FOR THE LAST YEAR, even before the Brett Kavanaugh hearings, there has been a common conversation happening in conference rooms and executive offices around the country — between men and women. It is some variation on this: a woman says, “Have you seen the news about—” the latest high-profile and powerful man from their industry making headlines for his pattern of sexual harassment and assault.
The man shakes his head. “It’s crazy. We didn’t even know!”
The woman proceeds cautiously. “Well, we sort of did, didn’t we? I mean we hadn’t seen the article yet, but we knew.”
The man is confused. “I didn’t know anything. I mean, I didn’t know it for real. It was all just rumors before the article — and you can’t punish someone based on a rumor. Crazy though — and you’ve always hated him.”
“Yes,” says the woman, “I always have. Because I did know.”
How can it be that prominent men have serially sexually harassed and assaulted women for years — and men are only “finding out” when the story breaks in the press, while women all nod knowingly and explain that we’ve known forever?
It’s because knowing and not knowing — about predatory male behavior — means very different things for men and for women. What counts as knowing? Who needs to know what when?
In most Western countries, the concepts of due process and the presumption of innocence are the foundations of our societal systems of justice and accountability. Over the centuries, men in positions of power created these systems, which rely on a very particular kind of knowing: first, a straightforward “coherent” narrative — a linear story line of events. Second, there must be witnesses, alibis, and other evidence to prove this narrative. And finally, there must be confirmation from others — usually other men, be they judges, senators, or journalists — that the narrative and the evidence match up. Anything short of this is perceived to be just a rumor. And as many people believe, “You can’t punish him based on a rumor.”
These systems were ostensibly set up to protect the weakest, and many of us believe strongly in their ability to do that. But they are not working for women when it comes to sexual violence. These systems are inherently male-centric; they were created by white men with only white men in the room over many centuries, and thus the legal standard of proof is very high, and women are likely to be disbelieved when their accusations are about men.
Women, who have been viewed as full citizens in modern nations only recently, are forced to use those systems to be heard and believed. Post-colonial theorists describe this as forcing the oppressed to speak in the language of the oppressor. The cold, intellectualized distance of due process does not take into account the realities of sexual violence and the needs of those who have suffered trauma. Like all marginalized or oppressed groups, women are asked to convey our experiences within a system created by our abusers in order to be believed, in order for our truth to be knowable.
One of the revelations of the #MeToo moment is the broad understanding that every woman in our society has endured sexual violence in one way or another and all of us carry the effects of those traumas with us in various ways in our lives. This is compounded by the intersectional realities of our identities — women of color face a different layer of discrimination than white women, as do Native women, fat women, Latina women, Jewish women, Muslim women, trans women.
We were the victim of incest, our closest friend in college or high school was drugged and date-raped, we were cat-called every day for three years on our way into our office or outside of our house and never said a word, our boss told us to loosen up and that we “just need a good lay,” we were denied a job we were qualified for because someone thought we seemed too ambitious or too shrill or not charismatic enough or unpresentable, we were made to feel like our husband owned our body and had a right to it whenever he wanted, and on and on.
My husband, a psychoanalyst with training in trauma, says that one of the first indicators that a person has experienced trauma is no speech, or stuttered speech, or dazed speech. When asked what happened, the person has to piece the puzzle together. There’s no narrative memory. The psychoanalytic school understands trauma as an impact that resists symbolization because it doesn’t fit within a person’s existing symbolic coordinates. Trauma is a crash to the entire system, shattering it, breaking it. The traumatic impact puts the system in shock, and the patient feels that it doesn’t make sense. Not what happened or the story. We become scattered.
Trauma makes a coherent narrative impossible. Yet a coherent narrative is a precondition for being believed.
No wonder men “didn’t know.”
People who know me well know that I have a sixth sense about creepy men. It didn’t come from nowhere. I have honed this very particular sensitivity since I hit puberty — not out of interest but out of survival.
I am hyper-vigilant in reading people and in reading a room. I never forget a name or a face. I never sit with my back to the wall where I could be cornered. My peripheral vision is extremely sharp and very little escapes it. And in the #MeToo moment, we are coming to understand that this is a common trait among women.
When I hear a story from another woman about a “creepy man,” a “rumor,” that is enough to put me on full alert if I am ever around this man — and I can feel immediately whether there is a threat. It is like a tingle in the back of my knees. That is my knowing. It is real. It is accurate.
That knowing doesn’t depend on a system of due process. When my safety is at stake, I rely on a more accurate knowing: the intuition born of my trauma. It is enough for me and for most women. We signal to one another. We move our chairs out a bit. Take a step back. Call another person over. Any person. Pretend to get a phone call. Check the exits. Become very small. Try to draw attention away. Don’t make eye contact. Wave a ringed wedding finger. Cross our arms in front of our chest. Zip up our jacket. Run.
When Women Know, and Men Do Not
What does it mean when men and women experience “knowing” in such a different way?
