The Case of the Unsolicited Penis

The first time I saw an unsolicited penis was in the 7th grade, in the playground of my all girls Catholic School for joyless tweens. A man who looked about 20-something decided to exhibit his goods for those of us unfortunate enough to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. We screamed and laughed uncomfortably as we ran away from the perp, not really understanding why or what was happening to us. We alerted the school’s head of security who chased him away and thankfully, he never came back.

Over the years, I’ve had various other encounters with exhibitionists/harassers of this sort, most recently, when an old man walked into my place of work to use the bathroom as I was closing up, periodically opening the door and showing me his shriveled up manhood to let me know that he’d be done in a minute. A friend said I should have just run, or yelled, or called the cops (which I eventually, begrudgingly did), but instead, like many of the women in many of the recent stories about sexual harassment and abuse, I froze in shock and disbelief that this was happening.

The allegations against Louis CK – who was at one point held up by feminists (myself included <cringe>) as a hero of sorts for his articulation of the male-female power dynamic and for championing female colleagues and their work – made me curious about what men really think of sexual harassment and abuse and how it plays out in our society. So I asked my male friends what sorts of conversations they’ve had about women without us present.

Now, I’m incredibly lucky that my people, both men and women, are educated AF and deeply critical of how patriarchy works in both overt and insidious ways. But it was sad to hear so many stories from friends about how many of the men they know don’t understand what sexual harassment actually entails.

One friend, for instance, argued with an acquaintance about whether or not what Louis did was, in fact, harassment at all. Though he readily admit that LCK’s behavior was “nasty”, the acquaintance didn’t seem to grasp how it fell into the territory of harassment, because in the grand scheme of sexual assault things, “it wasn’t that bad.”

Another friend’s friend stated that sleeping with groupies was never an issue so why complain now? Except that LCK wasn’t sleeping with groupies, he was putting women in seriously uncomfortable and compromising positions by asking them if it was okay to satisfy some caveman impulse to rub one out in their presence. And by his own admission, he used his power to do so. (Side note to douchewads everywhere: the appropriate time to show us an unsolicited penis is absolutely never.)

So herein lies the problem. If you think pulling out your schlong in front of a woman who hasn’t expressed any interest in seeing it isn’t harassment, then we really ARE from different planets.

A good friend of mine shared his insight on the male psyche, explaining why some men might be confused (even ignorant) about what constitutes sexually inappropriate behavior. For one, society teaches men a few universal things – that it is their role to convince women to date them, whether through aggressive pursuit or manipulation, and that most male-female interactions are on some level, transactional.

If you recall the super creepy, dressed-like-a-magician (and/or pimp) Pickup Artist named Mystery who infiltrated VH1 audiences in the early 2000s, you’ve been exposed to the wonderful (awful) mechanics of this learned male-female transaction. What was both fascinating and horrifying about the Pickup Artist’s (aka PUAs) tactics, is that it seemed to actually work, at least well enough to land a TV show. By essentially being the biggest douchebags in the room, Mystery and his proteges manipulated their way into the good graces of women.

As it turns out, there is some scientific evidence behind the nonsense PUAs peddle. For instance, negging, a popular PUA technique, establishes social dominance by undermining a woman’s confidence thus giving the man control over the interaction. Episode after episode, the Wannabe Wizards of Seduction (which is what I’d prefer to call the show coz seriously, why are they dressed like this??) put negging to use, showing its effectiveness in the ideal setting for establishing a relationship – a dim room where alcohol meets bad decisions.

But science aside, I’d like to believe both men and women can move beyond our “basic, evolutionary and psychological mechanisms” as described in the article mentioned above. It seems fairly dangerous to conclude that our interactions are merely a transaction involving a series of trite manipulations on the part of men convincing women to date them, because that can too often lead to the expectation that a woman respond positively to a man’s advances. For example, if a man greets a woman he doesn’t know and he asks her to smile, it’s one thing if he’s disappointed when she doesn’t respond in kind. But if he believes and expects that she should smile when asked, or that she engage in conversation when he buys her a drink at the bar, or that she has sex with him after he buys her dinner, then the transaction is no longer an equal one because it relies on a power dynamic that entitles a man to a woman’s time, attention, and body in exchange for [insert canned romantic gesture here]. That very entitlement is what sets up the scenario for sexual harassment – putting a woman in a predicament without her expressed consent and expecting that she’ll react politely and without objection.

And here’s what makes it even more complicated. While society teaches men to be aggressive in the pursuit of their desires, women are too often taught to be polite, to accept that boys will be boys and that the only way to deal with sexual harassment and abuse is to ignore it or walk away. In doing research for this piece, I listened to hours of comedy podcasts and was astounded how many women called into the Jim and Sam show to express discontent at how LCK’s accusers handled the situation. “Just walk out of the room or get another job,” one caller said. “Why wait 10 years to report it?” Oy. As bell hooks said, “Patriarchy has no gender.” 

Thankfully, it seems that tide is turning. I’m not so naive as to believe that the entire system of patriarchy will explode just because a few disgusting, horrible men have been taken down. But I believe brave women speaking out and supporting other women can shift the culture of male entitlement and misogyny in our society. Merely accepting the way things are is certainly not the answer to sexual harassment and abuse just as pickup artistry is not the answer to lonely men seeking female affection. If we can manage to see and treat each other as equals in both the dating and professional worlds, and men and women learn to recognize the power imbalance in this clusterfuck of a capitalist hetero-patriarchal system, then maybe we’ll see the end of unsolicited penises in the workplace, on the subway, in our dating DMS, and beyond.

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