It’s a remarkable time in the march toward gender equality.
We find ourselves in the midst of a long-overdue reckoning, a purge of sexually abusive men from all walks of fame. From Hollywood and Washington, D.C. to senior executives in media, tech, and other private sectors, each day seems to see another high-profile male figure abruptly fall from grace via credible accusations of sexual harassment, intimidation, or worse.
With the resulting #MeToo movement, women everywhere are collectively shouting one word: “Finally.” This sudden outpouring is the result of a dam, at the brink of bursting for far too long, giving way all at once for lack of repair. Thankfully, the ensuing flood is washing a lot of creeps away with it.
It is an oxymoronic upheaval: The stories of abuse are ugly, their tellers’ courage and impact beautiful. Sometimes progress comes in spurts, and this current avalanche has spurred a giant leap forward for equality, reshifting workplace power dynamics – and our national narrative – drastically, dramatically, and deservedly.
It’s truly terrific and, as a husband with a working wife, I have a personal stake in this progress.
However, I’m also the father to a son. That’s where all this gets significantly more complicated.
From overdue to overdo
Our society still struggles mightily with historically dominant groups subjugating historically oppressed groups. We have a long way to go before claiming the spirit of equality prevails throughout our society. But in this case, we’re learning to give the benefit of the doubt to women in their efforts to overcome the constraints and indignities of bigotry.
It’s human nature to overcompensate when righting egregious, longstanding wrongs. This is perfectly understandable and altogether appropriate. Progress is imperfect and, for lack of perfection, turnabout is fair play.
Until it isn’t.
As thrilled as I am to see a bunch of sexual deviants get the comeuppance they so obviously deserve, as a father, I can’t help but worry about collateral damage from this still-cresting tidal wave. To explain:
In America, those accused of wrongdoing are supposed to be innocent until proven guilty, a safeguard against lives and careers being ruined by hearsay. Of course, when several victims accuse a lone perpetrator, it’s reasonable to believe these allegations are credible. Instances of single accusations, however, are decidedly more complicated.
And that’s what concerns me. In terms of believability, my son is the wrong gender in our societal narrative of he said/she said. Will he be expelled from college, or fired from a job, simply because one woman, with no proof, accuses him of something inappropriate?
Ideally, our laws and norms are safeguards against overcompensating for generations of unpunished wrongs by indulging in evidence-free condemnations. Due process prevents us from overdoing it.
But practically, parents of boys are in a precarious position, one where the rules of inter-gender engagement seem to be in constant flux. As society understandably amplifies the voices of accusers, we find ourselves raising the potentially accused.
We’re in uncharted territory here. Preparing our boys for this will require a level of guidance and communication that our predecessors in parenthood could never have envisioned – and that we ourselves have yet to fully grasp for its fluidity.
An accusation away
There is, of course, no shortage of useful parenting advice on associating with women. Much of it is very straightforward: Never objectify women. Never verbally abuse woman. Never, ever raise your hands to a woman.
Other advice is less obvious but easily instilled by parents: In high school, don’t dismiss a girl’s ability to do anything (for example, sports) because of her gender. In college, a drunk “yes” isn’t a real yes. In the workplace, don’t interrupt or talk down your female colleagues. They get enough of that from less enlightened men.
But with #MeToo, we’re entering an era where no sage parental advice, even if followed to the letter, can prevent potentially disastrous consequences with any real certainty. I worry that, no matter how pure his intentions or appropriate his actions, my son is just an accusation away from ruin.
We’re already seeing scenarios where children simply exploring their burgeoning sexuality – birds and the bees stuff that all kids go through – are being treated like juvenile delinquent perverts. A few years ago, a six-year-old was suspended for sexual harassment for kissing a classmate. For me, it was enough to worry, usually correctly, that a girl I liked would reject me. My son has to worry about being suspended to boot.
What other mistakes, I wonder, will my son not be allowed to make without being labeled a sexual predator? Will a drunken college hookup – during which both parties are smashed – be construed as sexual assault? Will he be fired from a job for an innocuous compliment taken out of context?
Will his education, reputation, or even his livelihood be jeopardized merely on the say-so of one other person, with no evidence?
For now, the answer is simply “I don’t know.” We’re in the middle of an overdue seismic shift in this country. Once the dust settles, we can hopefully chart less tenuous paths for our boys. For my son’s sake, I sure hope so.