Art by Hermit
Unless you’ve been living under a rock the last 10 days or so, you’re probably aware that Florida Congressman and right-wing blowhard/Trump apologist Matt Gaetz finally had karma catch up with him in a big way. I won’t go into the details; plenty of people already have. It’s your typical story about a hypocritical right-wing “family values” Republican turning out to be another lying, cheating ass-clown, with the additional unsavory whiff of this one being a pedophile into the bargain. Nasty stuff.
Gaetz has long been an egregious asshole, practically daring people to drag him down. His past as a drunk driver and party boy is no secret; his reputation as a spoiled daddy’s boy well-know; his penchant for getting himself into trouble and expecting to be bailed out sadly typical of right-wing scions, from low-level twits we barely know to ex-Presidents we wish we didn’t. And now ol’ Matt’s been caught. And yes, the schadenfreude is sweet.
But that’s not why I’m writing.
Apparently one of Gaetz’s many odious habits has been to share nude pictures of his sexual conquests with his male colleagues on the floor of the House of Representatives. Any male alive is familiar with this kind of behavior—though not, I hope, to this extreme degree—and Alexandra Petri of the Washington Posts asks, in essence, WTF?
Petri is of course much more eloquent, and a good deal more polite. But her question bears answering, especially in this #MeToo era when so many men want to respond #NotAllMen. Why would anyone do such a thing, she asks. “To me, this is something you do, ideally, zero times.”
But if you can’t do it zero times, then ideally it happens only once. It happens only once, because the moment you do it, the person you show it to responds the way a person should respond. You produce your photograph to your colleague, and your colleague looks at you and says, “Never show that to anyone, ever again. Go home and rethink your life. I do not feel closer to you. If anything, I want to have you removed forcibly from my presence by strong gentlemen whose biceps are tattooed with ‘MOM.’ The fact that you thought this would make us closer makes me question every decision in my life that has led me to this point. Leave now and never come back.”
And that’s what I wanted to address. Why doesn’t it happen zero times? Or if it does happen, who don’t the #NotAllMen crowd respond as Petri points out above, and shove it back in the face of the Gaetzes of the world? I mean, this is a totally rational, valid question.
I’m a June baby. Which means I was 17 when I graduate High School. And I’m of average size, and never had much of a growth spurt; grew at a very slow, steady pace. Wasn’t a particularly large, muscular boy. So I was pretty small and slightly-built compared to my school cohort.
And I did a lot of sports. A lot of sports. Baseball, soccer, swimming, basketball, tennis, ultimate frisbee, fencing, some at the collegiate level. This may seem like a digression, but it’s germane in that I am familiar with locker rooms. Too familiar, honestly.
I was also a nerd. I did drama; I did computer science; I was good at math; I was in marching band for a while.
I was bullied. A lot. And in the 70s and 80s, there weren’t any anti-bullying rules.
So I’d like to invite Alexandra into the locker room with me. Biff Tannen takes out a Polaroid of his girlfriend in a revealing pose—in a bathing suit, or in panties, say. Five other guys, all bigger than me, some or all of whom have bullied me, are standing around. What do you say?
Another scenario: Derek and his buds are gathered around his locker, which is just two down from mine, bragging about their (real or imagined) sexual exploits. The glance over at me. “What about you, pussy (or faggot, or queer, or Brainiac, etc)? You ever got in anyone’s pants?” What do you say?
What did I usually say? Nothing. I would shake my head and look away. If I made any kind of negative noise—or hell, noise at all—I would get bullied. They’d surround me and demand an answer. Shove me. Smack me. Once I was stripped of my swimsuit and thrown in the pool naked. Once my bicycle was vandalized for three days straight (and I spent the rest of my high school walking to school out of fear a new bike would be vandalized more). Once I was accosted outside swim practice and only avoided a fight because the coach came outside and then my ride arrived. These are the lessons you learn as a teen.
Repeat this dozens of times in dozens of locker room. With millions of boys all over the country, straight, gay, bi, and trans.
(Gaetz, I might add, reminds me of every bullying high schooler I ever knew. Shorter, yes, but that same laughing, “I can get away with anything” attitude oozes out of him.)
So you grow up, and there are at least two groups: The incels we all know so well, who had it reinforced that sharing those jokes and pictures was perfectly okay because it was fine with their buds, and if someone objected they could stuff them in a locker, strip them naked and throw them in the pool, vandalize their belongings, etc. And there are the bullied, who have been browbeaten for years (some of these are those who say #NotAllMen, I suspect).
(Obviously it’s more complicated than this; these are broad generalizations. And it’s way worse for GBTs.)
Now you’re an adult and you know you’re not going to get stripped naked and tossed onto the floor of Congress; of course you do. But that’s a lot of PTSD to overcome; a lot of programming to fight against. What would I do? Well, what I’ve done is tell that person it’s inappropriate, unprofessional, and to please not do that again. I’ve sometimes reported it to the supervisor. Sometimes I’ve been the supervisor and warned the person.
But for women reading this, I want you to know that though you may think this is an exaggeration, to me when I engage in those confrontations it feels like it must feel to an abuse victim to report their abuser. And I say this as an abuse survivor myself. Even that “small, awkward no” that Petri is (very reasonably!) asking for takes more effort than you might think.
I want you readers to understand I am not copping out; I agree completely with what Petri is asking. What I’m trying to do here is answer her implied question: Why can’t you guys confront this behavior? Why are you not speaking up? I’m not saying we shouldn’t; I’m not saying we can’t; I’m just explaining why it happens less than it should.
Some people have compared the social environment in Washington D.C. to high school. Frankly, I have absolutely no doubt that’s true. In all the worst ways.