Wednesday, November 14, 2012

The War on Men

If some people could get their hands on it, the Book of Genesis would be written in such a way that Adam came across as a sexual predator. That's right. Eve would not have had anything to do with man's fall from grace which would instead be blamed on a man and a snake. But, of course, Sigmund Freud didn't write the Bible.

You remember the story about a garden and the first man God created, Adam. Well, seeing as there was no Internet or Facebook back then, the Almighty opted to invent Eve to be Adam's companion. The garden was called Eden, and it had a tree in the middle of it.

Remember, too, how God told Eve not to eat from the tree, and Adam and Eve not to touch the tree or harm would befall them. The snake came along and pushed Eve into the tree. Playing devil's advocate, he persuaded her that nothing happened when she touched the tree, and she wasn't punished,. Eve went along and disobeyed the Almighty. Had she obeyed, we might not be here.

It wasn't a bona fide fall from grace until Eve handed the fruit over to Adam who promptly ate it whereupon their eyes were opened to good and evil. It was all downhill from there.

The fall from grace story resonates now, more than ever, in light of the Petraeus affair, and others like it; men who have chosen to eat fruit handed to them, however innocuously, by women.

There is, of course, a big difference between the public reaction to the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal, and that of Petraeus-Broadwell. As you recall, the spotlight was on then-President Clinton, and the radical right led a campaign which led to Clinton's appearance before a Grand Jury to testify about his relations with the White House intern. Bill Clinton was impeached for perjury, at least that was the pretext, and his extra-marital dalliance was roundly condemned whereas Gen. Petraeus is viewed as a fellow who simply exercised bad judgment, and succumbed to temptation.

That innuendo of seduction is nothing new, of course, and can be found in the opening pages of the Old Testament. It's fascinating to see how one can take that same edenic scene of man, woman, and serpent, and interpret it in so many ways. But, nowadays, all too often, in that garden, the man becomes indistinguishable from the serpent.

A year ago, in a college writing class, I gave my students a photograph called "Elizabeth and I" taken by renowned Hungarian photographer Andre Kertesz of himself and his wife which Kertesz took in the early 1930's, and which appeared in a family album. I asked students to come up with a narrative about what they thought happened in that photograph which shows a woman in an easy chair, casually dressed with a hand placed on her left shoulder which, as the title indicates, was the photographer's hand. Judging by the position of the hand, and how relaxed it is, it's difficult to conceive of its purpose as being anything other than to comfort.

In the photo, Elizabeth had dark circles under her eyes as if she hadn't slept which would not be surprising as it was taken in France during the Depression, but even a casual glance will reveal her to be not only smiling, but smiling seductively.

When I collected student essays, to my astonishment, more than 80% of the class, both males and females, wrote that Elizabeth had just been beaten, and physically abused by her husband which is why she looked so upset. Many didn't connect the hand with that of the photographer despite the fact that the picture is called "Elizabeth and I," and were adamant in their insistence, husband or not, that the "I" figure had, in fact, been violent with the woman in the chair.

Why, I asked, would the photographer take a picture of his wife after he beat her, and place it in a family album? It defies logic. Logic appeared to have nothing to do with anything. There was no persuading students that this was the photo of a photographer and his wife that was meant to preserve a special moment in their lives, and not a volatile one.

There was something deeper going on than not picking up visual and verbal clues. These youngsters had been exposed to a barrage of news stories about domestic abuse, rape, sexual predators so often that their default position was to see the hand of a husband, the photographer's, which was clearly meant to comfort the woman, his wife, as instead the hand of a wife beater.

This was, as you might imagine, hugely disconcerting. Is this our legacy? Are we raising children to see a couple in a photograph as a woman posing for a family album after being beaten by her husband?

How, I wondered, had we gotten to a place as a society where a class of young people from all walks of life, political, and religious persuasions could convince themselves that the hand of a man on a woman's shoulder was a hand that had just struck her? Was this some kind of anomaly, or indicative of a societal shift in perception of men?

If it's an anomaly, then why is it that when a young man of 24 who has sex with a 16 year old girl is no longer accused of statutory rape, but is now also designated a sexual predator?

On the evening news, one routinely sees stories about young men, middle aged men, older men routinely being labelled predators, and branded for life. There are communities throughout this country who deny housing to men who have served time for statutory rape, and/or other sex crimes for life. The whole notion of rehabilitation is denied them.

Look, this isn't true of men only. But, women teachers who have been charged with having sex with a minor rarely find themselves labelled "sexual predators." More often than not, women are viewed as victims of unwanted sexual encounters not initiators.

In this last presidential campaign season, women, mainly Democrats, were right to talk about the Republican war on women, and the GOP's ultimate objective of overturning Roe v. Wade, and de-funding Planned Parenthood, and steamrolling all the advances women have made over the past 50 years, but there is another war going on that has gone largely unnoticed, and which also needs to be addressed: the war on men.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not defending men who use their physical or mental power to intimidate, and harm women. All I'm saying is we've gone to the other extreme in recent years. We've gone from denying credibility to women who are victims of sex crimes to unilaterally vilifying men, and labeling them predators. If we're talking about human rights here, and this is the larger issue not women's rights or men's rights, we don't want to victimize either gender.