My sons. You are 9 and 6, old enough to understand certain aspects of consent, but not quite old enough for me to tell you all the things I want to tell you about what’s going on right now with the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court of the United States. So I’m writing it here, for posterity, so you can read it and so I can later remember how I felt in this moment.
As you grow, and as your dreams and desires bump up against the people and world around you, you will be faced daily with decisions about the kind of person you want to be. You won’t always know, in the moment, how these decisions will come to define you. And many of the people around you, especially the loud ones, will not be good moral compasses in that journey.
So here’s one rule you should follow, at all times, in all inter-personal relationships: you cannot, under any circumstance, use physical force to coerce another person into doing what you want. In particular, when it comes to intimate relations, you should engage only when they are enthusiastic and you are enthusiastic. There are no exceptions to that rule.
If you break the rule, even in a way that seems inconsequential to you in the moment, you are likely to leave the other person distraught, maybe scarred for life. When you have long forgotten their names, they may still be cursing yours. And if you tiptoe over the line even once, maybe because you’re young and foolish and drunk and your friend told you that’s how it’s done… you may end up rationalizing your behavior. Because you’re a good guy. And good guys don’t do bad things. Ergo the thing is not actually bad. You may then end up justifying the next, slightly worse violation. And the next one.
None of us is born good or bad. None of us stays good or bad their whole life. We all make mistakes. Some mistakes, however, especially those mistakes that directly harm another human, define who you are at warp speed. Some actions are unforgivable. Engaging in intimate acts with another individual without their clear consent is one such action. Even if you’re drunk. Even if you’re young. Even if you were just going along with what others were telling you.
I have made plenty of mistakes. I have never broken the rule. Please, make plenty of mistakes and learn from them. But don’t ever break the rule.
So let’s say you never break the rule. Good. You don’t deserve a medal, by the way, but good. Also, you’re not done. As men, you and I bear a responsibility to help rectify an age-old situation that cannot stand: that we need to believe and support women who speak out about the trauma they suffered at the hands of men.
There are, unfortunately, far too many men who break the rule. It’s taken me a long time to accept that it’s not just a few bad apples. There are many bad apples. They’re all around us, and they terrify dozens of women (and sometimes men) in their lives. I don’t know why they do this. Maybe because they tiptoed across the line once and got away with it, then rationalized it because they think of themselves as “good guys.” Whatever the excuse, they leave a trail of broken people in their wake.
One day, one of the people they broke will speak out. And that person, usually a woman, will not be believed. You won’t believe her. Maybe she regretted it the next morning, you’ll think. Maybe she’s exaggerating. Surely this guy couldn’t be that bad. You will hold as a fixed point in your mind that humanity must be overall good, thus the only explanation is that this woman is lying. It is human of you to doubt that there are such terrible actors in the world. But it is, sadly, so so wrong. And your job, as a man, is to fight whatever primordial kinship you feel for this other man simply because you share a gender, and consider, just for a second, the risk this woman is taking by making this accusation. Once you do, once you really put yourself in her shoes, you will see the obvious: it’s not impossible that she’s lying, but it’s incredibly unlikely.
This will be hard, because, when you believe it, you will also have to believe that the world contains far too many awful, awful people. You know many of them. They were just as innocent and well-meaning as you are today, at ages 9 and 6. They became, at some point, through some series of decisions, morally corrupt. You, my dear innocent boys, are morally corruptible. You will not grow up to be good men only because you believe you are good men. You become good men by way of the critical decisions you make each and every day.
The bad news is that the World needs better men. The good news is, you can be one of those better men, if you choose to be. Do not break the rule. Believe women. Be better men.