What Will It Take for Men to Believe Women?
Cis-men dismiss women as hysterical when we tell them our lives are in danger. Then they act surprised when our worst fears are realized.
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Several summers ago, I dated a rock musician who told me, “It’s a scary time to be a man.” We were driving across the Midwest the first time he said it, from his tour stop in Indianapolis to the next one in Akron. “Any woman can say anything and ruin your life.”
At first I nodded mindlessly, woozy with heat. He made us drive with the car windows up and air-conditioning off because it was better for his singing voice. But this jolted me awake. “Wait, what?” I said. “That’s not true.” I rattled off the facts from memory: Only 3 percent of rape reports are false, only 6 percent of rapists ever spend a day behind bars. I told him Google had recently paid two execs accused of sexual harassment $100 million to leave the company. “Just because Harvey Weinstein finally got caught doesn’t mean decent men are suddenly in danger,” I said. “And women don’t cry rape for fun.”
“I don’t know why I said that. You’re completely right,” he said. “It’s just that there are a few women in my past with knives out. But then, my life is hardly typical.” He’d been touring for decades and a bona-fide rock star for a few years in the 1990s, and wasn’t shy about the sexual perks of his career.
“No,” I laughed. “You’re not a normal man.”
It seemed like he’d really heard me. But every few months he’d bring it up again, seemingly out of nowhere. It’s a dangerous time to be a man. Usually the source of the threat was vague. But there was one ex-girlfriend he could talk about for hours. He’d say she was jealous of his success and dismissive of his talent. She made public scenes. She’d once broken a plate during a fight. She claimed he’d seriously injured her, an injury so intimate and grim that I unconsciously crossed my legs when he described it. “That sounds horrible,” I said.
He snapped his fingers. “Get back on track,” he said. “The point isn’t what may or may not have happened. Who cares? The point is that I’m not the responsible party.”
It was almost impossible for me to envision him assaulting a woman. I’d certainly never felt unsafe in his presence. But even if I could imagine it, by then I’d given up on arguing with him. Before we started dating, he’d told me my brain intimidated him, that he was used to being the smartest person in any room and wasn’t sure he could handle the “competition.” I dismissed it as flattery. But once he’d landed me, I soon realized he was serious. He needed me to be wrong about, well, a lot. I was always driving 5 mph too slow, my high-powered tech career was really just a soulless cube job, my friends were silly people. Geography of all things was an ongoing minefield, maybe because he’d traveled so much more than I had. The night I misidentified Entebbe as a city in Israel, he practically levitated with glee.
For a while I convinced myself it was all just banter, and held up my end. But at some point it became clear that no matter the topic, the play was the same, and my role was to be argued into submission. The third time he told me how scary the world had become for men, I was working on my laptop in his studio, and when he turned back to the mixing board I went to the site of my favorite anti-rape nonprofit and made an extra donation on top of my monthly one. It felt like the coward’s way out, the misogyny version of a carbon offset, but it was all the fight I had left in me.
About a year later, he left me for his studio assistant. Getting dumped is not my favorite thing, but soon my life began to look brighter and cleaner, like when I took Prozac for the first time and a decade of depression grime lifted. I reveled in my return to a world where bitterness and paranoia were just one small thread of the human experience, where it was safe for me to have opinions and make mistakes and use air-conditioning. I knew that at some point I’d need to untangle how a grown woman who ostensibly knew better stayed in such a bad relationship for so long. But mostly I exhaled.
Then his prophecy came true. The world did become a scary place for him when multiple women publicly accused him of rape and assault. The allegations were reported in a news story that cited on-the-record interviews, medical records, a police report, and his own incriminating texts. The news was picked up by music publications around the globe, and fans and industry types largely expressed support for the women and horror at the details. But for every few supportive reactions, there’d also be a male fan (or, rarely, a woman) saying something like: But I’ve met him three times and never witnessed him abusing a woman, so these allegations are obviously false. A few guys who actually knew him in real life said flat-out that he was a creep, a selfish and callous pussyhound any sane woman should avoid. But that’s all, these men added. I’ve never seen him actually rape anyone. The consensus was that unless a man had personally watched my ex commit sex crimes, he could not possibly have committed them, a stance uncomfortably close to the United Arab Emirates law requiring four male eyewitnesses to back up a rape claim.
I also never witnessed my ex raping or injuring a woman, and the allegations initially shocked me so much that I had to put my head between my knees. Like his defenders, I guess I could have decided that the women were engaged in an elaborate revenge conspiracy complete with fake witnesses and elaborately falsified documentation. Instead, once I’d calmed down a bit, I reviewed the evidence, weighed the relative likelihood of various scenarios, took a fresh look at some things about him that had never quite made sense, and reached the grim conclusion that it all added up.
I could do this because of one simple trait I possessed that his acolytes lacked: the ability to understand that my reality wasn’t the only reality.
That’s it. That’s the one weird trick that enabled me to accept that someone who didn’t rape me could still have raped other people. I once assumed everyone understood the limits of subjectivity, but those fawning comments and more recent events suggest that far too many men missed the memo. When Roe fell, my feeds were crammed with men expressing absolute shock. “But women are supposed to have rights!” they yelped in disbelief, and yes, I’m glad we agree on that. But I can’t be the only woman who spent decades warning every man she met about the threat to Roe and the wide-ranging consequences of losing it. Or the only one who got back baselessly reassuring responses like, “They’ll never overturn it because then the GOP couldn’t use abortion as a wedge issue anymore.” It didn’t matter that an actual woman, a woman armed with quotes and facts and life experience, was warning them otherwise. They knew what they knew, and no other reality existed until it was too late.
