A few days after the story broke, in October, about his decades of sexual abuse, Harvey Weinstein took a private jet to an exclusive rehab clinic. On his way, he told reporters: “Guys, I’m not doing OK but I’m trying. I gotta get help. I’m hanging in, I’m trying my best.” He had released a statement, pleading “allow me to resurrect myself with a second chance”. It wasn’t the first time a man has turned to “treatment” in the hope of salvaging his reputation following a sexual-assault scandal.
We are living in remarkable times. Times when women’s voices are finally being listened to and some men appear to be facing real consequences for their actions. One man even apologised properly and in a way that his victim accepted.
But, as we collectively navigate this new state of affairs, there is an uncomfortable pattern emerging. The concern and sympathy that should be directed towards women who have survived assault and harassment is being siphoned off and, instead, directed at the men who have inflicted that behaviour on them – the men hoping to be “cured”. If men are going to topple, it seems we want to at least give them a soft landing.
Coined by philosopher Kate Manne, in her book Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny, “himpathy” is “the excessive or inappropriate sympathy extended to a male agent or wrongdoer over his female victim”. The counterpoint to this, Manne says, is “the aggressive impulse that we show to a woman who testifies against a man with whom we sympathise is really predictable”.
It may be a newly coined concept, but it is, sadly, a pervasive one – especially post-#MeToo – and, unfortunately, there are many examples to help convey what it means in 2018.
The example Manne uses in her book is Brock Turner, the Stanford student convicted of sexual assault in 2016, and the way his supporters focused on the narrative of an all-American young man cut down in his prime. The media was criticised for repeatedly describing him as the “Stanford swimmer”; concentrating on the damage to his promising future, rather than the damage done to his victim. Another example would be Harvey Weinstein checking into a rehab centre (the same one as Kevin Spacey, incidentally, when many were asking why he wasn’t being arrested for his alleged abuses).
This is what we mean when we talk about “himpathy". It’s a desperate scramble to rationalise men’s behaviour, without having to accept that it might result from ingrained systemic misogyny. Or having to acknowledge our own complicity in a society that has allowed men’s behaviour to go unchecked: he has struggled with mental-health problems. He has a sex addiction. He’s “seeking treatment”.
If men are going to topple, it seems we want to at least give them a soft landing
It applies to courtrooms and police investigations where a victim’s lifestyle, looks and relationships might be used against her – like the judge who told an assault victim she should be flattered by the attention as she was “a little overweight” in his opinion. And it is relevant to the ongoing debate over whether those accused of sexual crimes should be granted anonymity in the same way their victims are. It is why the term “witch hunt” is being bandied around by men who are quaking in their privilege.
People are tripping over themselves trying to answer the question of how we can possibly rehabilitate these men and their reputations, before they have fully considered the very behaviour that has landed them in trouble. They are far more interested in resolving that issue than resolving the culture that led to abuse in the first place. It is not dissimilar to when people are more upset at being called racist than at racism itself.
And tied up in our desire to exonerate men is the whole inconvenience of having to change our minds about people we like – our problematic faves. Consider how quickly the conversation around Aziz Ansari turned on disparaging “Grace”, the woman who told the story.
We pull out statistics about false accusations and denigrate women in an attempt to absolve ourselves of the responsibility to think about difficult things. But these excuses, these paths to exoneration, are an insult to victims. To invoke sex addiction is to imply that sexual assault is to do with sex and not power. And if we are looking to psychology for the solution to women systematically being abused in myriad ways, we are looking in the wrong place.
They are a distraction from the very necessary work of interrogating the power structures and culture that has led to the systemic abuse of women.
In Weinstein, we had a watershed moment, but we also have an extreme baddie – a baddie whose behaviour other men’s conduct is now being compared against and rated. And, as long as we all agree that Weinstein is the worst, there is hope for other men who aren’t him. It’s the spectrum of sexual assault that Matt Damon infamously cited as a method for determining how far men should be punished.
Of course, the notion of “himpathy” becomes a great deal more complicated when you consider intersectional elements: the majority of the men who are benefitting from it are white, straight, cis and economically stable. And, if they have lost their jobs, they will, in all likelihood, be OK in the long run. They are news anchors, actors, movie producers, politicians, comedians and journalists – and, while there are certainly a lot of them, they are undoubtedly outnumbered by countless more men who are still in their jobs and continuing to exhibit the same behaviour, or worse.
For every man who has lost something – a job, a booking, an invitation – because of an allegation of sexual aggression towards a woman, there are thousands of women who have lost a great deal more for being on the receiving end of that aggression. It is they who deserve real redemption.