The Aaron Coleman saga shows how for too many ‘progressive’ men, women’s well-being takes a backseat to political convenience. All sexism is bad, but there’s nothing quite as frustrating as sexism from supposed progressives. Women have come to expect misogyny from the right — under this administration, it’s practically their calling card.
But when it comes from the left, it’s a painful reminder of how foundational misogyny is in this country. After all, how can women make progress when even those who claim to be our allies peddle in sexism without hesitation?
That sad reality reared its head last week as men on the left rushed to defend a young Democratic candidate who admitted to abuse, some of it criminal, of girls.
Aaron Coleman, 19 years old and bound for a house seat in Kansas until he announced his intention to drop out on Sunday, committed serious harassment and sexual misconduct when he was a teenager: Between the ages of 12 and 14, he bullied one girl so badly that she attempted suicide; extorted another classmate with a nude photo which he later sent to her friends and family (which legally amounts to distributing child pornography, among other things); and harassed a third young woman for months.
Coleman has not made amends to his victims, one of whom says “he’s an awful person and he should not be allowed to run for anything.” The other young woman Coleman harassed told a reporter for the Kansas City Star that she was “in disbelief that another man that doesn’t respect women is in power.”
In fact, other than his official apology — an apology that was only made once his abusive history came to light — Coleman has only once addressed his actions, writing to a victim’s relative to more or less tell her to get over it. “I’ve moved on,” he said. “They call the past the past for a reason, because that’s where you are supposed to leave things. At this point you shouldn’t move on for me, you should move on for yourself.”
Despite Coleman demonstrating little genuine remorse for his abusive and criminal actions, men who pride themselves on their leftist politics lined up to his defense. They said he was just a kid at the time of the abuse, but didn’t dwell on how his victims were children too. They claimed we can’t have a just politics without the possibility of redemption, but didn’t ask what kind of amends the girls Coleman hurt might have wanted. And while they pointed to Coleman’s “promising” career in politics — a word that is often thrown about when young men are held to account for their abuse of women — they ignored the lost promise of girls who have had their lives forever shaken by sexual harassment and abuse.
The Intercept’s Glenn Greenwald, for example, tweeted last week that the 19-year-old was being “sabotaged” over “middle school misconduct” (which sounds nicer than revenge porn, I suppose), and questioned whether minors should be tried as adults and sentenced to life in prison — as if not being able to hold public office is somehow akin to incarceration.
Men might want to examine why they are now repeating the same argument Republicans trotted out during Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearings.
Ryan Grim, also of The Intercept, expressed incredulity over a New York Times article outlining Coleman’s behavior, tweeting about Coleman’s young age at the time of his abuse and asking, “We’re just done with him forever?” And author and cultural critic Thomas Chatterton Williams bemoaned how “horrific and intolerant” it is to have past behavior “held against you in perpetuity.” (Williams has his own dog in this fight: He’s admitted to beating his girlfriend as a young man, glossing over it as “mistaken behavior.”)
Men might want to take a pause and examine why they are now repeating the same argument Republicans trotted out during Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearings: that not elevating a man to public power is a life-ruining consequence for something they did when they were a minor.
What is most disturbing, though, is why these men — who, again, claim to be on the side of women — would be so eager to throw their considerable platforms and support behind Coleman in particular. As New York writer Sarah Jones put it, “there are plenty of working-class progressives who are not sex pests.”
That’s why I don’t believe this has anything to do with Coleman. What all of this bleating about ruined lives and promising futures is really about is moving the goalposts on how much abusive misogyny the left is willing to accept. Women’s rights have long been thrown under the bus by Democrats in search of a “big-tent” party; this is just the post-#MeToo iteration of that tradition. There are some — like the men who blamed the movement for ruining men’s careers — who don’t want a future that doesn’t tolerate harassment or assault. Too many men they know, or like (or see in the mirror every day) would be impacted. That backlash is growing on both sides of the aisle.
Does all of this mean that someone who has done horrible things as a teenager should never hold office? Of course not. But the men defending Coleman seem to think that he is entitled to redemption and power without demonstrating even the most basic understanding of why his behavior was wrong.
When asked by Greenwald how people might believe that he’s changed in the last five years, for example, Coleman didn’t talk about sexism, the irreparable damage he did to his young victims, or steps he’s taken to reckon with his behavior — instead he just pivoted to his “compassionate platform.”
And when Coleman announced via tweet that he’d be dropping out of his race, he didn’t attribute it to the lingering power of his own actions or the idea that he might still have some growing up to do: Instead, he wrote that “feminism hasn’t got a chance” because of “Donatism” (a religious sect that demands a person be faultless) and the “progressive circular firing squad.”
The responses from his defenders were equally insufferable. Branko Marcetic — a writer at the far-left magazine Jacobin — tweeted that his resignation was setting a precedent for candidates whose histories will be “scoured” for what he diminishingly characterized as “childhood scandal.” A leftist podcaster also tweeted that the reporting around Coleman’s past was a “harassment campaign” that overruled Kansas voters. And Greenwald, among others, implied that the criticisms of Coleman were now responsible for helping his anti-abortion opponent.
For far too many progressive men, misogyny is not a deal-breaker — nor do they think it ever should be.
So as men who claim to be our allies go on a tear about how feminism ruined a young man’s life, some food for thought: The young women who Coleman harassed will likely never run for office. It’s not exactly something you can do when nude photos of you at 12 years old have been spread around the internet. Now that Coleman has dropped out, I wonder if the “progressive” men on a mission to convince the public that he deserved a second chance would spare a tweet or two for the girls who never got a first one.