Even this summer’s movies have offered little escape. In films like Men and The Watcher, a woman tells ostensibly sympathetic men that another man is stalking her. But he seems harmless to them, and so they just tilt their heads like baffled dogs and tell her everything’s fine, and the situation devolves from there. Midway through The Watcher, it occurred to me that if men could just acknowledge women’s reality, half the psychological thrillers in film history could be underwhelming half-hour dramas about routine crime solving.
Frankly, it worries me that so many men are walking around convinced they have a god’s-eye view of the truth. What if they’ve also missed out on other ontological concepts, like object permanence? Maybe when men walk out of the kitchen, they believe the refrigerator ceases to exist. Maybe they wonder where the dog goes when they close their eyes. Men, I want to bring you the good news that a bigger, richer world is available, but it requires being unsure sometimes, or even wrong. It takes accepting that truths you hold dear could be upended. And most of all, it takes understanding that when women describe experiences you can barely imagine, it’s probably not because we’re lying. It’s because you’re safe from yourselves in ways that we are not.
It sounds hard, doesn’t it? It’s scary to hear that the woman you love is being stalked, especially if you can’t fix it single-handedly. It’s overwhelming to contemplate the possibility of abortion becoming a crime. It takes real muscle to get around the cultural programming that tells us a rapist’s well-being matters more than that of his victims. Women left the music industry as a result of my ex’s abuse, went into trauma therapy, even changed their names. But when the news broke, even some men who allowed that harm might have been done positioned his crimes as an opportunity for his personal growth, a chance to rise from the ashes of his own arson. It’s tempting to write off these apologists as evil, but maybe it’s just never occurred to them that women have futures, too.
It can also feel scary and even shameful to reckon with your own blindness. I would know, because realizing I’d spent almost two years as the clueless lover of a sexual predator spurred a lot of backwards analysis. In the news story, one woman accused him of biting her hard enough to leave bruises, which made me recall a night early in our relationship when he’d chomped on me, too—except I’d liked it, and told him so. (Maybe that’s why he never did it again.) Reading about how he’d assaulted another in her sleep, I remembered waking up at 3 a.m. with his hands in my underwear. The difference was that I’d thought sure, why not, could be fun. What if I’d pushed him away, refused him what he was already in the process of taking?
Beyond those what-ifs and near-misses, he told me who he was. He told me through his disregard for any needs but his own in schedules, meals, sleep. He told me when he bragged—a lot—about the women he’d used as status trophies or means to an end: the movie star’s assistant he fucked to humiliate the actress for a trivial slight, or the Gen-X icon whose kissing skills he was still gleefully mocking 20 years after their sole hookup. He told me by referring to the sum total of all those sex partners as “the body count.” He told me directly, too. The MeToo era was a dangerous time for him. He was afraid some woman might decide to say something.
Really, he gave me all the information I needed to know a few weeks into our relationship, the day a somewhat more famous musician died by suicide. The somewhat more famous musician had struggled for decades with addiction and treatment-resistant depression. As news of his death broke, the rock internet erupted in grief but also in love, for his extraordinary talent and for his kindness, how hard he had tried to be good to people and shield them from the worst effects of his demons. I read story after story with tears in my eyes, hoping that wherever he was now, he felt loved.
Then my boyfriend texted: “Are you seeing all this? I’m sorry the guy died, but jeez, what do I have to do to get that kind of adulation?”
My stomach and spine went cold. I knew he felt underappreciated by the rock establishment, that he could be insecure and petty about other musicians. But so far all of that seemed like garden-variety professional envy. This was different. This was resentment over eulogies for a man so tormented he hanged himself. My boyfriend thought some of that praise was rightfully his, and felt perfectly comfortable saying so.
This is not normal, I thought. We were a thousand miles apart, but at that moment I was afraid of him.
“Do decades of astounding work in the face of agonizing depression and then die alone, I guess,” I texted in response, and felt so proud of myself for sidestepping the self-pity bait he was dangling that I conveniently forgot my fear. But a year or so later, while he delivered monologues about my undeserved success or the world’s failure to make him rich or a blogger who had pissed him off in 2009, I thought of the other musician’s suicide and the warning it had carried: that for my boyfriend, other people were mostly just lines on a scorecard. If I’d been willing to listen, that warning could have saved me some pain. But like all those shocked-and-appalled men on Twitter post-Roe, I had to learn the slow, grinding way what I’d failed to hear before.
Just after the allegations emerged, I had dinner with one of my ex’s alleged victims while visiting her city. It was a gloomy meal. She was somber, fearful that our ex might strike back. Midway through, the skies opened up and we fled our patio table to huddle on a covered sofa just under a speaker, so even through the storm noise the beginning of the next song came through loud and clear: “Every day I tell myself I am the cosmos.” It was the Chris Bell original, but our ex’s band had sometimes covered it. We looked at each other and burst out laughing for the first time that night. “Is there truly no escape?” she said, which made us laugh even harder.
But sloshing back to my hotel later, it also hit me that the song explained a lot. When you’re the cosmos, everything belongs to you. When you’re the cosmos, everything you see is part of yourself. We don’t need any more men telling themselves they are the cosmos. We need them down here in it, with us, all of us pondering how little we can ever know.
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