When We Body-Shame Sexual Abusers, We Shame All Those Who Look Like Them And Did Nothing Wrong

modified from wikimedia / flickr | peabody awards
If we keep acting like sexual abuse is wrong because the abuser is physically unattractive, abusers deemed attractive will get away with it.

“That’s just not a good move,” my father snickered. “I mean, maybe if you’re Ryan Gosling. But that is not a good look for Charlie Rose.”

I t was only a matter of time before one of the recent sexual abuse allegations came up over Thanksgiving; my father chose to focus on the Charlie Rose “trick” of surprising women at the door by greeting them naked, straight out of the shower.

His choice is a common, but problematic way of criticizing Rose and the groundswell of sexual predators filling our collective newsfeeds right now.

I can’t lie; it’s been vengefully satisfying to see powerful men like Harvey Weinstein, Louis CK, Matt Lauer, Kevin Spacey, and of course Charlie Rose, fall from grace over the past few weeks. Hearing victims speak out about their aggression, manipulations, and perversion of power—and hearing others who wield comparable power openly criticize them on national stages (what’s up John Oliver!)—gives me hope that things are changing.

Instead of discounting what sexual abusers have done or making excuses for them—President Trump’s open support of Roy Moore stands out as an egregious anomaly right now—people are finally holding some of these men, as well as the deeply embedded patriarchy that supports them, accountable.

What’s not as heartening or progressive is the way they’re gleaning that accountability, however.

In October, Samantha Bee came out swinging in a video addressed to Harvey Weinstein, insisting, “Your dick is ugly.” Seth Meyers said in an “A Closer Look” segment about Rose, “Usually when someone that old is walking around naked, a couple of male nurses lead him right back to his room.” Meanwhile, commenters are calling “men jerking off in front of women” an overwhelmingly “gross” act.

But why should we care about someone like Harvey Weinstein being body shamed? Because body shaming him body shames everyone else who looks like him, but did nothing wrong. It also detracts from the problem with what he did, which perpetuates rape culture.

As long as we keep acting like sexual abuse is wrong because the abuser is physically unattractive or sexually deviant, abusers deemed attractive and “normal” will get away with it.

People are criticizing sexual abusers’ body types and sexual preferences rather than the abuse itself, as if it’s these things that made what they did abusive.

And they’re not. What made these acts abusive is the lack of consent.

The problem is—in part—that many people still have trouble understanding what “lack of consent” even means. Eighteen percent of college students in a 2005 Washington Post poll said that if someone hasn’t said “no,” they’ve consented to sex. Thirty-two percent of college men in a survey published in Violence and Gender said they’d “force a woman to have sexual intercourse” if they knew they could get away with it, compared to 13.6% who said they’d “rape a woman.”

It’s difficult to have productive discussions around sexual misconduct when hosts of people don’t even see what’s wrong with it (besides, apparently, unappealing bodies and acts).

What made these acts abusive is the lack of consent.

The way we’ve been talking about the recent sexual misconduct allegations isn’t helping matters. For all the articles being written—more than 65 million Google page results appear when searching Weinstein’s name alone—there’s actually been very little discussion in the media about what exactly is wrong with what these men did.

The Charlie Rose scandal, for example, could have been an opportunity to talk about how you can sexually harass someone without saying a word, because nudity without consent is harassment.

Louis C.K.’s apology could have been a chance to discuss how “asking first” doesn’t matter if someone doesn’t actually feel comfortable enough to say “no”—power dynamics are everything—or if you don’t wait for a reply.

Beyond that, openly disparaging masturbation in front of a partner, displaying a dick, or simply the thought of older people being sexual shames those who are into these acts or possess these traits. This paradigm contributes to sex negativity and ironically props up some of the very things it’s aiming to take down.

Body-related insults perpetuate the idea that the only acceptable way to have sex involves a conventionally attractive cis heterosexual married couple in the missionary position with the lights off.

And that’s not progress at all.

“It troubled me greatly to hear journalists and educated people revert to this language that doesn’t have to do with the problem with these assaults,” Good Vibrations staff sexologist Carol Queen told me. “The notion of sex positivity doesn’t demonize any sexual desire except non-consensual. Why it would be any more problematic for someone to masturbate in front of a person than any other non-consensual thing is ridiculous.”

This shaming tendency existed long before the Weinstein allegations, however. In 2015—when it became popular to deride the act of sending dick pics—a video with 8.5 million views featured women looking at dick pics and saying pitying things like, “Hopefully he has a good personality,” or, noses wrinkling, “is that foreskin?!”

Not long after, Ryan Reynolds took to Conan to say this of dick pics: “In terms of sexy, it’s just a rung below a picture of yourself committing domestic terrorism.”

These criticisms focus on the supposed, objective ugliness of dicks—a body part many, many people possess and actually like to look at and engage with—rather than the inconsiderate way they’ve been thrust (look, a pun!) into people’s inboxes.

But it doesn’t matter how “sexy” or “unsexy” something is—two monikers that are entirely subjective anyway—when it’s not consensual. Regardless of the specific act, this derisive tactic aimed at humiliating the accused party shames the folks who consensually participate in it and excuses people who non-consensually do something considered more appealing or are deemed more attractive. Like, say, a thin, young, blond women sending unsolicited topless photos to her students.

Who would ever mind that, right?!

It’s a dangerous double standard. If men were mocking the wrinkles and folds and colors of the vulva on late-night television—faux-gagging at Judy Dench’s maybe-pendulous breasts that she sent to a gaffer on set—people would be (rightfully) freaking out. Apoplectic.

Inverting a hierarchy isn’t the same thing as dismantling it.

We’ve collectively bought into a fallacious binary that says women are the “fairer sex”—fundamentally gentler, less sexually aggressive, and threatening—while men are ever and always poised on the cusp of violence and sexual depravity. So, sexual harassment at the hands of a woman is deemed not only more forgivable but almost laughable.

Aside from viewing people through the lens of a heteronormative male gaze, this idea promotes the belief that the severity of a sexual violation is proportional to the violator’s attractiveness or gender—both of which are irrelevant.

So. During my future family dinners, I’ll being using the recent allegations as a jumping off point to talk about consent. I’ll point out that many couples enjoy mutual masturbation, but that masturbating in front of someone requires them to be into it just as much as having sex with them does.

I’ll explain that what makes Charlie Rose’s shower trick an unforgivable violation is not his age or the color variation of his penis, but that he’s using his power to deprive people of their consent before his nudity even entered the picture; when you can’t say “no,” you can’t say “yes.”

And that’s wrong—even if he looked like Ryan Gosling.