One difference is the stakes. The stakes are higher for women. If I dilly-dally in understanding whether a man is a real threat or not, the result could be my life and/or my dignity. If men take a bit more time to understand “what really happened” and in the interim, this man is out in the field, it is not their bodies that will be the prey. It is not their dignity that will be shattered.
Anyone who has experienced sexual violence by men may experience what I am describing as women’s knowing, no matter our gender, race, or class. But these differences are consequential, mainly because they affect how much power we have to get ourselves out of the situation, to report it to others, and to be believed. I rely on this knowing as a white, Jewish professional woman; those with less positional power than me often need it even more. And often, it isn’t enough to stay safe.
Another difference is what we are protecting. In her groundbreaking Netflix special, Australian comedian Hannah Gadsby notes that, throughout history, we have valued men’s reputations over women’s safety. “We only care about a man’s reputation,” she says. “What about his humanity? These men control our stories. And yet they have a diminishing connection to their own humanity, and we don’t seem to mind so long as they get to hold onto their precious reputation.”
So predatory men continue to roam freely; some now serve on the United States Supreme Court. Those who could have made other decisions don’t take action because they fear for the man’s reputation and value it over our safety. They think, “innocent until proven guilty.” They fear it is unfair to ask him, even in private, that he change anything about his behavior. This fear outweighs the possible harm that his predatory behavior could have on the women and girls in that space for the rest of their lives.
Why do we think “innocent until proven guilty” is an appropriate basis for deciding who we invite into our personal, professional, or public spaces? After all, this is a legal principle — it comes from the part of society that decides who is innocent and who is guilty, and that doles out punishments. In the legal system, the accused man is the center of the story, and what is fair to him is what’s most important.
It is telling that so many powerful men invoke this principle in the #MeToo moment. Any action before the formal proving of guilt is an unfair “punishment” to the man in question. This reveals a lot about how people in power perceive their role. They are judges; not protectors. Not sentries, tasked with guarding the safety of those inside the gates. Not doctors, who must inoculate their patients against disease and protect them from pathogens. They see their primary function in relation to the accused, not those who were harmed, or who could be.
Of course, if we stop caring quite so much about protecting men’s reputations, many worry that innocent men will face consequences when they’ve done nothing wrong. This is probably true. Right now, women are the ones paying the price. We’re the ones who are hurt when “innocent until proven guilty” ends up being guilty. So yes, if we move away from that standard, some men will begin to bear some of the burden too. Some of them will have done nothing wrong and will endure an uncomfortable few days or weeks while that gets resolved. In the Kavanaugh era, we’ve learned that the number of false accusations of sexual assault is minute compared to the number of unreported crimes of this type. And we are not talking about court cases or trials, nor about being locked up for a crime he didn’t commit, but rather asking a man to wait or not attend while the situation is being examined. This can hardly be considered an injustice, compared to the current state of things. And if we consider it an injustice, that says more about our tendency to value men’s reputations, careers, and opportunities over women’s safety and well-being.
The conversation that I described in the opening that revealed the difference in men’s and women’s ability to “know” was a real conversation. I was one of the women in an executive meeting room, and we had invited a prominent intellectual from our field to speak at an event. He is someone about whom there have been “rumors” for a long time — and shortly after the invite, an article came out about an incident of sexual assault with an unnamed perpetrator. We heard rumors that the piece was about our speaker, but it did not feel at the time like enough to disinvite him. In fact, at the time it didn’t feel like enough to take any action at all. And so we didn’t.
Several weeks later, after our event, another article came out in the press revealing multiple allegations over many years, in which he was named. We were horrified, and not just because of the allegations themselves. In retrospect, we were horrified about what could have been. I am writing this because I am sleepless most nights since this. I go over and over all the different things that could have happened in the hour he attended our event — and how I would have felt if they had. The thing that haunts me most is what would have happened if he had ended up alone with one of my younger female colleagues. I am writing this because incidents like this have happened so many times I have lost track.
I have spent those sleepless hours thinking about the decision made in that executive room. And through tough conversations, I have gained clarity and insight about this, and so have my colleagues who were in that room.
Unfortunately, like all organizations in all fields, we may find ourselves in this situation again. If we do, we will make different decisions. I regret that we can’t hit rewind and disinvite the speaker, perhaps even have a candid conversation with him — or at least come up with an elegant scheduling excuse. And at minimum, he would not have been left alone for one second while in our space.
These solutions aren’t perfect. But continued inaction is unacceptable.
Before this, we hadn’t considered the issue of the knowing and the not-knowing. We had not realized clearly that the focus on accused men and “innocent until proven guilty” was coming into conflict with our own desire to create a safe workplace. But we get that now. There is a long road of culture-change ahead but we have begun to unravel some of the patriarchy’s tangles.
Libby Lenkinski is vice president for public engagement at the New Israel Fund, an organization that promotes democracy and equality in Israel, where she leads all aspects of NIF’s public efforts in the United States.
Feature image by Charles Edward Miller.