Midwestern Masculinity and the Male #MeToo
What I learned about male sexual harassment from working in a blue collar job
Note: names changed to protect privacy
“I don’t know what to do,” my coworker told me, “I love this job, and the people are great here,” he said.
“But Jason won’t stop grabbing my balls.”
He went on to tell me that he’d told Jason, our manager, to quit grabbing his dick like a handshake, to quit sack-tapping him, to quit walking up behind him to fondle him. Turning red, he told me about what Jason called the “turkey gobbler,” in which Jason would walk up behind a coworker, try to put his thumb in the coworker’s anus from behind, fondle his penis with the remaining four fingers, and gobble like a turkey. He said that hadn’t happened to him personally, but he saw Jason do it to the other salesperson, and if Jason did it to him, he wasn’t sure he could keep himself from decking him and walking out.
My coworker’s name was Josh, and we worked together at a powersports dealership. He was pretty masculine — he was an ex-cop with full tattoo sleeves, bulging biceps, and a thick neck. His shirts were always snug against his pecs. When I first met him, I thought he probably wouldn’t talk feelings all that much, but he’d slowly started to open up, telling me about how he’d changed careers because he wanted to focus on his family and get treatment for PTSD after working on the force.
What he described didn’t surprise me — these kinds of things happened all the time in the dealership, but were mostly initiated and carried out by Jason. He’d flash the other workers, grab their privates, put used condoms in their desks. He’d boast of his sexcapades and tell them they could seduce their wives in a dry spell by “giving them just the tip to show them they want it and then sliding it the rest of the way in.” Once, I saw him pin a coworker to the ground and sit on his face, rubbing his balls on him and calling him gay — the coworker in question wore tight t-shirts, sometimes pink, had ear and nipple piercings, and sometimes wore skinny jeans. The harassment was clear to anyone who worked in the dealership and paid any sort of attention.
What did surprise me was that my coworker admitted that being touched by our manager was actually bugging him. Jason’s behavior was something that all of the men who worked in the dealership, despite at some point experiencing something similar from Jason, laughed off or buried in an annoyed groan and eyeroll. Some even participated in it themselves, or tried to fight back by doing the same things. They all dealt with it in their own way, which didn’t include talking about it with any kind of seriousness.
I’ve worked on and off in the powersports industry for about three years. It’s no secret that the powersports and motorcycling industries are traditionally masculine fields and that the target market for their products is men. Those industries, though, are increasingly hiring women and marketing toward them (claps to you, Harley-Davidson!). While the efforts to represent more women in the field would seem progressive in theory, though, in practice, it is still very much a boys’ club. Women entering the field either have to become one of the boys or sleep with the boys; otherwise, they’re unwelcome (an essay for a different day).
I am one of the women who became one of the boys, and for awhile, I felt lucky to have been accepted — I love powersports, having grown up in rural Wisconsin with avid ATV, motorcycle, and snowmobile riders. I also loved the men I worked with, despite their faults, and wanted them to accept me — not just because it would make my job easier, but because they were friendly, rugged, smart, hardworking, and hilarious. They could easily fit any of the stereotypes about Wisconsin men — all of them were hunters, fishers, beer drinkers. Most of them had lumberjack beards and wore flannel and their hands were always dirty. But they were more dynamic than that, too — they all had families and interests and feelings, just like anyone else.
I had a lot of fun working at the dealership. A lot of the time, it was a playful, light environment — we were always giving each other shit, racing scooters that were too small for us around the parking lot, eating pizza in the back room. Once, the service manager drank mop water for $50 of ones that we all pitched in, just to see if he would do it. I got to test drive vehicles I’ll probably never get to drive again in my lifetime. I got to borrow watercraft.
But of course, there was a dark underbelly to the dealership: the pervasive sexual harassment directed primarily toward the men who worked there, and the increasingly obvious knowledge that they didn’t always experience it as a joke, that it really did affect them, and that there was nothing, really, that any one of us could do about it.
I decided that I would need to leave the dealership the day that Jason started masturbating while on the sales floor, or I guess, while at work at all, though that wasn’t new either — other workers said he’d take long trips to the bathroom for that sole purpose. This time, a woman had walked into the dealership and had all the traits that typically make women attractive to men in rural Wisconsin (and arguably, in the rest of the US): blonde, buxom, thin, with a “nice ass.” Sunbed tan, flip-flops, hair in a pony under a baseball cap. She even sat on the motorcycles — a motorcycle salesman’s wet dream.
