#MeToo has cast so much light on sex and power in our society, but there’s an absence in the public conversation: the honest perspective of implicated men. We’ve got 1) PR-stunt apologies from the disgraced, 2) full-throated but opportunistic condemnation from allies, and 3) incel backlash shitposters. But I still struggle to understand how regular men are relating to this moment.
Because I’m a radio reporter, my impulse is to get people talking and present their voices for an audience to make its own sense of. So, I interviewed some men who volunteered or were referred to me over social media. They all primarily date/sleep with women. I asked them to talk about their sexual histories and how they’ve been impacted by #MeToo. The point isn’t to defend or denounce these men, just to understand them. Not for their sake, but for everyone’s. This is what we’re dealing with.
The interviewees asked to be anonymous; we have given them and anyone else they mention pseudonyms. There’s Mark, who sees himself as a sexual failure in some ways; Tony, who wants to understand the origins of his bad habits with women; and Ian, who felt called to repent, though he’s not quite sure what for. The interviews have been edited and condensed.
“Mark,” late twenties
I was born in a pretty much normal Bay Area suburban place. I’m half Chinese and a quarter Salvadoran and white. People don’t know what to think of me; they jump to Hispanic first and maybe Middle Eastern second. But I didn’t feel so much in the minority growing up because it was a more or less diverse place. I guess I hung out with the Asian kids.
I went to a private, all-boys Catholic school. Women were like the forbidden fruit, the prize. The way that I grew up, you internalize that. You create your worth by how many women you sleep with. It’s your self-respect.
The thing is, I’m absolutely nuts. I am just a painfully awkward person. I don’t know how to interact with women at all in a romantic context. I don’t know how to flirt. Even the thought of flirting repulses me. It feels like I’m not being myself. So it just never worked out for me. Ever. It was disappointment after disappointment.
I struck out a lot with girls early on. The first major crush I had was on a girl named Ella. I went up to her and I said, “Oh, I really like your watch.” This was in the fifth grade. And it was always like “Ew, [Mark’s] talking to me.” Which I guess wasn't that unusual at that age. But I remember that. And that sucked.
“Women were like the forbidden fruit, the prize. The way that I grew up, you internalize that. You create your worth by how many women you sleep with. It’s your self-respect.”
It really just continued. We started talking online on AOL messenger. I would wait for hours for certain girls to sign on. Oh my god, it was my whole entire universe. I’d talk to girls I didn’t even know. You’re just having all these new urges and it’s all you can think about and no girl will talk to you. We finally realized, my best friend and I, that we were geeks. We just weren’t what the girls wanted. We weren’t masculine or athletic.
I had my first kiss when I was 17, finally. A friend asked me to come along — he was going to meet up with this girl from Myspace. I ended up hanging out with the girl’s friend. We hung out and then we ended up hanging out a second time, in a parking lot. This is the story of my life; this is still the story of my life. We’re hanging out in the church parking lot. My friend is out making out with the girl that is, you know, his girl and I’m sitting in the car with, we’ll call her Jackie. We’re just there together. And I didn’t know what to do. So I was talking to this girl about the weather, you know, and the Beatles and, you know, just all of this stuff. And, like, it just did not occur to me that this is exactly the time. And finally her friend comes to the side window and she, like, whispers to me — she’s like, “kiss her.” And so I do. And we end up staying together for four years. We fell in love. She was interesting to me. We taught each other things.
But I don’t know if I was very nice to her and I don’t know if she was very nice to me. I think when people are young — well, at least in my experience — you’re just shitty to each other because you don’t know how to be in a relationship. You don’t know how to think from the point of view of another person. We fought all the time about stupid stuff.
We fought about sex, actually. She didn't want to have sex and I did. You want both people to want it equally. But it’s been my experience that eventually in relationships sex just becomes less important.
I wasn’t in a relationship for five years after that and I only had sex about three times. We broke up and then I just went for long stretches without being with girls and I just hung out alone a lot. It just became this thing where the girls are this untouchable thing that I wasn’t able to get. And here’s, okay, another thing is — it’s not meant to sound pompous — but I have heard over and over again that I’m an attractive person. “You’re beautiful.” I hear this all the time. People tell this to me and it fucks with my mind because I don't feel that way.
