Laurie Penny | Longreads | October 2017 | 13 minutes (3,709 words)

We’re through the looking glass now. As women all over the world come forward to talk about their experiences of sexual violence, all our old certainties about what was and was not normal are peeling away like dead skin.

It’s not just Hollywood and it’s not just Silicon Valley. It’s not just the White House or Fox News.

It’s everywhere.

It’s happening in the art world and in mainstream political parties. It’s happening in the London radical left and in the Bay Area burner community. It’s happening in academia and in the media and in the legal profession. I recently heard that it was happening in the goddamn Lindy Hop dance scene, which I didn’t even know was a thing. Men with influence and status who have spent years or decades treating their community like an all-you-can-grope sexual-harassment buffet are suddenly being presented with the bill. Names are being named. A lot of women have realized that they were never crazy, that even if they were crazy they were also right all along, and — how shall I put this? — they (we) are pissed.

“It’s like finding out aliens exist,” said a friend of mine last night. He was two gins in and trying to process why he never spoke up, over a twenty-year period, about a mutual friend who is facing public allegations of sexual violence. “Back in the day we’d all heard stories about it, but… well, the people telling them were all a bit crazy. You know, messed up. So nobody believed them.”

I took a sip of tea to calm down, and suggested that perhaps the reason these people were messed up — if they were messed up — was because they had been, you know, sexually assaulted. I reminded him that some of us had always known. I knew. But then, what did I know? I’m just some crazy girl.

* * *

The process we are going through in our friendship group and in our culture as a whole is something akin to first contact. Abusers, like little green men in flying saucers, have a habit of revealing their true selves to people nobody’s going to find credible — to women who are vulnerable, or women who are marginalized, or who are just, you know, women. But abusers don’t come from any planet but this. We grew up with them. We’ve worked with them. Admired them. Loved them. Trusted them. And now we have to deal with the fact that our reality is not what it seemed.

So who’s the crazy one now? To be the victim of sexual assault is to fall down a rabbit hole into a reality shaped by collective delusion: specifically, the delusion that powerful or popular or ordinary-seeming men who do good work in the world cannot also be abusers or predators. To suggest otherwise is to appear insane. You question yourself. Even before anyone calls you a liar — which they will — you’re wondering if you’ve overreacted. Surely he couldn’t be like that. Not him. Anyway, it would be insanity to go against someone with so much clout. The girls who do that are sick in the head. At least, that was what we used to think.

Something important has changed. Suddenly women are speaking up and speaking out in numbers too big to shove aside. The public narrative around abuse and sexual entitlement and the common consensus around who is to be believed are changing so fast you can see the seams between one paradigm and the next, the hasty stitching where one version of reality becomes another. Now, instead of victims and survivors of rape and assault being written off as mentally ill, it’s the abusers who need help.

The public narrative around abuse and sexual entitlement and the common consensus around who is to be believed are changing so fast you can see the seams between one paradigm and the next, the hasty stitching where one version of reality becomes another.

“I’m hanging on in there,” said Harvey Weinstein, in the wake of revelations about a pattern of abuse that has upended the entertainment industry, tipping all its secrets out. “I’m not doing OK, but I’m trying. I’ve got to get help. You know what — we all make mistakes.”

Days earlier, Weinstein emailed other Hollywood higher-ups frantic not to be fired, asking for their assistance convincing The Weinstein Company board to keep him, begging to be sent to therapy as an alternative. The same pleas for mercy on the grounds of mental illness have been issued on behalf of powerful predators in the tech industry. Here’s 500 Startups’ statement on the actions of its founder, Dave McClure: “He recognizes he has made mistakes and has been going through counseling to work on addressing changes in his previous unacceptable behavior.”

The social definition of sanity is the capacity to accept the consensus of how the world ought to work, including between men and women. Anyone who questions or challenges that consensus is by definition unhinged. It is only when the abuse becomes impossible to deny, when patterns emerge, when photographs and videos are available and are enough to lead to conviction — then we start hearing the pleas for mercy. It was just twenty minutes of action. He’s got such a bright future. Think of his mother. Think of his wife. He couldn’t help himself. 

