The Bittersweetness of Powerlessness

On Not Ruining Men’s Lives

“Abuse allegations don’t ruin men’s lives”, says the feminist Counter-Dogma. What’s a Counter-Dogma, you ask? For now, let’s just say that that claim is not so much defended by feminists in itself and for itself, but through a powerful reject of the opposite idea, which says that abuse allegations may ruin a man’s life. As indicated by titles like No, sexual assault don’t usually “ruin” men’s lifes or Myth: sexual harassment accusations ruin men’s lives. Reality: Bill O’Reilly., or even Tell me again how allegations ruin men’s lives?, it is not so much a discourse than a counter-discourse. Those titles invoke a specific context with them, an archetypal conversation in which those claims come as counter-arguments.

Moreover, what is really aimed at is not the attacked statement (that “allegations ruin men’s lives”), but what this statement is supposed to imply in this archetypal conversation. It is understood to be said in order to discourage a victim of a man’s abusive behavior to speak up and demand justice, or to condemn a woman who do so, to deny her support, to refuse to react to her claims. For someone who would not be aware of this context (who would not know that “allegations ruin men’s lives” is commonly used as argument to silence victims, or who would be too autistic to keep the focus on their meaning in context and would start looking at their verbatim), tweets like “False allegations ruin lives!” - And the implication is what? That sexual assault and rape don’t destroy lives? You’re excusing abusers. would make no sense at all. Why false allegations and sexual assault could not both destroy lives? How such a statement has anything to do with excusing anybody? You have to put this tweet in the context of an archetypal argument about how to react to misconduct allegations to get it.

To be clear: in this archetypal argument, I know without a doubt whose side I’m on. Reputations should not be preserved from truth. Victims of abusive behavior should be able to speak, be heard and be supported. They should not bear the weight of “not ruining men’s lives” in silence and sacrifice. To even suggest that they should not speak about what was done to them, and how they were affected by it, because “it might ruin the poor man’s life”, is a travesty and a shame. Hush, little one, go lick your wounds alone, surely you wouldn’t hurt the future of such a promising young fellow? That’s unfair, and unjust, and disgusting. And the rage one feel when being told to hide the truth of their existence to protect the lie of another, more privileged one, is the kind of stuff that keeps you awake at night, wanting to punch and screech and stab. I understand the fire. And, if, on top of that, (in the light of all the examples we can see of powerful men being unafected by substantiated allegations of horrid behavior, or only excused with a slap on the wrist, while their accuser faces sometimes way harsher retaliation), it appears that the perpetrator’s life was actually not in danger, that this was a joke as well as an injustice, that all these talks about the “ruined lifes of men” isn’t even about protecting their life, but only about serving their comfort by permitting them to avoid facing the reality of their behavior… That’s the kind of stuff that might very well drive you mad.

So my point is not to oppose feminists in this argument, my point is to question feminists being in this argument all the time. It is about exploring the drawbacks of building your worldview around what you’re fighting against, rather than around what you’re fighting for.

I am not even saying than “abuse allegations don’t ruin men’s lives” is untrue. It is not (as for a lot of dogmatic claims) about what’s true of false, but about how reality should be interpreted. There is no standard, no consensual criteria or fixed definition or what counts as a ruined life. Have, say, Kevin Spacey’s life been ruined? Or Bill Cosby’s? We could argue about it for days, but there’s no way we can answer those questions. And if it’s impossible to answer for one, single life, then we for sure cannot answer for the vaguely defined, very heterogenous group of “men facing allegations”.

What one can do, though, is setting oneself in noticing signs conforting this interpretation, and reacting to them as more “proof” it is the right one. It’s actually quite easy: there is no lack, in the news, of powerful men seemingly unaffected by substantied allegations of abusive or predatory behavior. It would possible, too, to list the men whose career has been put to a halt in the wake of revelations about their misdeeds, and feed other narratives about what’s happening to men when

That is what I mean by Counter-Dogma: not an unquestioned belief in a claim, but the dogmatic opposition to one. It is not about what to say or believe, about saying “here is a truth”, it is about what not to say or believe, about saying “here is a lie”.

Two things, here. First: I get where the fury comes from.

One: I do not believe it is untrue to say that abuse allegations don’t ruin men’s lives. As for a lot of dogmas, it is not something that can be true or false. It is too vague. Of course, we all know a too long list of powerful men that are still successfull, rich and publicly active despite substantiated allegations of dismal behavior, statistics about the impressivelly small proportion of acts of sexual violence or other abusive behavior that ended up being reported to the authorities, or stories of women who had to face harsher consequences than the man they publicly accused of sexual violence.

