These are devastating times for survivors of sexual assault. It is devastating to live through the constant barrage of new accusations, and it is devastating to have witnessed a credibly accused man like Brett Kavanaugh elevated to the Supreme Court. It is also devastating to have lived through the 2016 election, when credible accusations of sexual misconduct and assault from numerous women did not prevent Donald Trump from becoming president.
Progressives and feminists like me are enraged, perhaps especially, by the way we see conservatives defending serially accused men, such as Roy Moore, and assailing survivors, such as Christine Blasey Ford. Yet, if my own experiences of sexual abuse have taught me something, it is that liberals need to take a long look in the mirror before laying blame solely on the outdated patriarchal models overtly embraced by the right. Though the fierce opposition to female liberation from the right is well-known, progressives and feminists also need to demonstrate a willingness to address the unique challenges of misogyny and sexual abuse from men who claim, and maybe even fully believe, themselves to be feminists. Understanding the specific problems of addressing sexual abuse perpetrated by progressive men can unearth and explain some of the broader issues our society at large is facing when it comes to alleviating gender-based oppression more broadly. It’s also worth acknowledging that many women who are abused by men claiming to be feminists are particularly afraid to speak out. This is unsurprising—when we speak out, we are betraying “our” men.
We will not win this struggle for gender liberation until we focus more on perpetrators, men, and masculinity rather than on survivors, women, and femininity, and in many cases that means holding “our” men accountable. We should not be afraid to accurately frame the problem—to change our language from “she was raped” to “he raped her.” One of the largest hurdles facing us as we struggle to dismantle gendered oppression is that it has thus far largely been considered the realm of women to understand and rectify. Men are often absent from conversations on gender because they are considered the default gender, and so rethinking these ideas is not deemed their work. But as increasing numbers of women have a voice in decision-making structures, and as the #MeToo movement has started to shift the ground, it is becoming impossible to ignore us. Men are now expected to catch up.
Unfortunately, as has happened with issues of race, the patriarchal forces in our society have largely reacted with defensiveness. The parallels to structural oppression on the basis of race are apparent when analyzing the central arguments Robin DiAngelo makes in her book White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism. The complicity of all white people in racial oppression stems from the systemic nature of white supremacy, in that it is collective and engineered into social machinery; this counters the long-held misconception that racism operates only at the individual level, in a conscious and intentional manner. This is the same framework we must apply to the gendered hierarchy—it is not enough for men to simply not abuse women just as it is not enough for white people not to be avowedly racist. All men, even the “good men,” must also recognize the structures that are in place to maintain male hegemony. These structures are still very much intact among progressives, where good men may be enabling the abuse of women even when they are not aware of it.
Since the Harvey Weinstein news first broke in October 2017, we have read countless stories about sexual abuse. Many, if not most, of them focusing on the theme of power, yet the gendered aspect of sexual harassment—while often implicitly present in the discussions—is one that has been taboo to explicitly state. But neglecting gender-based explanations and analyses leaves us vulnerable to inaccurately identifying the critical male dimension of the problem. Progressives have an aversion to gender distinctions for many reasons—understandably because such distinctions have long been deployed to subjugate women and queer people. But this reluctance has led to stripping #MeToo of an explicitly gendered dimension and focusing solely on institutional hierarchies, where sexual harassment is regarded as primarily an issue of power imbalances in institutions. And yet, in an analysis devoid of gender, there is a blatant disregard to the structural power that men wield in society, especially straight white men.
It’s essential for us to realize that even sexual liberation emerged within a social atmosphere of pervasive misogyny. It is often overlooked that men have long been sexually liberated with respect to women—perhaps too liberated—to the extent where a woman’s agency and refusal is regarded as another obstacle to eradicate. This is a gendered difference that has been baked into our legal system and our cultural understanding for centuries, and undoing this requires applying a critical gender lens to discussions pertaining to sex and power. Laws in the West previously sexually confined women, but now, even as women gain more sexual agency, slut shaming, a key facet of rape culture, enforces control over women’s sexual agency.
