The limitations of punishment in the #MeToo moment.

Why Punishment Is Not Enough to Change Our Culture of Sexual Abuse and Misogyny

Why Punishment Is Not Enough to Change Our Culture of Sexual Abuse and Misogyny

Interviews with a point.
Dec. 11 2017 2:08 PM

Punishment Is Not Enough

Powerful men losing their jobs is an important step, but not the only step, in changing our sexist culture.

Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, and Al Franken.*

DSK/AFP/Getty Images; Dia Dipasupil/Getty Images; Cindy Ord/Getty Images for SiriusXM

In her new book, Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny, Kate Manne examines an unfortunately ubiquitous reality through an intriguing lens. Manne, who teaches philosophy at Cornell, looks at misogyny from the perspective of power: Rather than focus on whether individual men are misogynists or feel deep hatred for women, we would do well to spend more time wrestling with the power structures that not only allow for endless sympathy and space for men’s poor behavior, but also—most crucially—help teach men that women are supposed to behave in certain ways. This inevitably leads to women being punished when they break out of whatever boxes men want to assign them. (Sexism, here, would be the ideology behind these power structures; when they are threatened with being shaken or brought down, the response takes the form of misogyny.)

Isaac Chotiner Isaac Chotiner

Isaac Chotiner is a Slate staff writer.

I spoke by phone with Manne recently. During the course of our conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, we discussed what the wave of sexual misconduct allegations reveals about the way misogyny works, why it’s dangerous to think only rich and powerful men are predatory, and just how important punishment is to deterring future behavior.


Isaac Chotiner: What was it that made you want to write this book, or what made you feel that we were talking and thinking about misogyny in a way that needed a corrective?

Kate Manne: Do you remember the guy in California, Elliot Rodger, who uploaded those YouTube videos? One was called, “The Day of Retribution.” He was seeking revenge against the “hot, blonde sluts” who refused to have sex with him or to give him the love, and sex, and affection that he felt that he was entitled to.

Anyway, he did indeed go to this sorority house full of these representative women that he felt denied by. When he was turned away for knocking on the door too loudly and aggressively, he turned and shot three other young women. Those are the events that got me initially interested in misogyny because his crimes were so obviously misogynistic, but there was a lot of denialism in the media on the part of mainstream, as well as conservative, commentators that this could possibly be misogyny.

A lot of the reasons given why Elliot Rodger wasn’t in fact a misogynist seemed to be really off-point. There was the fact that he killed men as well as women on what became a killing spree that day. But we don’t expect other kinds of prejudice not to have accompanying comorbidities. The fact that Hitler was homophobic isn’t evidence that he wasn’t anti-Semitic. That would be a ridiculous thought, but people seem to be requiring of misogyny this unique kind of prejudice harbored in the heart of a man toward only women and toward all women. That just seemed really unlikely to be instantiated very widely because if women are being giving, and loving, and serving, then why would he have a problem with the women who were being what he expects them to be, and feels entitled to have them be?


That gets at your definition of misogyny, right?

I’m thinking of it as something broader, and cultural, and systematic, and as something which, on my account, should be seen from the perspective of the victims or targets, and not—as I call it—the psychological property of individuals.

But part of it also is that I think it’s useful to distinguish misogyny and sexism because the word misogyny, it has hostile connotations of maybe violence, or maybe another form of emotional or punitive hostility. I think that’s useful to distinguish from sexism, which doesn’t have to have any affective quality.

So misogyny is about men punishing or reacting against women who are trying to break out of the roles that men want to assign to them, because men are threatened by that in some way, or want to maintain the power that they have?


Yeah, I think that’s a really good way to describe one half of the whole. The other aspect of it is her giving him moral goods like attention, and affection, and sex, and love, and maybe children. And part of it is that she shouldn’t take away his power, and misogyny enforces that. But it’s also that she should give him the kind of goods he feels a sense of male entitlement to.

It seems like there are two ways to think about misogyny and power. Surely more. One is when this person is committing some misogynistic act, he’s doing it because he wants to enforce his power and enforce the way women should behave. Another way is saying regardless of what the individual male psychology is, the reason that society allows this to go on is because of the misogynistic structure of society, and the power imbalances, and men wanting to keep women in a specific place. It seems like two separate, related things.

I think both dynamics are apt. Together they uphold these sorts of patriarchal old boys’ clubs or, as we’ve been seeing: these powerful, typically white, men who get away with moral wrongdoing, and sometimes criminal acts of a misogynistic kind for decades and it’s OK.

One way to look at it is as well as enabling misogyny, we also, I think, indulge in morally very sympathetic, and forgiving, and exonerating attitudes toward men who commit misogynistic acts. I call some of this, at least I think of, as himpathy, which is a term for the disproportionate empathy extended in the direction of men we make too many excuses for.


What did you make of the #MeToo campaign?

I think the #MeToo campaign was very smart.

Literally the two words of it, it has the component of saying, “Look, me, I belong in this narrative. Something was done to me that was morally wrong as a misogynistic nature.” It places you in the center of the story in ways that are historically quite forbidden for women to come forward to say, “Yeah, me.” Many, if not most, of us have at least one such narrative in our history.

But with the “too” part, it passes the baton onto other women in most cases, by no means all, also men and nonbinary folks, too, who have narratives as well. It’s both able to center on yourself for a moment, but then pass the baton on to the next person to say, “Yeah, there’s an awareness. This is ubiquitous and prevalent and not this unique narrative.”


And what about the societal responses to the wave of misconduct stories?

I guess my concern is I think it’s great if we hold powerful men accountable for these bad actions they’ve been committing for decades. I think we also have to recognize, though, and this has been undernoticed, it’s been going on for decades in the case of someone like Harvey Weinstein or Kevin Spacey.

