Watching the situation surrounding Governor Andrew Cuomo unfold, I keep coming back to the very powerful sense that the system is applying the wrong medicine. Whether or not he accedes to requests to step down, the focus on his individual responsibility will not in any way address or fix this problem. We are seeing the same thing unfold with the repercussions of the January 6 insurrection. The focus is on individual rights, individual responsibilities and individual needs for justice. But in both situations, the problems stem from the one thing that our legal system is woefully ill equipped to deal with: mob mentality. The clearest proof of this failing is how we have no federal legislation criminalizing lynching. There must be a moral reckoning on collective masculinity.
Why are we trying to fix the failure of the dam by patching one crack?
The worst part of the situation surrounding Gov. Cuomo is not what he did. The worst part is that what he did, someone else is doing at this very moment and someone else will do tomorrow. This is because of the mob mentality of masculinity into which our gendered society has bought. People of all gender identities have a role and a responsibility to change the cultural setting that allows for sexual violence.
A Right to Violence
A couple of years ago, I created a workshop that looks at a pastoral response to unhealthy masculinity. Titled Boys Will Be Boys…No More, the workshop looks at the intersection of race, religion and sexuality and how they are often combined to enforce and protect a “right to violence” among men. I use the “boys will be boys” excuse/narrative as a cultural example of how we don’t hold men accountable for their assumptions about violence, whether that is racial, spiritual or sexual. One of the most important aspects of how I developed this training comes from recognizing that the “boys will be boys” mantra is not driven by individual motivation. Instead, I am clear that this damaging perspective functions entirely on the assumption that “boys” are a collective with a shared sensibility and that they can be lumped into or expected to or worse excused when they adhere to a set of behaviors. It is not so much that individual boys choose to be “boys”; rather, our society regularly tells (and even rewards) boys for being certain kind of (collective) boys.
So why are we so focused on individual rights and accountabilities? Why are we trying to fix the failure of the dam by patching one crack?
There are many answers to that question which, for now, I will not get into. What I want to share instead is one way in which I know, from a very personal standpoint, that our “individualistic” approach to male sexual violence is totally inadequate.
I have been the target of a variety of sexual violences, assaults and aggressions multiple times in my life. I have self-identified as gay and sexually aware since I was in middle school and I was a dancer in the theater; certainly some of my exposure to sexualized situations is due to a the length of time I’ve been conscious of my sexuality and the environments in which I’ve worked. In this moment, however, there are three experiences that are unrelated to my sexuality or professional life that are relevant. The first was when a 40+ year old woman tried to approach me sexually (groping) when I was 14; the next was when I was 19 and a powerful and famous woman in her 50s publicly forced her tongue down my throat; the next was when I was in my 30s and my boss, in her 60s did both in a private room. I was lucky to be able to rebuff all of these, though like any kind of violation, they live with me to this day.
There are many more experiences I could share, but quantity is not the issue here. Also, I don’t share these experiences for special admission into the club of survivors or to claim solidarity, although both of those are true. I share them because I’m clear that these were acts that were not done to me only by individuals and neither were they done to me only as an individual. All of the women were white and older. It was very clear in each circumstance that they were approaching me for my presence as a representative of collective black manhood as much as anything else. Inversely, I have perceived this as a pattern of how some white women, as a group, might choose to sexually objectify me.
But the real kicker of these situations is that they are based on a collective set of assumptions about male sexuality in general. The women all assumed the role of aggressor, regardless of my desires and performed what was clearly to them the male role of taking what they wanted. The sexual language that they were speaking was based on a model of male sexuality that assumes a certain right to violence.
Frankly, there aren’t enough court cases, judges or courts of law to address the millions of individual sexual assaults that occur. One reason I redirected my career toward ministry and the exploration of ethics is because the kinds of fixes that will actually deal with the root causes of sexual violence have to be aimed at the various webs of collective consciousness that bind and inform us as a society. I’m reminded of this every time I hear someone resist calls for dealing with systemic racism because they, as an individual, “are not racist.” But what is the answer if the culture (the water we all swim in) allows you to be able to choose to be racist…without consequence? Why are we willing to tolerate the potential for racism? Likewise, why are we willing to tolerate the potential for sexual violence?
My hope is that Andrew Cuomo will step down as governor of New York. I do not know him personally, but he has clearly done harm and this issue is taking too much time and too many resources away from saving lives. More urgently, however, I hope that we as a culture of gendered, sexual beings will rise up and do more to reveal and heal a modern, evolved masculinity with the proper medicine.