Believe us.

22 Nov

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how men treat women. Obviously, a bevy of sexual harassment accusations have been all over the news recently. It’s been genuinely confusing and mystifying (but also gratifying) to see these stories suddenly given wall-to-wall coverage, to see at least some people finally facing consequences for their actions. It’s also brought out a lot of what is ugly about this society – it’s proven how systemic, endemic – how central – male dominance over women is in the way our society functions. It’s also brought out an untold number of men fretting over the possibility of false accusations. There are elements of this that make us all uncomfortable – it’s not just a fear of the innocent getting swept up with the guilty, it’s also about highly personal definitions of what constitutes sexual harassment or assault, and it’s about a reckoning we are all having about what exactly the consequences should be for the accused versus the proven or even the convicted.

Although false accusations of rape, for instance, make up between just 2-10% of all reported rapes (depending on how you define a false accusation or unfounded claim), many people treat all claims of rape, sexual assault, and harassment that come from women as highly suspect. Let’s be clear, it’s okay to be skeptical of claims until they are proven – but it doesn’t follow that we need immediately and forcefully disbelieve every woman coming forward. In any criminal case or even just public accusation, you give your benefit of the doubt to someone – to the victim, to the accused, to the police or prosecutors (the State) – and then you wait and see if that is proven out. All I am asking of men, of society at large, is to give your benefit of the doubt to the victim – in this case it means believing women.

I’ll tell you why you should believe women (which doubles for why false accusations are much lower in reality than they are often purported to be). In cases such as these, what would a woman’s motivation be for lying? In the few cases we’ve known to be proven false, it has typically been vengeance/hatred or money/notoriety, it has also on many occasions been tied to mental illness of some form on the part of the victim. How many women do you know in your personal acquaintance who might act this way, for any of these reasons? Assuming most of you are decent men who hang out with decent people in general I am going to guess this number is low to nonexistent. So, first, extrapolate that out to the general population and you can see how low the incidence of false accusations of sexual harassment, assault, or rape should be. But this is purely anecdotal.

Second, let’s look at the consequences not just of false accusations but of any accusation. The victim will have to recount the story over and over again – this is an obvious source of trauma for a real victim and an equally obvious potential for being found out for a false victim. The victim may have to undergo physical examinations that are highly invasive and answer questions that are deeply personal. Socially and sometimes professionally, victims may experience shaming, ostracization, or even retaliation depending on who the accused is and the venue the accusation is made in (what if you are accusing your partner, a good friend, your boss, a well-liked coworker, a public figure?)

For all this, what might the victim get in return? Rape kits go untested for decades. Out of every 1000 rapes, only 310 are reported to police for many of the reasons stated above. Of those, 57 reports lead to arrest, 11 cases get referred to prosecutors, 7 cases will lead to a felony conviction, and 6 rapists will be incarcerated. If we assume the motivation for reporting an abuser is to a.) get some measure of justice for yourself and hold him accountable and b.) stop him from doing it again to you or at all (to someone else), then we can see how ineffective reporting is. If reporting is a pain in the ass to start, brings trauma, and potentially alienates you from your friends, family, coworkers, etc., AND 303 times out of 310 results in NO conviction, one can imagine how few women would go to such lengths with false accusations, especially considering the further consequences in store for them if they are found out.

Now it’s true these numbers only refer to people who report the crime to the police. Even if we remove the potential for an invasive physical examination, an accuser who goes public is still subject to multiple rounds of questioning from both sympathetic and unsympathetic sources and experiences the same (or, in some cases, worse) social backlash as a victim who has reported the crime to the police. In short, it is safe to assume a vast majority of these accusations are true solely on the basis of the damage done to the accuser by speaking out. Even when they may remain anonymous, they still witness the backlash.

All of this still leaves the question: if we can all, at least, agree that 2-10% of false accusations are out there, what do we do about that? My answer stays mostly the same: trust multiple women. If multiple women have come out with similar accusations about one person, it’s safe to assume they are true. There isn’t some kind of cabal of women plotting to take down famous and notable men the world over using false accusations of sexual misdeeds. First of all, up until a month ago, that would have been a really bad plan as, historically, accusations of sexual harassment haven’t led to many consequences for men in positions of power. Bill Clinton was impeached for lying, Clarence Thomas was confirmed and still sits on the supreme court, Harvey Weinstein only just recently fell from grace as Hollywood’s IT producer after years of settling and intimidating his way to silent victims. For chrissakes, our PRESIDENT has had multiple credible accusations of sexual harassment and even rape thrown at him over many years. If this is supposed to be some grand conspiracy, it’s a piss-poor one.

More than false accusations, I’m concerned about what constitutes bad behavior and what level of bad behavior merits what severity of consequences – and who gets to make those decisions. If we are, at this moment, finally holding men to account for egregious actions, are we also holding them accountable for the smaller, every day indecencies? Because that’s a long fucking list and this is going to take awhile. It’s like, are we going after the big fish or these little betas, too? Generally, I think the hope is that you go after the big fish as a way to start to change the culture – but that minutiae at the bottom is the hardest part to change, those guys are, in some ways, the toughest to take down – because they are every guy. Every dude I know has made a poor attempt at a joke, a lame pass, a rude comment, an unwanted advance or unwelcome touch, oftentimes “innocently” and obliviously. I don’t even want to “take them down”, I just want that light bulb to go off – I want them to “get” it, and then I want them to stop – and then, further, I want them to police the men around them to behave better.

