at all the ways in which men are being presumed guilty and have to be proven innocent. Whatever happened to due process?’ Of course, there’s some validity to that. But there will always be some men whose way of dealing with anything that makes them uncomfortable—or perhaps even culpable—is to say, ‘There go the feminists again!’”
Wexler’s response to these men is not to suggest that they’re being sexist or insist that they must believe a victim. Instead, he says, “I’ve found it’s most effective to begin by acknowledging a portion of what he’s saying, like ‘Yeah, there are some cases that we’ve heard of in which some alleged victim was probably making something up. That happens. But, you know, the most important thing is that for so long, so many women who’ve been harassed or abused or powerless haven’t spoken up, and all those stories are coming out of the woodwork. Maybe some aren’t valid, but it sure sounds like most of them are.”
Wendy Behary has lots of experiences with men not embracing #MeToo. Her practice is devoted to treating narcissists and their families. Among her clients are men accused of the kind of blatant harassment and assault that have made headlines since 2016. Notoriously tough to treat unless they’re threatened with something like exposure, these particular men have been surging into her office since #MeToo started trending; however, they’re not showing up with their heads hung low.
“Narcissist types just feel entitled. They think that whatever they want they can have, and anything is theirs. So many of the men I work with really don’t understand what the big deal is with women who are accusing them of assaultive or harassing behavior. They’re saying, ‘I didn’t think that was what was happening. In fact, I thought it was a two-way street.’”
Behary cautions that therapists encountering men like this—often new to treatment but afraid of exposure and suddenly highly motivated to understand how to change—should be aware that they’re challenging to have in consultation and need to be matched with someone who can stand up to their behavior.
“You’ve got to work on yourself to be sturdy, because you’ll need to act like the new parent in their life, to teach them about frustration tolerance, impulse control, and other people’s feelings. You’ll need to talk to them about how to have empathy, how to give as well as take. You’ll be saying a lot of ‘yes, the rules do apply to you.’ So it’s a lot of confrontation. It’s also a lot of diving deep into the insecurities that they’ve worked so hard to cover up, and helping them understand that this cover-up is perpetuating the off-putting persona they present to the world. It’s getting them to see the irony of their self-presentation and the personal suffering happening at a deeper level they’re not even in touch with.”
According to Behary, it helps to know that the narcissistic personality that can birth predatory behavior originates in one of two ways. The first, she says, is a spoiled childhood. “They get to do what they want: no limits, no boundaries, no rules, no consequences, so they grow up thinking that’s the way the world works. These are the hardest to treat because you literally have to teach them to be uncomfortable, and it’s hard for them to understand why.”
Behary says the more typical narcissists have what’s called compensatory narcissism. “This is the child who grew up with more emphasis placed on performance than on the unconditional love that every child needs. So long as they’re performing well, they can scream, curse, yell, break things, do what they want. As adults, many of them are missing a capacity for tolerating frustration or connecting effectively with others.”
This, Behary says, often leads to obnoxious behavior, which gets them bullied and creates an adult mentality of “I’ll show you.” In turn, it can spur an excessive sexual preoccupation, which can be self-soothing: a way to both stroke the ego and avoid emotional feelings and pain.
“When I’m working with narcissists who’ve been the offenders of these horrendous acts, I’ll say to them, ‘It’s not your fault that you grew up feeling that you were entitled to do whatever you wanted without any consequences. But now that you’re aware of how you grew to compensate for your insecurities, it’s your responsibility to figure out what you’re going to do about it.’ So there’s a lot of ‘let’s grasp it, let’s make sense out of it, let’s own it, and let’s learn some new habits that are healthier and adaptive.’”
Encouraging Men and Women to Keep Talking
A few months into the #MeToo movement, the prolific, Obie Award–winning playwright Israel Horovitz was accused of multiple counts of sexual harassment and assault. Horovitz’s own son, Adam, famous for being a member of the rap group the Beastie Boys, publicly proclaimed that he believes the women who have accused his father, one of whom was Adam’s high school girlfriend.
