Quick defenses of sexual harassers and assaulters are bad for all of us

Matthew Muir | Copy Desk Chief

Trigger warning: This article discusses sexual assault and harassment.

Last week, Jeffrey Toobin, a writer for The New Yorker, was suspended from his job for masturbating on a Zoom call. On the call, he was supposed to be preparing for election night coverage with several other writers and editors.

As shocking as the headline was initially, it’s all the more shocking how normalized this narrative type of narrative has become: A man in a position of power and authority is caught doing something disgusting, he faces consequences and then he comes out with a ridiculous apology that makes it seem like he didn’t really think about how his words would come across.

In 2017, allegations came out against Harvey Weinstein of almost three decades of sexual harassment and assault cases. In 2014, renewed allegations came out against Bill Cosby, who was exposed for raping and assaulting dozens of women. Countless NFL football players have been accused and convicted of sexual assault, domestic violence and rape. And of course, several American presidents have been accused and/or have a confirmed history of rape, sexual assault and sexual harassment from Thomas Jefferson to Donald Trump.

However, the thing that is most shocking about these cases is how readily people are to jump to these men’s defense. Time and time again, we see men — and it is almost always men — accused of sexual misconduct, and time and time again, people come to their defense.

In the case of Toobin, several men in the media landscape sent tweets defending him. Brian Stelter tweeted that Toobin had been “sidelined at a pivotal moment in the run-up to the presidential election.” Conor Friedersdorf, a writer for The Atlantic, wrote that Toobin had “humiliated himself through a combo of technological error, pandemic circumstances, bad judgment, & bad luck,” and that he thought people “should react w/ empathy, politeness, & forgiveness.”

It is flabbergasting to watch people frame Toobin as the victim of the situation as opposed to him being the one at fault. Quite frankly, people need to stop coming so quickly to the defense of these men who have done gross and disgusting things, because jumping to defend and pardon these men doesn’t just affect the individual cases. It affects the overarching narratives that we tell ourselves about the world we inhabit.

Our individual and collective realities are shaped by the stories we tell ourselves about the world around us. When the positions of power in that world are held by men who act in a way so harmful toward women, and even other men, to brush off the consequences of their actions as if they are the victims of their own mistakes and crimes is to shape our collective narratives in a way that continues to give bad men power.

Rebuilding these stories is going to take a lot of work. It demands that as a country and as a world, we reconstruct who we see as the victims and the heroes in our histories. By ceasing to create figures in today’s world who are free from the consequences of their actions, we can make that work a little easier.