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‘He Was Nothing but Good to Me’: The Script Some Women Use to Defend Abusers

Harvey was ‘wonderful.’ Woody was a ‘friend.’ Why do so many people lean on anecdotal character evidence to undermine victims?

While it would seem that the manosphere is exclusively the domain of miserable white men, there’s a surprising number of women among it, too. And so, throughout this week, we will present you with six features that explore the lives and beliefs of these women, from femcels to Honey Badgers: Who are they? What have they experienced in life to end up cavorting with men who — to varying degrees — deny their humanity? And why do we know so little about them?

Amy, a 47-year-old insurance agent in Montana, met her ex-husband when she was in high school. And in a relationship trajectory typical in the small, rural town where she lived, they were married by the time she was 19. She describes him as “a typical small-town man’s man,” suffering from the “toxic masculinity that runs rampant in rural areas.” The couple had always argued, but it wasn’t until after they were married that Amy says her husband started to hit her. “It usually happened when we would try to discuss stuff like money,” she explains. “His friend once saw him push me down during a fight and spoke with him about it, and he swore he wouldn’t do it again.” Despite this promise, he continued to physically abuse Amy for another year and a half before she finally packed up her things and filed for divorce. 

One of the most maddening aspects of Amy’s abuse was that plenty of people knew it was happening, and not only did most of them fail to intervene, but several were quick to blame Amy for her ill treatment. “His friends and family all said it was me who caused him to abuse me,” she continues. “Keep in mind we lived in a town of less than 500 people, so me calling the cops on him was a fucking scandal. How dare I want to live? How dare I accuse him?” Complicating matters: Several of Amy’s ex-husband’s most vociferous defenders were women. “His ex-girlfriend defended him even though I had his handprint bruised on my neck, and his aunt even tried to say I had someone else choke me to leave the marks on my neck,” she says. “Other exes said things like, ‘He never hit me, so you must have provoked him!’”

One reality that the #MeToo movement helped bring to light isn’t just that sexual violence, harassment and abuse are rampant, both in the public and private spheres, but that abusers are routinely protected by the communities that surround them. They’re often ensconced in a circle of silence and denial, both before and after allegations are made against them, and defended on the grounds that they’re of good character and their accusers are untrustworthy, self-interested or unstable. One specific form of denial that crops up often is the “He was nothing but good to me!” defense: The accused was always polite, charming, kind and supportive of me when we worked together five years ago or dated in high school, the defenders say, so it’s unlikely the victim is telling the truth. 

The “He was nothing but good to me!” defense is trotted out for famous and non-famous abusers alike. When film producer Harvey Weinstein was accused of raping and sexually harassing more than 80 women, actress Lindsay Lohan immediately backed him up. “He’s never harmed me or done anything to me,” Lohan said at the time. “We’ve done several movies together. And so I think everyone needs to stop.” Fashion designer Donna Karan also defended Weinstein, saying, “I know his wife, I think they’re wonderful people, Harvey has done some amazing things.” In an interview with Vulture, Anjelica Huston defended Woody Allen, Roman Polanski and Jeffrey Tambor — all of whom have been accused of sexual abuse or harassment — and said Tambor “certainly never said or did anything inappropriate with me.” Scarlett Johansson also defended her “friend” Allen, whom she says she “loves” and “would work with anytime.” 

The list goes on and on. Fox News anchor Sandra Smith defended CEO Roger Ailes against allegations of sexual harassment, saying she’d “never been instructed on the length of my skirt or the color of my lipstick,” referencing accusations made by former Fox anchor Gretchen Carlson that Ailes instructed female employees on how to look. And when Ryan Seacrest was accused of sexual harassment, his costar Kelly Ripa was a vocal defender of his character. “You are a privilege to work with and I adore you,” Ripa said to Seacrest on their show post-allegations. “Speaking on behalf of all of us here, I know what an easy, professional, great person you are, and I feel very, very lucky to work with you each and every day.” 

In a criminal trial, testimony of this kind is generally admissible as evidence by the defense. It’s called character evidence, and it’s permitted where it’s relevant to the charge at hand: For example, a person charged with a dishonesty offense might introduce evidence that they routinely act honestly. According to Fiona Culliney, a criminal prosecutor working on child sex offender cases, what this means is that “defendants routinely call witnesses to come to court and say, ‘Well, I spent ample time with him for years when I was young and he never offended against me,’ the implication being, ‘He couldn’t have done what he’s alleged to have done.’” The reason it’s admissible, Culliney says, is because “it’s propensity evidence — it’s showing he has a tendency to act in a particular way or to have a particular state of mind.”