Should men like Al Franken be held accountable in the same manner or to the same degree as men like Harvey Weinstein? I think most of us, even his accusers, would probably say no. Not, “he should suffer no consequences whatsoever”, but, rather, “he should suffer less severe consequences”. In the same way that there are different punishments and sentences for people convicted of snatching a lady’s purse versus people convicted of defrauding an entire company, there should be varying degrees of punishment for public figures accused of harassment or sexual misconduct. But because of the nature of justice in these cases (nearly nonexistent from the legal system and almost entirely taking place, now, in the public square), the punishment is near universal: a tarnishing or loss of prestige or reputation, and, loss of your job, livelihood, or electability. This punishment is both too much and not near enough, given the wide range of types of accusations.

And then there’s a whole ‘nother Pandora’s box we haven’t even opened yet which is the question about how your actions in your personal life, or that happened 10, 20, 30 years ago should affect your career now. I’m not even gonna fuck around with dudes that used their professional positions or capacities to gain access to women or to silence them, or harassed or abused women they worked with – those dudes can just go straight to hell, do not pass go, do not collect $200. They deserve every professional consequence and then some, even when it happened many years ago. But what of the guys who “privately” harassed women, who abused their wives at home? What makes you unfit, and for what? I might not think that guy is qualified or fit to be a senior statesman, but a mechanic? Maybe – like, it has no bearing on his ability to fix my car (although, if known to me, it would certainly  affect my willingness to give him my business). And, yet, if we only stop sexual harassment and abuse when it’s done by public figures in positions of power, what does that do for the millions of everyday women harassed and abused by the men in their own lives? Does it change behaviors in any meaningful way? Does it change social norms and mores? Does it make harassment and abuse unacceptable at every level? Ultimately, I think that’s the hope here, but I sometimes feel it is naive.

This cultural moment is about exposure, awareness, and justice. Bringing famous and powerful men to account for their past actions is a way to get everyone to recognize the sheer massive scale of the harassment and abuse women (and others) face. It’s a moment of reckoning for individual men, and for our nation. But it is also a primal scream from women who have for too long been dismissed, silenced, diminished, and excluded. And you will hear us, now.

The solution, to me, is very clear: we need more women in power. We need more women in power so that our managers and CEOS and committee heads and judges believe us, take our accusations seriously, and act quickly. This is not to say women are infallible or perfect or that men cannot, in time, grow this capacity. The simple reason women are more likely to believe women, at this point in time, is because we have all been there before – how many men can (or will) say the same? Aside from decisive leadership from the top, women need to be in power to remove these problematic men from power – to take their place. Again, women are people and they have faults, too. Just like men, some women are great leaders and others are not. But women, as a group, haven’t held power in the same ways or for as long as men – we’re still so reverent of just the ability to hold power, we don’t typically abuse it. We don’t want to lead so we can take advantage the same way men have for millenia – but we want to gain the advantages we’ve never had while toppling many of the systems and individual men who have poisoned the well for so long. I don’t believe women are somehow naturally or genetically better suited to leadership (I also don’t believe this of men), I just think because of the privilege men have exercised for so long, we have reached a point where men are more likely to abuse their power than women.

Unfortunately people in general, of either gender, are more likely to protect their assets over their people (to protect their “stars” over their peons) – this is something that needs to be addressed separately. No one person should be untouchable and financial considerations for companies should be separated as much as possible from the decision-making process when considering whether or not to take action upon hearing credible sexual harassment or assault allegations.

But for more women to be in power, we need more women willing to lead. And that means we need to remove institutional and societal barriers to women’s advancement. In a world with paid maternity leave (with job security while on maternity leave); with low-cost daycare; with partners who do their fair share of the emotional labor and domestic work; with bosses that take us seriously when we make allegations of harassment; with men who aren’t allowed to stay in power when they’ve abused it; with men who are willing and able to mentor us; with more women in the position to do so, instead; without a “boy’s club” atmosphere at the upper echelons of power – this is the world in which women will not have to face nearly insurmountable challenges to get to the top – where, in short, their path will be as easy or as hard as it is for men now – where the playing field will finally be even.

And (surprise twist!) this is the great work of feminism – not to place women over men, but to put them on even ground with men, to give them even odds. I don’t actually wonder that so many men are so antagonistic toward feminism because it seeks to remove them from power when the power is given for no other reason than their sex and all the advantages and privileges afforded them because of it. Fairness is not in the best interests of those who maintain a strangle hold on power not just because of ability or hard work but through the sheer luck of one Y chromosome and the years of power structures built up around the basic assumption that men were superior. If we expect anything to change for women reporting sexual harassment and assault, we need to create the world in which those events are the exception, not the rule – and creating that world requires unseating men from their supremacy over us all.

 

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