Or, How Toxic Institutions and Norms Made Being a Woman in America Suck in So Many Unique and Special Ways
If you’re wondering why an endless hit parade of powerful men haven’t been revealed as sexual abusers in say Britain, France, Germany, or Sweden — to nearly the same extent, at least, as in America — the answer is simple: women aren’t mistreated there to nearly the same degree. America is unique, singular, and special, as it so often is in matters of abuse and violence — but nowhere more so, perhaps, than towards women. Here’s a particularly repellent example, from a man who’s on CNN every day. Or you could think about the fact that, well, the President is a sex pest. Or you could think about the fact that America one of very few rich countries in the world to have never had a female head of state, to still consider outlawing basic reproductive healthcare, or where women still don’t have equal constitutional rights. Why is that?
But I don’t mean this in a statistical sense— I mean it in a subtler one: statistics will never, ever capture how different it feels to live as a woman in America, versus in a truly civilized society. I’ll base this essay — which tries to point out some of those differences — on things which my partner and sister and friends (all female) have told me, and things which have struck me, over the years, as a man who’s lived in both places. Is that fair enough? You can be the judge.
For a very long time now, all the women I know — every single one — who’ve lived in both places, say exactly the same thing: you don’t know how utterly badly you’re demeaned, abused, and devalued as a woman in America until you’ve lived in a society which isn’t America. Until then, the abuse, harm, and dehumanization you suffer is often almost invisible. And that strikes me as 100% true — because it was true for me, too, as a frail, sickly, bookish guy who wasn’t quite like the typical American bro.
That isn’t to say there’s no abuse in other countries. Sure there is. Let’s speak like grown-ups please. It’s to say that, for, example, America’s the only rich society which would seriously “debate” (LOL) if having Supreme Court justices who’d been accused credibly of sexual assault, matters — or doesn’t matter. Decode that, and it means something like this: women are dehumanized and demeaned and devalued as a normal, everyday event, which American institutions grant legitimacy. Granted legitimacy, abuse becomes veiled — so endemic and pervasive, women often didn’t know it was abuse, as many women say today about the way men acted not so long ago towards them. And that means there’s something wrong, really badly and profoundly wrong, with the norms and values of American men (and even some women) hold towards women — because they are what let this process of legitimizing abuse by veiling it, putting a socially acceptable face on it, happen.
Now, America has a profoundly abusive culture towards women because only America, among rich countries, at least, is such a uniquely, weirdly patriarchal society. From the day they are born, a set of institutions which exists nowhere else in the world socializes men to think it is ok to prey on everyone, and women are a big part of everyone. The key point is this: these institutions only exist in America. They are unique to it. And so women are treated better — more fairly, more humanely, more gently — in other rich societies because patriarchy is not such an institutional reality there. Hence, one of the many ways America has failed to become a civilized society is in its normalized, culturally tolerable mistreatment of women.
Can #WhyIDidntReport be a turning point? I hope so, hence I want to discuss what all the above means in detail, because institutions aren’t captured by statistics — only by narratives. Let’s think about the life of the American male — not an average one, but one who is aspiring to become a part of the elite, and then does — and how these institutions which exist nowhere else, really, shape it.
From an early age, he is usually sent to a prep school. Now, prep schools exist everywhere, it’s true. But American prep schools are different. In Europe they are still carriers of the genteel values of the faded aristocracy — so places like Eton or Harrow, which teach Latin and Classics and so forth, produce Boris Johnsons, who are a little funny, and a little strange, and maybe even politically questionable. But they don’t really teach American values —instead, they try to teach things like ancient history and higher purpose and ethics. So they do not produce Brett Kavanaughs — sneering men who prey upon society wholesale, starting with women.
Only American prep schools produce, predictably, a class of little predators totally unfit to run a modern democracy — my parents tried to send me to many, over and over again, and I resisted. They are not trying to instill old European aristocratic values (which, yes, we could fault, for many reasons), but they are trying to instill the classical American values of white supremacy, which are much, much more toxic. In the South, that is done very, very explicitly. Stonewall Jackson — what a hero!! But even in the North, prep schools inculcate the values of American supremacy, only in a slightly more palatable form — white men are there to save everyone from themselves, with their virtue and strength! Of course, from an early age, that produces an overweening sense of entitlement, too. (That, incidentally, is why I kept resisting, because I was much happier being a punk picking fights with fasiscts than an entitled little predator.) So already, the American male has become part of his first band of brothers — and he has been socialized into the values of supremacy, entitlement, dominion, and power.
