Why predatory behaviour by men goes unpunished — even when they admit to it

Bill Cosby, Donald Trump and others have come out unscathed despite things they themselves have said on camera and in court.

US entertainer Bill Cosby arrives at the Montgomery County Courthouse in Norristown, Pennsylvania, USA, 17 June 2017 for a sixth day of jury deliberations in the trial against him. Cosby has been charged with Aggravated Indecent Assault, which is a second degree felony, by the Pennsylvania prosecutor. EPA/TRACIE VAN AUKEN

Photo, Tracie Van Auken/EPA via The Canadian Press.

As we’ve witnessed over and over again, sex assault trials hinge as much, if not more, on the accuser’s credibility than on that of the accused. When judges and juries are asked to determine the truthfulness of what-she-said versus what-he-said, it’s often the he’s who are believed.

And when it comes to Bill Cosby it was more than a matter of he-said, she-said — there have been nearly 60 instances of she-saids. Despite this, he’s never been found criminally liable, as was the case earlier this month at the trial for the alleged 2004 assault of Andrea Constand, which ended in a mistrial.

That outcome seemed so ridiculous, that it inspired an article on Vox entitled “I Believe Bill Cosby,” recounting all the times Cosby has admitted to disturbing attitudes and treatment of women. Dating back to the 1960s, he’s publicly joked about drugging women in order to make advances on them. In a deposition he gave in 2005 civil suit brought forward by Constand, Cosby admitted to giving Quaaludes to women, and going to an “area between permission and rejection” with Constand.

As reported in the New Yorker, in the recent criminal trial Cosby’s legal team agreed with much of Constand’s account: Yes, one night in 2004, he did give her three pills, which made her drowsy. And afterwards, he did take her to a couch, penetrate her with his fingers, and then leave her there unconscious.

But while Laura McGann writes in Vox that “it’s time for us to start believing men,” I’m not sure the problem is that we don’t believe them. The real question is why there aren’t consequences when we do? Or more pointedly, why do we expect and accept predatory and abusive behaviour from men?

As stereotypes go, real men are by nature sexually aggressive and unable to constrain themselves; real men know how to control women and keep them in their place. These beliefs may sound regressive, but they remain pervasive, according to report released earlier this year by the international non-profit group Promundo, which works with men and boys to promote gender equality and prevent violence.

Promundo surveyed 3,000 men in their late teens and twenties in the U.S., Mexico and Britain on their attitudes about masculinity. Most said they felt pressure to adhere to the rules of what researchers have dubbed the “Man Box,” a set of rigid ideas about men and gender roles. In fact, the majority of the young men in the survey reported having been told at some point in their lives that “real man should behave a certain way.” Those behaviours included acting tough, being hypersexual and using aggression to deal with conflict.

Even the young men who didn’t personally hold these beliefs — and, to be clear, not all men hold these beliefs or engage in these behaviours — said that this is what society demands of men. Promundo also found a correlation between the men who most bought into traditional definitions of masculinity and higher incidences of violent behaviour and sexual harassment.

Given this, it’s understandable why many men who abuse women don’t get prosecuted. They aren’t diverging from what’s considered to be normal, “real man” behaviour — they’re conforming to it.

They certainly have plenty of high-profile examples proving that bad behaviour will go unpunished. Like Cosby, U.S. President Donald Trump has spoken openly about his lechery and harassment. He’s bragged about kissing and grabbing women without permission, and about barging into beauty pageant dressing rooms to ogle naked contestants (one contestant was just 15-years-old). This is criminal behaviour, yet some admire him for degrading women — it makes him look like an alpha dog. On the Access Hollywood tape where Trump talks about grabbing women “by the pussy,” TV host Billy Bush can be heard snickering and high-fiving Trump. Not long after the tape was released, Americans elected Trump to their country’s highest office.

Mel Gibson and Casey Affleck were rewarded by their peers with accolades and nominations at the Oscar’s earlier this year (Affleck won best actor), despite both having been very recently accused of abusing women. And similarly, Johnny Depp continues to enjoy a lucrative career acting in family-friendly movies, like the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise and Fantastical Beasts and Where To Find Them, despite allegations of domestic violence, reported by his ex-wife Amber Heard and corroborated by his former managers.

Their wealth and celebrity have had an inoculating effect for these men, but the willingness to overlook men’s criminal behaviour extends far beyond celebrity circles. Just as juries and judges carry myths about women into courtrooms (primarily, some variation on “she was asking for it”), they carry myths about men, too. Those myths about men’s innate aggression, lust and dominance end up minimizing men’s crimes: You can’t blame the guy, he just couldn’t help himself.

You can hear a refrain of that excuse in Melania Trump explaining that her husband crowing about “pussy grabbing” was just some silly “boy talk.” You can read it in the letter by the father of Brock Turner, the Stanford University student who raped an unconscious woman outside a frat party, who wrote that a prison sentence was too high a price for his son to pay for “20 minutes of action.” (The maximum penalty was 14 years; the judge gave Turner six months.) You can find a similar message in the words of a British judge, who told a man found guilty by a jury in 2014 of raping a woman passed out on his couch that he didn’t view him as “classic rapist.” Rather, the judge said he was a nice guy facing too much temptation: “She was a pretty girl who you fancied. You simply could not resist.”

If “real men” don’t take no for an answer, if “real men” wear the pants in the family, if “real men” can’t control themselves around women, no wonder so many men aren’t indicted. It’s not that courts don’t believe them, it’s that courts believe more deeply in the myth that these men were just doing what men do. But consider what it says about how we define manhood, when being a “real man” is synonymous with being a criminal and a creep.

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