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That’s What She Said: Unpacking and Unlearning Himpathy

Himpathy refers to the disproportionate sympathy extended to a male perpetrator in cases of sexual assault, harassment, and other misogynistic behavior.

Oct 11, 2020

It was our first week back on campus. My suitemates and I had just reunited after an unexpected six month break, delving into long conversations every chance we got. In one of these late night DMCs, we discussed sexual misconduct on college campuses and the new Title IX regulations. “I don’t know if it’s just me, but I feel like society often tends to show more empathy towards the accused,” one of my suitemates said, exasperatedly. “Especially if they face consequences for their actions.”
Although we intuitively agreed with her, neither of us could articulate what this phenomenon really meant. Frustrated at this reality and our inability to understand and express what we were feeling, the three of us went to bed with heavy hearts. The next morning, like most Wednesdays, I started my day by scrolling through the twice weekly New York Times gender newsletter, In Her Words, coming across a word I hadn’t encountered before: himpathy.
Coined by Kate Manne, Associate Professor of Philosophy at Cornell University, in 2017 through her book, Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny, himpathy refers to the disproportionate sympathy extended to a male perpetrator — especially those with higher social capital — over his female victims, in cases of sexual assault, harassment, and other misogynistic behavior. Initially used in the context of the #MeToo movement, himpathy today has become a vital part of the feminist lexicon. As I excitedly sent screenshots of the term to my suitemates, it seemed like the feminist universe really wanted us to feel seen and validated.
In her book, Manne illustrates how himpathy plays out in real life through the example of Brock Allen Turner, the convicted sexual assailant and then Stanford swimmer, who notoriously received an extremely lenient sentence for raping an unconscious woman. Turner received inappropriate sympathy from various sources, she explained, including the judge who found him guilty, severely undermining the voice of his victim.
Whether it is the appointment of Brett Kavanaugh to the United States Supreme Court or the defamation suit filed by the former Indian Minister of State for External Affairs, MJ Akbar, against one of the first survivors to publicly accuse him, himpathy is deeply embedded in institutions across the world that continue to put accused men in positions of authority. Despite multiple accusations of sexual misconduct, Donald Trump is still one of the most powerful people in the world, and accused Bollywood actors continue getting work. Meanwhile, survivors such as Dr. Christine Blasely Ford and actress Tanushree Data have been at the receiving end of immense backlash. Overwhelming public support for powerful men gives them the space to invalidate the accounts of female survivors.
Ironically, while fighting for the accused male’s reputation, society tends to create a smear-fest around the female survivors, reinforcing the toxic culture of victim blaming. Between “he really is a gentleman” and “but what about his exceptional career?”, himpathy enables a systemic gaslighting of female survivors: from claiming that they “misunderstood” the intentions of the accused to calling them outright liars wanting to tarnish the reputation of noble, powerful men. Himpathy works at the crux of male privilege and entitlement, placing concern about a man’s reputation and career over the safety of women.
Another vital aspect in the narrative of himpathy is the creation of “good women”, females who defend accused men and contribute to the process of overwriting the stories of other female survivors. Claiming that female survivors must also bear responsibility for their decisions, Donna Rotunno, the lead defense lawyer in Harvey Weinstein’s rape trial, is a prime example of this. This systematic pitting of women against other women upholds the patriarchal structure by rewarding these “good women” in terms of monetary benefits or social capital, thereby encouraging them further to oppress others that are more vulnerable than them.
Manne has also explored how himpathy manifests itself in a wide range of structures of inequality, using the term to unpack other misogynistic notions such as mansplaining. In the In Her Words newsletter, she discusses the interaction between himpathy and mansplaining, explaining how women feel guilty at even the thought of correcting men’s mistakes and potentially making them feel humiliated.
Himpathy also coaxes women to remain passive and even appreciative of men explaining things that they already know about in the same, if not a better, capacity. This further perpetuates the culture of treating men as the absolute authority of knowledge and helping them maintain their dominance over their female counterparts, especially in professional settings.
In a world where our himpathy is persuading us to identify with privileged men and preventing us from seeing the full picture of how ingrained misogyny is in every aspect of our lives, Manne urges us to redirect our focus towards the women and their stories. Learning about himpathy has helped me recognize instances in my daily life when I’ve been complicit in enabling this culture: that one time I assumed my male cousin meant well while commenting on the length of my shorts or the multiple times I don’t want to make a big deal out of an objectifying comment by my favorite male artist.
Unlearning himpathy, a deeply ingrained phenomenon especially among women, is a long and exhausting process. But we owe it to ourselves and women everywhere to hold men — even the ones we look upto and admire — accountable for their actions, no matter how harmless society might make them seem.
Aasna Sijapati is a Columnist. Email her feedback at
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