Every time a prominent man is publicly accused of sexual assault, I wait for the people who inevitably jump to his defence. From Bill Cosby to Brett Kavanaugh, a parade of family members and friends will emerge into the public discussion and offer up sound bites that stress how important it is to believe victims — just not this particular victim.
They’ll say the man is a beloved father, a community pillar, a brother, a friend, or a model ex-boyfriend or ex-husband who wouldn’t hurt a fly. In short, they say, he’s “one of the good ones.”
I think about this a lot. I think about how easily I could have been someone who defends an assailant. I wonder if I have done this in the million small ways that guys let each other off the hook in the service of being chill. Did I ever ignore a friend disappearing into a locked bedroom at a party? Or when a co-worker told me about a sudden, messy breakup with his “crazy” ex, did I take him at his word and move on?
I came of age with the rise of the internet, and spent my teenage years lost in message boards and chat rooms, soaking up persuasive new perspectives like a sponge. Many of them reinforced views that I would later recognize as the foundational blocks of toxic masculinity, including the idea that women didn’t want nice guys (even if they said they did) and that it was totally natural to view every female friend as a possible hookup.
Although I grew out of it by my early 20s, what if I hadn’t? Toxic and abusive actions toward women don’t exist in a vacuum; they come with a robust philosophy. Every time I see a guy catcalling, committing casual misogyny or worse, I think that could easily have been me. And if it was, I would have been able to justify it with all the rhetoric I learned online. Which is what makes it so scary.
We need to be better. Nearly 40 percent of Canadian women have reported being the victim of sexual assault. If we want to do our part in identifying and fighting a culture of sexual assault so it’s not a burden entirely carried by women, we need to start talking about it on a regular basis.
When I looked at the male friendships in my life, I realized they were primarily unexamined and uncritical. So I started using my voice. Men are used to writing verbal blank cheques when it comes to women and don’t seem to know how to respond to even basic pushback. At parties and in barbershops, my simple request to “not talk about women like that” has been met with confused silence. Sometimes they stop, and sometimes they double down and get defensive. Either way, it’s better than nothing.
Since this is primarily a situation of unspoken gender rules and unchallenged misogyny, we have an amazing opportunity to change the script just by speaking up. We can’t be one of the good ones unless we actually do good. And now would be a great time to start.
This column first appeared in the May 2019 issue of Broadview with the title “One of the good guys.” For more of Broadview’s award-winning content, subscribe to the magazine today.