Culturally, men who are sexually proactive and successful in seducing large numbers of women are lauded, while women who do so are denounced and shamed. I remember a man once telling me that in his freshman year of high school, a girl performed oral sex on him, and somehow word spread. He said it was his best year of school, and her worst. The overwhelming evidence indicating a primarily one-sided flow of sexual violence and abuse from men toward women (and toward other men and nonbinary individuals) is also ignored if we factor gender out of the equation and focus solely on institutional hierarchy. This is not to say that women never perpetuate abuse, but it is possible for #MeToo to explicitly put an emphasis on female survivors of sexual abuse. #BlackLivesMatter provides a strong model for this approach, as a movement that emphasizes the oppression of one particular group—black people—through systemic police violence. Advocates for racial justice have provided many cogent rebuttals to “All Lives Matter” arguments that criticize the movement for focusing on black victims. These rebuttals provide a framework for #MeToo advocates to similarly emphasize the critical need for the movement to focus on the gendered dimension of the problem.
This doesn’t mean there is no space for men to be allies to the movement, but it does mean that such allyship requires more reckoning than what this moment seems to allow. There is an additional layer of complexity to misogyny from feminist men: the dissonance between their conscious values and their subconscious absorption of misogyny. Similar to the internal conflict within conservative men between their values of sexual puritanism and their feelings of lust, some progressive men experience the disconnect between their avowed feminism and their internal sexual urges, often responding to social pressure, to sexually objectify women. As with the puritans, the progressive male rage is unleashed on women, and we are then resented by men for evoking these unethical urges within them. It is time for us to place responsibility where it belongs—not on women’s sexuality and bodies but on the shoulders of men and masculinity.
In order to effect broad change, the key vehicle will be changing the toxic aspects of received masculinity, particularly through early interventions to prevent harm to another generation of children. As revealed by the ensuing controversy after the Gillette commercial, which challenged men to confront toxic masculinity within themselves and other men, these efforts will be met with fierce resistance and defensiveness. Patriarchy is fueled by “male fragility” in similar ways that white supremacy is maintained by “white fragility.” Men need to be part of the conversation on gender justice, but they must also be willing to investigate their own role in contributing to the oppression of women—even if it is unknowing. Process and policy remedies are also direly needed as we wade through the institutional and systemic minefield of hurdles women face when challenging sexual abuse and harassment. Law enforcement itself poses both difficulties and risks for survivors in the way sexual violence is currently handled, leaving many in fear of reporting such crimes. Reforming the judiciary and legislation to provide more equitable treatment to survivors, particularly those who are most marginalized, is critical to improving individual outcomes.
Such reform also poses a challenge for progressives because the push for sexual accountability is often cast as oppositional to the call for due process, a cornerstone of progressive thought. The history of discomfort with prosecution resides in the traditional use of judicial and penal processes by the powerful to indict the weak, and modern-day liberal discomfort surrounding criminalization includes an additional desire to treat even perpetrators of heinous acts with humanity. These guiding principles are well-intentioned, but they fail to apply a nuanced consideration for sexual crimes against women. Sexual violence usually involves a more powerful perpetrator and a more vulnerable victim, upending the progressive assumption of universally powerless defendants. In cases of sexual harassment, the power advantage of the perpetrator to the victim is often overwhelming. Owing to these currents on the left, progressive feminists working to build a viable victims’ rights movement have sought alliances with conservatives in order to bring focus on the harm suffered by survivors of sexual violence. In an essay, “The Rise of the Victims’-Rights Movement,” historian Jill Lepore explores the relationship between the unlikely bedfellows, and concludes that some of the changes to the court system from this alliance are leading to tougher sentencing standards. Progressives should certainly evaluate the effects of survivor-centered advocacy on incarceration and punishment, but this must be weighed against the long history of women being denied justice. #MeToo is currently unfairly portrayed to be against due process. It is not—it instead attempts to acknowledge the anger and frustration at how long due process and justice have been denied to women both institutionally and culturally.
