23/11/2017 3:58 AM AEDT | Updated 23/11/2017 4:54 AM AEDT

When Men 'Misremember' Violating Women

“Male entitlement is the backbone of our culture."


Last month, an anonymously sourced spreadsheet full of “Shitty Media Men” began circulating. The list, which sprang up shortly after the first Harvey Weinstein story broke, was live for only about 12 hours, but it was exhaustively covered and discussed in media circles thereafter.

I spoke to both women and men in my professional life about the list and its implications for our industry. Over the course of these conversations, one thing that stuck out to me was that most of the men I spoke toadmitted to having a moment of panic ― to wondering whether they were one of the shitty media men. They didn’t seem to be panicking about a particular “shitty” incident that could have made it onto the list. Theirs was more of a generalized fear: What if theyhad unwittingly crossed a line? What if they’d committed a violation and never even registered it as out of the ordinary?

I’ve thought about these conversations as men across industries ― Hollywood, politics, media, academia, tech, the list goes on ― have begun speaking out about past violations, taking varying degrees of responsibility. Several of these men have used language that suggests they don’t remember (Roy Moore“If did, you know, I’m not going to dispute anything but I don’t remember anything like that.”), misremember (Al Franken: “While I don’t remember the rehearsal for the skit as Leeann does…”; Charlie Rose: “I always felt that I was pursuing shared feelings...”) or never thought critically about (Louis CK“I didn’t think that I was doing any of that because my position allowed me not to think about it.”) their behavior toward the women who say their boundaries, trust and bodies were violated.  

If this sort of behavior feels 'normal,' why would it stand out?

We can’t ever know whether the men who say they don’t remember X incident of sexual harassment or assault or misconduct truly don’t remember it, or are simply lying out of self-preservation. (Some of them almost certainly are.) But the question remains: Why is the language of “misremembering” so common?

The answer feels more complicated than just that men are dirtbags who lie about assaulting women. In some ways, it seems unfathomable that a person could sexually assault or harass another person without the incident leaving a strong impression on the perpetrator. But if this sort of behavior feels “normal,” why would it stand out?

As a society, we generally agree that brutal, violent rape is wrong and criminal. But what about a casual ass grab? Or a sexual comment after a work meeting? Or a kiss one person takes while another tenses up in shock? Or a hookup where one party never says yes, but also never cries out no? Or all of the many types of violations that don’t rise to the level of violent rape but can still leave the victim feeling coerced and powerless?

When you have a sexually harmful behavior, we have the assumption that people view these behaviors in the same way,” Maia Christopher, executive director of the Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers, told HuffPost. “They don’t necessarily. If you don’t view something as out of the norm, you might not view it as an infringement.”

Indeed, not all assaults or all cases of harassment look the same. But the “good” behavior bar is often set so low that men are able to pat themselves on the back for not being rapists and move along ― even if they have engaged in other forms of abusive behavior. Kristen Houser, chief public affairs officer at the National Sexual Violence Resource Center (NSVRC), describes this ability to detach from abusive behavior as “distorted thinking”: “[These men] might know what they did is socially unacceptable, but they know it wasn’t rape.”

Hence why only now are (some) powerful men being forced to confront the fact that they have perpetrated damaging behaviors for years ― or even decades ― and to confront the reality that they have been able to skim over or willfully ignore their own patterns of abuse.

As actor and writer Pia Glenn put it on Twitter: “When these men say ′ I don’t remember [sexually assaulting her], I believe them… I wish they had the introspection to connect the fact that they don’t remember to the fact that they *wouldn’t* remember because it’s so commonplace.”

In the United States, sexual assault and harassment are certainly commonplace. A 2015 Cosmopolitan survey found that one in three women between the ages of 18 and 34 said they had been sexually harassed in the workplace. One in six American women has survived a rape or a rape attempt in their lifetimes, most of them before they turned 35. Trans women, women with disabilities and women who identify as bisexual face even higher rates of sexual assault. And though women can certainly be predatory, the majority of assaults and incidents of harassment are committed by men.

As a result, women and gender non-conforming people are taught basically from birth that our bodies are a liability. As we grow up, we become acutely aware of our surroundings. We make ourselves small. We learn to read other people; to sense if they pose a threat to us or if they feel any discomfort around us. We try to appear friendly without inviting unwanted attention; to use our resting bitch faces as armor and then soften them when that armor fails to keep strange men at a distance. We modulate our own actions to keep the people around us comfortable ― especially male people ― lest they get offended and ruin our professional reputations, or scream at us on the subway, or harm us in more physical ways.

In contrast, boys and men are taught that they deserve to take up space, and to receive attention and recognition and affirmation, especially from the women and girls around them. And if that attention or recognition or affirmation is not freely given, they should feel entitled to take it, by whatever means available.

Male entitlement is the backbone of our culture,” Houser said. “It is what allows people to not think about” their behavior.

It’s this dynamic that allowed Louis C.K. to convince himself that jokingly asking women if they want to see his dick served as asking for consent. It’s what let Charlie Rose believe that walking around naked in front of unsuspecting younger women in his employ was akin to “pursuing shared feelings.” It’s what makes men in my own life terrified that they don’t have the ability to discern what was consensual and what was violating.

As Rebecca Traister outlined in New York Magazine, a backlash of some kind to this widespread moment of reckoning feels inevitable. Women are on anxious high alert ― waiting for one false allegation or one misinterpreted story to halt the momentum of this flood, and return the balance of power back to “normal.” But while we are waiting, as more and more stories are told, those stories are reaching men. I have had more men talk to me thoughtfully about sexual violence over the last two months than in the entirety of my life before. I have seen men ― everyday, non-famous, 20- and 30-somethings ― begin to grapple with their own horror at a culture they were able to willfully ignore before, and their own complicity in upholding that culture.

The same did not happen when Cosby’s accusers came forward. It did not happen when Trump’s did either.

The beauty of the #MeToo movement is that it’s near impossible to ignore. So many women’s accounts of past events make it harder for the men who perpetrated them to delude themselves any longer. Women are angry, and angry women are a hell of a lot harder to misremember.