Men Are More Afraid Than Ever

Why Kavanaugh advocates would rather defend malfeasance than deny it.

A black-and-white photo of Brett Kavanaugh.
Brett Kavanaugh. Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Sarah Silbiger/CQ Roll Call.

It is a remarkable fact of American life that hordes of men are now defending sexual assault. It’s not immediately clear why. It seems like the very definition of an unforced error. But a substantial group, many of them in politics, has taken to the internet to argue that a 17-year-old football player should get to do as he likes to a 15-year-old girl—say, for example, trap her in a bedroom, violently attempt to remove her clothes, and cover her mouth to muffle her screams—without consequences to his life or reputation. The “locker room” once invoked to normalize Trump’s language (every man talks this way behind closed doors!) has expanded into a locked American bedroom with a woman trapped inside. It’s all in good fun, defenders declare. Horseplay.

Here’s the most surprising part: They’ve launched this peculiar defense despite the fact that the accused party denies it ever happened.

To be clear, there are perfectly feasible defenses of Brett Kavanaugh that others have attempted. One could respond to Christine Blasey Ford’s allegation that he assaulted her at a party while they were teenagers by saying (as some have) that we can’t know the facts or that more evidence is needed. But no: This group has opted instead to defend male impunity for sexual assault and frame a woman’s story of coping with years of trauma as a true crisis … for men. A White House lawyer was quoted saying, “If somebody can be brought down by accusations like this, then you, me, every man certainly should be worried.” Similar things were voiced by Ari Fleischer and Joe Walsh. Per this dark vision of the future, any consequence for committing assault—even being unable to move from one lifetime appointment to another lifetime appointment—is the beginning of the end of a just society.

There is a corollary, and it is that teenage girls should not expect justice for coming forward—which Ford had been rightly reluctant to do: “Even if true, teenagers!” tweeted Minnesota state Sen. Scott Newman, summoning a vision of American adolescence where being trapped and attacked is a boisterous fact of life. (He added, however, that he did not believe Ford.) Writing for the Wall Street Journal, Lance Morrow minimized the victim’s side of things further by declaring that the incident wasn’t serious enough to matter. “The thing happened—if it happened—an awfully long time ago, back in Ronald Reagan’s time. … No clothes were removed, and no sexual penetration occurred.” What’s a little assault—or fearing for your life and having to fight free and hide—if no penises made insertions and the Gipper was in charge?

This trend isn’t really that mysterious, of course. The reason for this panicked defense of assault—even as Kavanaugh continues to firmly deny it—is fear. Not fear that the system will punish men wrongly but that it will punish them rightly. Sure, they will legalistically argue that the rules have changed on them, and it’s true to a point that things were different in 1982: “Date rape” wasn’t yet an available concept, meaning that women had no way of describing the peculiar horror of being sexually assaulted by someone they knew. But the times weren’t quite as different as these guys like to pretend they were. Just because there was no socially validated vocabulary for a man forcing an acquaintance to have sex against her will did not, in any way, mean that the man thought what he was doing was just fine. Men are not idiots. As Caitlin Flanagan recounts in an essay, a high school boy who tried to rape her and then stopped later sought her out to apologize. Why? Because he understood perfectly well that what he’d tried to do was monstrous. Sure, high-schoolers can have misunderstandings, but holding a high school girl down and muffling her screams is not a case of mixed signals. People understood that. Yes, even under Reagan.

But they sure got to pretend they didn’t. “Boys will be boys” is a nostrum with the designated purpose of chalking male malfeasance up to innocent high spirits. It’s a saying that meant to exonerate, but here’s the funny thing: It only works on the agreed-upon assumption that boys do shitty things, the gravity of which we’re supposed to ignore or dismiss. The message isn’t that the boys don’t know that the things they do are bad; it’s rather that the rest of us should forgive, understand, and love them anyway, without their needing to ask for it.

Is it any surprise that an incentive structure like this one breeds entitled indifference to girls and women in the coddled party, and in the system that coddles them? Is it any surprise that men would panic at the realization that the system that they could depend on to look the other way is fast eroding?

We knew this moment would arrive when the #MeToo movement began. It was clear that men and women were universally comfortable with the movement as long as its targets were unregenerate monsters like Harvey Weinstein, and it was just as clear that the tides would shift once attention expanded to the scope of what women routinely put up with. Eventually, as I wrote then, there would be an attempt to “naturalize sexual harassment. If there are this many men doing these things, then surely this is just how men are!”

But I never imagined it would get this explicit. I never thought I would see a group that has spent years laughing at the very idea of anything like “rape culture” suddenly not just admitting that it exists but arguing that it should—nothing should be done about it; male malfeasance is an unstoppable cocktail of culture and biology. The subtext—stripped of all chivalric pretense thanks to the recent panic—is that victims don’t matter. They’re invisible because they’re unimportant, and women’s pain is irrelevant.

