My dogs spotted a squirrel the other day and couldn’t help lunging forward, even though they knew they were leashed. That made me think about men who treat women the way dogs treat squirrels.
Some men want to physically engage every woman they see who fits their image of sexy. They interrupt everything, get too close, use their hands, and won’t take “no” for an answer. When it doesn’t work, they try it again with another woman. Over and over again they manhandle women, because they think about them as the dog thinks of the squirrel, as lesser but attractive beings who must be chased.
There used to be lots of guys like that. When I grew up in the 1960s, they attracted everyone’s attention. Other guys watched them in awe and wonder at their boldness. At a time of much less free love, no matter what their success rate, they gained a reputation as very good at what they did. Their form of masculinity was taken for granted as an acceptable variant, not for every man, but worthy of respect and sometimes envy.
Other men, observers of this uninvited and unwelcome pursuit, were torn between two conflicting masculine imperatives: the ancient code of chivalry obligating men to protect women in danger, and a very modern respect for tough, aggressive, egotistical and physically dominant forms of serial conquest. The hunters may not have been universally admired by other men, but they were not recognized as the creeps we now see.
Before the 1960s, there were a few voices decrying the connection between female inequality and male sexual violence. As early as 1641, the Body of Liberties of the Massachusetts Bay colony included a prohibition against wife-beating: “Everie marryed woeman shall be free from bodilie correction or stripes by her husband.” But as late as 1970, male predators could still assume that few would try to stop them.
We still see men like that, but their days of unashamed hunting are gone. They are much more careful in their use of their hands, and perhaps more sophisticated in employing wealth, status, connections and unscrupulousness as persuasive arguments. But two things have really changed. The social approval of men which had surrounded them has turned sour. And the willingness of women to tolerate the boors is disappearing.
The species of predatory men is in decline, here and across the globe, because they were defeated culturally and politically. As our attitudes about men and women moved toward equality, laws were passed which attacked the hunting rights of men. The first significant national legislation to reduce violence against women was passed in 1994, the Violence Against Women Act. That law attracted bipartisan support, but the next year conservative Congressmen tried to cut its funding.
Neanderthal Man is not yet extinct. Their species keeps getting infusions of new life, mostly by the fundamentalist wings of the West’s major religions. Conservative politicians give a nod toward traditional male superiority every time they lionize openly misogynist commentators, like Rush Limbaugh.
Men will continue hunting women for the foreseeable future. Changing cultural assumptions developed over millennia is a slow and frustrating business. The ideological argument that women should be equal to men may have won the public debate, but human habits go much deeper than rational discourse. Those who demand gender equality occupy the moral high ground, but below, in the bushes, the struggle goes on. Conservatives still fight rearguard actions against equality in pay, in child care, and in politics itself. One third of Democrats in Congress are women, but only one tenth of Republican legislators.
None of the momentous social-cultural-political shifts of my lifetime are over. Each step toward equality faces obstacles which have been built over centuries. The more that ancient texts are revered, the harder it is to find a path to equality. But the progress during my lifetime has been breath-taking.
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, October 13, 2015