I’m resentful sometimes. I’m resentful. Of course. I’m a nice person, I think. At this point I just hate being rejected so much. Like, once I met this girl and we went on a date and we ended up at a bar and we had had a lot to drink and we started kissing each other and then I just started groping her. I was just going for it because I had a chance. At the bar. Then at the end of the night, I was getting dropped off, we split a Lyft to our separate homes, we were parting ways, and it was rude in retrospect but when I got out I kind of, like, threw cash at her. For the car. I know that looked really bad.
I haven’t been able to justify my young age. I haven’t had very many partners. I haven’t been able to get what I want out of being young…what I want and what is normal, I guess. What is normal?
My friends will say, “Oh, [Mark], you think too much” or all of the advice that I ever get from other men is that I have to be more assertive. You know, I have to be more assertive with women and I have to test the waters by doing certain things. Because how else are you going to find out?
“At this point I just hate being rejected so much.”
For instance, my friend Dimitri, he says, [Mark], you have to, like, no matter what, you know, just bring her, get her up to your apartment. Just lie, make something up. “I have to get my backpack.” “I’m hungry for peanut butter.” Things I couldn’t even imagine doing ... but he definitely got far, far more women than I did.
Another friend, he said his friend Troy, he gets a lot of ass and what he does is he puts his hand close to a girl’s leg and if she doesn’t move he’ll touch her a little bit and kind of keep climbing the ladder or something like that. And so that was another theory.
But sort of recently there was a guy who I was playing tennis with. He started touching me on my shoulder and then rubbing my torso — it was obvious what he was doing. And it made me feel extremely uncomfortable. Alarmed. And now I know. It’s not like, oh, it’s no big deal, whatever. It’s a bad feeling. So now I would never take that guy’s advice. And just all the stuff that’s come to light, obviously. I think about it a lot.
I just feel at a loss because it seems like being assertive does work. Women do respond to that. So there’s no advice for me. I’m constantly afraid about it a little bit because, okay, here’s another thing: I had a situation that I can’t describe specifically but there was a professional gathering and it was at my house over the course of two weeks. And it got back to someone that I had been groping people. So...it’s ridiculous. It didn’t happen. I mean, a) you know, I’m too awkward, and b) how could, why would anybody be so fucking stupid to just nonconsensually grope somebody? It wasn’t that kind of gathering.
But I left the house while they were there, rather than call attention to it. It felt horrible. And I see in everybody’s minds, whenever I tell them the story, is this shadow of a doubt. When there’s an accusation, even if nothing’s happened, now something’s happened. It’s just scary because I don’t know how one would substantiate or how I could clear myself, if it were ever to happen again. If somebody has a bone to pick with me…
The value of #Me Too, well, it’s a given. It’s a given. Men have held all the power in these situations and now that power is checked. For me personally, even though I haven’t done anything wrong, I don’t know — I just still feel, like, worried. Because I do have sexual desires. I’m a human.
For me, having sex now, sometimes I almost don’t enjoy the experience because I am just completely in my head, concerned, like am I making this good for her? Sometimes I just want to let go and I can't because I’m focused on all these other things, like is she having a good time?
[Interviewer: I think that’s how a lot of women experience sex.]
Oh. Wow. Well, then there you go. You know that’s the value of the thing.
“Tony,” late twenties
I just always have this constant fear that, like, at any moment I could have mud on my face and I could just get fired or something, you know what I mean?
My mother married a significantly older man, my dad, and they were very much in love, but I think after nine years or so she started drinking. I think I carry a lot of resentment towards my father for my mother’s alcoholism. Not to say that she didn’t have agency — I think she could have done a lot of things, pursued a career, gotten a divorce... This is something I’m still struggling with, is how much agency my mother really had.
She was super there for me and loving, [but then] she would start drinking. Going on binges, finish a bottle of vodka a day. It’s like, your mom is so loving but then next thing you know she’s hurting you and manipulating you and being really cruel. Throwing things at you. Tricking you. So I had to protect myself, I think. Block her out.
“For me personally, even though I haven’t done anything wrong, I don’t know — I just still feel, like, worried. Because I do have sexual desires. I’m a human.”
