When Donald Trump called his one-time mistress Stormy Daniels a “horseface” on Twitter — the latest in a long line of attacks on women he finds threatening — the reason struck me as entirely obvious. Publicly disparaging yet another woman wasn’t part of a political strategy nor was it a defensive strike. Rather, the president of the United States appears to like hurting people, and women in particular.
I have spent a lot of time thinking about and researching the motivations of men who hate women — from sexual entitlement and white supremacy to paternalism and shame. In fact, I’m writing an entire book about misogynists. But this past week I realized I was missing a key driver for why misogynists hurt women: Pleasure.
It’s a horrific thought, but one we mustn’t shy away from: Human beings have, and continue to, take pleasure in the suffering of others. This is especially true when you’re talking about members of an empowered majority hurting a marginalized minority. As Atlantic writer Adam Serwer put it so aptly in his piece about the ethos of the Trump administration and their supporters, “the cruelty is the point.”
Such is the case when you look at misogynist attacks on women. In 2014, I interviewed the father of Rehtaeh Parsons, a young woman in Canada who killed herself after being harassed in the wake of a gang rape. During the assault, which happened at a party, one of the teen attackers took a photo: Parsons was naked from the waist-down, vomiting out of a window while a boy penetrated her. Most chilling, he is giving the camera a thumbs-up.
Several years ago, after a teen girl was sexually assaulted by two boys in Steubenville, Ohio, pictures of her naked and passed-out body — one in which she appears to have semen on her chest — were forwarded to friends and classmates. Another teen boy at the party recorded a video of the attack and joked, “You don’t need any foreplay with a dead girl,” he laughed. “She’s deader than O.J.’s wife.”
And then, of course, there is the testimony of Christine Blasey Ford. What did she remember above all other things about her attack? “Indelible in the hippocampus is the laughter,” she said.
When young men bond over hurting women, Lili Loofbourow recently wrote, what’s at play is something called toxic homosociality — men “wooing other males over the comedy of being cruel to women.” But misogynists don’t only hurt women to show off for other men. They also do it because it feels good for themselves.
A man who beat his wife tells Oprah Winfrey, “It made me feel invincible.” A man arrested for voyeurism in Toronto — he hid cameras all around the apartment he shared with two women in order to surreptitiously watch them — can be heard giggling in one of the videos as his unsuspecting roommate steps out of the shower.
It felt good.
One of the reasons we don’t talk about pleasure as often as other motivations for misogyny is that there’s no pat solution. Other factors are easier to work through: We can teach young boys that sexual entitlement to girls’ bodies is wrong or try to dismantle paternalism by ensuring that there are more women in leadership positions.
There is very little we can do, however, about the fact that some people take pleasure in oppressing and hurting others. It’s depressing. But until we face the whole truth — including the horrific and the unsolvable — we’re just going to continue making excuses for the inexcusable.