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As the #MeToo movement empowers women to speak out about personal experiences of sexual assault, a cultural backlash is working to dismiss it.
This backlash now has a name: himpathy was coined by Cornell philosophy professor Kate Manne as “the inappropriate and disproportionate sympathy powerful men often enjoy in cases of sexual assault, intimate partner violence, homicide and other misogynistic behavior.”
Sympathy is defined as a shared sentiment, often of pain, between people. This is different from empathy, which is the understanding and awareness of another’s feelings from their point of view. Himpathy is a matter of focused sympathy toward powerful men in alignment with the status quo and patriarchal power systems that sustain it, as well as a lack of empathy toward women who make claims against these men.
In the cases of Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, Louis C.K., Charlie Rose, Matt Lauer, Russell Simmons, and Brett Kavanaugh (to name only a few), the allegations of sexual assault against them were followed by sympathetic comments from the public and a general emphasis on the man’s narrative rather than the woman’s experience.
When men like these are accused of sexual harassment or assault, the public tends to sympathize with the men’s self-generated dilemmas about how to continue their lives after they’ve been disrupted by their victims. After Christine Blasey Ford accused Kavanaugh of sexually assaulting her when they were teenagers, he said, “my family and my name have been totally and permanently destroyed.” Kavanaugh effectively shifted the narrative onto himself as he emphasized how Ford’s claims tarnished his reputation caused major inconvenience in his life. This makes it easier for the public to sympathize with Kavanaugh over Ford as the woman’s voice and experience are overwhelmed and antagonized.
When public figures are accused of sexual assault and subjected to public criticism, phrases such as “he’s been punished enough” or “he’s paid his price” often emerge from the accused’s supporters. For instance, when comedian Louis C.K. performed for the first time in 10 months after admitting to masturbating in front of women without their consent, his supporters argued that he had “served his time” and should be allowed to “move on with his life.” Such phrases frame the situation as if temporarily losing money, fame, and fans for sexual assault is sufficient to erase his obligation to make private and public amends and to restore him to a position of honor. C.K. retained sympathy from society, revealing the ubiquity of the ever-dominant male narrative and demonstrating the phenomenon of himpathy.
Supporters of the accused will often use a person’s social and professional standing as supposed evidence that such a person could commit sexual assault. About Kavanaugh, President Trump said, “I feel so badly for him. This is not a man who deserves this.” Others have referred to Ford’s allegations as “character assassination” and questioned whether sexual assault should “deny us chances later in life.”
Women’s rights and social freedom to speak out are diminished when society places a higher value on how accusations of misconduct will damage a man’s social reputation and professional achievements over women’s experiences. Rather than critiquing the acts of sexual assault in order to break down the patriarchal power systems that allow it to occur in the first place, himpathy adheres to these systems and supports the belief that exposing men’s wrongdoings is more than enough punishment.
It should be noted that himpathy applies to men who possess the appropriate factors to win respect and sympathy in society – namely fame, wealthy, and power. Men of color often face more obstacles in obtaining such social capital and are treated with more prejudice in the judicial system. However, once at the top, men of color such as Russell Simmons and Jian Ghomeshi receive their fair share of himpathy.
Himpathy complicates the progression of the #MeToo movement by demonstrating the potential consequences of speaking out against an affluent male abuser. However, in the words of Manne, “you have a civic and human right to exist in a world where your experience is taken seriously and not assessed with regard to their often immediate short-term consequences.” Although himpathy is a discouraging phenomenon, it can be undone if we persist in advocating that women’s voices and experiences be valued to the same extent as those of men.