Why Don’t ‘Good Men’ Believe Women?
For the last year, the #MeToo movement has been, necessarily, focused on calling attention to so-called bad men and the institutions that tolerate them. Virtually no industry has been left untouched. But in the wake of the call-outs, a very specific sort of backlash has set in: the fear of women, specifically the fear that women will lie and destroy men’s reputations, careers, and status. This fear is sometimes being equated to, and prioritized over, actual damage to women’s reputations, careers, status, health, and bodies.
Philosopher Kate Manne has described this tendency toward disparate concern for men as “himpathy.” It depends primarily on two ideas: that masculinity is more important than what women are saying; and that women cannot be believed or trusted.
The mistrust of women breaks down, not unexpectedly, along gender lines. Earlier this week, CNN released the results of a poll that was conducted during the final days of Judge Brett Kavanaugh’s hearings. The poll measured responses to Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s and Kavanaugh’s testimonies. Fifty-two percent of Americans believed the multiple women accusing Kavanaugh of sexual misconduct, but that number hides a vital divide: 61 percent of women believe the women, but only 43 percent of men do. These findings are unsurprising: A study of nearly 1 million comments on New York Times stories revealed a remarkably similar gender gap in believing Dylan Farrow’s claims of sexual abuse by her father. Studies repeatedly show that men are more likely to disbelieve women, to endorse rape myths, to blame victims, and to exaggerate claims that women lie.
As we enter the next phase of #MeToo, outing more “bad men” isn’t enough. The urgent question we face in this moment is why half the population persistently refuses to believe the millions of women who say sexual harassment and assault shape our lives, and are maintaining our inequality.
If men are not adequately protecting, if they are not needed to provide, then what does this mean for men as individuals?
The doubt that so many men feel when hearing #MeToo stories may have a logical explanation. Denying that sexual harassment and assault are part and parcel of so many women’s daily lives is a form of identity protective cognition — a documented phenomenon in which individuals who encounter new information that is inconsistent with their beliefs and cultural identity tend to dismiss or diminish that information. They do so to protect their sense of self and the social position of the affinity group they belong to. Arguably, what is frightening to these men is not that women are lying, but that they are telling the truth — and that truth is a direct challenge to the masculine identity they’ve grown up with.
What makes a good man? There are two roles that men traditionally play.
Protecting is one of the number one jobs with which boys are tasked. Providing is, in essence, an extension of protecting — providing financial security being a measure of safety and care.
When a woman says #MeToo — I am harassed on the street; I left my job because my boss won’t leave me alone; I was raped by our neighbor at a party; I never told anyone what happened to me — she highlights her lack of security. What a woman describes when she says #MeToo, or any number of related hashtags, psychologically turns into, for many men, “You did not protect me.” To believe what women are saying therefore means admitting, in this sense, to failure — a likely source of guilt, shame, anxiety, and discomfort. That doesn’t just go for “bad” men, but also for those who believe they are doing their utmost to be “good.”
No man, however, can protect the women in his life from predation or harassment. This would require him to be in their presence 24 hours a day, following them to school, or work, or to the gym. Women often keep threats and their adaptations to those threats to themselves in order to spare their fathers, spouse, or brothers from distress. We also do it to avoid even more “stay safe” restrictions being imposed on us by the men who care for us and feel responsible for our wellbeing.
The more a person adheres to traditional gender ideals, the less likely they are to believe what women are saying about harassment, coercion, assault, rape, and their impacts.
Consider the behavior that masculine guilt can lead to. A study of gun ownership in America, conducted by the Injury Control Research Center at Harvard University, found that the men who are responsible for the growth in gun sales are stockpiling them because they feel unable to sufficiently protect their families. This was particularly true of white men as they aged, felt less physically strong and, increasingly over the past decade, feared an increase in the population of ethnic minority men. This use of guns is a symptom of crises in identity.
Being a good provider is also a central pillar of masculinity, but the workplace is another space in which men feel threatened by women. A study conducted by sociologist Dan Cassino and Fairleigh Dickinson University’s PublicMind poll ahead of the 2016 elections found that even a suggestion of women’s earnings superiority caused men to change their voting decisions. “Merely asking the question about spousal income,” wrote Cassino, “led to enormous shifts in men’s preferences in the upcoming presidential election. Men who weren’t asked about spousal income until late in the survey preferred Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump in a hypothetical general election matchup by a 16-point margin; men who were asked about spousal income only a few questions before being asked about the Clinton-Trump matchup preferred Trump by an eight-point margin — a 24-point shift in preferences.”
