The current upheaval over sexual harassment has many people challenging their assumptions as well as their behavior. Many women have begun rethinking what sexual harassment actually means, what behavior from men they are willing to accept, and what becomes the final straw. Men are being forced to rethink what they say and how they say it as well as what they do.
I think these changes are good for us as a society—and long overdue. As I have written previously, our culture has changed its norms in the past and we can do so again. The Al Franken on-camera transgression raises another issue, however: Whose norms have we been living with all these years?
Answer (of course): male norms.
Why Al Franken Thought It Was Funny
Look at it this way. Al Franken pretended to grab that sleeping woman’s breasts because he was mugging and thought it was funny. He did it in public, in front of a camera, not in secrecy. The awkward truth is that, for men, it probably was funny. Al and the male cameraman and most of the soldiers on the USO tour in 2003 would have thought it was funny.
The only woman in the room, Leeann Tweeden, found nothing humorous in the situation. She also did not like being forcibly tongue-kissed during a so-called rehearsal of a skit. Her opinion did not matter, however, because it fell outside the norm. Had she protested it, she probably would have heard, “Can’t you take a joke?” Men use this fallback defense when they get called out for stepping over the line.
Creating Norms in Their Own Image
This issue goes way beyond Mr. Franken, Louis CK or any other comedian. It goes past humor and into every other aspect of our culture.
Men have a history of making male behavior, male thinking, and male standards into the society’s norm. Their rules apply universally, regardless of gender. It may actually never occur to many that women think differently, react differently and have different ideas of what constitutes mature adult behavior. And, even if they acknowledge that, they may not find it too important.
Why? Because men have been running the show for centuries in most parts of the world. Why? They are certainly not smarter, more intelligent, more creative, or more talented than women. They just possess superior size and strength.
That strength—and the need to protect weaker females from predatory males—has allowed men to dominate women and create cultural norms in their own image.
Women read books like Games Mother Never Taught You or Hardball for Women or Lean In because they need to understand how men think and behave so they (the women) can react in a way that benefits them. Only when you understand the dominant gender’s rules—which are very different from the rules and norms in your own life—can you succeed in a world they have defined.
Men don’t write or read books that would help them to understand how women think and behave. Why ever would they? In a world that puts “bros before hos,” who cares what the women think?
The Only Way to Solve the Problem
It gives me hope that we are having this conversation at all. For the first time, people are offering more than lip service to the issues of male harassment, domestic violence, career extortion, intimidation, and rape. For the first time, people are asking the most important question, which is, “How can we change this?”
The answer is simple: Women need to be in more positions of power. Only when women can reset the rules and change the norms will our society change. Only when men feel real consequences for acting like louts, bullies, and criminals will they modify how they deal with women. Only when men get called out for even creating phrases like “bros before hos” will they understand just how offensive they can be.
The Magic Wand
If I could wave a magic wand tomorrow and do one thing, it would be to have men live as women for a day. That’s all it would take for them to “get it.”