Sometimes I wish I could gather up all the women I’ve ever known, or encountered, and conduct this informal poll:
Raise your hand if you’ve ever behaved badly and blamed it on your period.
Raise your hand if you’ve ever acted helpless in the face of an unpleasant-if-not-physically-demanding task like dealing with a wild animal that’s gotten inside the house.
Raise your hand if you’ve ever coerced a man into sex even though he didn’t seem to really want it.
Raise your hand if you’ve thought you were at liberty to do this coercing because men “always want it” and should feel lucky any time they get it.
Raise your hand if you’ve ever threatened to harm yourself if a man breaks up with you or doesn’t want to see you anymore.
Raise your hand if you’ve been physically abusive with a male partner, knowing you’d be unlikely to face any legal consequences.
Raise your hand if you’ve lied about being on birth control, or faked a pregnancy scare, to see how a man would respond.
Raise your hand if you’ve ever manipulated a divorce or child custody dispute in your favor by falsely insinuating that a man has been abusive toward you or your child.
In this hypothetical gathering of every woman I’ve ever known or encountered (I’m imagining a football stadium at decent capacity), I’m certain there is not a single one of these questions that, if answered honestly, wouldn’t send hands into the air. Including my own. I know I’m guilty on the pest control front. I don’t want to think too hard about some of the others.
We hear all too much about toxic masculinity, that amorphous term that refers to the way traits like aggression and emotional repression are baked into male social norms. It also frequently shows up in online feminism as lazy shorthand for registering disapproval of just about anything men do at all. But when are we going to grant equal rights to women and admit that toxic femininity also exists and can be just as poisonous?
There are minor forms of feminine toxins, like blaming irrational temper tantrums on “being hormonal” or feigning helplessness in order to get what you want. And there are major toxins, many having to do with weaponizing your fragility so that those to whom you cause harm have a difficult time defending themselves, lest they look like the aggressors. Women, of course, can unleash these tactics on other women, be they romantic partners or not. But for the sake of this discussion, let’s say we are talking about women and men and sex. We’ve established that many men are socially conditioned to think that women owe them sex. But what about the women that assume that men should be grateful for any sex they get?
In a free society, everyone, regardless of gender, is free to be a manipulative, narcissistic, emotionally destructive asshole.
Throughout my life, I’ve heard countless men tell stories about going ahead with sex even though they didn’t really want to. Sometimes, it was because they didn’t want to hurt the woman’s feelings. Other times, it was because they feared being perceived as having a low sex drive.
A remarkable number of men have told me about times when women approached them and, often wordlessly, initiated sexual encounters without the slightest provocation or questions asked. I’ve heard, more than once, about unsolicited hand jobs on school buses when they were boys. Also, more than once, men have told me about past grade school camping trips or overnight parties wherein girls they barely knew slipped into their sleeping bags or beds. In some cases, the men were happy to oblige the women’s desires. In other cases, though, they went through with the encounters because they didn’t want to make an awkward situation even more awkward.
These stories have been relayed to me in a tone I can only describe as bafflement. The men are not complaining, but nor are they boasting. If anything, they seem to be struggling to find the words to describe a not-entirely-welcome encounter that they felt they had no right to regard with anything other than gratitude. Needless to say, if you imagined any of these situations with the genders reversed, you’d have the potential for very different framing.
I realize that the physical size difference between most women and most men means that the above comparison isn’t entirely fair; a woman who’s sexually aggressive with a man is probably not putting him in insurmountable physical danger. And I’m cognizant of the fact that for every bad behavior I mentioned in my opening list of questions there is an equal, opposite, and potentially more physically threatening form of bad behavior that men can, and do, visit upon women with just as much frequency.
But that, right there, is precisely my point. In a free society, everyone, regardless of gender, or any other identification, is free to be a manipulative, narcissistic, emotionally destructive asshole. So I’m not sure why men have been getting all the credit lately.
The #BelieveWomen memes that have arisen in the wake of #MeToo in general, and the Brett Kavanaugh saga in particular, are coming from a place of empathy and good intentions. But they’re also stripping women of our complications and contradictions, and therefore our humanity.