But there’s more to this story. Twenty-five years ago, 10 women who’d either worked with Horovitz at a theater he cofounded in Gloucester, Massachusetts, or in his home as nannies for his children, told their stories of assault to the Boston Phoenix, a popular weekly newspaper, which agreed to publish their allegations anonymously. But nothing much happened. Horovitz continued to stage his plays at the theater in Gloucester, and the media continued to review them, periodically noting the accusations along with Horovitz’s denial.
The Gloucester Playhouse asked Horovitz about the charges in 1993, and when he flatly denied them, they wrote up a sexual harassment policy and left it at that. By some accounts from those who knew him in the intervening years, his behavior toward the women around him seemed not to change. But after the 2016 election, a more recent victim of his decided to go public on social media and then contacted The New York Times. When the newspaper ran the story, it included the experiences of nine other Horovitz accusers, who this time used their names. The theater in Gloucester finally severed ties with him. Plays that were in production elsewhere were nixed.
In exploring why it took a social movement to spur the women Horovitz has been accused of assaulting since the ’90s to go public, Shankar Vedantam, host of the National Public Radio program The Hidden Brain, discussed the concept of social proof. The idea is that whole societies can dictate what will or won’t be publicly expressed and dealt with by their reactions to controversial admissions. If there’s social proof that it’s better to stay quiet, most victims will; if there’s suddenly proof that it’s safer than it once was to go public, more will raise their voices and be heard.
For Horovitz’s victims, it indeed took some social proof—in this case American culture suddenly and with consistency believing harassment and assault survivors and condemning their perpetrators—for these women to feel that times had changed, they could come forward publicly, and it might be okay.
Some therapists are finding that to solidify that proof, retain the gains of #MeToo, and thoroughly convince men of the importance of this issue, the #MeToo genie needs more time out of the bottle.
Flori Willard is a marriage and family therapist whose clients include international and culturally diverse couples in and around Washington, DC. She’s seeing #MeToo cross cultural boundaries and make an impact on these couples, regardless of their background. But she thinks for that impact to stick, women must be willing to let their partners know about their experiences. Otherwise, they may dismiss #MeToo as something that’s happening far away from the females they love.
“My women clients will say, ‘It’s so clear that I feel this way, so my partner should get it.’ But no, they don’t. They really don’t, because they’re subject to automatic, intergenerational, and cultural messages. Without you telling them, they don’t know,” Willard warns.
She likens this obliviousness to the experience of looking at the ocean from the shore or the sky and assuming that everything below the surface is calm. The waves may have a slight chop, but the scene seems orderly and manageable, like day-to-day life. Only when you dive in and open your eyes do you discover a teeming and turbulent world. Once men are privy to the turbulence in women’s worlds, they can better empathize with their partners and amend their own behavior.
“When they hear the women really opening up about what’s happening below the surface, then it’s clear. Maybe they used to think, ‘If you just wink at someone once or twice and make a sexual comment, you may get a funny look, but it’s okay.’ Now they can sense the underlying pain, humiliation, and helplessness that comes with that look. To hear how their partner has developed coping strategies to pretend they’re okay when they’re really upset or afraid—that’s a big eye-opener.”
Believing in Men’s Humanity
David Bowman is a therapist who, with his wife, runs Imago workshops for couples called “Getting the Love You Want.” Like Willard, he thinks the best resource for a man fuzzy on the whats and whys of #MeToo is his own partner. But he encourages men not to wait for their partners to be forthcoming, and to ask direct questions about their experiences.
“Confide in that person,” he says. “Ask what’s right and what’s not. Ask, ‘Have I done anything to you that made you uncomfortable?’ And ask, ‘How do you see me in light of #MeToo?’”
