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There’s a Difference Between Being a Dick and Being Abusive

Remember earlier this summer, when actor Henry Cavill — then still Superman — complained that you can’t pursue or flirt with a woman these days for fear of being “called a rapist or something”? Or a few months before that, when the Washington Post ran an article in which a man lamented the confusion of dating in a #MeToo world, saying: “It’s tough for me to know where the line is”?

Now, after nearly a year of dudes carelessly suggesting that women are liable to perceive any romantic intent or awkwardness as grounds for an accusation of sexual misconduct, the fight over Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh’s past has run into this very conflation. His critics believe he drunkenly committed sexual assault against Dr. Christine Ford Blasey at a high school party when she was 15 and he 17, a traumatic episode she says “derailed” her for years. His defenders call this behavior “stupid” and “immature” — but essentially normal, and therefore, not disqualifying.

Stuff like the “horseplay” line relies on the “boys will be boys” logic that permits young men — especially if they’re white and rich — a great deal of leeway in their moral transgressions. It’s what reduces criminality to “inappropriate behavior,” a joke made in poor taste, some no-fault accident of youthful exuberance. What’s so hazardous about grouping credible allegations of sexual violence under the umbrella of general immaturity is that we were all once immature, and we all regret shit we did as teens. The temptation on the conservative side becomes to preemptively forgive Kavanaugh (even as he refuses to admit knowing Ford!) by way of his age at the time. Because who wouldn’t want the same courtesy in a close examination of their high school self, regardless of gender or background? Nobody wants to throw the first stone, right?

But even if this weren’t a job interview for the most powerful court in the nation, to normalize such aggression against women as the typical mischief of the day — or an ordinary eruption of the post-pubescent male libido — is a sleazy, disingenuous move. Nobody held down by a guy trying to forcibly undress her and cover her mouth so she can’t scream for help should later feel pressured to say, “Oh, he was just being a jerk.” That’s not what he is, or at least not all he is. A dick and an abuser are only half-alike.

As I hope most men have since the #MeToo movement began to snowball, I’ve looked back on my own history with an eye toward moments that reflect entitlement, toxic masculinity and internalized misogyny. I remember high school summers in a co-ed crew of lifeguards that could take the pool ass-grabbing too far. In college, I had any number of drunken miscalculations with women: going in for a kiss that turned out to be unwanted, leading someone else on when I wasn’t really interested. In my early 20s, I tried to maintain as many sexual relationships as feasible, with the result that I might go cold or silent on a girlfriend for no real reason, or resent an on-and-off partner for doing the same to me. I was deceptive and demanding. I once stormed out of a bar in a rage when a woman tired of my bullshit turned and said, “I’m not going to fuck you.”

I cringe at these memories now, of course, and I’d love to pretend they aren’t windows into the “real” me. But however I’ve matured since then doesn’t change what happened, and the choices I made. I’m still trying to reckon with how I mistreated women, often taking their empathy for granted, in a selfish bid for total, impossible satisfaction. Yet the entire time, there was a threshold I understood I wouldn’t cross. I didn’t seek to control women, to dominate them or to violate the pact of consent. I wasn’t above saying hurtful things if angry, but sustained emotional abuse aimed at keeping the other person dependent and powerless? Unacceptable. For all the personal guilt I carry, I was shocked nonetheless by accounts of what the Shitty Media Men did and by stories of CBS’ former chairman and CEO, Leslie Moonves, forcing women to perform oral sex on him. This was a whole different level of remorseless wrongdoing.

That’s why, while countless men sound fearful and sweaty in any discussion of gender politics or #MeToo, I welcome the revolution. Taking stock of my character, I can see it’s far from perfect, but I refuse to let human imperfection serve as a shield for abusers. You can call what Kavanaugh allegedly did a “mistake,” should you prefer; some mistakes are more serious than others. “If somebody can be brought down by accusations like this,” a lawyer close to the White House has said of the Kavanaugh scandal, “then you, me, every man certainly should be worried.”

Well, I’m not.

I don’t have to worry, as none of the skeletons in my closet pertain to physically constraining a woman with the aim of stripping her nude while she struggled against me. That’s one of the perks of being a bit of an asshole instead of an attempted rapist. I also doubt that a woman would fabricate a sex assault claim to get me fired or socially shunned; not only do victims face great peril in coming forward, but false accusations are rare and exceedingly unlikely to be of consequence for the supposed offender. Why bother?

No, the men professing nervousness or bewilderment right now are the ones who never bothered to draw the boundaries between rape and rough sex, assault and horseplay. The ones who see in the messiness of most sexual affairs a gray area where they can, ideally, frame their denial of a woman’s self-determination as a sometimes unavoidable quirk of the heterosexual lifestyle.

May they soon understand how incorrect they are.