Maybe he didn’t do it. Maybe that man you care about didn’t do that awful thing to the woman you don’t care about very much. Maybe this time, of all the times, is Gone Girl in real life and that man you like – the sports star one, or the actor one, or the musician one, I’m not going to specify – really is the victim of a vicious feminine plot to destroy him. After all, you’d know the real thing if you saw it, wouldn’t you? You’re no rape apologist. You’d never harbour liking or admiration for a man who was abusive or violent to women. We all know that this is at the core of your moral thinking, because you’ve been extremely careful to say so, explicitly, before declaring that this time – this one time – is different.
Well, maybe he didn’t do it. We know that 1.4m women in England and Wales experience domestic violence. We know that one in five women has been the victim of a sexual offence since she turned 16. We know that the volume of violence against women is under-represented in statistics. None of that means that this one man – sports star, actor, musician – did what he has been accused of. Perhaps you have excellent and compelling reasons to believe in his innocence. But, just so we’re completely clear: the fact that you like him is not an excellent and compelling reason to believe in his innocence.
I will let you in on a secret now. A sensational true fact about abusive men. Here goes: pretty much every man who has ever harmed a woman has been liked by someone. Even the ones who aren’t famous have someone to have a pint with. Extraordinary I know, but the ability to be popular with other men – or with other women – has never stood in pristine opposition to the ability to go home and shove your girlfriend against a wall, taking care to focus only on the parts of her body that will stay clothed and covered. Or the ability to tyrannise your girlfriend by jealously monitoring to whom she speaks and what she eats. Or the ability to take a woman to a hotel room and neither know nor care if she’s saying yes or no, or is even capable of saying yes or no.
All the men I’ve known who’ve harmed women have had friends. Sometimes, I’ve been their friend: because one of the strategies of abusers is to isolate the women they victimise, it’s actually easier to be friends with an abuser than with his victim. Unpleasant, I know, but true.
And even when we know what men have done, we don’t like to talk about it. It seems crass somehow to say “that man hurts women”, when he is surely a fascinating and admirable character in so many other ways. William Burroughs shot his wife in the head and Leo Tolstoy raped his wife repeatedly and Roman Polanski sodomised a drugged 13-year-old, but weren’t they geniuses, and wouldn’t it be a shame to let these sad lapses overshadow the genius?
And then, wouldn’t it be an injustice to restrict such generosity to brilliance and condemn the ordinary man? So that guy you work with gets the benefit of the doubt besides.
Because it’s not really about the fact that they’re talented or charming or successful. It’s about the fact that they’re men. There is a quiet conspiracy of power compelling us to preserve every crevice of doubt where a man’s reputation can hold on. It’s true that women are not believed when they come forward with allegations, but even the disbelief has an insultingly shallow quality – if her story becomes impossible to deny then the criteria for her dismissal can be easily changed, and the charge of “liar” replaced with one of “slut” or “gold digger” or “asking for it”. The reason women’s words count for so little is that women are counted for so little.
Hating women is a bonding ritual for men. The locker room chat about who they would and wouldn’t do. The communal rite of shared pornography. The trips to strip clubs, where men perform their pleasure in having women submit. The stags in brothels urging each other to feats of penetration.
Being liked is not just compatible with misogyny: misogyny can be the social code that cements the liking. Patriarchy would have fallen apart a long, long time ago otherwise. So maybe this time, this sports star or actor or musician didn’t do it. It’s possible. And maybe this time, like so many other times, she’s telling the truth. Maybe her life matters at least as much as his career and reputation. That is possible too.