In contrast, during these past few weeks, nothing has been presented as more crucially central than men’s pain. Almost as if they’d planned it, a clutch of disgraced men who were finally exposed for years of ongoing alleged abuse has been creeping back toward their long-lamented spotlight. There are quite a few. These reputationally injured parties range from Jian Ghomeshi and John Hockenberry to Louis C.K. to Bryan Singer. What they share—besides a history of inflicting their sexual attentions on the less powerful because they felt like it—is an itch to be famous once again. They want their timeouts to be over. They have suffered, they believe, and they wish us to know it. This should be laughable: Anyone who assaulted or harassed someone and escaped without a record should be thanking their lucky stars. Their minimal privation mostly consists of being economically comfortable and doing without attention for 10 or 11 months. But it’s not laughable! They mean it. They grew up in a world that taught them they “get to” do the things they did. They feel, accordingly, that they have been unjustly penalized. They believe they’re suffering greatly.

And many of us (I include myself) are almost—almost—persuaded. Many of us have been trained from birth to believe that men (unlike women) are long-suffering and stoic. That means that their pain, when they do express it, strikes us as almost holy. It took me decades to realize that something like the opposite is true: It’s not that men’s pain isn’t real; it’s that our culture vastly overestimates it. A certain kind of man not getting exactly what he wants, precisely when he wants it, will truly believe he’s suffering more than a woman in pain who has never been told that what she wants might matter. While this doesn’t make him a liar, it does limit him and blind him to those limits.

It’s as if men and women have different pain scales emotionally as well as physically. Of course men believe they suffer more, and many women—having spent their lives accustomed to men’s feelings mattering more than everyone else’s—will agree with them. Most of us have been socialized to sympathize with men, the troubled geniuses, the heroes and antiheroes. They’re the protagonists. And this meritocratic American dream stuff (which, let’s face it, is 100 percent pitched as male) has a poetry that encourages pity. If men on that journey experience a setback, their plight scans as injustice (the American dream does not reverse!). Their suffering must, therefore, be more acute.

The point of all this is that “he said, she said” accounts aren’t the empty contradictions we often dismiss them as; they can tell us quite a bit about the different realities in which men and women get to live. We think of these testimonies as being equally valid, even if they’re at odds. (Kidding: We usually assume that the woman has somehow exaggerated or misremembered or misread the context or lied: “I think she’s mistaking something, but I don’t know, I mean, I don’t know her,” said Sen. Orrin Hatch of Ford.) We don’t question the particulars of someone’s account of their mugging, but rape inspires people to start panning the story for possible “misunderstandings.” But given all of the above, there is, actually, a decent explanation for this: The painful experiences claimed by women make no impression at all on a certain kind of man’s sense of reality. Her perspective is as unreal as it is inconsequential to him. Result: His and her story can be, in a limited and horrifying sense, equally true. It’s believable, in other words, that Ford says she was scarred by the attack and dealt with it in therapy decades later. It’s also believable that Kavanaugh pal Mark Judge “has no recollection” of being in the room while Kavanaugh allegedly attacked her—not because he was drunk (though he has a history) but because this incident with a struggling screaming teen girl might be, to him, too unremarkable to remember.

It would be great if this appalling imbalance had been “fixed” by #MeToo in 11 short months. But if anything, the hysterical hypercorrection among men has combined our habitual sympathy for them with a plea to extend their exceptionalism. They’re finally just willing to say what was once held in common: Women aren’t full citizens whose bodily autonomy and personal liberty matters. The harm to a woman isn’t worth punishing anyone over as long as you get yours. Convicted rapist Brock Turner was defended by his father on precisely these grounds: He should get probation, because jail time would be “a steep price to pay for 20 minutes of action out of his 20 plus years of life.” (Note that the human person Turner attacked literally does not factor into this perspective.) Fox News columnist Stephen Miller reclassified the Kavanaugh accusation as “drunk teenagers playing seven minutes of heaven”—a game where the girl typically both consents and voluntarily participates, but is all that really necessary anyway?

It’s useful to have naked misogyny out in the open. It is now clear, and no exaggeration at all, that a significant percentage of men—most of them Republicans—believe that a guy’s right to a few minutes of “action” justifies causing people who happen to be women physical pain, lifelong trauma, or any combination of the two. They’ve decided—at a moment when they could easily have accepted Kavanaugh’s denial—that something larger was at stake: namely, the right to do as they please, freely, regardless of who gets hurt. Rather than deny male malfeasance, they’ll defend it. Their logic could not be more naked or more self-serving: Men should get to escape consequences for youthful “indiscretions” like assault, but women should not—especially if the consequence is a pregnancy. And this perspective extends 100 percent to the way they wish the legal system to work: Harms suffered by women do not rate consideration, much less punishment. (I recommend Googling the mortality rate for women when abortion was illegal.)

As if that weren’t bad enough, this recent spate of attempted rehabilitations casts into sharp relief how little men socialized to think this way care—still—about the women (and men) they’ve harmed. The men exposed by #MeToo are testing the waters for their planned return with a surprise performance here, a profile there, perhaps a giant self-regarding essay in a high-profile magazine. Some have offered to shade in their experience of disgrace as if they were tragic heroes rather than prurient narcissists. Read those and search for any sign, however slight, that they’ve given their alleged victims’ pain one-tenth of the consideration that they’ve given their own. Perhaps they erred, but what more do we want from them? Haven’t they endured enough?

The answer is no.