In a recent article on the Huffington Post website, Damon Young asks why men don’t trust women. He argues that, even though we may trust women’s character, promises, and opinions on many matters, we don’t trust their feelings. When a woman comes to us annoyed about something, our instinctive assumption is that they are overreacting, even though we may go along with them. While this failure to trust women’s feelings is a problem, Young believes that it gives rise to far more serious issues. In particular, the belief that women characteristically overreact causes men to distrust their testimony on far more serious matters. Young writes:
But, this distrust can be pervasive, spreading to a general skepticism about the truthfulness of their own accounts of their own experiences. If women’s feelings aren’t really to be trusted, then naturally their recollections of certain things that have happened to them aren’t really to be trusted either.
This is part of the reason why it took an entire high school football team full of women for some of us to finally just consider that Bill Cosby might not be Cliff Huxtable. It’s how, despite hearing complaints about it from girlfriends, homegirls, cousins, wives, and classmates, so many of us refused to believe how serious street harassment can be until we saw it with our own eyes. It’s why we needed to see actual video evidence before believing the things women had been saying for years about R. Kelly.
You should read the full article: it raises some important issues, many of which I won’t get into here. Rather, I would like to identify a few factors that I suspect are often involved in men’s failure to trust women. I would be interested to hear others’ thoughts.
At the outset, I think Young’s emphasis upon men’s failure to trust women’s feelings is an unhelpful narrowing of our focus. For one, even when feelings don’t seem to be part of the picture, women will still often find themselves unfairly distrusted by men. Another problem is that feelings are often untrustworthy: they can lead us to react, rather than respond; they can distort perceptions; they can overwhelm our powers of reason; they will often lack a sense of proportion. It is one thing to take feelings seriously (we really should be doing this); it is quite another to trust feelings (we really shouldn’t be doing that).
A more fundamental issue here, however, is that men don’t give much weight to their own feelings. Throughout our upbringing we are taught to develop greater distance from our feelings—’man up’, ‘take it like a man’, ‘he didn’t cry, like a brave little soldier’, ‘grow a pair’, ‘don’t be a sissy’, ‘don’t be so sensitive’, ‘can’t you take a joke?’, etc., etc. Emotional continence—but perhaps even more often emotional constipation—is something that we tend to develop as a result. The rougher interactions that typically come with male socialization require thicker skins. Even if we presume for the sake of argument that no natural tendencies are at work here, women seldom have the same degree of socialization out of emotionality. The result is that men and women will frequently have very different processes of subjectively perceiving and experiencing the world. This, I believe, is the first obstacle to men’s trust of women: to trust women we will often need to trust persons with a form of perception, experience, and processing of the world that is rather different from our own. This can require a considerable—but necessary—exertion of sympathetic imagination. We might even learn something about the value of our own feelings in the process…
A second obstacle to trust is the fact that women have realms of experience that do not overlap with our own. They see and experience things that we don’t. It is very easy to forget how our vantage point can obscure our vision of certain realities. For instance, we typically overestimate how representative our friends and acquaintances can be of the general population and make very poor judgments about the general population as a result. The men that I know may overwhelmingly be upstanding and moral individuals, but in many respects they are a highly unrepresentative sample of the population. And even here women will often know things about these men’s characters that I may never discover. When women have spoken to me of experiences of sexual abuse or of experiences of street harassment, I have sought to keep these facts at the forefront of my mind. We need to be much more aware of the extreme limitations and parochial character of our vantage points.
A third obstacle that can exacerbate the previous obstacle is that of the confidence gap. On account of the confidence gap, men are frequently over-confident in their perspective, while women are under-confident in theirs. The result can be that a more assertive and confident—yet wrong—male perspective is more convincing to the public than a female perspective that is more hesitant in its expression, though right in its perception.
