I was born into privilege thrice over. I am white; I am male; I am American. And all that privilege provides me with the shortcut, the front row seat, the illusion of my own sufficiency. Yet, I need help, and I need it terribly. How terribly? Let me tell you a little about it.
I was born the year President Eisenhower pushed through the first civil rights act since the civil war. The New York Times called the 1957 Civil Rights Act “incomparably the most significant domes- tic action of any Congress this century.” But 1957 was also the year that nine black high school students went through hellish abuse in their attempt to integrate a Little Rock, Arkansas, high school. I knew nothing of such things; my childhood was filled with an innocent light.
I lived on a farm in the summertime, but in the school year we had a home in the small, almost completely white town of Fort Benton, Montana.
What I remember about that time was how safe everything felt, how solid and reassuring. My parents knew everything that was important and I happily relied on them. God approved of us, supported us, was on our side, and had the good sense to appear only when asked for.
Women were loyal wives or wives in training, good homemakers, moms, and supporters of their man’s work outside the home. Men were strong, self-reliant, and self-contained. Growing up in Montana, I got a double-dose of the image of men as cowboys who hated fences and rode alone.
No wonder, then, I identified closely with my mother when I was young. I liked her attributes. Tenderness. Nurture. Togetherness. As one of five boys in our family, the second to the youngest, I felt insecure and overwhelmed by some of my siblings’ maleness. They were so intense in their teenage hormone-driven toughness; I felt vulnerable and afraid.
I still remember hearing the little ditty, “Girls are made of sugar and spice and everything nice, boys are made of snips and snails and puppy dog tails.” I hated that lyric! I didn’t want to be made of snips and snails...I wanted to be made of honey and cinnamon and all things most admirable in a human being...if that was femininity, and the other masculinity, then I opted for the first.
I did draw a line when my mother enrolled me in ballet class — imagine that if you can! — I came home after practice, threw my dance slippers on the floor, and said “I’m not doing that any more!” When she asked why, I recall having said something like, “That’s for GIRLS!” Two grade school classmates had mocked me, and made me suddenly conscious of my “proper” gender role. And so ended my brief career in ballet.
As I entered puberty, and began “noticing” girls in that new way, I liked very much being male. I liked my body; we were friends. Thankfully, perhaps due to my parents’ very close love for each other, I couldn’t think of sexuality except as relationship. Even my most erotic fantasies usually centered on lovemaking as part of a larger relationship rather than the impersonal sex portrayed by porn.
I had a friend whose pile of Playboys was stashed behind the grill of an air duct in his house. Strangely, I was more affected by how cool it was to have an air vent like that — which seemed right out of some movie — than I was with the magazines. Their impersonal bosoms sticking out at me, legs arranged to almost but not quite reveal everything, failed to deeply thrill. Yet the seeds were sown; I objectified women, since no other options seemed available.
During my thirteenth and fourteenth year I read Eldridge Cleaver and Dee Brown and Claude Brown and Franz Kafka and Anne Frank — ah! A woman’s voice at last — and in the midst of all those oppressed voices I experienced my sexual awakening. There was something amazingly sexy about the nobility of the oppressed...and I imagined myself as the rescuer of many women. This patronizing, liberal fantasyland of mine was not one easily left, and for many years I didn’t even know it as a fantasy.
When I was barely seventeen years old, I met a dark-haired girl from a small Montana town. She was cute, and she apparently found me intriguing. I took her to my school prom and we had a good time at the dance. Afterward we went back to my parents’ house, where she planned to sleep in my sister’s room since my prom date lived too far away to travel home that night. I followed her into the bedroom and attempted some awkward kissing. She allowed it, but discouraged me from moving toward second base. I politely disengaged, said goodnight, and went to my own room. The next day we parted on what I thought were friendly terms.
The next week I had piano lessons with a music teacher who was a mutual acquaintance of the girl and mine. The older woman confronted me for attempting to overpower my prom date. I was left with the distinct feeling that the girl believed I had attempted to rape her. I was so horrified, I could barely speak to the teacher, but I managed to grate out a denial. What to me had seemed like a mutual exchange — and one that she had forbidden to go further than it should have — to the girl had seemed a frightening one-way street where a boy she hardly knew cornered her in his sister’s bedroom to do as he pleased.
Gradually, despite my initial anger, I began to rethink what had happened. That was one of the first times that I saw myself as someone physically powerful, who could frighten someone else just with my size and gender. And I hated that. I had no plans or desire to overpower her, yet how could she have known that? Only slowly did I understand the fact that walking into that bedroom was indeed a major error of judgment on my part. More than bad manners, it was a threatening move whether or not I intended it to be.
Maybe somewhere a man has had such an experience, almost being raped by his female date. I don’t know any such men. What I do know, both from statistics and from many stories over the years, is that rape is overwhelmingly perpetrated by men.
With the teenage sexual awakening came the realization that all I’d been told was untrue; or, if any of it was true, I had no idea how to find that truth again. Though I stopped believing what I’d known as a child, I still struggled with God. Was he there? Did he love me? Or was the world I encountered with my senses the only world there was?
