Hill/Thomas episode leaves some men baffled over appropriate behavior toward women


November 11, 1991|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,Washington Bureau of the Sun

WASHINGTON — In bars and restaurants, at work,parties, wherever men and women are having loud animated conversations about the sexes in the wake of the Clarence Thomas hearings, one can hear men empathizing with women, supporting their points of view, even condemning their less enlightened brothers.

But privately, in the men-only discussions he leads at MenCenter, a counseling service in Washington, Alan Baraff says the talk isn't always so gracious.

"It's not all quite so kind. There's a lot of resentment and confusion, more a feeling of, 'What are we supposed to do? How are we supposed to be?' 'What did I do wrong? I didn't do anything wrong,' " says Dr. Baraff, author of "Mentalk." "A lot of men are withdrawing, especially at work. They're minding their own business."

Part of the aftermath of this latest chapter in male-female relations, he fears, is that "the gap between men and women is getting wider."

Landing in the midst of a growing "men's movement," one that has recently made best sellers out of consciousness-raising books like Robert Bly's "Iron John" and given rise to numerous men's support groups, the Thomas/Hill hearings have crystallized -- and in some ways magnified -- some of the anxieties and confusion men are grappling with today, say psychologists. And, they say, it even has caused some men to retreat from women.

"We're all wondering, 'What should my role be? What do wome expect us to be?' " says Brice Freeman, a youth coordinator in Baltimore. "We get mixed messages from women. Are we supposed to be a macho guy or a sensitive guy. I know some guys who are angry, but more are just unsure, thinking 'What do I do next?' "

"It's raised awareness in some people; in others it's raised ire, says Bruce Strand, a Montgomery County teacher who's part of a men's support group. "You hear joking from the GS-15's [high-level government employees] who say, 'This means the rules are even stricter, ha ha.' But you don't know what the 'ha ha' really means."

Indeed, many men say they aren't sure.

Some men genuinely want to tap into women's experiences and feelings, "but they're feeling left out of the loop," says William Pollack, a psychologist at Harvard Medical School, specializing in men's is sues. Others, he says, "are more negative and angry and are feeling unrightfully accused. The common thread here is that they're all confused."

Part of that confusion stems from men caring for women on the one hand, and fearing that they will be accused by them on the other, says Dr. Jerrold Lee Shapiro, psychology professor at Santa Clara University in California.

Los Angeles psychologist Herbert Goldberg, a leading author of men's consciousness-raising books, including "What Men Really Want," says the jokes, the ire, the confusion has translated into a "very paranoid scene" on the gender front today.

"Men are accused right and left," says Dr. Goldberg. "They're portrayed in an ugly light. Some of it's true, but some of it is women's distortion. . . . Men are thinking, 'Wow, I better get out of here. This is dangerous.'

"It's the same thing that has happened between the races. People stop having relationships with people of another race because they don't want to risk being accused. So they throw up a big wall. They act in formal, appropriate ways, but there's no bonding."

Those walls have already gone up in some offices, says Columbia attorney James Kraft, who describes what he calls a new "chill" in the workplace. "Some guys are saying, 'This is ridiculous. You can't say anything or do anything anymore.' " For his part, Mr. Kraft, who considers himself a feminist, says that he and other like-minded men find themselves, not retreating, but treading with caution, prefacing jokes, for instance, with all sorts of caveats, cautions and disclaimers. "It's like sending your kid on a field trip," he jokes. "You've got to get 20 releases."

Dr. Shapiro believes the recent spotlight on the sexes has sparked such a mix of reactions among men because it has brought "to a head" sentiments that have been brewing for several decades, coalescing in a fledgling "men's movement" in which men try to tap into all parts of themselves, not just those that fulfill stereotypes.

"The treatment of males and females in the popular psychobabble over the past 20 years has been that women are victims and men are scum," says Dr. Shapiro. "We've done a job on men by telling them the way they do things is the wrong way. . . . This [discussion over sexual harassment] has kicked up a lot of stuff."

Some see men as being unfairly portrayed as villains in sexual harassment and discrimination cases, never the victims. "Men are always told they're the perpetrators, they're totally to blame, they 'don't get it,' " says Jon Ryan, an environmental health specialist in Baltimore and men's activist. "I don't want to see men coming out of this feeling bad about being a man."

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