I would often get into, like, a physical thing with my mom where I’m, like, wrestling her to get alcohol. Just these power struggles. She didn’t have a driver’s license because of DUIs, so I was the one picking her up. Like 15, 16 years old, starting to feel empowered to have authority over my mother. Like, I had to be in charge. It’s not like I can attribute all this to me being pushy with girls. But I do believe that there’s something to me twisting my mom’s arm.
And then with girls… There were plenty of women that liked me but, like, I found all these reasons to never… The term, I think it’s called fault-finding. No one was ever good enough. I would just hook up. And I would try not to kiss, even when hooking up. It’s a weird thing I noticed. Like, to maintain a safer distance.
What happened [senior year of college] with [Steph] was, we were friends and I was staying with her. We got home late and she gave me a blanket to sleep on the couch. Ten minutes later she came out and said I could sleep in the bed with her. We started making out. She got on top of me. She was grinding. And then we just started chitchatting — like, pillow talk stuff about past relationships. She was complimenting my body. We were just touching on each other. My feeling is that she would have been down just to have sex. She brought it up but I kind of deflected.
I didn’t want to have sex. It seemed weird to be intimate with someone because I had been seeing [Olivia] all summer before she went abroad, basically my first real girlfriend. And also [Olivia] and [Steph] knew each other. But at this point I’ve had an erection for so long and all this back and forth. And I was like, “You know what I want to do?” And I was shy, like, I felt like a weirdo saying it, but I was like, “I kind of want to titty fuck you?”
She laughed it off, but kept maintaining this flirtatiousness. I asked again and she was like, “Okay…” So we’re doing it but then she was kind of done with it. So I stopped, but then she would keep jerking me off while I was still in the same position. So I wanted to keep going so I got whiny, pathetically. “Come on.” “No.” “Come on.” “No.” “Come on.” “No.” “Please?” “Okay, fine.”
The vibe wasn’t chill anymore. It was clear she was doing something she wasn’t enjoying, but I was just focused on my own pleasure and didn’t see what the big deal was. I came and I got her tissues and she joked that that was sweet.
It’s not that I’m getting off on her not wanting it. It’s just ignoring other people’s feelings. It’s not valuing the full human, and that comes from porn, for sure. In general, being controlling — women love that. I don’t get it. Like, these days women want me to dominate them often more than I’m comfortable dominating them.
Months later [Olivia] asked [Steph] why she kept going, touching me, and [Steph] said, “Oh, well I wanted it to feel good.” I think she liked me and didn’t want for it to be going badly. We stayed up for a while after [hooking up] and I could tell I was kinda being a dick, but at the same time, we’d been friends for a couple years.
“The vibe wasn’t chill anymore. It was clear she was doing something she wasn’t enjoying, but I was just focused on my own pleasure and didn’t see what the big deal was.”
I think if Me Too and all this had happened when I was younger, I would have been able to recognize faster [that what had happened was serious]. But I didn’t at all think of it like that.
The next morning we went grocery shopping together because she had a car and on the way back she made a joke like, “Oh, are you going to pay me not to tell people, like Kanye does with his girls?”
Three or four days later she calls me and tells me, “Hey, just so you know, what happened could be considered sexual harassment, but like, of course I wouldn’t do that because I’m your friend.” I became really defensive. I pushed back 100%, didn’t really admit much besides feeling sorry that she feels that way. I think I acknowledged being pushy and I think I did express regret, but I think I really was like, “That’s ridiculous.” And um, you know, retrospectively, that was coercion. Obviously.
I think it would have just ended if I had acknowledged her feelings and acknowledged that what I did was wrong. But I just iced her, put up a wall. I did that out of fear. We stopped talking.
Then the assistant dean calls me in. [Steph] just wants an apology. So I wrote a big apology. But then [the assistant dean’s] like, “Well, it looks like you admitted to some serious stuff.” So there were big consequences. I won’t go into it, but it seriously disrupted [my life]. It took me a long time to forgive [Steph] for what happened. Still working on forgiving myself...
When [Olivia] came back, we got back together. She and [Steph] had talked about the whole deal and she felt sorry for me. That meant a lot to me. That’s the thing, is people do bad things and if you know them, they’re redeemable. And if you don’t, they’re not.