These excuses are never just about the abuser and his reputation. They are desperate attempts to bargain with a rapidly changing reality. They are justifications for continuing, collectively, to deny systemic abuse. Suddenly, it’s Weinstein, not the women calling him a rapist and a pig, who gets to be the one with “demons.” He needs to see a therapist, not a judge. He’s a very unhappy and very sick man. And so is Bill Cosby. And so is Woody Allen. And so was Cyril Smith. And so is that guy in your industry everyone respects so much, the one with the big smile and all those crazy ex-girlfriends.

What’s the word for what happens when a lot of people are very sick all at the same time? It’s an epidemic. I’m not sure what started this one, but there’s a lot of bullshit in the water.

* * *

The language of mental illness is also a shorthand for the articulation of truths that are outside the realm of political consensus. Anyone who challenges that consensus is deemed mad by default, including women who dare to suggest that predators in positions of power might have to be accountable for their actions.

There’s a long, grim history behind the idea that women lie about systemic sexual abuse because they’re mentally unwell. Freud was one of the first to look for a psychiatric explanation for the number of women patients he saw who told him they had been molested or raped. To report that such things were going on in polite society would have outraged Freud’s well-heeled and intellectual social circles. So in the course of his later writings, the father of modern psychoanalysis found alternative explanations: perhaps some of these girls were unconsciously obsessed with the erotic idea of the father figure, as opposed to an actual father figure who might have committed actual abuse. Or perhaps they were just hysterical. Either way, no reason to ruffle whiskers in the gentlemen’s club by giving too much credence to unhappy young women.

A century later, in absolutely every situation like this that I have ever encountered, the same rhetoric applies. Women are over-emotional. They cannot be trusted, because they are crazy, which is a word patriarchy uses to describe a woman who doesn’t know when to shut her pretty mouth. They are not to be believed, because they are unwell, which is a word patriarchy uses to describe women who are angry.

Well, of course they’re angry. Of course they are hurt. They have been traumatized, first by the abuse and then by their community’s response. They are not able to express righteous rage without consequence, because they are not men. If you had been assaulted, forcibly penetrated, treated like so much human meat; if you had sought justice or even just comfort and found instead rank upon rank of friends and colleagues closing together to call you a liar and a hysteric, telling you you’d better shut up — how would you feel? You’d be angry, but you’d better not show it. Angry women are not to be trusted, which suits abusers and their enablers just fine.

This is what we’re talking about when we talk about rape culture — not just the actions of lone sociopaths, but the social architecture that lets them get away with it, a routine of silencing, gaslighting, and selective ignorance that keeps the world at large from having to face realities they’d rather rationalize away. If everyone around you gets together to dismiss the inconvenient truth of your experience, it’s tempting to believe them, especially if you are very young.

More to the point, predators seek out victims who look vulnerable. Women and girls with raw sparking wires who nobody will believe because they’re already crazy.

Ten years ago, when I was raped and spoke out about it, I was told I was toxic, difficult, a compulsive liar. I was told that so consistently that eventually I came to accept it, and I moved away to heal in private while the man who had hurt me went on to hurt other people. In the intervening decade, every time women I know have spoken out about sexual abuse, they have been dismissed as mentally ill. And yes, some of them were mentally ill — at least one in four human beings will experience mental health problems in their lifetime, after all, and violence and trauma are contributing factors. More to the point, predators seek out victims who look vulnerable. Women and girls with raw sparking wires who nobody will believe because they’re already crazy.

The thing that is happening now is exactly the thing that the sanity and safety of unnamed thousands of women was once sacrificed to avoid: a giant flaming fuss. It is amazing what people will do to avoid a fuss. They will ostracize victims, gaslight survivors, and provide cover for predators; they will hire lawyers and hand out hundreds of thousands of dollars under the table and, if pressed, rearrange entire social paradigms to make it seem like anyone asking for basic justice is a screeching hysteric.

In decades gone by, women who made a scene, who made the mistake of confronting abusers or even just closing the door on them, were carted off to rot in the sort of hospitals that featured fewer rehabilitation spas and more hosing down with ice water to get you to stop screaming. Now it’s the abusers who are seeking asylum. Asking to be treated as sufferers of illness, rather than criminals.

