In early October, in the midst of extraordinarily hostile Senate confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh featuring unsubstantiated claims that Kavanaugh had drugged and raped numerous women, Donald Trump stood on the South Lawn of the White House and told reporters, “It is a very scary time for young men in America, when you can be guilty of something you may not be guilty of.”
The scorn was immediate. “What a terrifying time to be a son,” snarked Washington Post humorist Alexandra Petri in a column mocking the idea that men could ever be falsely accused. Others pointed out that Trump had been happy to presume guilt when the alleged offenders were young black men accused of raping a jogger in Central Park rather than a privileged white guy who could tap a keg and get into Yale.
Whatever Trump may have said in 1989 in expressing a “view” supported by confessions from the accused and long-standing convictions, he’s not wrong now. One year into the #MeToo movement, men are expected to stand by as “allies” who #BelieveWomen and #BelieveSurvivors and are not to defend themselves or other men against evidence-free accusations or even extreme expressions of misandry. They are definitely not supposed to do what Kavanaugh did: offer a full-throated and angry rebuttal to the charges lodged against him.
As the activist group TimesUp announced on Twitter when calling for Kavanaugh’s withdrawal: “The tide has turned. This chapter in our history book will not be the story of men who believed men, that’s old news. It will be the story of an avalanche of women who spoke truths and seized our power.”
Elected officials went low, too. The most forthright of them was Hawaii’s Senator Mazie Hirono, who told reporters, “I just want to say to the men of this country: Just shut up and step up. Do the right thing for a change. … Not only do women like Dr. Ford, who bravely comes forward, need to be heard, but they need to be believed. They need to be believed.” Hirono later went on television to argue that the presumption of innocence didn’t really apply in Kavanaugh’s case because of his conservative judicial philosophy.
Writing in Elle, Emma Rosenblum (a mother of two boys) agonized over the question of “When do good boys become bad men?”—apparently assuming most do. “I see someone like Brett Kavanaugh—sputtering, denying, entitled, angry—and I wonder how to guide my babies toward kindness instead of abuse, gratefulness instead of take, take, take.” She went on to speculate that Kavanaugh’s own mother might believe his accusers.
To call the rhetoric that surrounded Kavanaugh’s confirmation extreme would be an understatement. Consider a Washington Post opinion piece by retired history professor Victoria Brown, in which she sarcastically thanks “good men” for “not raping us” and declares that we are in the midst of a “gender war.” She explains that after her (clearly long-suffering) husband did something innocuous that triggered her anger, she “announced that I hate all men and wish all men were dead.” She goes on to rage against “the pathetic impotence of nice men’s plan to rebuild the wreckage by listening to women” and says women who don’t agree with her are “in the deepest denial.” For Brown, evidently, men have no place in the national conversation and no right to speak privately to their wives, sisters, mothers, and daughters until they conform to her demands for their behavior. “Good men have not once organized their own mass movement to change themselves and their sons or to attack the mean-spirited, teasing, punching thing that passes for male culture,” she writes. “Not once. Bastards.”
Kavanaugh was confirmed and now sits on the high court, but the tenor of the debate surrounding the process that put him there revealed that the cultural mainstream has now fully embraced two key ideas about men that were once relegated to the radical feminist fringe:
1) Maleness itself is a disease requiring treatment or elimination.
2) Masculinity itself has produced a “rape culture” and violent patriarchy that will stop at nothing to maintain power.
The wide acceptance of these ideas will have parlous long-lasting consequences for the country.
Feminist theorists have long squabbled about how much to implicate all men in women’s oppression. Judith Kegan Gardiner described in her essay on “Men, Masculinities, and Feminist Theories” how such theories “hope to develop effective ways to improve women’s conditions, sometimes by making women more similar to men as they are now, sometimes by making men more similar to women as they are now, sometimes by validating women’s traditional characteristics, sometimes by working toward the abolition or minimizing of the categories of gender altogether, but all simultaneously transforming ideologies and institutions, including the family, religion, corporations, and the state.”
The 1969 “Redstockings Manifesto,” an influential treatise written by a group of radical feminists, made this claim: “All men receive economic, sexual, and psychological benefits from male supremacy. All men have oppressed women.” This “fact” justified a range of radical acts on behalf of women. “We do not need to change ourselves but to change men,” the manifesto stated. They should “give up their male privileges and support women’s liberation in the interest of our humanity and their own.”