The problem, however, is that the logic is clearly tenuous: Ten people saying they were not raped by an individual is pretty weak evidence that an 11th person wasn’t, especially given “the many factors contributing to sexual offending, including the vulnerability of the victim, the extent of sexual grooming and the opportunity to offend,” Culliney says. There’s a “jump in rationale requiring an assumption that the defendant equally could have, and desired to, offend against all children and that each child is as vulnerable as the next,” she explains, all of which has led her to the personal conclusion that “the true probative value of such evidence to the jury is questionable.”

Unfortunately, she says, juries probably find this kind of flawed logic convincing regardless. “It wouldn’t be introduced unless defense lawyers thought it was effective,” she explains. “And frankly, the low rates of conviction in sexual violence cases may well suggest this sort of flawed logic is persuasive to a jury.” It’s clear that the logic is also compelling outside of the courtroom, given how quick people are to use the “He was nothing but good to me!” defense in day-to-day life and in the media. 

It’s not only women who use it, but this kind of character testimony is uniquely valuable when it comes from a woman, because people tend to assume that “I am a woman, and this man didn’t abuse me” means “this man doesn’t abuse women.” Women are therefore uniquely positioned to act as the moral exonerators of men. But they’re also often expected to be men’s moral guardians too. Tess, a pseudonymous 30-year-old New Yorker who makes her living in the DJ scene where accusations against predatory, abusive men are common, says she notices that as soon as a man is accused of wrongdoing, people turn to the feminine (and rarely to the masculine) people around him and immediately grill them on whether they knew about the behavior and why they didn’t do anything about it. “Everyone starts blaming the other women in the man’s life, because being a woman is impossible,” she says. “So they have to say something, and it indeed is true on their part [that he has always treated them well].” 

Apart from this defense’s shaky logic, hearing “He was nothing but good to me!” said about an abuser has a negative impact on victims, especially when it’s said by people the victim considers friends, family or someone who would otherwise be expected to take her side, as is often the case. Amy says she felt “betrayed” when people in her community, and especially women, rushed to defend her ex-husband. “I’ve had trust issues with a lot of women since then,” she explains. “Abuse is traumatic enough, but when people don’t believe you or blame you, it scars you for life.”

Sometimes, the defense is issued for barefaced self-interest — say, to preserve a relationship with a powerful person who can help one’s career or social prospects. When celebrities like Scarlett Johansson say they’d “absolutely work with” Woody Allen, Harvey Weinstein or any other famous abuser again, the message is essentially, “You might have harmed other people, but I won’t let that stand in the way of my professional relationship with you.” 

Women may also be compelled to defend an abuser because he is part of the same group as them — not the same gender category, clearly, but perhaps the same class, race or nationality. Isabel, a 25-year-old product designer in New York City who witnessed a female friend defend her abuser on the ground that he was always nice to her, says she can’t shake the feeling that “it had to do with the fact that she and my ex-boyfriend were both white, and grew up in similar socioeconomic backgrounds.”

But sometimes people defend abusers to avoid the implication that they’re victims, too. Kat, a 34-year-old nonbinary office assistant in Canada, admits that they’ve been guilty of using the “He was nothing but good to me!” defense before. “I used to consider a coworker and roommate to be ‘my brother,’” they explain. “I knew of his shitty behavior — he’d even targeted friends my age when we were in high school and he was a few years out.” Kat now feels extremely guilty and has soul-searched over why they left their head in the sand about an abuser in their own circle. “I think about how I didn’t listen to girls warning me what a creep he was, how I proved myself an unsafe place for their truth, about how my ‘endorsement’ of him may have let him get closer to victims, how I brushed off his actions because I didn’t want to think of the things he did as wrong, even when I knew better.”

Eventually, Kat realized that a key reason for this cognitive dissonance was their own ill treatment at the hands of men. “One thing that keeps coming back to me is that I was dismissing this guy’s behavior because if I acknowledged it, I’d have to look at the way men treat me, and things I felt at the time I’d ‘let happen,’” they say. “It was easier to blame victims, including myself, than look at the men around me.”

This rings true for Jen, a 28-year-old program manager in California, who watched as her abuser was defended using the same logic. “I still believe that it was probably easier for these people to discredit the women accusing him and consider themselves as ‘different’ from them than to accept that someone they considered a good guy could also be a rapist,” she says. “I realize that believing us and acknowledging what he did might also force them to acknowledge that it could happen to them too, and that women can’t avoid that possibility [of experiencing sexual violence] just by being ‘good’ or making ‘good’ choices.” 

In fact, Jen, too, can empathize with the flawed self-preservation these defenses sometimes contain: “I understand this line of thinking, because to some extent I believed in it myself — until being raped took the possibility of that false comfort away from me.”

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