I met him, the Jesus who Nietzsche contemptuously called the God of women and slaves. I encountered the Father of Love who is both ultimate masculine and ultimate feminine, in whose image male and female are created. He was, in what some might think a heretical analogy, a bit like a seductress. God has more so-called feminine wiles than any woman!
But my struggle with maleness wasn’t solved once and for all by loving God. After eight years of marriage, I became a single father of two girls after my wife left. I discovered that the passive male role I’d adopted during that time was a fake form of mutuality. I had to become active, especially near the marriage’s end when my children seemed to me endangered. Was I being macho? No. I was being parental in the most elementary sense.
After that marriage ended, I met a woman who had also been abandoned by her spouse and we began the difficult process of learning how to mutually submit to one another. At first I was very macho, mostly out of fear of what had happened in that first marriage. I had to realize that my voice wasn’t right just because it was louder. As I learned to hear Carol’s voice, I found incredible healing in our mutual love and respect. Nearly twenty years have passed since we married.
My marriage to Carol Elaine has been a place of both healing and challenge to my male misconceptions. Carol works with homeless women and children in the Leland House second stage housing project. She comes home in tears over the horrors committed against these women by the men they love.
Being raped was one of Carol’s greatest fears as a single woman. She once jumped out of a car, her clothes torn, in order to run away from a co-worker who offered her a ride home and then tried to rape her. He later bragged and laughed about it in front of her with male co-workers. In another incident, a man exposed himself to Carol while she was sitting in a park. After that, a gray streak appeared in her hair practically overnight.
In all of this, I fear I’ve not yet really hit the right combination of words to convey how unutterably sad I feel when confronted with rape. My wife looks at me with such tenderness, even as I’m left feeling she can’t help but blame me a little. She’s never said it, but I dimly sense the thought floating there. “All men are potential rapists...even you.” No, she’s never said it. She would deny it if asked. But when I hold her, I wonder what she feels. Could there be the faintest tenseness in her? Could the male body — even my body — have become a symbol of hurt, of fear, of oppression?
But there is a sense in which I, too, carry a sort of pain regarding rape. In a terrible way, this assault upon a woman by a man armed with rage and an erection leaves me feeling violated. I want to shout to every attacker, “That isn’t what a man’s body is designed for!”
I believe feminists have helped me become a more mature Christian man. This may not be what some would like me to say, but I’m not going to lie. One thing they don’t often offer is grace — but since I can get that elsewhere, I have found their unflinching dissection of my maleness to be terribly painful but not unendurable. Of course I don’t accept everything they say. Andrea Dworkin’s horror of the male body, for instance, would have meant that I had to hate my own physical being. Why not hate instead the misuse of that body, rather than the body itself?
You see, I like my body, not because it is male, but because it is mine. I think this is a profoundly Christian thing, by the way. I’m told by Scripture to cherish my wife as I cherish my own body, and so cherishing my body is no sin. Yet each time I hear of a man using his body to violate another human being, I feel my own body shrivel. This is not maleness, this is not human. At least that’s what I want to believe — but I can’t. Rape is a male thing, and violating others is a human thing.
As a Christian, I am not stupid enough to think a world can exist, here, where my own daughters and sons are safe from these perverse ideas of maleness and femaleness. True sex is the outcome of mutual love. Violence is rage, and when the male sex becomes the tool of rage, not only are women raped — men who love are victimized as well.
Every time we look into our beloved’s eyes and see that split- second flicker, at that moment we become victims — no matter how gently that moment comes and goes — every time we hear the newscaster announce another rape in our neighborhood, every time a pornographer’s unsolicited email invites us to view women, even children, being degraded...we, too, become victims.
——— Epilogue ———
One summer afternoon I pulled into our Jesus People USA headquarters, talking quietly to God. Our Uptown Chicago neighborhood was full of people, an urban landscape of rich, poor, black, brown, and white. I felt happy, carefree.
I pulled onto a side street to park, but just as I turn the ignition off, I heard a voice. A woman leaned into my passenger- side window and suggested that for five dollars she will do this and that and thus and such. Except what she says is far, far more descriptive. Her words fall on me, and on my sex, like a truckload of filth.
There was no temptation in this for me, no momentary flicker of desire. The woman is old beyond her years, emaciated, and quite possibly ill with AIDS or some other disease. Her words were like death to me.
It was painfully obvious that what she wanted was drugs, and her offer to me was driven by the logic of sex and money. Only moments before, I had been thinking of what a beautiful day it was, and now I felt as though I had been vomited on. I thought to myself, “Why me?
Why did you say all that to me? What is there about me that would make you think I would respond to you? Is there something wrong with me, do I put off some kind of vibe?”
And then it hit me.
This is how women feel. This is how it feels to be a woman in a man’s world — the cool male eyes running up and down your body like they own it — the casual comment, the wolf-whistle, the wink.
Men, open yourselves to this feeling. Remember it when you look at your sisters, both the ones in Christ and the ones who do not yet know him. Remember this feeling when you look at your sisters, when you talk to your sisters, when you talk about your sisters with other men.
This is how women feel. Yes Lord, I will try to remember. Truly.