This document, now nearly a half-century old, is surprisingly relevant to the debate that erupted over Kavanaugh’s nomination. “The most slanderous evasion of all is that women can oppress men,” the manifesto observes, remarking on “the tendency of men to see any legitimate challenge to their privilege as persecution.” As for the basis of women’s grievances, the manifesto reads like an early draft of #BelieveAllWomen’s embrace of feelings over facts: “We regard our personal experience, and our feelings about that experience, as the basis for an analysis of our common situation. We cannot rely on existing ideologies as they are all products of male supremacist culture. We question every generalization and accept none that are not confirmed by our experience. … In fighting for our liberation we will always take the side of women against their oppressors.”
Such rhetoric remained largely out of the national conversation in the decades after the Redstockings issued their manifesto. And when it did start to creep in (particularly on college campuses), it did not go unchallenged—notably by scholars such as Christina Hoff Sommers, whose 2000 book The War Against Boys noted the many harms such blanket generalizations about boys have caused. But in recent years, with metastasizing claims of a growing “rape culture” on college campuses, and with the revival of questions about due process and women’s truth claims when it comes to accusations of assault, it has become not only acceptable but even necessary in some circles to talk in sweeping generalizations about men in a way that would never be tolerated when talking about women.
The picture feminist critics paint of contemporary masculinity isn’t pretty. After Trump was elected, sociologist Michael Kimmel, who has written a dozen books about masculinity and is a self-identified feminist, used the phrase “aggrieved entitlement” to describe the male Trump supporters he interviewed for his book Angry White Male. This new toxic male sensibility, he argued, stemmed from a misguided belief that “benefits to which you believed yourself entitled have been snatched away from you by unseen forces larger and more powerful.” He concludes, “The era of unquestioned and unchallenged male entitlement is over.”
The issues around what men are entitled to and masculinity’s place in contemporary culture also occupy critics on the right. Lacking traditional rituals to help boys become men (and amid the decline of civilizing, stabilizing institutions such as traditional dating culture and marriage), young men in particular are adrift, the argument goes. Pop philosophers such as Jordan Peterson have stepped up to fill the void, offering their proposals for reconciling masculinity in a feminist age.
Their advice is useful up to a point (stand up straight, make your bed, stop wallowing in self-pity and videogames) and its vast popularity speaks to the hunger for guidance that so many men have. But as we saw during the Kavanaugh hearings, these quasi-philosophical efforts to craft a respectable masculinity fail utterly in the face of an explosive charge like rape, when the feelings-over-facts testimonial style holds sway over public opinion and even over the procedures of many institutions (from Silicon Valley to the Senate).
It’s also not an effective response to the angry tone of our tribal politics. TimesUp isn’t just an elaborate branding campaign; it’s an apt description of a swath of feminist women who believe they’ve waited long enough and played by men’s rules long enough—and now it’s time to get angry and, in some cases, get revenge. In other words: Women are angry; men should step aside. Trump’s election was the last straw. He embodied everything they hate, and yet he still managed to defeat Hillary Clinton. “Over the threat of a potential female leader, brutal masculinity won,” writes Rebecca Traister in her new book, Good and Mad.
Unlike Kavanaugh’s flashes of anger, however, this kind of anger is righteous. “Women’s anger spurs creativity and drives innovation in politics and social change, and it always has,” Traister argues. “We must come to recognize our own rage as valid, as rational, and as not what we are told it is: ugly, hysterical, marginal, laughable.”
Indicting other women is also a component of the righteous anger. Traister calls out white women who support nonfeminist “policies and parties that protect the economic and political status of the men on whom they depend,” in another iteration of the tired trope of female false consciousness. “White Women, Come Get Your people,” was the headline for an op-ed by the Democratic consultant Alexis Grenell in the New York Times, evidently because 53 percent of white women voted for Trump (who nominated Kavanaugh) and anyone with a uterus who would dare support Kavanaugh is to be considered a “gender traitor.” Grenell is a white woman herself, but because she is progressive and hates Trump, she is not tarnished by that group’s supposed sins. This is also why Senator Susan Collins was called a “rape apologist” when she cast her vote to confirm Kavanaugh.