When she walked past, she didn’t notice (thankfully) that my manager had put his hand down his pants and had started jacking off behind one of the salesman’s desks. There were three salesman and the service manager around him.
As noted above, it was common for Jason to cross the line between goofing off and inappropriate, but no one in the dealership saw this coming, and all of them were clearly in shock — they were staring, mouths agape. A few awkwardly laughed. One of them probably cracked a joke.
They all told him to stop, but he wouldn’t. He thought it was funny, that it didn’t matter because no women could see him (I was within hearing range but didn’t see it happening) and his dick wasn’t even out — what’s wrong if it’s in my pants? he had said.
He didn’t stop until the service manager punched him in the back and told him to go do it in his office, if that’s what he needed to do.
C’mon, guys it’s funny, and she’s hot, he said. How could you not want to get your rocks off to that?
They shook their heads and walked off.
After the masturbation incident, it was silently agreed upon that the “locker room” environment and pranks had gotten out of hand. I asked my coworkers if the owner knew about any of what had been going on.
“Are you kidding?” One of them told me, “they can see it on the cameras, and they see it when they’re here. They don’t care and Jason does too much for them.” Once, he told me, when Jason’s son was visiting, Jason got angry and chased him around the dealership and beat him with a metal pole. He’d also picked his son up by the neck while on company property.
The owners knew about it, yet still didn’t fire him.
“Plus,” my coworker added, “the other stuff…well, it’s just goofing around.”
I told them Jason should be fired, that what he was doing was sexual harassment. I even confronted him one day, told him straight to his face that he was going to get in trouble for sexual harassment.
“Nah,” he said. “Guys aren’t going to say anything. It’s just goofing off, and it’s stupid if they get butthurt over it.”
He added, “women, on the other hand, they would make a big stink. That’s why I don’t do any of this to you. Then I would get in trouble for it.”
If it hadn’t been clear to me already, it became clear to me then that Jason knew what he was doing, and that he could get away with it. He knew it was sexual harassment, that he shouldn’t be doing it. He was in a power position — as sales manager, he was in control of the salespeople’s schedules, their base pay, their commission, their bonuses. He could decide if they got to take out demo units or if they got to travel to shows out of state. He could delay their training so they couldn’t get a raise.
And he did all of these things for reasons lesser than their complaining about sexual harassment. As the only person fully trained in sales for the product lines the dealership carried, he would make the highest salary. For a long time, he would edit who completed the sales of units so that he would get bonuses from the companies themselves — he couldn’t get bonuses from the dealership because he was a salaried employee, so he frequently found ways around it. If he didn’t like employees, he pretty much tried to bully them out — once, he told me, he purposely gave the only black employee a hard time and the “bitch work” because he thought the employee was lazy, but didn’t want to fire him (I think it was textbook racism, given that he called him a n*gger behind his back, but I digress). This guy was used to wielding his power, and if his salespeople were going to “pussy out,” I’m sure they’d suffer.
After reading all this, one could argue that Jason is the exception to the norm — this obviously doesn’t happen in every powersports dealership or blue collar job. Not every manager is abusive or behaves in such reprehensible ways.
I beg to differ, though. In my experiences growing up and working in the rural Midwest, I’ve witnessed toxic masculinity that seems rooted in the culture. I’ve lived and worked in several parts of the state, and in several fields (not the corn or soy kind), and in each place, I’ve witnessed similar attitudes about men: they should be hunters, fishers, providers. Tough, gruff, not afraid to find the belt that cracks the hardest on their child’s behind. They should work hard and with their hands and if their hands aren’t black by the end of the day, they haven’t worked hard enough. They should drink cold Wisconsin beer at the end of a hard work day and throw a slab of steer (my grandfather actually calls steak this) on the grill.
In a lot of families, going to a university can be frowned upon if men aren’t going into engineering or a masculine field, and PhDs are certainly out. High schoolers are pushed to go to trade schools — don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing inherently wrong with pursuing a job in these fields. I’m just pointing out that a lot of boys don’t have the choice to do otherwise, at least without a good amount of pushback.
