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Book review of “Women, Men and the Whole Damn Thing” by David Leser

Book review of "Women, Men and the Whole Damn Thing" by David Leser“Women, Men and the Whole Damn Thing” by David Leser

Timing may be everything. The day I first read the title of this book early in September 2019, France had just announced its one-hundredth “féminicide” for the year: one-hundred women murdered mostly by the men who once claimed to love them. Without that context, I might not have registered the importance of Australian journalist David Leser’s book, “Women, Men and the Whole Damn Thing” (Allen & Unwin, Australia, 2019; ISBN 978 1 76087 772 9; 297 pages).

As it was, I was shocked enough by the French feminicide statistics to mail order Leser’s providential book from Australia (A$24.24 with zero postal charges through The Book Depository). By the time I had received it, France, where I am a permanent resident, was declared the third most dangerous country in Europe for women, right behind Denmark and Finland. Worldwide, statistically, one out of three women is a victim of physical or sexual abuse, according to tv5monde (3 September 2019). And, in the United States, women had somberly marked the first anniversary of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s humiliating, legal defeat when Brett Kavanaugh was confirmed to the U.S. Supreme Court despite her accusations of sexual aggression and his cringe-worthy denial.

So I did a bit of weeping over my intellectual loss of innocence during Leser’s heartbreaking audit of the no less shocking state of affairs between men and women over the ages. One wonders how the human species has survived.

Exploring the battleground

David Leser is a brave man to address the Great Gender Divide of the Twenty-First Century, the battleground where mostly women are the victims and men the losers. Leser’s gender itself lends gravitas to the relating of the feminist movement’s evolution and its perceived effect on mankind – a word that has suddenly taken on considerable irony. He has done his homework well, revealing worldwide historical cases of sexual abuse, current international cases of high-profile celebrity sexual aggression, as well as all the outrageous, culturally-incited incidents of feminicide in China and the Subcontinent.

Leser explores profligate male mentality, the pervasive entitlement of male-dominated society that keeps women “in their place”, and the recent #MeToo and Time’s Up movements. He explores the leadership myth that erroneously holds up Steve Jobs, Vladimir Putin or Richard Branson as models of “strong leaders” whereas studies show that effective leadership is more apt to be self-effacing, a trait more prevalent in women than men. He decries the blindness of masculine power and the deafness of male entitlement as causes rather than effects of women’s liberations efforts.

And then, from the “Augustine Confessions” chapter forward, the author gets personal, describing his own pilgrim’s progress down the gender-brick road. He discusses the “tyranny of masculinity” in the chapter appropriately called “The Man Box”, a kind of coffin for masculine sensitivity and chivalry. He identifies the Industrial Revolution as effectively compartmentalizing Western Civilization’s previous parenting partnership model into a necessity-driven model with clearly separated His and Her roles. This cleavage, in turn, has resulted in a kind of militarization of masculine “He-man” norms and the commodification of women as subservient sexual objects.

Ironically, the first violence of the Nineteenth and Twentieth Century patriarchy was done to men themselves, by depriving them of free access to their “archetypal feminine” (though some would call it humanity), thus stifling the softness and vulnerability necessary for emotional attachments, such as marriage and parenting. This, in turn, sets the stage for emotional upheaval and even violence later on in life – violence that men perpetrate on men, in wars and work, but eventually, inevitably, also on women. It’s no wonder that some modern men have become, according to Leser, “…confused, broken, angry boys ready to inflict damage on themselves and others.” The theory goes that it is this “fragile masculinity” that may explain why men (and some women) are enthusiastic dupes for posturing males like Donald Trump.

(I encourage you to watch HBO’s “Succession”, S2E3, “Boar on the Floor”, if you need an example of emasculating violence in the making.)

For whatever reason, says Michael Kimmel, the international authority on masculinity, it would appear that men in this day and age “would rather see themselves as being battered by feminism than being shaped by the larger culture (p. 155)”.

Better to beat up a woman than attack your Archetypal Father…

Men’s liberation

The author then explores perspectives on men’s liberation and men’s rights put forth by not only Kimmel, but also Robert Bly and Joseph Campbell, as attempts to fill the larger cultural void. Unfortunately, such efforts to allow men to be emotional with other men are often stymied by homophobia. In that context of fragilized masculinity, feminism is seen as an assault on masculine identity, rather than a call for social fairness and equality. (“Succession” educates us in this again, by exploring the fraught relationship between Siobhan Roy and her husband Tom, whose last name never really seems to matter.) This creates what Kimmel calls “aggrieved entitlement” among men, a kind of patriarchy that strips not only women of power but also most men.