A fourth obstacle to trust in cases of abuse is that some of the psychological and behavioural effects of abuse can make victims appear untrustworthy. Compared to her abuser, a survivor may lack social standing, seem dysfunctional (drinking to excess, being openly promiscuous, taking drugs, etc.), emotionally imbalanced, have unreliable memories and testimony, and behave in ways that lowers their credibility in the eyes of the public (not reporting the abuse to the police immediately, remaining in an abusive relationship, etc.). In such cases it is worth asking ourselves where the psychological and behavioural effects came from: rather than weighing against the credibility of the victim, they may be the smoking gun of the abuse.
A fifth obstacle to trust in cases of abuse is that we have a profound disincentive to believe certain people are abusers. Upton Sinclair once observed that ‘It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.’ The same principle holds when it comes to the survival of your self-image, marriage, family, or church, the reputation of a friend or family member, hero, or idol, favourite TV show, etc. One of the basic reasons why people found it so hard to believe that Bill Cosby was a serial rapist is because they didn’t want to live in a world where Cosby wasn’t Huxtable.
A sixth obstacle in such cases is that even when people have no choice but to acknowledge that the abuse took place, they can stubbornly refuse to accept that the obvious consequences should follow, seeking to give the perpetrator some special pass. It ‘wasn’t rape-rape’. ‘It was a different time’. ‘He clearly regrets it’. ‘Freedom to fracas’. ‘We shouldn’t allow the world to be robbed of this talent’. And so on. David Cameron’s statements about Jeremy Clarkson are a good example of this perverse dynamic in effect. The survivor, on the other hand, can be deeply resented. There is an instinctive sense that, in bringing the abuse to light, they have violently attacked something that was valuable to us. For instance, the woman who reports pastoral sexual abuse is instinctively felt to be responsible for the implosion of the church that follows. The resentment of victims is increased by the fact that they seem like nobodies compared to the people who brought about their own downfall by abusing them. The victim is treated as the perpetrator.
I think that it is important to mention a seventh and final set of obstacles here, even though they aren’t as primary as the others. Victims of abuse can be distrusted because the people advocating for them have often not been trustworthy and, in their well-intentioned desire to emphasize the genuine importance of the issue, have spread misinformation, provoking unnecessary resistance and ideological polarization. The principle of ‘just believing the victim’ has broken down in prominent cases where the stories of supposed victims—which put the safety, careers, and freedom of innocent persons in jeopardy—have been proved false in critical respects under analysis. The huge initial prominence of a number of these cases has been driven by advocates for rape victims operating on this principle (a lower standard of taking all rape accusations with extreme seriousness wouldn’t create such a problem). False rape accusations are exceedingly rare, but the desire to make the problem of rape appear as great as possible will lead people to focus upon extreme cases, the very cases that are most likely to fall apart under critical examination. A similar desire to magnify real problems has led many to circulate unreliable statistics that grossly exaggerate their scale or to make bold claims that most of the evidence points clearly against (e.g. ‘the growing epidemic of violence against women’). There are several statistics that are popular among feminists and women’s advocates, precisely because they make a problem seem huge. When even a moment’s thought could reveal the falsehood of popular claims (e.g.) that have been rattling around for decades in various unsourced iterations (another problem), the credibility of those bringing forward the claims is thrown into question, as is that of those they represent. Similar problems can be caused by an ideological drive to hyperbolize, project extreme pathology, and malign intentionality in a manner that will produce resistance from persons who could otherwise be friendly to the cause. Some of the more extreme forms of language and analysis surrounding the discussion of ‘rape culture’ might be an example here. In addition to often being more accurate, a softer case will probably win more over. A dogged and conspicuous commitment to truth will make our advocacy much more powerfully credible.
I would be interested to hear everyone’s thoughts on these. Here are a few questions that I think arise:
- Can you think of any additional reasons why men fail to trust women?
- What are some of the ways that men can change their behaviour and attitudes in order to trust women more?
- What are some systemic and institutional changes that will encourage a greater trust of women, especially in instances of abuse?
- How can we be the best advocates for survivors of abuse and raise the profile of these issues in an effective and principled way?