But it’s not just all powerful men who conformed the dirty old man trope that are doing these things. It’s also pretty young men. It’s generally thought to be only a small minority of boys and young men: maybe around 5 percent, which is a very rough ballpark figure because data on this are hard to get. This small percentage of almost exclusively men tend to be serial sexual predators, and self-report starting at the age of 16 in typical cases, on average.

We have to look at young men. Men who are actually really just boys who are probably too young to blame in any very robust sense. These are learned behaviors. We can’t just rely on moralistic reactions. I don’t think they’re wrong, but I think they’re limited.

You mentioned Spacey, who allegedly did this, of course, to other men, and then came out and said he was gay. That raises the question of whether these sorts of actions are about keeping women in check, or they’re just about men being awful.

Yeah. I think it’s often more a question of the victimizers being men almost exclusively. In a lot of the cases I look at, the victims do encompass pretty much anyone who is vulnerable, including boys and also oftentimes men of color, in the case of white perpetrators. I think, again, it’s really important to see that misogynistic behavior often goes hand-in-hand with preying on other vulnerable classes of persons.

I don’t think that reduces the sense in which it’s often misogynistic in both the way it plays out and the act that, again, you get this disproportionate vulnerability because you’re a woman in a patriarchal world.

The way we seem to be dealing with all this now is there are news exposés about people, and then there’s a certain amount of political pressure for them to basically resign from what they’re doing, whether it’s journalism, or politics, or Hollywood. What do you think is a healthy way to approach this given that you want to situate this in a larger societal context? What is a way to make change in such a way that society might change, which would lessen misogyny?

I think this is the appropriate step for the moment. I think that there have been interesting questions raised about proportionate responses. I guess for me it’s just not about punishing someone like an Al Franken. It’s about the thing that his behavior is on a continuum of handsy men who are really about a sense of entitlement and taking. Roaming hands with respect to women’s bodies or trying in other ways to exert, not consciously, but behaving in domineering ways that I think we do need to take a really firm stand against.

Then there will be conversations down the line to have about, “How do we educate boys in particular not to become these men?” I think viewing it as we have to change the incentive structures within institutions. It’s not punishment. It’s changing what’s permissible in public life. Yeah, I think it’s someone like Al Franken who does need to be held accountable at this point in most ways. It’s just not going to be sufficient, but I think it is necessary.

There may be some men like Weinstein who are just pathological lunatics who are going to rape and assault women, no matter what you do, and need to be in prison. But I do think that there are other men where punishing them really would have some effect, or punishing other men. I believe there are other guys out there who are generally boorish, who generally will do things like grab a woman’s ass in a photo, or say something really gross to them.

It is terrible. They’re just terrible.

I think for people who it’s not pathological, that if they knew they really might get fired for something, punishment is important.

I think that’s got to be right. And it’s why I try to define a threshold for people who are particularly misogynistic and particularly consistently misogynistic. Because I think there are a lot of people, if you say, who will be misogynistic only in particular local contexts—where the boss is very permissive of that or even actively rewards that. I think if there were real risk of being fired or otherwise demoted, yeah, I think financial incentives can be, and career-based, and hierarchy-based, status-based incentives are very powerful in changing cultures quickly.

I worry a little bit that because this stuff is being publicized largely about powerful men, we are beginning to think men do this because they individually are powerful or famous. I worry sometimes that the conversation has been too much about, “Oh, people become power hungry, and they become power mad, and so they do these things.” When in fact I have no reason to think that an actor in Hollywood has more reason to be a sexual harasser than someone who works in a law firm, or someone who works—

In philosophy.

Right. Your field has had some of this, too. Or someone who works at a college, or someone who works in a gas station, or someone who works at Starbucks.

Yeah. I think we’re seeing men taken down by women who are quite powerful in certain ways. Not in all of these cases, but in a fair number of them. Most notably in the Weinstein case, you have women who are mostly white, and wealthy, and Hollywood beautiful, and have an independent reputation. That certainly doesn’t mean what they did is any less courageous or important, but it does mean we should look at the barriers to women who are, say, working class and have a lot more vulnerability. A working-class trans woman of color is going to face completely different barriers to speaking out about harassment that she’s actually more vulnerable to. Particularly an assault that she’s, again, more vulnerable to.

I guess another part of it is we need to look, as you say, not just at the domineering “successful” misogynists, but this disappointed, aggrieved, down-on-his-luck, ripe-for-empathy kind of proverbial working-class white guy, among others, who often gets a heck of a free pass for all sorts of terrible behavior because he’s disappointed and feels in various ways like he’s been short-changed. We tend to be super sympathetic. To be sure, that can be appropriate in some respects, but not in others. Not, in particular, when he’s victimizing others and also not when it’s requiring more of the feminine giving, and listening, and pandering to him that feeds into the sense of entitlement that underwrites the shame of not being powerful in the first place.

Have you felt your field changing at all? Or does it still feel like a very male-dominated profession?

It’s still very male-dominated and very white-dominated, more so than any other humanities discipline. I have felt very rapid changes in terms of feminist philosophy being taken more seriously. It was not a career. It was almost seen as a huge liability when I was studying it in grad school. I think recently it’s become something people are actually interested in hiring in, which is a huge shift.

Even the women are named Manne, so there you go.

It’s one of the many bitter ironies of my life. But my husband took my name.

*Correction, Dec. 12, 2017: Due to a production error, the photo caption misidentified Al Franken as a former Minnesota senator. Franken announced his intent to resign from Congress on Thursday, but was still a sitting senator at publication.

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