But I think there’s something more about it.

This article is not about saying that “rape allegations don’t ruin men’s lives” is untrue. As a lot of dogmatic claims, it is not about what’s true of false, but about how reality should be interpreted. What I mean is that even if they are people who have been deeply and forever harmed by rape allegations (even some rich and powerful men, like Kevin Spacey, Bill Cosby or Dominique Strauss-Kahn), it is always possible to maintain the interpretation that their life have not really been ruined, since it might still get worse. Even people who killed themselves following rape allegations are still sometimes talked about as having successfully escaped the punishment they deserved. In other words, it is not possible to refute the idea that “rape allegations don’t ruin men’s lives”, since there is no common understanding about what “ruining a life” means.

As someone who has seen their life utterly devastated by rape allegations, this is something I’m acutely aware of. I still managed to preserve some aspects of my old life, and I am slowly rebuilding a new one for myself. But I am very conscious about the fact that every aspect of it, until the end and even after, which will include success, joy, peace, or anything positive at all will be perceived by some people (some of which I’ve harmed, most of which I haven’t) as an injustice and an insult to the suffering of all rape victims. Any modicum of success I might have in whatever direction I put my energies into will feel like like a spit in the face for these people, and I can clearly picture them shouting “oh, so long for rape allegations ruining rapists’ lives!”.

But this article is not about how this piece of dogma is harming people like me. It is about what it says about, and does to, those who cling to it. After all, why do most feminists actively foster this worldview? Of course, there are facts to support their claim, but there also are facts to support the idea that rape allegations sometimes ruin rapists’ lives. Why do they choose to reinforce a narrative that proclaims their powerlessness in the face of abusers instead of noticing how they may, in fact, harm rapists at least some of the times?

And the question is, why?

Obviously, this idea comes from, and reinforces, a feeling of powerlessness. And obviously, this is an idea that is

And I very well know that, now, I am now trapped in an existence of perpetual indecency: whatever I’ve seen doing, even a party for my birthday, will .

Patriarchy does not promote abuse. It promotes virility. Patriarchy’s discourse about abuse is that it is a product of maleness, when unregulated by a sane masculinity. Patriarchy says that rapists are defective males who failed at fully becoming men: beast-like males, not civilized enough to control their impulses; emasculated males, who abuse women as an outlet for a frustration caused by their lack of virility; and effeminate males, attracted by perverted and decadent behavior, seemingly for the thrill of it.

And patriarchy says that those men – the bad men – should be oppressed (kept at bay, submitted or destroyed) by the good ones, the achieved men, who keep their maleness in check and are supposed to save the women from the bad guys. Patriarchy knows that it asks men to walk on a thin line – to be male enough to fend off the bad guys, but to stay in control of the maleness nonetheless. They are supposed to tap into the masculine powers of strength, violence and domination to protect widows and orphans, without letting themselves be corrupted by it. Patriarchy warns that even the good men might fail at such a paradoxical task – but still insists that there are differences between good men and bad men. One, of course, is that our men are good and their men are bad. The other is that bad men abuse when we let them be strong, while good men abuse when they let themselves be weak.

This is why, from a patriarchal standpoint, the idea that contemporary feminism is to blame for rape makes perfect sense, since it tends to oppose the full development of “sane masculinity” – masculinity as patriarchy intends it to be. Worse, with the rest of the left, feminism tends to empower exactly the wrong kind of men. What right-wingers see is women (i.e. victims) rejecting and impeding those who should be their saviors and embracing their future persecutors. There is no need to share this vision to understand how seeing things that way might be painful and maddening.

Patriarchy does not support abuse. It presents itself as the solution against abuse. Patriarchy might look like it supports abuse (say, spousal rape), but that’s not how patriarchy sees itself. Patriarchy just intends to protect women from abuse on its own terms (protect women from what it calls abuse by who it calls abusers) and at its own conditions (say, at the condition that married women make an effort to perform their duties). Of course, from a feminist viewpoint (meaning, from a perspective where abuse is defined by the women, the children and the weak, and not by the currently powerful men), what patriarchy does is quite the same thing as supporting abuse. But in patriarchy’s utopia, there is no abuse: the men are real men, the women are real women, and nobody gets hurt. The whole legitimacy of the rule of the fathers relies on protecting women from themselves and, first and foremost, from the other men.