The language of lunacy is the last resort when society at large cannot deny the evidence of structural violence. We hear the same thing in the wake of a mass shooting or a white supremacist terror attack. He was always such a nice boy. Something broke. We couldn’t have seen him coming. He was depressed and frustrated. We can’t pretend it didn’t happen, so instead we pretend that there’s no pattern here, just individual maladaption. A chemical imbalance in the brain, not a systemic injustice baked into our culture. Harvey Weinstein is not a rapist, he’s a “very sick guy” — at least according to Woody Allen (who may or may not have special insight, being famously interested in both psychoanalysis and recreational sexual harassment).

Woody Allen feels at least as sorry for Weinstein as he does for the forty-plus women and girls who, at the time of writing, have come forward to claim they were assaulted or raped by the movie mogul. We’re now supposed to feel pity for rapists because they’re messed up. Well, join the queue. All of us are messed up, and having low self-esteem and a dark obsession with sexually intimidating the women around you aren’t excuses for abuse. At best, they are explanations; at worst, they are attempts to derail the discussion just as we’ve started talking about women’s feelings as if they matter. In fact, according to researchers like Lundy Bancroft, who has spent decades working with abusive men, abusers are no more or less likely to be mentally ill than anyone else. “Abusiveness has little to do with psychological problems and everything to do with values and beliefs,” says Bancroft. “Abusers have a distorted sense of right and wrong. Their value system is unhealthy, not their psychology.”

At the end of the day, we’re now encouraged to ask, aren’t these men the real victims — victims of their own demons? Come off it. We’ve all got demons, and baggage, and all of the other euphemisms we use to talk about the existential omnishambles of modern life. The moment I meet someone who has arrived at something like adulthood psychologically unscathed by the nightmare fun-house of white supremacist capitalist patriarchy, I assume they’re hiding something, or on enough tranquilizers to fell a small elephant, or both. We’ve all got broken hearts and complicated childhoods, and survivors have spent too long being quietly directed to seek therapy rather than justice.

The abusers who are now being excused as mentally ill are not monsters, or aberrations. They were acting entirely within the unhealthy value system of a society which esteems the reputation and status of men above the safety of women. Many abusers, on some level, do not know that what they are doing is wrong. They believe that they are basically decent. Most men who prey on women have had that belief confirmed over the course of years or decades of abuse. They believe they’re basically decent, and a whole lot of other people believe they’re basically decent, too. They’re nice guys who just have a problem with women, or booze, or their mothers, or all three.

* * *

Pleas for mercy on the grounds of emotional distress are surprisingly effective when it’s men doing the pleading. Right now, all around me, I see women working to support men, as well as each other, through this difficult time. It’s not just because we’re nice and it’s not just because we’re suckers, although it’s probably a little bit of both.

It’s because we know how much this is going to hurt.

We should. We’ve carried it all for so long in private. We know how deep the damage goes, how much there is still unsaid. Even as we come together to demand an end to sexual violence, we worry that men are too weak to cope with the consequences of what they’ve done and allowed to be done to us.

I have for the past three months been nursing intermittent jags of panic at the knowledge of what was about to be revealed (and has now been revealed) about a person I once cared for deeply and, because I am a soft-hearted fool, still care about very much. A person who, it turns out, has hurt more women than any of us guessed when we started joining the puncture wounds in our pasts to make a picture. Panic because none of us want him to hurt himself. Panic because we worry that he might. We want him to be safe, even though none of us have been. Isn’t that just delicious? As more stories of private pain come out, it is still the men we’re supposed to worry about.

The threat of extreme self-harm is a classic last-resort tactic for abusers who suspect that they’re losing control, that their partner is about to leave them or tell someone, or both. It’s effective because it’s almost always plausible, and who wants to be the person who put their own freedom and safety ahead of another person’s life? Not a great many women, certainly, given the bone-deep knowledge drilled into us from birth that we were put on this earth to protect men from, among other things, the consequences of their actions. We’ve been raised to believe that men’s emotions are our responsibility. Even the men who hurt us.

We’ve been raised to believe that men’s emotions are our responsibility. Even the men who hurt us.

