This fall, we have experienced what seems to be a turning point in our national conversation about sexual violence. Powerful men are being held responsible for sexual assaulting and harassing women, and for what feels like the first time, the majority of our society believes the female and male victims who come forward with stories of abuse.
Yet one troubling aspect that has risen to the surface during this period of great progress is the number of women who will step forward to defend and protect men who are accused of heinous acts against other women. From Kellyanne Conway defending President Trump and Senate candidate Roy Moore against allegations of sexual assault and child sexual assault (respectively) to Lena Dunham claiming that rape allegations against her long-time producer Murray Miller were false to Charlie Rose’s executive producer Yvette Vega admitting that she was aware of his abuse of women in the workplace and failed to stop him. It isn't just prominent women who defend men who are accused of sexual assault and harassment; it happens on all levels, by women with far less to lose than those protecting their boss or a colleague. For example, apparently based on their political beliefs, many women have defended either Roy Moore or Senator Al Franken while claiming that their accusers are lying. And of course, our history is littered with examples of women defending men accused of sexual assault, from Gloria Steinem defending Bill Clinton against charges of sexual assault and the so-called “Independent Women’s Forum” defending Clarence Thomas against allegations of sexual harassment.
So why exactly are so many women defending abusive men? The answers are complex, and not necessarily the same for every woman. For some, internalized misogyny is the reason. This is a phenomenon where girls hear stereotypes and myths about women from a young age, often from trusted adults such as parents and teachers. As a result, they often internalize these messages, believing false stereotypes such as “women often make up allegations of rape,” or that “women who were sexually abused, were ‘asking for it.’ It’s important to note that this is not a voluntary process, but an involuntary one where women absorb messages over time. The messages call into question the worth and value of any woman. This is internalized misogyny.
Because of internalized misogyny, many women become part of upholding rape culture — which is a society in which sexual violence is seen as inevitable and the norm. It’s apparent in the comments made by Angela Lansbury, where she blamed women for being “too attractive” and inducing men to sexually harass them. Defending men who sexually assault and harass women and blaming or attacking the victims of this type of abuse all contributes to rape culture.
Of course, there are other factors at play, particularly when a woman has a personal stake in protecting an abuser. If a woman depends on an abusive man for her job, it may be more complicated to call out his harassment or assault. This may have been the case at NBC, where Matt Lauer allegedly harassed and assaulted women for twenty years — yet he was shielded by his status as the network’s superstar. It is also difficult for many women to reconcile the fact that a man that they may have known as a decent and respectful person could have harmed others. Yet as tempting as it may be to defend an alleged abuser by stating, “He never harassed me,” it is not helpful. After all, if a person is accused of murdering four people, he is no less a murderer simply because he did not murder you. It also serves to undermine the voice of those who have come forward, by purporting to speak for all women, or by stating that the allegations must not be true because the alleged abuser has treated some women with respect.
The reasons why a woman may defend an abusive man are complex, and often deeply rooted in the toxic culture that teaches us negative stereotypes about women and girls. It can be difficult to break free of internalized misogyny and to take a stand against rape culture. A good first step is choosing to believe victims.
At Blackburn Center, we offer a variety of services for victims of all types of violence, including sexual and domestic violence. We also offer community services, such as training and education programs for schools, community groups and businesses. We are committed to changing our culture, and working to make Westmoreland County a stronger and safer place to live. To join our mission, click here to take action in our community.