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Why It Matters How Powerful Men Treat Women

A rape allegation for Donald Trump, a domestic abuse allegation for Boris Johnson, and a filmed assault by Mark Field—all in the same week.

Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

“I don’t think they want to hear about that kind of thing.” That’s how Boris Johnson, the man about to become the United Kingdom’s prime minister, whether the public likes it or not, responded when a journalist obliquely invited him to reassure the public that he didn’t beat up his girlfriend last Friday night.

Occasionally this mendacious sack of personality disorders yells it like it is. While he evaded the question about what exactly transpired when police were called to a “domestic disturbance” at his home, he’s dead right about one part: A lot of people don’t want to hear about it. Just like they don’t want to hear about the allegation published that same day that President Trump savagely sexually assaulted advice columnist E. Jean Carroll in the mid-90s. Just like they don’t want to watch the video of British Member of Parliament Mark Field grabbing a female Greenpeace protester by the throat last Thursday. 

Here’s what’s happening: All across the English-speaking world, men seeking or established in high office, icons of elitist entitlement shotgun-married to rank populism, are having to answer questions about just how much violence they have chosen to inflict on the women around them. And all across the English-speaking world, their supporters are rallying behind them.

Field’s misdeed was captured on camera in a ten-second psychodrama about the state of politics today: a young woman with the temerity to protest at a black-tie dinner slammed against a pillar, grabbed by the neck, and frogmarched out by a furious man in a smart suit. While Field has now been suspended, the first reaction from his fellow Conservative members of Parliament to the display wasn’t how dare he, but how dare she.

How dare she interrupt these important men and their wives while they congratulate themselves over dinner. How dare she mention the uncomfortable fact that their economic policies are decimating the climate and threatening billions of lives. Give him a medal, came the call from his supporters: He was showing “responsibility and leadership.” She was the one who “could have been dangerous.” Someone might have been put right off their soufflé.

Male violence at the highest levels of government has been tolerated for a very long time. Unfortunately for these men, women are no longer quite so willing to keep their mouths shut about it as they once were. This means that even voters who don’t really care about male politicians assaulting women know that on some level they should care, which is why so many double down on frantic excuses. Meanwhile, the accused themselves behave as though accountability is for the little people.

Both Trump and Johnson have declined even to offer plausible alternate narratives, to let their voters retain a scrap of deluded self-respect while they look the other way. Donald Trump can no longer even be bothered to spend five minutes coming up with a half-decent lie. His defense on Friday to Carroll’s account in New York is that he never met her—this despite a photo published in the original article showing the two of them together at an NBC party in 1987. His supporters will back him to the hilt, regardless: Nobody is more anxious to win the culture war than those who have already lost the moral argument.

The way these men choose to behave toward women is not incidental to the way they will behave in office. It’s not a side issue, and it’s not a private matter. The way politicians treat women and children informs their attitude toward everything else. Men who bully, grope, and harass because they feel entitled to do so will treat the electorate with the same violent contempt. Institutions that cover up and tacitly condone abuse will operate similarly. Sexual violence and abuse are central to our political culture, not least because they create something that men like Trump and Johnson have always relied on: They create complicity, and complicity rallies the troops quicker than loyalty in fickle times like these.

How many of those defending him today would stake their future on Boris Johnson never having hit a woman? How much are we willing to bet that Trump has never committed rape? I’m not talking about whether or not these men will ever face charges or how much they’re prepared to pay to bury their victims alive. I’m talking about whether or not we think they actually did it. Anyone prepared to stake their life savings?

I don’t think you’d find many takers for that bet, of any political persuasion. Most of us know, in our meek and yearning little hearts, that the men we’ve chosen to lead usor had forced upon usare swollen frat-boys straight from the collective id. Most of us know that in a just world, Donald Trump would probably be in jail. But acknowledging that out loud would mean acknowledging an injustice so enormous we’d have to haul ourselves up and do something about it, and most of us have been exhausted for at least a decade, so it’s easier to believe the accused. It is always easier to believe the accused, psychiatrist Judith Herman Lewis argued in her seminal work Trauma and Recovery:

In order to escape accountability for his crimes, the perpetrator does everything in his power to promote forgetting ... After every atrocity one can expect to hear the same predictable apologies: it never happened; the victim lies; the victim exaggerates; the victim brought it upon herself; and in any case it is time to forget the past and move on. The more powerful the perpetrator, the greater is his prerogative to name and define reality, and the more completely his arguments prevail.

Let’s be honest with ourselves for a second, here. Let’s admit that nobody votes for a Trump or a Johnson believing their candidate to be a sincere and morally upstanding specimen of humanity. All that is required from these spoiled thugs is all that has ever been required of them: the absolute bare minimum of plausible deniability, just enough of a flimsy fig leaf for browbeaten gatekeepers to feel OK about letting them off the hook, like they were always going to, whether the offense is a hilarious, totally innocuous—definitely not racist—crack about Africans or, you know, raping someone in a changing room.

The public doesn’t want to hear about that sort of thing—not out of some sort of prim concern for privacy, but because it makes us uncomfortable. It is uncomfortable to have to articulate what we have always known about these men. And when we insist that it’s a “private matter,” what we mean is that it doesn’t matter. That it shouldn’t matter. 

Here is what we are saying shouldn’t matter. Here’s how E. Jean Carroll describes her interaction with Trump in the ’90s:

He seizes both my arms and pushes me up against the wall a second time, and, as I become aware of how large he is, he holds me against the wall with his shoulder and jams his hand under my coat dress and pulls down my tights…. he opens the overcoat, unzips his pants, and, forcing his fingers around my private area, thrusts his penis halfway—or completely, I’m not certain—inside me. It turns into a colossal struggle.

That is a description of rape, and Carroll knows just what she is risking by making it part of the public record. Naming your abuser is a colossal act of defiance, especially when your abuser’s entire personal brand is about getting away with it. As Carroll herself noted,

His admirers can’t get enough of hearing that he’s rich enough, lusty enough, and powerful enough to be sued by and to pay off every splashy porn star or Playboy Playmate who “comes forward,” so I can’t imagine how ecstatic the poor saps will be to hear their favorite Walking Phallus got it on with an old lady in the world’s most prestigious department store.

I admire this woman. She’s easily in my top 15 people ever to credibly accuse the president of the United States of violent sexual assault—so far. But she doesn’t talk like a good victim, does she? A good victim is meant to be meek and ashamed. A better victim remembers that in a culture that values men’s comfort over women’s lives, being accused of rape and assault is worse than being assaulted or raped. The best victims of all are so silent that the men who hurt them can move on to ever-more-lucrative positions of political prominence, entirely unbothered by the frantic sirens of conscience.

It’s easier not to look. It’s easier to cling desperately to the belief that Donald Trump is not a rapist than it is to acknowledge how many of our fellow citizens would rather elect a rapist than a woman. We have a choice about what sort of world we want to live in—although it doesn’t always feel that way, in a world where impeachment is decided by 435 politicians of highly variable moral fiber and the prime minister is elected by just over a hundred thousand party members. It’s easier not to have to contemplate the emperor in his horrible nakedness. It’s easier to imagine that if we look away, we’ll eventually get something out of it: perhaps a policy or a judicial appointment we value. It’s easy to wave and cheer and hope that if we let them have what they want they’ll somehow go easy on us. But that’s not how this works.  

These men told us who they were right from the start. What they don’t get to do, however, is tell the rest of us who we are. We still have time to choose what sort of society we want to live in. We can choose, at any point, to stop looking away.