It took me years to digest what happened and unpack it from so many different levels — looking back on past relationships and other encounters and friends, because there were other... things, that I guess I suppressed. So that became another thing that made me scared of intimacy. Not trusting myself or not knowing the right way to express my desires. For years after, I didn’t put myself out there. Just pretty lonely and scared and depressed.
I'm a really pushy person. Outside of sex. There’s a feeling of not being secure, distrust of other people. I notice I disregard other people’s feelings when they don’t line up with mine or they don’t seem rational. Like I need to stick up for my needs or they won’t get met, that’s where it goes. That’s the habit. And it might come from not respecting my mom’s demands or needs. Because a lot of them were bullshit. I feel like she drained me of my empathy. It’s not that I blame her or anyone. But I’m just working on unpacking. Because there’s a lot I really want to leave behind and learn and I personally can’t fake empathy.
I grew up lower middle class in Southern California. My mom started having kids when she was 19. My dad was like a gearhead, drag racing, smoked four packs a day... Turned out to be definitely an abuser. A violent person. To be avoided. Just very, very critical. I couldn’t do anything right. And of course he would hit us. He hit everybody in the family when he was upset.
But I’m grateful for him and his side of the family, because they’re all rebels. I got my art chops from my dad. He was always drawing; he was an architect. And of course his hot-rodding. So he taught me to be meticulous. Well, he didn’t explicitly teach me much, but I think just the fact that he was always working on something sort of prompted me to work on stuff too, to create. I still sort of have this belief somewhere in my mind that artists need to be fucked up.
My mom ran away from my dad when I was 8, ran down back to Southern California. It made perfect sense to me that we were leaving. I observed the way men treated [my mom], almost like she was drawn to abuse in some form or another. I witnessed my dad being really, really abusive to her, like, with violence and also, you know, sexually. Just being overtly sexual to her in front of us or in public. He’d just grab her. My mother was not an out, sexual person; she dressed fairly conservative. But it was the late ’70s, early ’80s — I think it was all too terribly normalized.
I just remember him licking her. Licking her on the face or on the mouth in public. I don't remember her fighting back a lot or matching his level of intensity. I think I got that from her.
It’s pretty easy to see signs of [my dad] in me. The fear that things are out of my control or that animosity…I attest to him. I’m probably a little too critical about that when I sense my father’s darkness kind of rising up in me.
“I just remember him licking her. Licking her on the face or on the mouth in public.”
I had a girlfriend in the fourth grade after we moved back to San Diego County. Her family was totally crazy, maybe even crazier than mine. I recall her bullying me, kind of like public humiliation. She pulled my hair out, kicked my ass a few times. She was very sexual with me at that age. In fact, I think we even had sex or tried to have sex, definitely oral. In fourth grade. And prior to that I had experimented with boys, what I would consider normal experimentation with boys, a group of boys.
Beyond her, I didn't really have another girlfriend for a long time, although I wanted to be intimate with girls. So that I could be close to them, I chose to be their friends. I always had one or two best girl friends. It was just fine for me that way.
By high school I just had this one girl who I was very, very close to, who I definitely wanted to be intimate with. But I resisted letting her know my feelings, that I wanted to kiss her, so that I could keep being her best friend, so I could be near her. She was also an abuse victim from earlier in her life and even during the time that we hung out a lot. Her parents, they were extremely restrictive and traditional.
That’s just sort of how I floated for a great number of years, actually. I didn’t have another girlfriend until I was 19, so I lost my virginity officially, I suppose, to my girlfriend when I was 20. That was like a short-term, really intense relationship. We were experimenting with drugs a lot at that time, were doing lots of LSD and smoking pot.
And what really stands out about the relationship actually is when we talked about sex, she would be like, “Oh, are you going to rape me? Are you going to rape me now? I want you to rape me. I’m afraid that you’re going to rape me.”
I didn’t quite know if she was joking about that or whether she had, I don’t know, this sort of sense about me being a perpetrator in some way. I never figured it out... So it moved really slowly. We eventually had sex. I think we had sex, like, twice in maybe a year or something like that.
