In the age of Harvey Weinstein and #MeToo, I observe that a lot of men are afraid of being falsely accused of assault or harassment. These injustices do happen—albeit rarely—and they are terrible, but the chance that a man will be falsely accused is blown far out of proportion. Those who fear it are unwitting participants in a power dynamic that we should examine and resist.
First, I cannot state strongly enough that the victims of sexual assault are overwhelmingly women and the perpetrators are overwhelmingly men. The statistics are clear, but this doesn’t go without saying, because there’s a filter that colors all of our perceptions of violence against women. It’s an outcome of the fact that when victims challenge their accusers, it’s impossible for onlookers to judge the situation objectively. The victim accuses, the abuser denies, and the media reports both sides. An “objective, unbiased” telling of the events is simply he-said, she-said. This creates a false equivalence between the stories, which are just not equivalent. One is legitimate, and one is a lie.
That’s bad enough, but it has another consequence too: the risks are also reframed into a false equivalence. In other words, neutral onlookers get a badly biased perspective on the relative risk of a woman being assaulted, versus a man being falsely accused.
A more balanced view considers the following facts, all of which are exhaustively documented to the point that I don’t need to cite references:
- Assault and harassment are epidemic, and frequently not reported.
- Most of this violence is perpetrated by men.
- Most accusations of assault are true, and false accusations are rare.
The larger context within which all of this takes place is that nearly every human society is a male supremacy. This isn’t about individual biases and individual actions, but about the structure of society: it’s biased towards men and away from women, in countless ways. Within this structure, it’s true that some people are individually sexist as well. But the system needs to be seen for what it is: a power structure that favors men.
One part of this that I’ve become aware of over the past few years is the vicious cycle of treating women as mens’ property, and dressing protection of that “property” in the trappings of chivalry. A third interlocking part of this pattern of behavior is believing that, and behaving as if, women can endanger mens’ honor, either through temptation or through taking advantage of the false chivalry and turning it against them. Mike Pence’s faux-morality stance (refusing to be alone with women who aren’t his wife) is a great example of this. This is, charitably put, an internalization of structural sexism. It’s victim-blaming. But it’s also rampant, and it’s hard to break someone out of it once they’re stuck in that mindset. That’s because when a person ignores or discounts selected facts—which is common and actively encouraged in various circles—the rest is self-consistent and fences them in to that worldview.
The result is perpetuation and amplification of the forces that conspire to hold women down. As men, we should be concerned about this not only for womens’ sake, but for our own too: it’s not good for anybody. It isn’t as if this system is truly benefiting men. It’s impoverishing and harming us all.
How can we address this? I don’t have all the answers, but I do believe that we need to challenge the perception that men—those with the preponderance of power in society—need to fear accusations from women. I believe we need to challenge the cultural norm of men believing and protecting men, especially in men-only spaces. (Sexist jokes in the locker room are a great opportunity to exert pressure against injustice; or, conversely, to be complicit in the injustice through silence.) We need to call out men when they’re being sexist. A simple “that’s not cool” is enough in most situations.
And finally, we should listen to women. Above all, listen to women—and believe them, and amplify their voices.