Men Have Futures, Women Have Memories: The Temporal Logics of Sexual Violence

This is not the feeling of failure. Not injustice. Not fear. Not doubt. It is the grinding of justice out of the bodies of women–justice that is based on turning women into bodies, on turning women into matter, into the fleshly abundance of femininity that serves to remind them that men have the power to endow meaning to bodies. This is justice for patriarchal violence. It is the justice of that violence. It depends on a logic of power. It is not the feeling of disconnect, but the orchestration of how violence becomes myth. Man has this power. And until he is no more—and I mean that—women will remain the object of his wrath. This is patriarchy edging toward perfection. Because patriarchy is not a feeling, but a mode of engrossing power, the power to define, to defeat, to enter into the bodies of women and extract from them the willingness to carry on. Patriarchy, here, now, is the ability to see a woman not as human, but flesh.

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On the one hand, we hear the “boys will be boys” defense, which excuses a man’s violent acts because they took place in the past, during a period of youthful indiscretion characteristic of all men. On the other, we hear the “but why did she take so long to report it?” or the “she is being an opportunist” or the “she is just looking for attention” defense, which imagines that an act of sexual violence only bears scrutiny in the present. According to these two logics, sexual violence is only comprehensible through its immediacy—it is of the now. And once that moment has passed, the promising future of men takes over. This is the temporal power of patriarchy: to determine what counts as memory, and how.

Yes, #Metoo is working, and as recent moves to change the way that sexual assault charges are rendered legitimate, much of the Kavanaugh debate has to do with how we judge the past. It is not so much that people are claiming he did not sexually assault Christine Blasey Ford when he was 17 and she was 15 years old. Really, people seem more concerned with whether or not too much time has passed between that alleged sexual assault and now. It’s the timing that matters. The irony: for a man up for a lifetime appointment on the Supreme Court (a position based on its futurity), it is the reemergence of his past that has come to dominate proceedings.

The timing matters because Kavanaugh, like many, many, men cannot have a past, only a future.

For men, it seems, the disruption of patriarchal time means not knowing when a woman will lurch forward and “ruin your life”. For the man who did that thing that one time when he was drunk in high school, the man who became a respected professional, the man who has talent and a future, why should this ruin his reputation? A man has a future. A woman has a past.

Thus, people resort to the “boys will be boys” defense, a tautology comes to stand in for redoubling the effects of masculine violence on the bodies of women. The phrase prophesies for that boy a sense of himself as unburdened by the questions that women face, unburdened, what is more, by the real consequences of growing up under the threat of patriarchal violence. Its circular logic asks the community to shield the boy from unbecoming what he was always meant to be: a man who objectifies women, who assaults women, who rapes women—because women have no future, no time, no tautological defense to save them from always already being destined to a present of violent remembrance.

Its very simplicity the phrase promises a masculinity unchanged, protected from the pressures of feminism. This is where the tension resides: in promising that boys will continue to enjoy the freedom of unencumbered sexual access to women—boys will be boys—the culture is saying that it is wrong to ask boys to consider themselves as different than they are destined to be as part of the structure of patriarchal dominance.

And then, are we surprised that privileged white men are surprised? Are we surprised that they get defensive, enraged, or cry; that they close ranks around the idea that boys will be boys?

#Metoo is many things, but regarding this it scares men. And it should. It scares them because it breaks the self-perpetuating cycle of masculinity, shrouded in silence (the silence of male witnesses, fellow students, overseers, administrators invested in maintaining the ‘reputation’ of an institution or patriarchy itself). It breaks the self-indulgence of masculine impunity.

In this moment when the past threatens to return seeking vengeance, the boys will be boys defense probably now feels like a trick, a slight of hand. If boys will be boys is no longer the rule, then should the men who were boys who sexually assaulted women be grandfathered in, so to speak? Do they get a pass because the rules have changed?

They were just using women then like boys used women then—boys will be boys—and now that those women are speaking up, what do we tell them? Sorry? You just missed out on the #Metoo deadline. Your abuser was just a boy being a boy?

It’s a question of time. When we say that boys will be boys we are asking the boy’s future to exist in perpetuity, an ever extending future through which all of the boy’s past actions—but particularly the bad ones, the violent ones—become justifiable because they were fleeting moments of boyhood en route to future manhood.

These conversations manage who has power over the duration of the pain of sexual violence. The psychic wound of existing only as a youthful mistake, all the while seeing the boy who was being a boy become a man unburdened by the trauma of a past that must be forgotten in order for that man to maintain power, to remain successful, to continue to achieve. We pay little attention to the time that that man, in his youthful neglect, robs of a woman. The time she will never have back.

Men have promising futures and lifetime appointments, women have regrets, and silence, and a life of remembering that night as if were yesterday or today or tomorrow. This is the logic—the promise—that #metoo is disrupting.

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