In families where women earn higher salaries than their heterosexual male spouses, men are significantly more likely to have affairs and to initiate separation and divorce. Cassino and his collaborator and wife Yasemin Besen-Cassino have also conducted research showing that men in these arrangements are more likely to shirk domestic chores, forcing women to take on disparate and exhausting responsibilities at home. Additional research reveals that the threat to masculinity represented by women’s wage earning causes men to more vigorously assert their role as household decision makers.
Men denying the reality of women’s experiences transcends individual assault allegations. In 2016, for example, Pew Research found that while 63 percent of women believe that sexism and gender biases make life more difficult for them, 56 percent of men say those obstacles don’t exist. That gap increases between individuals with conservative views and those with liberal ones. Even when men are provided with verifiable data, they still reject the existence of sexism. In one study, male scientists preferred drummed up studies purporting to reveal that bias and sexism are non-existent over data that illustrated the opposite.
Part of that hesitation may also be rooted in the fact that men tend to overestimate male intelligence and underestimate female intelligence, leading them to believe that women are less authoritative or credible. These patterns are particularly evident when applied to arenas traditionally deemed “male dominated” — politics, engineering, technology, gaming, trucking… almost everything beside teaching, nursing, and proto-maternal service industry jobs.
The more a person adheres to traditional gender ideals, the less likely they are to believe what women are saying about harassment, coercion, assault, rape, and their impacts. Rape myth acceptance, including the belief that many women are lying when they make rape allegations, is directly correlated to support for traditional, binary, sex segregated gender roles; these beliefs are also linked to higher propensities to harass and rape women.
Even when men do believe women, they often dismiss the importance of what women are saying. There is an explicit reluctance to connect sexism and sexual harassment to women’s lower social, economic, and political status. Take, for example, responses to #NotOK, a hashtag started by writer Kelly Oxford immediately after the release of the infamous Access Hollywood tape. Overnight, more than one million women contributed to the thread, and within days, tens of millions of women had spoken out, many for the first time. But the response differed along gender lines. During the presidential debate days after the tape’s release, Facebook analyzed millions of live comments to see what election-related topics people were prioritizing in their chatter. The Trump tape was the number one trending topic for millions of women, but didn’t even make the list of top five issues of importance to men.
If men are not adequately protecting, if they are not needed to provide, then what does this mean for men as individuals? And, by extension, of the privileges and public power that are rooted in these roles? The traditional exchanges — power for protection, privileges for providing — are corrupt, not in the least because the greatest threat of violence or increased financial vulnerability that women face comes not from strangers or the state, but from a man at her own dinner table.
So, what is more fearsome? That a few women might lie or that the vast majority of women are telling the truth?
#MeToo is not a condemnation of “all men” but an invitation to men based on mutual trust.
By interrogating the most basic ideals of “good” manhood and, along with them, the demands of fraternal bonds, #MeToo calls into question not only the egregious behavior of rapists and harassers, not only the ways in which toxic masculinity invades our institutions, but the way we think of manhood and gender roles. Where does all of this leave men in this moment? How should men own or alter their understanding of their roles as we look forward to the next phase of #MeToo?
What men face today — an insecurity about social and institutional commitment to believing what they say — actually puts them squarely in the realm of women’s lives. You would think this would encourage empathy, instead of defensiveness. The institutional dynamics that hurt victims and discourage women by ignoring their complaints and promoting their abusers are the same ones that threaten to fail men who are fearful or who are, in fact, innocent. This failure is not the fault of victims, but of society and our institutions. These are institutions still, notably, overwhelmingly governed by men with homosocial sensibilities. As writer Lili Loofbourow recently explained, this means that “being one of the guys” comes at a woman’s expense,” and is a fundamental aspect of the fraternity that still reigns in our public and political lives.
No one wants innocent boys and men to be unfairly targeted and hurt. The movement began as a way to support victims of assault, and for those victims, and others, to come together in trust. That is still true. However, we cannot move forward in trust when such a large percentage of the population, and a population with disparate institutional power and access to resources, is so vested in ideals that actively discourage believing what women and survivors are saying matters.
#MeToo is not a condemnation of “all men” but an invitation to men based on mutual trust. What women need are for the people around them, particularly the men they know and trust, to acknowledge the risks and discrimination they face and to take these risks seriously as a social and political priority. #MeToo is offering men a way forward, but it requires that men question their doubt, interrogate their place, and not only believe women, but believe that what happens to women matters. We need men as equals, allies, and supporters, not as paternalistic providers and protectors. This is a movement of immense hopefulness, and an immense hopefulness in regard to men specifically. Women are hoping that men, despite themselves and their interests, will believe them, trust them, and do the right thing.
Update: An earlier version of this piece misstated the percentage of men responding to the CNN poll who believed the women accusing Brett Kavanaugh of sexual misconduct. It is 43 percent.