For what it’s worth, I believed Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony about what happened between her and Kavanaugh when they were in high school. It is my personal belief, based on nothing more than gut feeling, that things transpired more or less as Ford described them and that Kavanaugh was too drunk at the time to remember. I believe that Kavanaugh effectively lied under oath about the extent of his drinking, and that this alone should have disqualified him from holding a seat on the Supreme Court.
But there is a difference between believing and knowing. Even if the judiciary committee had done the right thing and subpoenaed Mark Judge, who witnessed the encounter between Ford and Kavanaugh, and forced him to testify under oath, no one would ever have known definitively what happened that evening. All the truth digging in the world will not change the fact that all kinds of people misrepresent, misremember, misinterpret, and willfully or unwillfully make misleading statements for all kinds of reasons.
And that is why #BelieveWomen, with its suggestion that women are some monolithic entity that is inherently more moral, innocent, or trustworthy than men, is not just reductive but insulting. Women are not simple, guileless creatures to whom only the most innocent motives should ever be ascribed. Both sexes contain multitudes. Or, as George Carlin put it, “Men are from Earth, women are from Earth. Deal with it.”
#MeToo is important. #BelieveWomen is hollow sloganeering.
My opening list of “raise your hand” questions surely set some teeth on edge. It’s difficult to talk about things like women tricking men into getting them pregnant, not least of all because it makes you sound like a part of the men’s rights movement — a loosely knit and often self-defeating enterprise that overrides legitimate grievances about, say, the family court system, with ambient misogyny and conspiracy theories. When I was in my twenties, just hearing a phrase like “tricking men” would have made me assume it was coming from a woman-hating kook.
But the thing about growing older is that over the years, you run into more and more people and see all the different kinds of havoc they can wreak. I know men who, amid contentious divorce proceedings, have been accused, preposterously, of spousal and child abuse. I know women who are so skilled in the dark art of gaslighting that the targets of their mind games, be it boyfriends or BFFs, don’t stand a chance. Once, while working with high school students, I overheard some girls joking to one another about how they were going to go out that night and “hit on older guys who don’t know we’re underage and later be like ‘Dude, you’re a pedophile.’”
I decided to give the girls the benefit of the doubt and assume they were just goofing around, condemning misogynist stereotypes about young women as jailbait by ironically reclaiming those stereotypes. Along the way, I tried to think like a good feminist and consider that patriarchal societies foster or even force this kind of manipulative female behavior because it’s often the only power available to women.
But that’s an excuse and a poor one. Some women act abominably because some people act abominably.
The famous line “Feminism is the radical notion that women are people” has been popping up on bumper stickers and T-shirts since the 1980s. But in 2018, many feminists seem illogically invested in the idea that women operate under a different set of standards and practices than men and might, in fact, be something rather separate from “people.” They will say this is because women are still often reduced to second-class citizens; underpaid in the labor force, underrepresented in politics, and undermined and ignored when, like Ford, they speak up about their experiences.
But can we please put this into some perspective? There is now an entire literary genre — and, more than that, vast quarters of the mainstream media — devoted to women speaking up about their experiences. Every day, the stories roll across my news feeds faster than I could possibly read them, their headlines tweaked to clickbait perfection. “Thanks for not raping us, all you ‘good men.’ But it’s not enough,” went the headline of a Washington Post guest opinion column earlier this month.
Meanwhile, when men speak up about what it’s like to be accused of sexual misconduct — or just navigate the sexual arena in general — the only culturally sanctioned response is to paint them as entitled whiners at best and narcissistic and, of course, toxic sociopaths at worst.
#MeToo is important. #BelieveWomen is hollow sloganeering that will ultimately set us back rather than move us forward. Like all movements, #MeToo will live or die by the degree to which it’s willing to let people in. Until it makes room for examinations not just of toxic masculinity but also toxic femininity—and, even better, dispatch with these meaningless terms—it will continue to tell only half the story. Until it admits that women can be as manipulative and creepy and generally awful as men, the movement will continue to send a message that we’re not really whole people. And why would anyone believe someone like that?