“Don’t run. Just stop holding your tongue.” – Sara Bareilles
I once had a boss whose husband would come to our holiday parties and creepily flirt with all the women. I recently attended a holiday party in which a fellow party guest had an amazing talent for incorporating sexual innuendo in everything he said. The Board Member of a nonprofit organization I worked for once spent the better part of a Board holiday dinner telling jokes so dirty that several people left the table. One year, at our annual bar association holiday party, the husband of a colleague we had never met began telling us a seemingly made-up story about how he was having an affair with his sex therapist.
I could go on, unfortunately, with numerous examples of a certain brand of men who have not yet received the memo that this kinds of behavior is not just in poor taste, but is extreme enough that their psychological health is called into question. Unfortunately, there seems to be at least one of these types of men at every holiday party or work function each year.
In every one of these examples, each man had a wife next to him. Sometimes the wife was expressionless, devoid of any recognition of her husband’s behavior. Sometimes she continued chatting with the person next to her as if nothing was out of the ordinary and sometimes, she laughed along with her husband’s behavior.
Here lies my curiosity about what her opinion is of the situation. When did she first observe her husband behaving like this? What did she think about it? What, if anything, did she say to him about it?
Does the wife ever worry that her husband’s behavior plays itself out in other ways, such as his having an affair? Does she wonder if he directs his sexually inappropriate behavior to women in the workplace? Is it just a sad example of the extremely low “boys will be boys” standard men are held to by many women, who expect their partners to be inappropriate at best? Does she ever connect the dots between her husband’s behavior and the fact that, for generations, women have had to guard themselves against this behavior in personal and in work situations – and that we’re tired of it?
On the other hand, does she gain any benefit from his behavior? Does she believe that men who act this way are “virile” or “manly” and so she is actually proud to show off how she has managed to tame this “wild creature”? Perhaps she gets to play the “victim” or the patient wife, which garners attention from those around her. Perhaps these wives are holding themselves to a very low standard and view themselves as helpless in regard to men, so it would never occur to her to demand that her life partner sort out his issues. What kind of an example does she think this behavior exhibits to their sons and their daughters?
Whatever the case, I’m glad that our society is beginning to call these men for what they are. In recent years, men like Tiger Woods, Eliot Spitzer, Governor Mark Sanford and Anthony Weiner have been exposed as behaving badly. It was refreshing to see that they were not characterized as “playboys” as they would have been in the not-so-distant past, but rather as dishonest, sexually addicted, narcissists without remorse – or simply pathetic. Two of the wives of these famous men divorced their husbands swiftly, while the third waited for five years before doing so. The fourth wife, according to the press, is considering divorce. I’m heartened to see that at least none of the wives denied their husband’s actions.
We can all take part in combatting the acceptability of this behavior on an individual level, too. I’ve learned a helpful technique in response to the man behaving badly at the holiday party. I lean in and say something like, “You are at a holiday party with a group of professionals and you’re telling dirty jokes. Were you aware of that?” At first, this may elicit a confused look on his face or an attempt to deflect my observation with humor. I will often then repeat, “OK, I’m going to say it again. You are a grown man, at an event with a group of professionals. You are telling dirty jokes. Are you sure you want to act that way?” The technique of narrating his behavior is a detached, non-judgmental approach that can work wonders in any situation in which a person is behaving badly. It can be genuinely helpful to him. I find that most of the time, he experiences some recognition and will say something like, “Oh, don’t listen to me, I’m just being a dirty old man!”. Some, unfortunately, will be angry and defensive and will probably head off to the next party and continue behaving badly. Whatever the response, I feel good that I have spoken up.
While it seems that we, as a society are moving in the right direction in viewing this behavior as unacceptable, it still persists. I believe that the more we talk about it and the more we call men out for behaving badly, the more likely it is to be viewed as a behavior problem, rather than characterized as an ingrained male trait. When this happens, women will no longer pretend that they do not see it, they won’t make excuses for it or laugh along with it but will refuse to put up with it in any environment – and be fully supported in doing so.