Followed blindly, ‘believe women’ diminishes both women and men—and our quest for justice.
Many women who have been part of the #MeToo movement, including public leaders, continue to support Joe Biden despite Tara Reade’s accusations. Trump believers and some diehard Sanders supporters are jeering loudly about what they see as progressive hypocrisy. “What happened to ‘believe all women’?” they crow. “I guess it only applies when the accused isn’t a Democrat.”
But “believe women” was meant to be a starting point, one that opens a process, not one that closes it. As Alyssa Milano put it, “Believing women was never about ‘Believe all women no matter what they say,’ it was about changing the culture of NOT believing women by default.”
The mantra arose in reaction to a specific context: For generations, a background assumption has been that women are hysterical and unreliable—that our testimony doesn’t have the same substance as that of a man. This assumption goes so far back that it is formalized in both the Bible and Quran. The current outcry expresses lifetimes of pent-up frustration. It is a corrective, and it needs to be understood in that context.
“Believe women” never should mean that a woman’s statements about sexual violation or harassment should be taken as absolute truth and that men should be presumed guilty until proven innocent. Abandonment of due process erases legal safeguards that are hard-won and that protect us all. Feminist G. S. Potter points out that an absolutist approach to “Believe women” blended with anti-black racism led to one of the most horrific murders in American history—the lynching of 14-year-old Emmett Till.
Nor should the mantra imply that all accusations should be treated by journalists as if they were equally likely. That is not fair and balanced; it is merely irresponsible. In 2017, Sady Doyle laid out some of the relevant distinctions in a lengthy article at Elle:
“Believe women” does not . . . come into conflict with fact-checking sources; there’s a difference between engaging with sexual assault claims in good faith and having the legal grounding to print those claims, and even passionately feminist reporters understand that journalism has to adhere to the second standard.
Excesses of the Left and Right
Listening to right-wing commentators you would never know that most #MeToo leaders and activists never subscribed to “believe all women.” There are thoughtless fanatics in any group, to be sure, but a cursory search of the internet shows that the mantra “Believe all women” is largely a right wing invention, a strawman that allows commentators like Ben Shapiro to scorn the #MeToo movement without engaging seriously with the conditions that gave it birth. They are right that a demand to “believe all women all the time”—were it the #MeToo mantra and goal—would diminish the complex humanity of both women and men—turning females into helpless, virgin-pure objects and men into unilaterally active agents incapable of being victimized.
To be fair, some of the jeering by Trump and Sanders devotees is warranted. Far too many on the left have been willing to treat an accusation as a conviction. In the flash-heat of a public accusation, corporations, nonprofits and politicians alike have abandoned the accused, demanding resignations rather than more information. Al Franken was one of the first to be left standing alone, with any protestation taken as proof of guilt, but he was far from the last. Social media mobs have gleefully destroyed the careers, reputations and families of accused men. They have made it unacceptable to appreciate bodies of literature, music and visual arts created by anyone so tainted.
People who have behaved in this way and now support Biden should look critically at either their current stance or those they have taken in the past.
Joe Biden, Complexity and Introspection
We each bring our own history and especially traumas and trigger points to conversations about sexual boundary violations. Perhaps because there is so much history of black men being accused without basis, seen by default as sexual aggressors, and convicted unjustly—perhaps because of the legacy of Emmett Till and other young men who were literally lynched by mobs—some black women have declined to turn against Biden in the heat of the frenzy. #MeToo founder Tarana Burke instead wrote that Biden could “show what it looks like to be both accountable and electable.”
Former federal prosecutor Michael J. Stern was slow to condemn for a different reason—25 years of experience in the courtroom. “Men and women alike should not be forced to blindly accept every allegation of sexual assault for fear of being labeled a misogynist or enabler,” he wrote. “We can support the #MeToo movement and not support allegations of sexual assault that do not ring true. If these two positions cannot coexist, the movement is no more than a hit squad. That’s not how I see the #MeToo movement. It’s too important, for too many victims of sexual assault and their allies, to be no more than that.” Stern laid out aspects of the Reade accusations that made him wary.
As a psychologist, I have struggled with how best to interpret my own sexual assault experience to my daughters, and how to best prepare them for the complicated world they face as young women. I have written, in part for them, about the complexities, aspirations and risks of the #MeToo Movement. I find myself pondering what we know about how memories get constructed and how that affects people on both sides of an encounter. In the telling, we tend to crystalize and streamline our stories, polishing our own role through the process. What are my biases? What have I reconstructed in ways that gradually pull the memories into line with how I otherwise think of myself?
My default, when someone accuses another person of a sexual boundary violation is to assume that something happened that felt unwanted to them. And because events associated with strong emotions get encoded differently, I assume that a person who says they felt violated is more likely to recall the incident than the one accused, who may not have registered it as a violation at the time.
But the idea that something probably happened doesn’t mean that the current story accurately represents a boundary violation from decades ago—or even, honestly, from yesterday. That’s why a black #MeToo leader or a seasoned federal prosecutor, or a psychologist like me might see “believe women” as a starting point rather than an assumption that the story we are getting is the one that is the most whole and accurate.
Like Tarana Burke, I think that Joe Biden can be both accountable and electable. When Brett Kavanaugh testified in his own defense, the least believable part of his testimony was that he knew with certainty what had happened at the time. I wrote then that he would have been most credible if he had said something like the following:
Only a few memories from high school stand out for me. I have no memory of ever doing anything like that to a young woman. If during my youth I did things that traumatized another person or persons, I deeply regret any harm I caused.
Whatever I may or may not have done, I was undeniably immature and cavalier. I got in with a reckless group of teenage guys who thought excessive drinking and sexual conquests were cool and funny. I drank earlier and more than I would want my children to drink. I regret that, and I hope they will do better. I say this not to excuse my imperfections, past or present, but to acknowledge them from the vantage of middle age.
I hope and believe that I have learned something in the past 30 years. I hope and believe that I have become more of who I aspire to be. Let me tell you what I mean by that . . . .
For a number of reasons, I found Blasey Ford’s accusations more credible than those made by Reade. Not all accusations are created equal. Even so, what I wish—what I’m hoping from Biden—is something along the same lines: An admission of limited memory and acknowledgement of what he does remember; an admission of his own tendency to miss personal space cues; an admission of human imperfection; an apology for any harms done; a desire to learn and grow.
This kind of confession must not be used as a slippery way to weasel out of well-substantiated transgressions, but as an honest way to navigate the gray space shaped by our conflicting memories. It would be far more likely if the media and general public weren’t so quick to assume that we are capable of knowing beyond a shadow of a doubt what happened between two people in the absence of witnesses. Our hubris, our tendency to grant ourselves god-like perceptive powers (ignoring all we know about the limitations of the human brain), and our eagerness to cast stones (ignoring all we know about our own failings) virtually guarantees that the accused will assume a defensive crouch and babble denials or excuses rather than engaging in self-reflection. If we want honesty, we need to get honest with ourselves.
Valerie Tarico is a psychologist and writer in Seattle, Washington. She is the author of Trusting Doubt: A Former Evangelical Looks at Old Beliefs in a New Light and Deas and Other Imaginings. Her articles about religion, reproductive health, and the role of women in society have been featured at sites including The Huffington Post, Salon, The Independent, Quillette, Free Inquiry, The Humanist, AlterNet, Raw Story, Grist, Jezebel, and the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies. Subscribe at ValerieTarico.com.