In Rape Culture, All Men Are Guilty Until Proven Innocent

From Hugo Schwyzer, feminist and total ally who totally, totally gets it.

Poster’s note— this is in response to the total whiny “but i never hurt anybody” privilege-denying silliness that’s running rampant in some of the comments on previous posts. Schwyzer makes the excellent point that blaming women/feminists for this blame is pointing the finger the wrong way– we should all be blaming the (mostly male) sexual assailants and rapists for making the rest of the menz look bad.

//end commentary

Why do good men have to pay for other men’s bad behavior? Hugo Schwyzer explains the answer he learned in his first Women’s Studies class.

Exactly 25 years ago, I sat both frustrated and excited through my first Women’s Studies class at Berkeley. I was one of perhaps four men in a class of 30, and I was (shock of all shocks) among the most vocal. A few weeks into the semester, I remember one morning blurting out something like the following:

Why is it that men are always guilty until proven innocent? I know there are some “bad guys” out there, but it is incredibly hurtful to me that women won’t smile at me in the hallways or on the street because they have lumped me in with all the others! I get so tired of paying the price—in terms of women’s mistrust—for other men’s failures and betrayals and bad behavior. Why can’t women see what a good guy I am?

I was 19 and lonely, but I was also eager to “get” feminism because I believed it was my duty to do so. More importantly, I believed that there was something there for me within feminism—something I could learn that would make me a happier person. But all I was feeling was guilty and angry.

My fellow students were patient; no one verbally attacked me for my outburst. But the women in the class, led by the professor, helped me to see several things I wasn’t able or willing yet to see.

First of all, the obvious point is that women’s intuition, while not entirely the stuff of myth, is not so powerful that it can automatically separate “good guys” from the bad. As they told me, no woman can walk down the street and as she passes a man, know with certainty that he isn’t a threat. Given the high incidence of rape and assault and harassment and other forms of abuse, a woman would be a fool to leave herself continually vulnerable. The old adage “Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me” applies. When a simple smile is so frequently misunderstood and construed as a sexual invitation, women generally do have to operate on the assumption that men are guilty until proven innocent.

I’ve never forgotten what I learned that day.

When I hear men complaining about women’s suspicion, I am reminded of my white friends who are bewildered and indignant when people of color point out their white privilege to them. Men who grumble about being “guilty until proven innocent” are demanding to be seen as individuals, separate from their perceived sex and the history that goes with it. That’s a tempting but unreasonable demand to make.

While “innocent until proven guilty” is an excellent guideline for courtroom proceedings, it doesn’t translate nearly as effectively into public life and relations between the sexes. When men gripe that women are suspicious of their intentions merely because they are men, they are forcing women into the role of the district attorney, the one shouldered with the burden of proving guilt. In a society where women, rather than men, are overwhelmingly the victims of harassment and assault, those who have suffered most are the ones being asked to lay aside their prior experience and knowledge and approach each new male in their lives with a blank slate, free from judgment. That’s a hell of a weight to ask women to carry, and a hell of a risk to ask them to take, again and again and again.

In our culture, where rape and harassment and abuse are so common, men have lost the right (if it ever existed) to insist that women should be able to differentiate (in a matter of seconds) between the harmless and the threatening. A man is entitled to a presumption of innocence from a jury in a courtroom, but not from his classmate with whom he tries to strike up what she ought to know is just an innocent conversation.

Is it frustrating to be viewed with suspicion merely because of one’s sex? Heck yes. (Is it frustrating to be viewed as a sexual object merely because one is young and female? Ask around.) Men ought to be angry that they need to “prove their harmlessness.” Indeed, they ought to be enraged! But our anger is rightly directed not at women who have been the victims (individually and collectively) of predatory males, but at those men who have “poisoned the well” for everyone else. Rather than demand that women “smile more” or “trust more” or “just know that I’m a good guy,” men need to channel their frustration at being “pre-judged” into a commitment to end what it is that causes women’s suspicion in the first place.

Holding other men accountable, challenging sexist and objectifying language and behavior in yourself and in other males (whether or not women are around) is the single most effective thing men can do to change the culture of “guilty until proven innocent.” Rape, assault, and harassment are allowed to flourish not merely through the actions of a few “bad apples,” but through the unwillingness of the “nice guys” to challenge other men. Silence is, in practical terms, tacit consent and approval.

There’s more to being a “good guy” than not raping women. Good guys hold themselves and other men accountable, in public and in private. That’s a high standard to meet, particularly for the young. But it’s only by meeting that standard that men can help to change the culture. And until we do that, our feelings of guilt will not be entirely undeserved.

Original article can be found here.



10 thoughts on “In Rape Culture, All Men Are Guilty Until Proven Innocent

  1. I do agree with Schwyzer, we need for men to no longer believe it is acceptable to take advantage of a woman, that consent is always needed. We should be drilling this into our children as part of sex ed, the fundamental idea that sexual relations need (at least) two consenting voices. If we raise a generation of children on that idea, we would see a reduction in the instances of rape.

    But in the end, what is Schwyzer’s end-goal, the end-goal of women and the “nice guys”? What is ending the culture of rape? Do we need to reach zero in rape statistics before declaring the war over or are isolated incidents still possible in a post-rape culture? Does anyone have any concrete examples of what is necessary before women don’t have to assume “guilty before proven innocent”?