Thus, the dehumanization of abusers in the mainstream feminist discourse is not new: it comes from patriarchy. What is new (as we will see) is that it is not directed towards the same targets. Nonetheless, it relies on the idea that abuser is a legitimate human trait, characterizing a member of a subhuman class of people corrupted by an unchecked maleness and subsequently prone to damage women. This idea is a core feature of patriarchy, and of most current oppressive systems, from racism to transphobia. Any oppressor can, and will, legitimize their position by claiming the people they oppress belong to this class or, at the very least, is a step further towards it.

It would be dubious, though, to call patriarchist the many feminist movements that reproduced and instrumentalized the patriarchal dehumanization of abusers in their fight against abuse, rape and/or battering. In a large majority, they at least intend to fight patriarchy. However, we can find in feminist discourses different levels of conflation between fighting patriarchy and fighting maleness – this evil-but-powerful force purported to animate male bodies in patriarchy’s propaganda. For example, the word “toxic masculinity” is sometimes used by feminists in its original, academic sense, and then means “the way in which patriarchal stereotypes and expectations are detrimental to the very men their are placed upon”. Some other times, “toxic masculinity” is just the masculinity of “toxic men”, becoming just another way to refer to this unchecked maleness that turns the men it corrupts into abusers. Most of the time, what definition of “toxic masculinity” is being used is not clear from the context, allowing a gathering of very different ideas and attitudes behind the same labels (“Against toxic masculinity”).

At one far end of this spectrum of feminist discourses, patriarchy and maleness are totally conflated. This is where we are the more likely to find this kind of puritan feminist activism that seems to be the most directly influenced by traumatic experiences of men’s violence, the most visibly angry and in pain, the most directed against male sexuality in itself, the most obsessed by the male genitalia as the enemy, and in which the status of victim is the most sacralized. Those movements usually: (1) start as reactions against the most terrible manifestations of men’s violence and abuse; (2) call the State or the institutions to intervene more violently and severely against the abusers; (3) theorize at the same time that the State and the institutions will not, in fact, intervene, and will side with the abusers since they are, indeed, patriarchist; and (4) from there, starts to spiral out into rage, despair, obsession and nihilism.

While these movements are not patriarchist in nature and may actually do some good work in the steps (1-3) of their development, and while most of them do not degenerate into step (4), it has to be said that those who do tend to be anti-patriarchist in a way that actually reinforces patriarchy and other systems of oppression. For example, by directing their anger and zeal towards the more marginalized of male-assimilated people (TERFism, islamophobic feminism) or against other marginalized women, either considered as brainwashed victims or accused of being traitors to their gender and responsible for patriarchy’s abusive nature (SWERFism).

It must be recognized that modern mainstream feminism challenges patriarchy when it claims that it is not, in fact, the marginalized expressions of maleness that are to blame for abuse, but its dominating forms. While patriarchy says that real men do not abuse, and that BIPOC maleness, queer maleness, etc., are to blame, mainstream feminism claims the reverse: that abusive behavior is actually a derivative product of social domination, and a prominent feature of white-western-heterosexual-cisgender maleness. Reflecting the suspicion of being “essentially abusers” back to the oppressors both challenges and perpetuates patriarchy. However, when the calls for more severe legislations and security measures against abuse are answered by the State, it usually ends up affecting primarily marginalized males nonetheless (which should make sense even from the mainstream feminist viewpoint, since State institutions are run by the rich, white, hetero-cis male class they intend to target).

Patriarchy does not protect abusers. It protects the fiction in which it protects women and children from abusers. One way to fight it is to reveal the truth, and to show how this fiction is, actually, a lie (or, at least, is only true as long as women and children are barred from defining what is, or is not, abuse, and who are, or are not, abusers).

But, lost in our anger at the deceptive nature of patriarchy’s claims, we might forget to ask ourselves if we would actually want them to be true. Do we want patriarchy to actually do the job it claims to do? Do we want children, women and weak men to be protected against abuse by the State, the Church, the Party, the Asylum or the Mob by way of violence against the evil “abusers”? This is not a rhetorical question, not even an easy one. It should not be assumed that the answer is obviously “no” for everyone, all the time, even in the feminist/anarchist scene. One can guess that the TERFs and SWERFs who end up in alliances with fascists or right-wingers are, consciously or not, answering “yes” to this question.

