Starting with the October publication of complaints against Harvey Weinstein, our nation has been witnessing a movement both to encourage women to come forward (“me too”) and to believe women’s accounts of sexual assault and harassment when they do publicize what has happened to them (“believe women”). Though some have argued that it is dangerous to believe “all women” (as though anyone were arguing for uncritical acceptance of all complaints), a consensus appears to be building that the skepticism and dismissal with which society had previously met complaints of sexual misconduct are inappropriate and serve to shelter predators from accountability, leaving them safe to continue their harmful behavior with impunity. Susan Estrich wrote in her excellent 1988 book, Real Rape, about the longstanding tradition, both legal and customary, of refusing to believe women. In this column, I will consider one possible account of such disbelief and evaluate how the current moment in history might have come about.
Have People Disbelieved Women Across the Board?
Has society never deemed women to be credible witnesses in general? The answer here would seem to be no. When women have witnessed robberies and testified about those robberies at criminal trials, defense attorneys did not typically behave as though the witnesses’ sex provided a reason to doubt the plausibility of their testimony. By contrast, if a witness had a history of lying or committing crimes, such conduct would regularly come into evidence as a basis for distrusting what the witness said, whether the witness was male or female. Does this mean that people have actually been fair about assessing the credibility of women? Is the whole current movement much ado about nothing? In a word, no.
Historically women have found a skeptical audience in a very particular sort of situation: when they have brought complaints of sexual assault or harassment against otherwise normal men. That is, when women have come forward to say that a well-respected or seemingly ordinary man raped them or sexually harassed them, audiences (of men but not only of men) have expressed concerns about the women’s veracity. They worried that rape, in the words of seventeenth century English jurist Matthew Hale, “‘is an accusation easily to be made and hard to be proved, and harder to be defended by the party accused, tho [sic] never so innocent.” While that was a long time ago, this attitude toward accusers has persisted over time, even though the law no longer officially requires it (in the form, among other things, of special jury instructions about the credibility of rape complainants).
What accounts for the refusal of men, the law, and even other women to believe women in this very particular context? It no doubt has some relation to sexism, but in an indirect way. I would suggest that the refusal to take women’s stories as truthful has resulted from what it would mean for complaints of rape and sexual harassment brought against ordinary men to be true. To acknowledge that a normal man who generally abides by the law is raping or sexually harassing women (or men) is to recognize that society has been condoning or at least tolerating such behavior for a very long time. That is, if ordinary men—men who care about the law and social norms enough to control themselves when society requires them to do so—are engaged in rape and sexual harassment, that would mean that rape and sexual harassment, when committed against acquaintances (as they usually are), amount to socially permissible actions that do not truly violate the rules. In short, otherwise “good” people can commit these acts because we do not treat these acts as the outrages that they are, thereby inviting more of the same.
How is this a revelation? If in fact such behavior is permissible (despite its violating the law), doesn’t everyone know that already? And if everyone knows it already, then what’s the big deal about “finding out” that it happens by believing a victim’s account of it?
One answer is that people have a complicated relationship with the truth about “permissible” predatory behavior. We like to believe, and thus we claim, that our society rejects rape and unwelcome sexual advances, no matter who the perpetrator is. Such beliefs and claims make us feel better about ourselves as collective guardians of the social order. But at some level, perhaps not fully acknowledged, we know that we tolerate the conduct, that we do not take it seriously. By tolerating it, then, we share in the responsibility for its occurrence.
But to admit as much would be intolerable, so we deny it. We do not feel comfortable enough with the behavior to say that grabbing women’s genitals or raping them is acceptable, so we instead say that the women are lying and that it didn’t happen. We can then purport to reject the very conduct that we have in fact been tolerating.
Ironically, the denial that accompanies accusations of acquaintance rape and sexual harassment serves to further entrench the behavior as socially accepted. This is in part because we all, in our heart of hearts, know that the woman (or man) is telling the truth about what happened to her (or him). And yet we see that the predator got away with his predation. If we instead held him responsible and punished him for what he did, then the condemnation would be clear, and fewer ordinary men would feel empowered to emulate the condemned man’s conduct. Like the behavior that results from alcoholism and other forms of addiction, day-to-day sexual predation will stop only when we admit there is a problem.
The “me too” movement is useful in a variety of ways. First, it is more difficult to claim that every member of a crowd of women is lying about her experience than it is to call an individual woman a liar. There is strength in numbers, and the sheer quantity of complaints increases the odds that a substantial proportion of them (and perhaps every one of them) is true. It is also likely that the people who might otherwise be inclined to deny the truth of the accusations are close with one or more of the women bringing a mass of complaints, and calling close friends or family liars is harder to do than leveling that charge against an unknown accuser. “Me too” is a kind of coming out.
Once people admit that at least a large number of the complaints we are hearing are authentic, the next step becomes clearer. One has to either say that such behavior is acceptable (the position implicit in the traditional refusal to acknowledge the truth) or unambiguously condemn the behavior. After making the second choice (one hopes), people can begin to investigate claims of sexual harassment and rape, instead of informing victims that no one will believe them so it’s not worth pursuing their complaints. Then, when an investigation is complete and concludes with a finding that the accused is guilty of rape or liable for sexual harassment, punishment or compensation should follow. If it is a criminal case, then perpetrators should go to prison. If it is a civil tort suit, employment discrimination claim, or action for breach of contract, there should be the sorts of penalties available in these settings.
What we can see, though, by examining the “me too” and “believe women” processes is that denial is at the root of our society’s longstanding failure to truly condemn male predatory behavior in particular contexts. Such contexts have included date rape and workplace sexual harassment, where perpetrators view sexual access as a perk. By calling the accusers liars, by contrast, by refusing to believe them, society could continue to permit their behavior while pretending to oppose it. “Oh yes,” one could say, “I think rape is a terrible thing, but we have no reason to believe this particular accuser,” meanwhile thinking that acquaintance rape is actually no big deal. With the “coming out” of victims, society must grapple with the conduct itself (and not simply pretend that it never occurs) and must decide whether to do something about it. Because the women who have participated in “me too” will have a view about that question as well, we can expect that effective solutions to the problem that has now, finally, received widespread acknowledgement will emerge from the same source.