Men are certainly encouraged to squelch their emotions on the job, in their homes, or otherwise. Boys raised on farms have to butcher cows. Boys are pressured to start killing animals, and largely for sport, at a young age — indeed, it is now legal to go hunting as an infant in Wisconsin. Boys and adult men alike have a strange propensity toward killing cats in Wisconsin. I’ve heard story upon story of boys and men shooting cats just because they don’t like them, running them over with their cars, even running them over with lawn mowers. When one of the men in the dealership told me about the lawn mower incident, I asked him why in the hell he would do something like that. He said, my father always told me that the only good cat is a dead one.
There is also a very real problem with domestic abuse in the Midwest. Indeed, there have been men arrested for beating their wives after the Green Bay Packers lost, as if their wives were the culprits behind the loss and not Aaron Rodgers or whoever isn’t out because of an injury.
Midwestern culture, for all of its wonderfulness (I truly love the Midwest, so please note that I am problematizing a toxic part of the culture, rather than the whole culture, as no culture is perfect), no doubt contributes to an environment in which violence and sexual harassment and assault will thrive — against both men and women. Beyond the acceptance of violence, there is the continual push to be polite (even though now it’s a stereotype and the butt of jokes). In my experience, though, the push to be polite lands not on men, but women — men can be angry all they want, but women should be the keepers of the peace.
The danger in politeness, though, comes not in trying to avoid offending people. The danger is that politeness is often synonymous with passivity. That passivity is what, I imagine, at least somewhat allows sexual harassment, assault, and abuse toward anyone in the Midwest to remain alive and well, particularly in rural towns or in blue collar jobs.
Which brings me to my next point: Even if my manager was the exception to the norm, the way that his behavior became normalized and the pressure to write it off as “goofing off” is concerning. The owners overlooking his behavior and the way that we all shut up and let it go on shows that sexual harassment directed at men is a problem that needs attention, and that we have attitudes about it that desperately need shifting.
Miles Klee recently wrote an excellent piece on why male victims of sexual harassment don’t speak up. In the piece, he discusses the reality that I witnessed and that the men with whom I worked experienced: that men’s experiences are written off as jokes. He writes that when a man experiences sexual harassment, everyone acknowledges that “it happened, [and] everyone agrees that it happened, but, well, it doesn’t count, because a man touching another man inappropriately can only be a gay come-on or good-humored bonding behavior.”
Every man in the dealership said some version of what Miles writes, here, which shows the prevalence of the “it’s all just fun and games” attitude, and I imagine that a lot of women also believe that, especially after hearing woman after woman dismiss Donald Trump’s pussy-grabbing comments as “locker room talk.”
But it’s not just fun and games — as a victim of sexual assault myself, I know that it can be traumatizing. I can’t pretend to know what it’s like for male victims, but at the very least, the ones I knew were reluctant to come to work and were consistently on the lookout for the manager. They’d cross their legs, hard, or put their hands over their man parts when he’d walk by. The level of discomfort was clear and disturbing. Sometimes, “fun and games” can, and do, hurt.
With more and more #metoo stories everyday, I couldn’t help but think that #metoo is also an opportunity to help men. I know that the focus of #metoo has been on women because men are in a privileged position and sexual harassment/assault affects primarily women, and I don’t disagree with that. Women need a space to speak out, and I don’t mean we should turn this into a rivalry like what “All Lives Matter” has done to “Black Lives Matter.” I don’t want a “mentoo” hashtag, because that invalidates the experience of women.
What I want is for men to be able to say “me too” and not have their experience minimized or written off as a joke. Like how I feel that women shouldn’t have to be ashamed of their experiences or of speaking out against sexual harassment/assault, I don’t want men to be shamed for it. I want men to be comfortable in the workplace, to be supported when something makes them uncomfortable, to be taken seriously.
The first step forward is calling the “fun and games” what it is: sexual harassment. Sexual assault. Abuse of power.
The other important step, though, is to identify the cultural contributors to sexual harassment toward men in the workplace. In the Midwest, we have a lot of work to do. We need to let men have feelings, to shift away from the acceptance, or even glorification, of violence.
And we need to stop being so damn polite.