Now. What happens next in the life of the American male? Well, he goes off to college. And now is inculcated into patriarchy proper, by a truly unique and weird and terrible American institution — the fraternity. This is the next band of brothers he joins. Now, if you’re American, you will never, ever, fully understand how badly the fraternity has warped American culture, especially youth — it’s only if you’re educated outside American, and you visit American colleges, that you’re like “Wow. This is just incredible…Jesus.” — because fraternities literally do not exist elsewhere, so you see what they really produce in stark relief. I went to school in Montreal, at McGill, where being in a fraternity was a joke — but all my friends went to school in the States, where the opposite was true: no frat, no life.
Frat life is succinctly summed up in the rallying cry of Kavanaugh band of brothers — “no means yes, and yes means anal!” — if you’re in a “nicer” frat, you’ll object, and say, “but frats do good things, too!”, yet if you’re from the rest of the world, where there are no frats, you’ll instantly understand what I mean. Because while the words might differ, the values inculcated are all exactly one and the same. As a brother in this band, you are entitled to a share of its spoils. Dominate others, who are not in the tribe. Protect your brothers, at all costs. Increase the dominion of the tribe — over objects of desire, whether money, land, possessions, and especially women. They are the same old values of the bands of brothers that the American male has been learning from birth.
And the problem, we will see, is that democracy and civilization both are at odds with these tribal values.
Given these values, what is the effect of joining a frat? It’s pretty simple — if you observe it comparatively, from outside and inside the US. Frats have been so successful at reorienting university life around the central motive of male desire that it’s astonishing to anyone not American. Little else is simply allowed to exist. There are sports, and there are frat parties — and, at many American universities, that’s about it: every ritual, every norm, every activity, is simply really about male desire, and its fulfillment. Again, it’s impossible to really understand this unless you have experienced college inside and outside America — you’ll probably just say: “it’s like that everywhere! Kids want to get laid!” My friends, it is not like this everywhere. Elsewhere, neither sports nor frat parties matter much, if they exist at all — and rituals of desire are more subtle, intricate, and sometimes, much more straightforward and consensual, too. Only in America did desire become the real meaning of education, and what everyone is really being taught is that being desired by the bands of brothers is the best thing one can do with one’s life — both as a male and as a female, only in different ways.
But when desire itself becomes the point of education, what people are really educated by and for — soon enough, young women are shamed and blamed and warped into believing that desire itself is what they should dedicate themselves to. So they form bands of sisters, to both protect themselves from, and give themselves to, the bands of brothers, depending on which is powerful, and which is not powerful. This is tribal logic at work — and now, sadly, young women are being socialized into patriarchal values, too. Hence, sororities and fraternities, doing their strange, weird, antiquated dance of macho, footballl-player masculinity, and delicate, fair-maiden femininity. Hence, American universities are bastions of sexual assault in ways that European ones, for example, aren’t — when desire itself becomes the sole purpose of an institution, then of course we will see transgressions of bodily integrity, of consent, we will see violation.
Note what has already happened by now. Our American male is only in his early 20s. But already he has been socialized to believe he is entitled to dominion over women’s bodies — either in the explicitly abusive sense, “this belongs to me, and I can take it any way I want”, or in the implicitly abusive one, “I’m a nice guy! This belongs to me, because I can save it.” Entitlement, having been socialized into him again and again, leads to the following sets of beliefs. Women don’t really have inner lives. Women’s wishes do not matter much. Women say one thing — and mean another. The only people that matter, really, are the bands of brothers. And my own brothers matter most, then all the others, and last come all the people who are not in bands of brothers — women, minorities, and so on. Some of those — are they even people at all?
By now — people are just in their teens, maybe twenties — the bands of brothers already control everything in the little political economy of American youth. That is the net effect of fraternities, really. By controlling desire — with the threat of violence — they hold power over everything, from time, to money, to bodies themselves. So what happens to the woman who has joined, for both protection and for access, a band of sisters? By definition, she has been told she is a lesser thing. Why do you need to join a tribe of sisters if you are really free? The message therefore is something like this. Submit. Surrender. Don’t make things difficult for yourself. You are a man’s dominion, and therefore safety for you lies in the tribe. She might resist all this intellectually, socially, and physically — but let us speak plainly — these tribal incentives often overwhelm young American women, and they become part of the very patriarchal systems which abuse them. They silence their friends and sisters who’ve suffered abuse, they try to please the men, they buy into cultures of rape and abuse and toxicity — they are being told abuse is not abuse, it is love and admiration and respect, even, by the bands of brothers who abuse them.
That is a kind of total control, isn’t it? Hence, perhaps, even if they realize all this is upside down, they keep silent themselves, fearing retaliation from the tribes of violent men, who will wreck their existences, if they ever speak about the harm which was done to them. Now women are being controlled by the very patriarchal values which do not think of them as people, really, at all — the tribe will protect you is the same as saying the tribe also has the power to end you. So the woman lives in fear, she puts up with a certain amount of devaluation and harm and violation — maybe not rape, maybe not assault, but certainly the kind of glib, rapey joke, the kind of little threat of violence lurking in man asking her out many times — and so on. Now harm has been normalized and regularized and routinized for them — because the bands of brothers control even how they seen their very own abuse.