  2. While some of Schwerzyr’s points may be valid, to impress the idea that anyone is “guilty until proven innocent” is simply wrong. You cannot group all men into a category, and to do so IS sexism. I hate any and all acts of sexual assault, violence and rape against anyone, male and female. But I will not feel guilty for being born. It’s that simple. Frankly, the single biggest issue I take with this article is the title. His points are valid and well-reasoned. Assumption of some form of guilt is not. He could say that no one is totally innocent, which is different than saying guilty. Women should be cautious. That is why no one should be assumed either guilty or innocent. It is the exact counterpart to slut shaming — male shaming, and if slut-shaming is wrong, then so is this.
    This is why grouping all men into a single, unadulterated group is wrong:

    • but for individual women– who are dealing with the constant threat of attack/assault– it is just plain SMART to assume that a man might/could try to hurt us. it happens a ton, so why should we just believe that any given man we meet means us no harm? that’s what “guilty until proven innocent” means. it means that I suspect that a man might hurt me, based on the FACT that lots of men hurt lots of women all the time, until we get to know eachother enough for me to change my mind (but then, given the stats about acquaintance rape, i still might be wrong).

      • Exactly, but a presumption of not innocent is not a presumption of guilt. It should read that all men are neither innocent NOR guilty. Until you get to know someone, you should not presume anything. Just as you shouldn’t presume total innocence to maintain your safety, you are in no place to presume total guilt. His points are valid — but his eye-grabbing, clearly inflammatory title is not. No person, male or female, is guilty until proven innocent. They are nothing until you actually know them.

  3. “[B]ut for individual women– who are dealing with the constant threat of attack/assault– it is just plain SMART to assume that a man might/could try to hurt us.”

    And yet Consent Is Sexy seems determined to head off this mentality. After all, telling women to avoid unsafe situations would be “victim-blaming”, wouldn’t it? This is precisely the criticism we saw of the campaign by the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board: efforts to combat rape are only legitimate if they are strictly one-sided, i.e. if they tell men not to rape, but refrain from any suggestion that women take steps to protect themselves.

    On a slightly different point: Schwyzer also suggests that it’s just practical common sense to judge people on the basis of the past behavior of other members of the groups to which they belong. If we apply such thinking in this instance, then we must be willing to apply it across the board. How many liberal-minded Haverfordians were willing to stick up for Juan Williams when NPR fired him for saying that being around Muslims on planes made him nervous? How is this different from a female version of Williams saying that being around men makes her nervous?

    • Bravo, bravo. Finally someone is willing to confront the ugly truth. Though this campaign started with noble ideals, it quickly denigrated into the usual bias that immediately comes up when rape rears its ugly head.

    • Actually, the whole thing with the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board campaign was trying to STOP it from being one sided. They exclusively had a poster that rather sexualized rape (attractive female legs with panties around the ankles) with text that suggested that this girl would not have been sexually assaulted if she hadn’t been drinking. People got upset because the LCB had no campaign warning guys about how drinking might make them more likely to rape, or how drinking could leave men vulnerable. In sum, people were saying that they did not want efforts to combat rape to be one-sided.

      The issue of cautioning people about dangerous situations is a tough one. On the one hand, it makes sense to tell someone not to walk through certain bad neighborhoods at night because of the risk of being mugged, just as it makes sense to limit your alcohol consumption so that you don’t end up at the mercy of someone else’s good judgment. On the other hand, even if you do get mugged walking through that neighborhood, no one is going to say that the mugger was not to blame because you were too tempting a target, or suggest that they shouldn’t be arrested and tried for mugging you. No one will ask you if you’re sure you want to potentially ruin someone’s life over an assault charge. Everybody recognizes that mugging someone is wrong, but they seem to get somewhat confused when the crime involved is sexual assault. So yes, prevention in the form of cautioning women has its place in campaigns, but it should never be the sole focus of these campaigns, and at this point, we’ve heard all of the “don’t get too drunk or you may get raped” messages ad nauseum. It’s time for some new campaigns, which is what the Consent is Sexy campaign is all about.

      @The comment below
      You do realize that anyone can write on this blog, right? I’d assume you got that since you’re writing from the guest account. The campaign started with a group of people with noble ideals, as you put it, and then opened up for comments from the general population. The usual bias is coming from your fellow students. I suggest you take some time to have some conversations with them to correct that bias, rather than just badmouth the campaign.

      ~Not a SOAR Member

      • Sigh, make that @The comment above. It displayed differently while I was typing the reply.

  4. I saw the Pennsylvania liquor board ad and I thought it was trying to encourage teenagers to look after their friends, and show them that drinking does inhibit their ability to make good decisions. Perhaps it was jarring and a little callous, but I think they had decent intentions. I don’t think it said it was anyone’s fault; rather they were trying to say that people have a hard time making good decisions when they are drinking, which is true. Although the advertisement showed a sexual position, rape is a sexual crime. They certainly weren’t encouraging it.

    Additionally, I have yet to see a decent argument about why all men are guilty. Since we’ve established that rape culture is all-pervasive, according to Schwyrzer, all men are guilty. There are many good arguments about why all men are not necessarily innocent. That does not make them all guilty.

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