Kimmel further points out that violence is the only behavioral attitude and trait in which there is significant gender difference: men are overwhelmingly the perpetrators of violence. Most acts of violence can be seen as acts to destroy the shame of a fragile masculine ego. It portrays Man as an irresponsible Adolescent attempting to gain pride without taking personal responsibility. Only toughness counts. The corollaries are the over-sexualization and objectification of women.

Lest we forget or our minds get jaded by the endless sexual and psychological violence we see on television, sometimes with breathtaking portraits of cultural sickness, such as in “Succession”, Leser reminds us in the chapter entitled “The grey zone”, that violence in the form of “rape, bullying and workplace discrimination (are) all of them unlawful acts”. You can’t repeat that often enough: rape (including sexual aggression) is against the law in most “civilized” countries.

The impact of #MeToo

So, how did it happen that so many men were getting away with so much unchallenged law-breaking until the #MeToo Movement?

One of the many interesting cases Leser explores involves the Australian feminist Helen Garner who, born in the 1940s, was culturally programmed to think of parrying uninvited sexual advances as an unavoidable part of life – just something to put up with. She was blown away when young women in the 1990s started taking complaints of a sexual nature to the courts, even for what she saw as minor offenses, like sexual aggression, possibly unworthy of the courts’ attention. It shocked her to see a prominent man whom she admired being targeted publicly, so much so that she took it upon herself to apologize to him for his attackers’ behavior. [This is a perfect example of the Blame-the-Victim mindset that continues even today, to wit the outrageous attacks on political grounds that Dr. Christine Blasey-Ford has endured since she “dared” to confront Yale graduate and now Justice Brett Kavanaugh for his adolescent infringement of the law.]

Leser also addresses the flap over Catherine Deneuve’s bombshell rebuke of the #MeToo Movement, claiming her “right” to receive catcalls and flirty passes from men. As one of his interviewees observes, probably “80 percent of the (#MeToo) cases have nothing to do with Harvey Weinstein, and everything to do with issues of intimacy, connection, consent and power”. Deneuve apologized.

Many women have realized only since the #MeToo campaign that what they may have called being “taken advantage of” fifty years ago was, in fact, unreported sexual aggression or even rape. And that it is and always was, even back then, against the law. (Despite the vicious attacks against Dr. Christine Blasey Ford for dredging up her decades-old memories, that met with an unlawful crowd-sourced “statute of belief limitation” from the U.S. Senate, many men and women are increasingly willing to talk about old memories now, in particular with regard to the egregious molestations by priests in the Roman Catholic Church for over half a century.)

Rather than simplify male-female relations, the #MeToo movement appears to have exposed new intricacies. Attempted solutions now range from “new” Christian celibacy programs to “pre-sex dating contracts” that aim at removing ambiguity (and romance) from precarious social relationships. Just when it’s most needed, sex education in schools is being contested or “sanitized”. Uncontrolled adolescent access to online pornography further distorts reality, leaving both young girls and boys learning practices that are not pleasurable to either sex when separated from relevant emotional content that requires maturity. This kind of immature sex experimentation has led to fewer and fewer women enjoying orgasm, and fewer and fewer men understanding that they have anything to do with that failure.

One of the results of the #MeToo Movement is that many older men are living under a sword of Damocles, wondering if what they did in the past will be re-evaluated in the light of these new, confusing rules. (Frankly, I’m wondering if I even care when I learn from Leser that nearly 18 million women in the U.S. population have been raped and that one in four will be sexually assaulted in their lifetime. OMG.)

“We know,” says Leser, “that every time women demand that we reset the rules of life, so that they are treated equally (…), there is a predictable counterattack, subtle or overt (by the male population).”

Moving forward

This looms ominous for continuous progress toward solving the finer points of relationships between men and women. Judging people’s pasts by the values of the present may prove tricky ethically in an era when, especially in the USA, politics has already curdled ethical justice.

Leser doesn’t think that shaming or humiliating anyone is the best way to get results. He also thinks that there should be some proportionality between the “crime” and the punishment, and that women who understand this male anguish will contribute the most to healing the collective wound.

“We need new conversations and role models to light the way, and we need each other now, more than ever”, concludes Leser after quoting New Zealand prime minister Jacinda Ardern’s 2018 statement to the United Nations: “#Me Too must become #We Too [because] we are all in this together.”

I would highly recommend that this excellent book be made obligatory reading for everyone as a rite to passage into adulthood, even retrospectively.

A Book Review by Constance G. Konold
November 19, 2019