In support of women who speak out about sexual assault: a man’s perspective, and a call to arms

by Alan Cohen


Image credits: Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images for Meet The Press and Darren Calabrese/Canadian Press

Like so many people, I have been upset by the stream of recent news stories on sexual assault: Bill Cosby, Jian Ghomeshi (a popular and seemingly pro-feminist radio host here in Canada), the University of Virginia story from Rolling Stone, several stories relating to violence against aboriginal women in Canada, and stories about the US military, to name just a few. Throughout this string of stories, I have felt admiration and support for the women who have come forward, but I have also wondered why not everyone comes forward, and why so many women waited so long to do so.

In the ensuing debate, many people (mostly women) have decried a culture that permits sexual assault, and a few people (almost exclusively misogynistic men) have defended the status quo and denigrated women, often through trolling and other unsavoury means. But there is a perspective that has been largely missing: that of the average man. Most men are not misogynists, and I would venture to say that most are actively against misogyny and do generally respect women. But the misogynists are loud, obnoxious, and everywhere on the internet. Most men shut up when the subject shifts to sexual assault, partly because it’s seen as a women’s issue, and partly because they are scared of saying the wrong thing and coming off as misogynists themselves, even when they are not.

But sexual assault is not a women’s issue, it’s a human issue. White people can see the injustice in how blacks are treated by the police, and adults can be against pedophilia. When something unjust happens to one person in our society, we should all be concerned. It is time for the large majority of men to speak out, and to support women. My hope in writing this piece is that it will be read by men, forwarded and posted by men, and discussed by men.

Before I go further, a disclaimer: this is a very sensitive subject, and it is nearly impossible to discuss it without saying something that will offend someone, particularly when the writer is a man. (This is probably the most important reason so many men stay silent.) I don’t pretend to “get” it. I will probably say some things that reflect this, without meaning to. So, reader, if you are generally against sexual assault, and something I say offends you, please remember that we are on the same side. If we require perfect agreement on every detail, men like me will stay silent, and the problem will persist longer.

Why is it important that men speak out? Why do men’s opinions matter? It’s not just a question of solidarity; it’s necessary if we want to make progress on this issue. Allow me a minute to explain why I think so.

If we want to have less sexual assault in our society, we need women to come forward. Potential abusers will hesitate if they know that most crimes are reported. Serial offenders will be caught early. When women remain silent, other women are assaulted. So we need to understand why women remain silent and what we can do about it.

Over the last several weeks, I have been discussing this question with friends and colleagues, male and female. The conclusion is an obvious one: women are worried that nothing will happen to the offender, they are worried about the consequences for their career or other aspects of their life to accuse someone who may be in a position of power, and, most importantly, they feel humiliated.

The feeling of humiliation is obvious, and quite different from other crimes. If I am mugged, or swindled, or my house is broken into, I will almost certainly report it to the police. I will not feel humiliated, though I may feel anger or impotence. If the criminal is in a position of power over me, this might change things to some extent, but the societal consensus against these crimes is sufficient that, even were he/she acquitted, the doubt would play in my favour socially. Under most circumstances, I would still report the crime.

Rape is one of the worst crimes imaginable; why should the victim feel humiliated rather than the perpetrator? Shouldn’t the perpetrator be embarrassed that he couldn’t control his urges, couldn’t conform to societal standards? Don’t perpetrators of sexual assault, rather than their victims, deserve to feel ashamed?

And yet this is not the case – in most cases, the victim feels humiliated, and coming forward requires great courage. So if we want more women to come forward, we need to help them feel less humiliated by what has happened. In particular, we need to create a climate in which women feel supported when they report an assault – not just that it’s OK to do so, but that doing so is a positive thing, an affirmation of her power and an action deserving of respect.

Of course, all this has been said many times, but mostly by women. It’s important that men say it because the reality is that women’s social environments are often shaped by men as much as by women. If we want to create a culture in which women who report assault are respected, it needs to be clear that men see it that way too. If men view assaulted women as pitiable, damaged goods, perhaps as having asked for it, few women will come forward. The irony does not escape me that women should not need men’s “permission” to be able to report assault; nonetheless, the reality at least for the moment is that most women will hesitate to report if they feel that they will be harshly judged, either by men or by women.

I have no illusions that men voicing their support will make all the feeling of humiliation go away, or succeed in encouraging everyone to come forward. But I do hope that men voicing their support could be the start of a cultural shift towards a world where it is humiliating to be seen as an aggressor, towards a world where misogyny is never cool, toward a world where coming forward is normal and does not require exceptional courage, towards a world where assault victims receive support not just from a few activist groups, but from a societal consensus that they have been wronged and bear no blame.

So, let me express very clearly my simple, emotional reaction when I hear about a sexual assault and a woman who reports it. I see her as a victim of a crime, and him as despicable. I see it as a crime like other crimes, and in no way see her as damaged or pitiable because of her bad luck to be a victim. I do not ever think it is her fault, or that she was asking for it. I see her as courageous and deserving of respect for coming forward. I would never dream of judging a woman who does not come forward, but one who does will gain additional respect as someone who is centered, confident, and knows what she must do. As with any crime, there may be occasional false reports, and due process is needed, but when we start to see many women coming forward about the same abuser reporting a consistent pattern of behaviour, there can be little doubt about the fire causing the smoke. Even for most isolated incidents, a woman reporting a crime will get my benefit of the doubt, emotionally if not legally. I do believe there can be borderline cases, and in particular that a small number of assaults are the result of miscommunication; while in such cases the man’s responsibility may be somewhat less, he still should have taken more care and will bear some responsibility.

A critical point here, and one overlooked by many feminist groups, is that many men are terrified of being falsely accused. I suspect that, while most men are strongly against sexual assault, they are nervous about a system where they are presumed guilty based on he said-she said accusations. Men’s support for victims of sexual assault would probably be stronger if they felt there were some safeguards in place to prevent at least the most egregious cases of false accusation. (I do not know how common false accusations are, and I will not weigh in on this question – my point is that men’s fear of this should be taken seriously if we want them to support women who come forward about sexual assault.)

I can’t say whether I speak for most men, but I think I do, and I hope they will confirm that themselves by passing this piece along. I am not a feminist. I want the best for women in this world, but don’t think the feminist movement has always successfully achieved it. But on this issue, it is simple: rape is a very serious crime. Rapists and others guilty of sexual assault should go to jail. Women are not “asking” to be assaulted any more than a cute cat is “asking” to be tortured by a young serial killer. It is the criminal who is responsible for controlling his urges.

Lastly, I have another, more concrete suggestion for how to encourage women to report sexual assault. As appears to be the case for Ghomeshi and Cosby, most perpetrators do not commit a single assault and stop. The problem is that their victims don’t know whether or not they are the only one. Many women are afraid to be the only person going up against a powerful figure, but they would have much more courage in numbers.

There is a simple solution to this: set up a website in which women can file reports that become public only when a sufficient number of other women (3? 5?) make reports about the same man. There would need to be safeguards such as assuring that the man is correctly identified, and requiring sufficient detail in the reports that, should they become public, some facts could be verified. Hopefully, most women who are assaulted will eventually be given the societal encouragement to report to the police, immediately, without needing such a website. But until we get there, the website could serve as a way for multiple victims of the same man to find each other, and to drive fear into the hearts of perpetrators. Such a website would also put shame where it belongs: on the men guilty of assault.

So, men, let’s tell women how we feel about reporting sexual assault. Unless I am very wrong, it will give them courage. That courage will scare potential offenders, and help catch others early.