This open letter began in my head a few days back as a response to the furor caused by multimedia personality Rush Limbaugh, but I realize this is so much bigger than one conservative calling a woman a “slut”, or several men stating their opposition to birth control options for women without hearing the voices of just a few women. This letter is for the men and boys who defend males who have wounded women and girls, who seek to place blame on the females, in some way, when it is clear we men and boys are the aggressors in the vast majority of the cases of gender violence in America, and in most places globally.
I was once that kind of man-child, so I am writing from direct experience. Thanks to God, years of therapy, a desire to heal and change, and a commitment to being an ally to women and girls, that is why I am writing this open letter. I no longer think violence in any form is acceptable, no matter who is committing the act.
For sure, this letter is for grown men and viable businesses, like the rapper Too Short and XXL magazine, which recently made a video that literally encouraged sexual abuse toward women and girls. All for the sake of fun and profit. In spite of such blatant examples, I’ve heard many males say things like “What about the women, the girls, who participate in the videos, who pose for the pictures?” My response is simple: ignorance is a global phenomenon. Just because someone engages in behavior that debases who she or he is does not mean we should take part in it, too.
That is why we celebrate Women’s History Month and International Women’s Day each March, to learn, and to challenge what has become normal and acceptable. I believe it time for us men and boys to think more deeply about how we define manhood, and how for so many of us it is not only cruel to women and girls, but to ourselves as well.
It is dishonest for so-called progressive or liberal men to act as though it is simply rappers, or men like Rush Limbaugh, who engage in foul and despicable behavior toward women and girls. I have heard and been present too many times when we have blasted brilliant women like Hillary Clinton, Michelle Obama, bell hooks, Gloria Steinem, or Melissa Harris-Perry, calling them names because we are threatened by their genius, their leadership, their refusal to submit to our notions of what a woman’s place is. Or think of how many times liberal or progressive media pundits have dissed a woman for the way she looks, or the way she speaks, simply because we male pundits are jealous the woman is getting air time in the first place.
Indeed, it is males of all political ideologies, all faiths, all races and cultures, and all ages and class backgrounds, who view women and girls as less than equal, as less worthy of our humanity and sense of fairness. That is because most of us have been taught or socialized, since we first had thoughts, that men and boys are the dominant beings on the planet; that women and girls are inferior to us; that they have no history, no real role on this planet except to produce children, to take care of the homes, to be our sexual trophies, to be our assistants and secretaries, or the help. We’ve been taught that manhood is rooted in domination, warfare and mindless competition, and a profound belief that women and girls are not the equals of men and boys.
Some of us do know that women and girls are our equals on every level. I know, for sure, I would not be writing this now if it were not for the women who have been leaders in my life. I believe women are, and have always been, the true leaders on the planet, even when we men and boys think otherwise. And I feel there would be fewer wars, fewer international disputes, fewer religious and territorial wars, if women were the heads of more countries, if women were better represented in governments across the world.
I am saying this to men and boys because it is time we ceased with the denials about what is really happening to women and girls on our planet. They are being oppressed, marginalized, discriminated against, raped, molested, beaten, harassed, and murdered daily. The numbers are so staggering, according to VDay founder Eve Ensler, that 1 billion women and girls on the planet, or one in three, will be the victim of some form of sexual assault in her lifetime. That means a woman and girl in your life – your mother, your grandmother, your sister, your aunt, your girlfriend, your wife, and your daughter – may be one of those sexual assault survivors.
But how many of us men and boys have bothered to engage in dialogue with the women and girls in our lives about gender violence? How many of us have ever volunteered at a battered women’s clinic, to see and hear the stories of women fleeing horrific physical and emotional violence at the hands of a male partner? How many of us have the courage to challenge sexist images of women and girls in films, on television, in magazines, in videos, in music, in the way we promote social events, even, with photos of scantily-clad women? And how many of us, alas, have the courage to stand up to a man who engages in any activity or language harmful to women and girls, even if we are the only man or boy in our circle or community to do so? And even if that man happens to be a well-respected or popular figure?
So, again, it is very easy to become intoxicated with the sensation surrounding Rush Limbaugh right now – to pass him off as an aberration. But I think we must come to understand that, as the New York Times magazine was correct in saying, that one of the major human rights issues of the 21st century is ending violence against women and girls worldwide. That means we males have to evolve and redefine manhood in such a way that says, very clearly, that we stand shoulder-to-shoulder with women and girls; we acknowledge and respect the equality of women and girls; and we will never again tolerate any gross disrespect, hatred, and violent acts toward women and girls. Because in abusing and degrading them, we are also ultimately abusing and degrading ourselves, too.