I sort of took a nosedive soon after that. I found a surrogate tribe basically by the time I was 17, out on the street, and I didn’t really get back into relationships with women for probably another six or seven years. I was a punk rocker. I was busy with music. Just digging into an alternative lifestyle and not really feeling like I should be in a, you know, boy/girl relationship — that was way too normal, traditional. I was trying desperately not to be in that pattern that my parents had exhibited, and of course, not be like my father at all.
Punk has always been very androgynous, so those lines are blurred, thankfully. I mean being in the right place for feeling like a weirdo. Although I really only started identifying as queer within the last year and just realizing, oh, punk is queer.
I started moving all over the place in a bunch of bands and also had become a needle user and was really deep in. And somehow I got into kind of a serious relationship with one woman. It was almost a love affair, but not. Very confusing. For, like, two years. She’s one of my biggest regrets.
We slept together every night in the same bed, but we never, never had sex. I had deeper feelings for her, like I did in high school with my best friend. She was awesome. She would get me involved in anything she was working on, she included me in everything. And I never expressed that back to her.
“We slept together every night in the same bed, but we never, never had sex. I had deeper feelings for her, like I did in high school with my best friend.”
To my knowledge she was also asexual at that time. So we were both kind of involved in this prolonged courting period. I think she was exploring the idea of entering an exclusive relationship with me at the time too. I think that we were both going through a lot of the same emotional patterns. Just being so afraid of my feelings through that whole period, I just withheld so much and shut down.
And then one night — no, one morning — we woke up and she was crying. She said that I had, while we were sleeping, sort of touched her on her hip or her thigh in a way that reminded her of an incident of abuse from her stepdad years ago. All I can think of is that in my sleep I expressed that to her because I don’t have any recollection of actually touching her. It was almost like a dream. It was really hard for that day and a couple of days after she wouldn’t speak about it. She said she was really tired of that treatment from men and things sort of just took a ramp at that point.
Really soon after, this other woman stepped into my life and wanted to have a normal relationship. And I let, I basically let the first one go. Kind of stopped talking after that. So that’s what happened.
My next relationship, we were together for four years. We were both really bad alcoholics. We opened a record store in San Diego. That period was quite blurry. I remember a lot of tears. It was just normal. I started exhibiting what I would consider my father’s attitude towards women, like shaming her into sex. Like, I would want to have sex and she didn’t and it would maybe start as begging. As I recall, there’d be a day of needing to wait for it. But the shaming happened. It was just so blurry. I guess the alcohol allows you to take things out on someone. I’m talking a fifth of whiskey a day for about 15 years during that time.
“I started exhibiting what I would consider my father’s attitude towards women, like shaming her into sex.”
Later, once I was married — we’d adopted two siblings out of foster care; they were taken from their families by CPS and we adopted them — I tried pretty solid to quit drinking for, like, two, three years and realized I could not. I checked myself into rehab in 2013, that my work ended up paying for, and that’s how I stopped, at the treatment facility.
My wife didn’t understand, because we had two young ones at home and she didn’t want me to leave for a month and she didn’t really perceive me as being an alcoholic, even though I was drinking a fifth every other night and driving our kids around in our minivan. I was drinking in secret. So it was really tough on our relationship during that period, but it got much better. We’re open now. She loves and likes this person much more. My life makes a lot more sense these days.
I got clean and sober five years ago. Waking up from a stupor and then seeing the Me Too movement come about at a really pivotal period in my life, I’ve just been paying attention to my memories and how I’d treated women.
A lot of the stories that I’ve read, a lot of them are events that men don’t remember but that women feel very strongly about. So, just based on those stories and not remembering so much of my day-to-day life, I feel like I have to be prepared for that fallout. Coming to terms with what I would do. I would just believe and agree and listen and apologize and then deal with the consequences.
I have a sense of empathy for anyone that has an impulse to do harm. Someone like my dad. I do know that the cycle of abuse started long before him. This has got to stop. ●
Illustrations by Calum Heath for BuzzFeed News.
Liza Veale is an award-winning reporter, covering mostly housing and homelessness in the Bay Area for KALW Public Radio. She’s also a reporter with the national radio show Philosophy Talk.