Now it’s time to grow up. Our proud young man, who has joined a fine fraternity, maybe assaulted a woman or two, without ever really knowing it, graduates, and gets a job. But where does he work? Well, he probably goes to work for a corporation — because unlike in Europe, most of the American economy is capitalist. But corporations — unlike, say socialist healthcare systems — are explicitly patriarchal structures. Their history is intimately tied up with fathers passing them down to sons — and while that’s changed recently, it hasn’t changed recently enough for work in America not to be redolent of patriarchal values. Men are still the owners, the managers, the bosses, the holders of soft and hard power — because corporations were designed by and for fathers, sons, and brothers.
So the male, entering this world, is right at home — especially the one who is already entitled to the fulfillment of his desire. He is perfectly happy using his powers to abuse society, the economy, the poor, and so on — he does not see it as abuse at all, but only as taking what is his. Hence, American corporate culture is rife with workplace abuse in a way that is truly unique in the world — because it is a remnant of American patriarchy, yet another band of brothers, whose sole purpose is to expand its dominion, and satisfy its desire.
Now the woman enters this world. There is the man, who is at home in the “corporation”, which is yet another band of brothers. Too soon, perhaps, she learns, that HR is not there to fight for her — but against her: it is a weapon used to threaten, intimidate, and keep her in her place. Perhaps, soon enough, she learns that she will never be paid as much as a man, no matter how much she exceeds him. You are less than us, says the band of brothers. Why don’t you date that fellow who keeps asking you out? You’d better not call that harassment, it says. She will hear all this in casual jokes, at dinners, in messages, over and over again. You belong to us — not just your mind: we want your body, too, we want you to want us as, you are a thing which is not just there as a professional, but to fulfill all our desires, too, sexual, romantic, social.
The lesson is very, very clear: you are on soil which belongs to the band of brothers — and you have two choices, either submit to them, and rise, or take a secondary position in the tribe, which you will never really be a part of. Which one does the woman choose? That is up to her — but it is no overstatement to say that leaves her in a vulnerable position, a dilemma. Now she must choose between being abused, and pretending to be happy with it, or being devalued, as someone who “complains”, who’s “paranoid”, who’s “unstable” and “difficult” and “challenging” and so on.
But that is where she has been her whole life. That is the problem with patriarchy, in a nutshell. It is a system where the only thing which matters is the fulfillment of the desires of the band of brothers — no matter how violently, oppressively, or harmfully — with the values of entitlement, dominion, supremacy, and abuse.
These are tribal values. And yet the problem with America is that it is one of the most patriarchal societies in the world today — and that is a big reason why America’s values are still so, well, stone-age. Have you ever wondered why American conservatives hate fundamentalist Muslims? It’s because they envy them, not because they really differ from the very much — but because they are very much the same. Both believe in entitlement, in male desire, in dominion, and in the bands of brothers owning everything.
But the problem is that democracy and civilization can’t coexist with the tribal values that have always held sway in American — and still do. That is why America never really makes progress. Either bands of brothers can hold dominion over everything in a society — as in America — or people can be genuine equals, investing in one another, for everyone’s shared benefit. But both of these things cannot be true. In this way, America has always been struggling to become civilized, has never really gotten civilized, and is now failing before it even really got close — the bands of brothers won, and everyone else, really, lost. But that is a zero, maybe a negative, sum game.
Europe is civilized and democratic in a truer ways precisely because ithas made greater strides when it comes to being a less patriarchal society. It has written much stronger laws to protect women. It has far greater workplace protections. It has better norms and values. And it has a whole intertwined set of codes and rules which prevent anyone, really, from demeaning another, as much as they do, as easily as they can, in America. The effect of these things is that American women are uniquely abused, demeaned, and devalued.
Now. You are very welcome to disagree with me on all this. Go ahead and call me all sorts of names, if you wish. I am not likely to change my mind, because I acted on it long ago. I brought my partner and sister and friends, even, to Europe — because I was never the kind of guy who wanted to be the kind of guy above (because it struck me as the truest kind of weakness of all), and therefore, I didn’t want any of the women in my life to be at the mercy of guys like the above, either. And do you know what they say? They say that they feel much freer, happier, and safer — so much so, that until they arrived here, they would never quite have understood how much they had been demeaned and devalued and spited and thwarted and abused as women in America at all. Because it is as invisible as air, and as commonplace as water, harming and hurting women — like anyone who’s not one of the brotherhood — is seen as the most normal thing in all the world there.