“You believe he is lying.”
“I believe the woman.”
“Why would he lie?”
“Why would she lie?”
Ladies and gentlemen, we have ourselves a stalemate. When Chris Matthews asked Elizabeth Warren about accusations against the former Mayor of New York, Michael Bloomberg, following this week’s democratic debate, we found ourselves witnessing yet another round of the “he said, she said” debate that almost like clockwork follows accusations of sexual harassment or gender-based discrimination.
Warren’s rebuttal draws attention to an intriguing and pervasive phenomenon – the male default. Caroline Criado-Perez brilliantly describes this idea in her book, Invisible Women. She artfully summarizes decades of research in arguing that much of our understanding of the world, systems, and even our own bodies, remains tethered to the idea that men are the default: they are the default car crash dummy size; the default person we craft new technology for; the default patient in most medical research until 1993 (YES, REALLY!); and on and on. And this default can infiltrate our opinions and views of the world. She eloquently states,
“The fact is that worth is a matter of opinion, and opinion is informed by culture. And if that culture is as male-biased as ours is, it can’t help but be biased against women. By default.”
We see this same inclination in Matthews’ response this week. His default is to believe the man – a default held not just by men, we should add. We hear women make these arguments frequently as well. But why? Why we do we fundamentally default to believing men and why is to so shocking to consider that she might be telling the truth?
There are at least two key concepts at play here – social identity theory and power dynamics. Let’s start with social identity theory, which is the idea that part of our identity is tied to the groups to which we belong. This can include groups like where we chose to attend college, the theatre troupe we belong to, or our ethnicity and gender. Our identities are closely tied to these groups and we can see the group’s behaviors as extensions of our own. As my mom used to say, “it doesn’t matter if you did it – your friends did it and that makes you guilty by association.”
If we consider Matthews’ viewpoint from this angle, we see how his social identity might influence his thinking. After all, Matthews and Bloomberg have more than their maleness in common – they are also both white, cisgender, and wealthier than the average person. They are also part of the same social circles and hold considerable sway in their respective organizations. They have also both faced accusations of workplace sexual harassment that resulted in contractual agreements between the parties involved. Therefore, it's no surprise that Matthews was quicker to put himself into Bloomberg’s shoes rather than those of a pregnant woman. It is simply much harder for Matthews to accept and believe that what Bloomberg was accused of - "just some jokes" (just like Matthews, by the way) - was even that big of a deal. After all, HE, Chris Matthews, didn't really mean anything by it and couldn’t fathom working for an organization that would tolerate real sexual harassment. Psst. Here, we can help with that.
Something else might be going on in his head too as evidenced by Matthews's questioning of Warren later in their exchange, “I just want to make sure you’re clear about this: You’re confident of your accusation?” Matthews shares all these social identities with Bloomberg. If Bloomberg is a sexual harasser for engaging in similar behavior as Matthews, wouldn't that make Matthews one too? We're going to take a wild guess here and assume no one wants to consider that as part of their identity.
We also said earlier that women agree with Matthews’ viewpoints as well. Given that they don’t share all of the same social identities, and therefore, the same ingroup status, why might women believe men over other women? The simple answer is – power. Even though women make up approximately half of the global population, they are still very much in the minority when it comes to positions of power. And those in power are the ones who set the tone and make decisions that impact how we view the world. They also strongly recommend NDAs, you know, for both parties (Insert eyeroll here). As long as men remain the primary power holders, it will be common for us to give them the benefit the doubt.
We're closing out this blog the same way Warren closes out her conversation with Matthews, "It happens all across this country, and men all across this country say, 'Oh my gosh. He never would have said that.' Really?"
“I have not. Because I would never put myself in that position.”
That was the response Harvey Weinstein’s lead lawyer Donna Rotunno offered to New York Times reporter Megan Twohey when she asked if Rotunno has ever been assaulted herself.
“I never drank too much I never when home with someone that I didn’t know. I just never put myself in any vulnerable circumstance. Ever.” Rotunno continued.
Although one would think that at this point the world, let alone a defense lawyer, would be a smidge more educated about the antecedents of sexual assault, Rotunno reminds us all that’s not the case. Setting aside literally everything else wrong with her reasoning, women aren’t responsible for the actions of someone else. That’s it. That’s the tweet.
Circling back to the details of her terrible rationale, Rotunno perpetuates perhaps one of the most obviously incorrect notions about sexual violence – in the words of Kimmy Schmidt, Stranger Danger! 67% of sexual assault occurs at or near the home of the person assaulted or at the home of someone they know, and 70% of rapes are committed by someone the victim knows, including the nearly 10% of women who are raped by their partners. These statistics are even more dismal for Black women, 20% of whom will experience sexual violence in their lifetime, and American Indian & Alaska Native women who report prevalence rates of rape at 34%. Nearly half of Transgender folks are sexually assaulted at some point in their life.
Outside of their home, women are also likely to be sexually harassed or assaulted by someone they know at work – a place where 57% of women in the United States go. It is estimated that anywhere between a quarter and 8 in 10 women experience sexual harassment or assault in the workplace in their lifetime. Women in certain types of jobs, including working for tips (e.g., the service industry; working in isolated spaces (e.g., janitors, hotel workers); and working in male-dominated industries (e.g., the legal profession) are even more likely to experience harassment and assault at work.
So, dear reader, the facts are clear here. This “I’m not that kind of girl” schtick that Rotunno is pushing is not only insulting, it’s stupid. I’m afraid that her statement is incorrect on basically every level. Please pay close attention. People do not “put [themselves in the] position” to be raped or assaulted. Not to belabor the very obvious point here, but there isn’t some magical thing you can do (or not do) to make yourself invincible. Unless you can live in the ether. Because that’s totally a thing that people can do.
We must come to grips with the reality that harassment and assault are about power, and that simply by having less power, people have “put themselves in that situation.” If that doesn’t sound okay to you (it sure as hell doesn’t to us), then it’s time to change the conversation and join the coalition.