The Virgin Thighs of Straight Men

by Conor Friedersdorf

Bloggers have been having a lot of fun with David Brooks' unusual admission in a cable news interview:

You know, all three of us spend a lot of time covering politicians and I don’t know about you guys, but in my view, they’re all emotional freaks of one sort or another. They’re guaranteed to invade your personal space, touch you. I sat next to a Republican senator once at dinner and he had his hand on my inner thigh the whole time. I was like, ehh, get me out of here.

But Hilzoy isn't amused.

News flash: This has been happening to people forever, at least if you count women as people. Back when George Washington was writing out his "Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation", which Brooks cites as an example of the Dignity Code, Thomas Jefferson was hitting on Sally Hemings. A professor whose class I was enrolled in once grabbed my breasts at a party. Every woman I know has stories like this. Maybe being groped in a public setting is a novel experience for straight guys; not being a straight guy, I wouldn't know. But if it is, that isn't because no one ever groped anyone in a public setting before.

It's a fair enough point -- one that demonstrates the value of a blogosphere composed of both male and female writers. As a straight man, I can assure Hilzoy that we rarely if ever have that kind of experience (though we're vaguely aware that women fare worse, despite the fact that many aren't fond of talking about the matter in mixed company). That's why I think she's being entirely too hard on Mr. Brooks in her next paragraphs:

Honestly: this is like complaining about the recent breakdown of our longstanding social strictures against violence, and citing as evidence the fact that some white person somewhere got lynched last year. 

So I'm left to wonder: why did David Brooks write this column? Is it (a) because none of his female friends and relations ever told him about the existence of sexual harassment? Or (b) because he doesn't think that public groping violates the Dignity Code when you do it to women, because for some reason women just don't count?

Inquiring minds want to know.

In fact, Mr. Brooks made the remark that offended Hilzoy as a throwaway laugh line in an off-the-cuff television interview -- the kind of setting where it's easy to make characterizations based on your life experiences without being perfectly attuned to the fact that other people experience some aspect of the what you're describing differently. Upon reflection, I imagine David Brooks would grasp that women are touched in the way he describes, and perhaps he wouldn't cast that particular act as an example of contemporary societal decline.

But really. Is it even plausible that David Brooks would countenance the public groping of women? Isn't it perfectly obvious, if we afford him even the slightest benefit of the doubt, that he is against the public groping of women, and would characterize a man who publicly groped a women as undignified?

I think so.

The gender experiences of men and women are so fundamentally different that it is really unhelpful to jump on what is at worst a bit of lazy thinking as though it reveals odious sexism -- especially if you want straight men to engage gender matters in public discourse, rather than leaving every fraught discussion to female writers at magazines geared toward women. This stuff is difficult enough without assuming bad faith. I am sure that Hilzoy sometimes discusses some matter from a female perspective without being perfectly attune to the way that a man might experience it differently. Should that happen in the future, she ought to be given the benefit of the doubt that she is neither stupid nor sexist, as should we all.