The case of Cyntoia Brown highlights the continued complexity of these intersections. Brown, a victim of child sex trafficking and a woman of color, was 16 years old when she was sentenced to life in prison, for shooting a man who had solicited her for sex and taken her to his home. Recently, a court ruled that she must serve 51 years before she was eligible for release, a decision reversed in early January when she was given clemency. Brown will now be released in August, and her case shows a situation where the court believing her as a survivor of sexual abuse and exploitation led to a lighter sentence, running contrary to the framing where believing victims abets questionable prosecutions. Instances where women have killed their abusers—or those abusing their children—provide an important counterpoint to simplistic links between believing survivors and increased incarceration.
These challenges are also present for survivors who are women of color in cases where the perpetrators of sexual harassment or violence are men of color. The white lens of the social left has traditionally favored denying woman of color justice rather than doing the messy work of grappling with issues of sexual misconduct and violence by men of color. This task is daunting because the system is already set up to disenfranchise men of color, as Lara Bazelon demonstrated in a recent New York Times op-ed explaining how the stricter standards for prosecuting sexual assault had resulted in a vast increase in men of color being imprisoned. Bazelon penned her support for recent changes to Title IX to adjust backward Obama-era reforms, partially based on consultations with “men’s rights activists” put forth by the Trump administration. These are certainly systemic problems, but it’s worth noting that they track onto our already established patriarchal hierarchies of power. Progressives—and especially white progressives—tend to erase the challenges women of color and trans women face in reporting sexual assault.
Race also plays a key role in survivors being believed. Lena Dunham’s confession that she lied to discredit Aurora Perrineau—a black woman—to protect her friend and colleague Murray Miller—a white man—further exposes the racism women of color who speak out often face. Women of color and trans women will be disproportionately affected by obstacles for women to report sexual harassment and abuse. Marginalized women—lower income women, women of color, trans women—are prime targets for abusers, because we are less likely to be believed by authorities and institutions, less likely to be supported by the largely cis white rape survivor support networks, and less likely to be represented by plaintiff firms that consider their economic bottom lines when accounting for jury bias against marginalized women.
There are also unique complications for survivors of abuse when the perpetrators are influential and visible progressive men. Since much of the labor and support for survivors is done in progressive circles, powerful progressive perpetrators often have deep personal ties to those involved in that realm and command respect and admiration from victims’ rights advocates. Survivors may thus experience fear, isolation, and rejection by those from whom they seek support, as often the personal loyalties of the traditional sources of support are with the perpetrators. Transgender women face the additional vector of exclusion because many of those activists who most deeply understand the issues of sexual harassment and rape do not even consider us women.
Just as the broader social hierarchies present obstacles to justice, our interpersonal hierarchies do as well. Men we love and respect, in whom we want to believe, populate our worlds in ways no other oppressor group does. Every aspect of our interrelation with the world is entwined with having faith in the ties that surround us, from the bonds with our fathers to our fierce love for our sons. Not him, we want to think, especially when he is there in the trenches with us against the patriarchy. But it should not be considered a setback to the #MeToo movement when male allies face allegations of violence or misconduct. It is instead a potent reminder of how pervasive such toxic behaviors in fact are. None of this is to suggest that progressives are worse on gender justice than those on the right—clearly this is not the case. However, it goes to show how fraught the struggle for gender justice is and how grueling the fight for women’s liberation will be. The chains and shackles of misogyny encircle us all, we all have implicit biases, and we all exhibit “himpathy.” And we will not move forward until we understand that misogyny is something that is so embedded that it imbibes our own thinking and that those men we love most dearly, our sons, our partners, our fathers, are easily induced to oppress women by the prevailing forces of social conditioning. It is possibly all men, including men that we love.
Women have long been advocating and organizing for our fundamental right to physical safety, largely without any concrete support and effort from men. As we continue on the laborious road to “taking back the night” and constructing a future without the blight of sexual violence, we should look to the men closest to us and ask more of them. Where necessary, we should hold them accountable, as difficult as it may seem. Men, including those we love, should understand that inaction from them makes them complicit in perpetuating a culture that is hostile and violent toward women. There should no longer be opportunities for men to remove themselves from our efforts, and we must insist that the men in our lives are active and introspective participants in our fight for gender liberation. After all, women’s and queer people’s liberation from patriarchal oppression is inextricably linked to freeing men from the bludgeons of toxic masculinity. None of us can be truly free unless all of us—women, men, and everyone in between—are.