There is a legitimate anger to be directed at patriarchy for not being what it claims to be. For not protecting the victims like it said it would. For not acting against the bad guys like it is supposed to. I guess a woman can be both – angry at the patriarchy because it says she’s essentially a victim, and also because it doesn’t treat her properly as such. There is a feminism where the rule of the fathers is oppressive, and a feminism where it is negligent. “Patriarchy protects abusers” is the kind of sentences that can express both of these feelings at the same time. In some occurrences, it can mean that patriarchy empowered some men so much that they have been able to continue harming people despite several attempts to stop them – that they have been able to avoid accountability by violently retaliating, from a position of power secured by patriarchy, against those who exposed their behavior. In other occurrences, it can mean that some men have not yet been punished, or not been punished enough, by the patriarchal institutions that have been called to do so by the victims, or in their name. Sometimes, it means both.

In other words, one can use it to express that “protecting abusers” is an essential property of patriarchy, a built-in feature that cannot be reformed, like one would say “oxygen burns”. One can use it with a very different attitude, to denounce that patriarchy is failing at his job. Patriarchy “protecting abusers”, then, is scandalous because it is supposed to do exactly the opposite. Most of the time, those two meanings are not really distinguished. And enmeshment that, in its final form, cannot result but in a dooming, nihilistic worldview, where both our need for patriarchy’s protection and the certainty of it betraying us are sealed fates, set in stone.

And when despair hit you, fascism awaits. Trying to reach out. To give you hope. There is a path out of this, you know. Patriarchy is not so bad, it is only corrupted. Far-right propaganda always leveraged anti-elitism and accusations about “men in power” being abusers, rapists or pedophiles. It always conveyed a vision of democratic/bureaucratic institutions as corrupted and siding with the criminals. Fascism presents itself as wanting to “protect the victims” and “punish the abusers”. It just needs to get rid of all regulatory institutions to do so: court of laws, due processes, legislative assemblies… all that boring stuff prevents it to fight the bad guys. It just needs good guys in charge, with guns and no supervision, and the bad guys will be dealt with, ma’am. It is no surprise, then, that the flavor of feminism we talked about (even if, and I can’t stress it enough, it should not be reduced to that) sometimes serve as a pipeline towards far-right extremism.

What might render far-right’s discourse appealing to some feminists goes beyond bigotry or racism: it is the promise of a land where patriarchy would actually work the way it was supposed to. A land where women would actually be protected from abuse because the abusers would not be indulged, nor tolerated, nor defended. Where bad guys – and we know who they are – would not be given the benefit of the doubt.

This is not to say that asking from institutions to actually act against abuse, rape and harassment is, in itself, a form of fascism. This is not to say that it shouldn’t be done, or to condemn this form of activism, or this way of dealing with men’s violence or abuse. This is only to say that there is a slope which starts at “patriarchy should not protect abusers” and ends at “we should make patriarchy great again”. And understanding how this slopes works is important if we want to tap into the powers of patriarchal institutions, representations and discourse without being corrupted by them.

Patriarchy does not protect abusers. It abuses them. This article is not mere quibbling. As someone who has been branded “abuser”, an important part of my experience is knowing that my safety in a patriarchal space depends on whether I’m actually considered as such or not. Patriarchy is as dehumanizing towards those it labels abusers as feminism can be. What differs is the conditions required for this stigma to be placed upon me – the performance I am supposed to show to avoid being called such a name.

What it means for me is that I am way more vulnerable than the feminist discourse says I am. It means that I can count on patriarchy’s protection as long as I deny any wrongdoing, or minimize their extend, or distance myself from them – the exact opposite of what feminism claims it want me to perform. Then, just as in feminist spaces, I’ll be accepted as much, and as long, as the people with power in the room will agree to spare me from the stigma. It means that fully owning what I’ve done is almost impossibly risky.

It means that, as an abuser (and even if I put aside my queerness and my values, which I both, theoretically, could suppress), patriarchy is not my home. My ostracization from queer, leftist and feminist spaces was justified, at least in part, by the idea that I would not be homeless then – that I would just return to the patriarchist world, where, as a toxic male-identified abuser, I’m supposed to belong. I’ve heard that my harassers enrage when they hear about me still cruising in those scenes, as if I should have understood by now that my place isn’t there. In a way, they’re right. My place isn’t there anymore. But patriarchy is not my home either. I have nowhere to stay, and nowhere to go back to.

The place I will call my home is one in which I will be protected from stigmatization and dehumanization; not because I would not be seen as “one of the abusers” there – but because being capable, and guilty, of abuse would not be seen as incompatible with being human. This place, I will have to make for myself.