Women’s anger is also invoked to justify eliding traditional methods of fact-gathering and verification; an accusation is enough, and the assumption is that all women will believe other women. “Today, every woman in America was Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s co-witness,” a tweet from TimesUp stated. “We believe you. We are with you. #BelieveSurvivors.” In a public statement demanding that Kavanaugh withdraw his nomination, the organization doubled down on the idea that an accusation should be taken as proof enough of male turpitude: “A man accused of multiple instances of sexual violence cannot have decision-making power over the lives of American women for decades to come.”
n some ways, Kavanaugh was the perfect foil for female rage: Nominated by Trump (strike one), he fit the stereotype of the worst sort of beer-bro prep-school guy (strike two); and his choice of friends and drinking buddies in high school didn’t help (strike three).
But something unexpected happened on the way to his character assassination: Kavanaugh defended himself and was defended by others, including many women. Where feminists wanted women to see themselves in the seat Christine Blasey Ford occupied, many instead saw their sons or husbands or brothers sitting in the chair where Kavanaugh sat.
And they should have, and they still should. For what the Kavanaugh nomination did was bring the Star-Chamber-driven transformation of gender norms into broader view. For several years now on many college campuses, regrettable sex has been an actionable offense that can get young men expelled without anything remotely resembling due process.
Consider the ways in which the logic of the presumption of innocence has already been thoroughly warped. The feminist website Jezebel used an “investigation” into the dating habits of a progressive male reporter to argue that the next arena for combat is the so-called gray areas. Julianne Escobedo Shepherd writes, “The public sympathy for these men and eagerness for their redemption is a depressing yet familiar iteration of what we’ve always known: that alleged abusers are, in all contexts, held by default to be innocent until proven guilty.”
Instead, she argues, we should be guided by feminist philosopher Kate Manne’s notion of “the sex he takes,” which she describes as “not, according to the law, rape or sexual assault. It does not rise to the scrutiny of a judge and jury. It does not meet the legal definitions of sexual assault or rape. Its boundaries, shapeless and shifting, treat consent as something to be extracted, transforming sex into a commodity to be taken, rather than freely exchanged. Rarely can that sex be labeled explicitly as coercion because it conceals itself beneath a legalistic definition of sexual assault, treating consent as a binary, a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no.’”
This is the logic that has given rise to the Orwellian phrase “speak your truth” and the assumption that personal, powerful, emotional testimony is tantamount to provable fact.
What radical feminist theorists have long been arguing—that there is no such thing as true consent because of patriarchy and that all women are potential victims of men—has reached full flower.
Consider the new practice by a younger generation of parents raising gender-neutral “theybies,” (rather than boys or girls). Although only a tiny fraction of all parents, they are conducting an experiment in child-rearing that tells us as much about our cultural moment as Kavanaugh’s hearings did. Their child-rearing philosophy is as much about stamping out “toxic masculinity” as it is about signaling their supposedly enlightened agnosticism about gender. (Shulamith Firestone, one of the authors of the “Redstockings Manifesto,” argued for just such gender-neutral child-rearing practices in a key radical feminist text, The Dialectic of Sex.)
Theirs is not an effort to raise boys into men who can integrate into a kinder, gentler future economy of helping professions and easily expressed feelings. It is an effort to overcome maleness itself. And it is an admission of failure, because when boys fail to grow into civilized men, everyone suffers, just as they do when women are denied equal opportunity. The answer isn’t reeducation in radical feminist notions of men’s innately violent natures. It’s raising boys and girls to treat one another with respect and to uphold gender-free values such as the presumption of innocence and due process and equal opportunity. Civil society relies on due process not only because it’s an objective good (though it is). Everyone should embrace both due process and the presumption of innocence because everyone might need these themselves one day, regardless of his or her gender.
There’s a saying of radical feminist poet Audre Lord that activists on the left often invoke when they are attempting to justify norm-breaking and change by any means necessary: “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” It’s the logic behind the progressive left’s attacks on the electoral college, the Senate, and now the Supreme Court as illegitimate institutions. It’s the logic that claims the accused should not be allowed to defend himself because some men are rapists or that it’s fine to hurl the most devastating charges with no evidence because “it’s just a job interview,” not a criminal trial. It’s the logic that might garner short-term victories but at the expense of long-term civility and justice.
The #MeToo movement has brought to light the horrific abuses of many men, and it has sparked long-overdue and crucial conversations about consent and power. And while it’s true that not all radical ideas that become mainstream are harmful, it’s not true that all radical ideas bend the arc of history toward progress. It would be a shame if a movement with the potential to sort through some deeply troubling and stubborn aspects of human nature instead embraced misandry and power-seeking. The shame is upon us.