Bowman trusts that many men are already doing this, partly because he’s discovered over the years that men’s greatest priority in life is to have a partner who’s happy with them. Because Bowman sees this loving side of men daily in practice, he was motivated to pen an essay that he sent out to his community of therapists, graduates of his couples’ workshops, and members of his men’s group. He titled it “Men Behaving Well, the Forgotten Many.” In it, he emphasized that although men have traditionally been entitled to behave badly toward women, many of them haven’t. They haven’t touched women against their will, haven’t engaged in “locker-room talk.” They admire powerful women, and they believe women when they talk about harassment and assault.
“I don’t think there’s a man alive who hasn’t done something they look back on at this point and say, ‘Gosh, that was inappropriate,” he says, “But at the same time, I felt the men I knew and cared about deeply were being overlooked in this whole conversation. I’m thrilled that women are coming forward. I think it’s long overdue. And I’m thrilled that men are having to pay the price for their behaviors—and there are a lot of guys who feel the way I do.
There’s growing evidence that #MeToo might go down in history as the movement that, beyond empowering women, helped male victims of sexual assault, notoriously resistant to coming forward, to open up and get the support that they deserve.
Although a number of male actors have gone public with their own experiences of sexual harassment and assault—including Brendan Fraser, James Van Der Beek, and, perhaps most famously, Anthony Rapp, who accused fellow actor Kevin Spacey of assaulting him when he was a teenager—many more men have stayed silent. According to the National Alliance to End Sexual Violence, 1 in 6 men have been sexually assaulted as boys, and 1 in 25 as adults.
Psychologist David Wexler says, “We could talk for hours about the different experiences of male victims of both domestic violence and sexual assault. As difficult as it is for women to think of themselves as victims or publicly reveal themselves to be victims, it’s significantly more problematic for men.”
Mary Jo Barrett, trauma specialist and cofounder of the Center for Contextual Change, suggests that the sheer sweep of #MeToo, with its inclusion of famous powerful women as victims, has exposed how common it is to be sexually assaulted or harassed. Acknowledging that commonality can free something up in many female victims. Their feeling of being part of a shameful little club can shift into a realization that they’re connected to a huge and faultless community of survivors.
One man who’s taken #MeToo’s lead is actor Terry Crews, who says hearing women go public with their experiences was the inspiration he needed to tell the tale of his own alleged assault by Adam Venit, a formidable Hollywood agent. Crews has tweeted and spoken to the media about how in 2016, Venit, whom he’d never previously met, groped his genitals twice at an important Hollywood event. He eventually reported it to the Los Angeles district attorney, and filed suit against Venit. A few months later, the D.A. and the city attorney’s office both rejected the case, citing the statute of limitations.
Crews, a former NFL player, has been hailed by many for announcing that he “will not be shamed.” Still, a producer of a film series he’s been a part of pressured him to drop the lawsuit “if he wants to avoid further problems.” On social media, Crews has been called a “money-grubbing crybaby,” who didn’t experience “real sexual harassment,” and was taunted, as many male victims are, for not fighting back.
Crews responded to questions about why he didn’t fight back by reminding people that big Hollywood agents have great power over whether or not actors work, and that a story about a physical altercation could only have ended badly for him, an African American man. Time included Crews in its Person of the Year cover story on “silence breakers.”
Therapist David Bowman thinks whether or not men who’ve been sexually assaulted or harassed are inspired to be as public as Crews, they still deserve to heal, and ought to feel encouraged to work on their abuse in therapy and be heard.
“Men tell me about their abuse privately over lunch, or in a session with their partner, or in a men’s group, but mostly they still aren’t going to go public because of the shame factor. But you know,” Bowman says, “women lead the way in many respects in this world. There very well could be a next wave here where men come forward. I wouldn’t be surprised at all.”
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Lauren Dockett, MS, is Psychotherapy Networker’s senior writer. A longtime journalist, journalism lecturer, and book and magazine editor, she’s also a former caseworker taken with the complexity of mental health, who finds the ongoing evolution of the therapy field and its broadening reach an engrossing story. Prior to the Networker, she contributed to many outlets, including The Washington Post, NPR, and Salon. Her books include Facing 30, Sex Talk, and The Deepest Blue. Visit her website at laurendockett.com.