Feminist Men Commit Sexual Assault Too

Senate TV via AP

Former Senator Al Franken speaking on the Senate floor

In her essay, “Some of the Times I Didn’t Consent,” Deadspin’s Hannah Keyser wrote about various experiences with men who violated her. Most of them were friends.

Of these men, she writes:

I don’t think any of these men think of themselves as predators. They’ve probably forgotten these encounters. They are, for the most part, decent, educated, politically enlightened men who view themselves as part of the solution. They trust that the bad guys women talk about when they talk about sexual assault are objectively other than them. They don’t realize that this isn’t binary, that there aren’t Good Men and Bad Men.

There aren’t Good Men and Bad Men. There are men (and it’s usually men) who have done lots of good things throughout their lives, who rally for human rights, who call themselves “feminists”—and they, too, have sexually assaulted and have sexually harassed people. And here’s the important point: In American culture, men can do this without even realizing the gravity of their behavior.

During Al Franken’s resignation speech, I couldn’t help thinking about Keyser’s essay. About how these “good men” have faith that “the bad guys women talk about when they talk about sexual assault” have nothing to do with them.

In American society, with its ever-expanding political divide, there’s an almost instinctive reaction to separate people who share our values from the bad guys. My politics, after all, are personal, and they define me. I do not just check a political party affiliation—I live and breathe certain values that fuel my every day. And so, if someone shares those values, that person is one step closer to being someone who I can trust, who is on my side, who is an ally.

But that’s the problem. It’s so simple to divide the world this way, and so devastatingly wrong. The world is not made up of good men and bad men, of good leftists and bad conservatives. Instead, there is a spectrum, and this spectrum is increasingly defined by the power that people—mostly men—wield. This crisis faces all of us and it spans party and ideological lines.

I believe Al Franken’s accusers. I also believe that it’s entirely possible that Franken does not fully comprehend the ways that he abused his power, because he sees himself as one of the good guys—as “part of the solution.”

He said as much in his resignation speech:

I am proud that during my time in the Senate I have used my power to be a champion of women. And that I have earned a reputation as someone who respects the women I work alongside every day. I know there’s been a very different picture of me painted over the last few weeks but I know who I really am.

He also said that, he “remember[s] [the encounters] very differently.”

Of course he does. In a culture where men are regularly reminded that their ultimate conquest should be sex at any cost (consent sometimes being one of these costs), the consequential actions that men take—groping a woman during a photo together—can become so natural that they are buried beneath routine and habit. Then, the harm that they cause is buried, too. After all, most sexual violence is never reported. And 99 percent of rapists won’t go to jail or prison for their crimes.

I don’t mean to suggest that Franken momentarily lost himself and can’t remember grabbing onto a woman’s skin. What is clear is that the broader culture surrounding him does not reinforce the idea that another person’s body is off limits for unwanted sexual contact. It is this overarching culture, which silently seeps into our norms and actions (even if our rhetoric contradicts them) that does not recognize that this is wrong. So Franken didn’t either. (Or maybe he did, and didn’t care. We will probably never know.)

Future political tactics are the least important part of this conversation. Franken has resigned, and yes, that complicates matters for Democrats next year.

My politics are not my party.  They are the way I conduct my life, and sexual harassment and assault have no place in my politics. The severity of the harassment or assault should not be gauged against others: the world isn’t divided into Roy Moore-like predators and angels. Individuals who harass or assault others—especially those who assault people they wield power over—do not belong in the political institutions of this country.  

Franken’s resignation means it’s possible a Republican could eventually take his place. But it can also mean that a progressive candidate who has not assaulted anyone—and there are plenty of people who do not have a history of sexual harassment or assault—can take his place.

It’s a risk I’m willing to take.

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