(This was one of the Last Word columns I do for the Kolkata Telegraph’s gender page. Haven’t put too many of these up because I’m still struggling to get them right…but this was an issue I’d been thinking about for a while. So here it is.)
When I look around at my women friends, I realise how much, and how often, we share our lives with each other. For men, a brief note here: this is what explains the long phone calls that puzzle you, the cackles of laughter from the kitchen that you wonder about, the groups of women hanging out in bars who (heavens above!) don’t appear to need male attention. I sometimes wonder how men manage without the daily back-and-forth of gossip, just-like-that calls, smses and coffee conversations that sustain women.
What got me thinking about the silence of men this week was two things, one personal, one the stuff of tabloid headlines. We met an old school friend after a gap of several years. Initially, conversation was of the awkward sort where you mention the weather frequently and with some nervousness.
But after a bit, our friend opened up…and it was like watching a dam burst. He talked to us about his life, his marriage, the ups and downs and struggles he’d experienced; he talked about his children and his childhood, about old friends and new enemies. And some time around three in the morning, he said, “Men only get to talk like this when there are women around. Even if you’re talking to another man, really, you can’t do it unless there’s a woman in the room…it’s not allowed, to spill your guts among men.”
This week, I read the transcripts of the Michael Jackson trials. One of the most poignant bits of evidence was offered by Jackson’s maid’s son, who is now an adult. He broke down as he testified that the King of Pop had molested him years ago. “I didn’t expect this to hurt so much,” he said as he told his story. “It’s so hard to tell this.” Women rape victims go through similar trauma; similar, but I suspect, not the same. One of the psychiatrists who testified in the Jackson trial was emphatic when he was asked whether some of the young boys who’d accused the singer of molestation might be making up their stories.
In his experience, he said, the hard part was getting young men to acknowledge that they had been abused. They were deeply reluctant to tell their stories; even more so than women of the same age who had experienced abuse. And he had never met a man, or boy, who had made up a story about sexual abuse.
Why? Because, he said, there was too much shame and guilt involved; the issues for a man who had been molested were deeply complex. A man who has been raped or assaulted will experience shame, as women victims do; but women know that they might somewhere also find sympathy. Men are likely to be laughed at, have their masculinity called into question, experience homophobia; some have secret but very deep fears that they will grow up to be perpetrators of violence and abuse themselves.
These are hard, difficult stories to share. But even the good stories seem to be hard for men to share. What would happen if we had a culture where it was ok for men to talk about their lives, to open up and be honest? I don’t know; but clearly the prospect is so scary that it’s hard to even try to break the silence.