As the list of names grows longer, the plea for mercy on the grounds of mental illness is being deployed in exactly the same way. These guys are suffering, too. If you carry on calling for them to come clean and change their behavior, well, that might just push them over the edge. And you wouldn’t want that, would you? You’re a nice girl, aren’t you?

I’ve been told several times by controlling partners that if I left them, they might break down or even kill themselves. Each time, I stayed longer than I should have because I loved them and wanted them alive, and every time, when it finally became unbearable, they were absolutely fine. Not one of them made an attempt to carry out their threat. That doesn’t mean they didn’t mean it at the time. But the demand that even as we attempt to free ourselves from structural or specific violence, women prioritize the wellbeing of men over and above our own, is a tried-and-true way of keeping a rein on females who might just be about to stand up for ourselves. We are expected to show a level of concern for our abusers that it would never occur to them to show to us — if they’d been at all concerned about our well-being in the first place, we wouldn’t be where we are. And where we are is extremely dark, and very difficult, and it’ll get darker and more difficult before we’re done.

* * *

I’m worried about a lot of people right now. I’m worried about the several men I know who have hurt women in the past and who are now facing the consequences. I’m worried about the men who are analyzing their own behavior in horror, who stood aside and let it happen, and who are suddenly realizing their own complicity — and struggling to cope with the guilt, the shame of that knowledge. That’s allowed. Empathy is not being rationed here, and we can worry about whoever we like — as long as we worry about the survivors first. We were not liars, or hysterical. We were telling the truth. And if the men are a mess today because they finally have to reckon with that truth, we must not let that stop us from building a world where love and sexuality and gender hurt less, a world where this does not have to happen again as it has happened, in silence, for so many generations.

Reframing serial abuse as a mental health disorder stashes it conveniently on the high shelf marked “not a political issue.” The trouble is that sickness does not obviate social responsibility. It never has. Sickness might give a person the overwhelming urge to act in repulsive ways but sickness does not cover for them during business meetings or pay off their lawyers or make sure they get women dropped from films: it takes a village to protect a rapist.

I am perfectly willing to accept that toxic masculinity leaves a lot of broken men in its maw. That culture conspires to prevent men and boys from being able to handle their sexuality, their aggression, and their fear of rejection and loss of status in any adult way; that it is unbearable at times to exist inside a male body without constant validation. But very few men — very few people, period — grow up with wholly healthy attitudes towards their own gender. Not everyone with fucked-up ideas about women goes on to do fucked-up things to women. Toxic masculinity, as Bancroft observes, is a social illness before it is a psychological one.

So what about the rest of us? People say that they are shocked, and perhaps they are. But shock is very different from surprise. When was the last time you were really, truly surprised to hear a story like this? The truth is that a great many of those surrounding Weinstein did know. Just as the friends and associates of most sexual predators probably know — not everything, but enough to guess, if they cared to. The reason they didn’t say or do anything is simple and painful. The reason is that nobody had enough of a problem with what was going on to make a fuss. They thought that what was going on was morally acceptable. Polite society or whatever passed for it in their industry told them that this was all normal and par for the course, even if your heart told you otherwise. Polite society hates a fuss. Polite society can be a very dangerous place for a young girl to walk alone, and on this issue, most of us have been. Until now.

It is easier to cope with the idea of sick men than it is to face the reality of a sick society; we’ve waited far too long to deal with our symptoms because we didn’t want to hear the diagnosis. The prognosis is good, but the treatment is brutal. The people finally facing the consequences of having treated women and girls like faceless pieces of property may well be extremely unhappy about it. That’s understandable. I’m sure it’s not a lot of fun to be Harvey Weinstein right now, but sadly for the producer and those like him, the world is changing, and for once, cosseting the feelings of powerful men is not and cannot be our number-one priority. For once, the safety and sanity of survivors is not about to be sacrificed so that a few more unreconstructed bastards can sleep at night.

Previously: “The Horizon of Desire”

* * *

Laurie Penny is an award-winning journalist, essayist, public speaker, writer, activist, internet nanocelebrity and author of six books. Her most recent book, Bitch Doctrine, was published by Bloomsbury in 2017. 

Editor: Michelle Weber