Victims Are Listening to the Way We Speak About Sexual Assault Accusations

One year ago, several women publicly accused Hollywood movie producer Harvey Weinstein of sexual abuse; this subsequently caused civil rights activist Tarana Burke’s #MeToo movement to go viral as victims of all ages, across every industry, began to share their experiences. This then led to a much-needed examination into sexual assault and how we as a society handle it.

Sometimes, the evidence and depth of abuse seems definitive. The most notorious #MeToo stories featured multiple victims or resulted in confessions of sexual misconduct and abuse of power, so it was hard for anyone to argue the behaviors in these stories were anything less than predatory and abusive.

However, not all accusations seem as clear-cut. Taking sexual misconduct head-on also means handling accusations that have little to no evidence other than the testimony of the person making the accusation. Such situations often mean trying to determine whose account is more credible based on details or demeanor; it also means much doubt and uncertainty may never be fully resolved.

As a result, it is extraordinarily difficult to thread the needle between creating a supportive environment for victims while also maintaining due process and presumption of innocence.

But we must try, for two reasons.

Because we cannot return to the pre-#MeToo status quo, yet we also cannot disregard our legal processes. And because our response to sexual assault accusations can affect other victims’ decision to speak up.

For example, consider how Ronan Farrow’s exposé about Weinstein encouraged other victims of sexual misconduct to share their stories. These victims took strength from watching society hold one of Hollywood’s most powerful men accountable for his actions; comfort in knowing their voices were combined with others, rather than speaking alone; and courage in feeling for the first time like people were willing to believe them. They felt empowered to speak up.

We can help empower them to know they can come forward, confront their assailants, and receive at least closure, if not justice. But it’s also possible to create or contribute to an environment that encourages victims to stay silent.

The allegations against Brett Kavanaugh, and the country’s reactions to them, provide an opportunity to examine the way we respond to contested sexual assault accusations. Regardless of politics, we should treat the discussion with the respect and care the topic deserves.

Because there are almost certainly people you know personally who are victims of abuse of power and sexual assault.

You may not know it yet. Perhaps they haven’t spoken about it yet. You may never know about it. Perhaps they may never speak up about it. They may choose instead to remain silent.

And this is where our language matters.

You may believe Christine Blasey Ford is either mistaken or lying. But it is absolutely possible to believe she is mistaken or lying and still be cognizant of how you speak about sexual assault accusations.

It is worth emphasizing that Ford’s accusation was Kavanaugh pinned her down, tried to take off her clothing, and put his hand over her mouth to silence her protests. That is the accusation. That does not qualify as mistakenly misreading any signals or cues (such as in the case of Aziz Ansari). That does not qualify as a drunk but mutually consensual sexual interaction.

I understand believing this didn’t actually happen. I understand believing there is simply not enough evidence to come to a definitive conclusion about an incident that happened more than three decades ago. I understand believing Ford is either a willing participant or unwitting pawn of the Democrat Party. I understand believing the Democrat Party (and Senator Dianne Feinstein of California in particular) handled this poorly and attempted to use it to their political advantage. And I can certainly understand being angry about all of that.

But how you talk about it matters, because there are victims listening, watching, and deciding what they themselves should do.

You may work with them, you may know them casually, you may even be married or related to them.

They may be trying to decide whether it’s better to speak up or remain silent. They may be trying to decide if you would believe them if they told you. They may be trying to decide if you would blame them if they told you. So they are listening to your comments and watching your reactions.

When you say, “it’s unbelievable because she waited so long to come forward,” that tells them you will question their stories based on how long ago it occurred.

When you say, “nothing happened, so it’s not a big deal,” that tells them you don’t care that someone tried to force him- or herself on them, about the fear or panic they experienced, or if it traumatized them.

When you say, “what was she thinking, going into a room with two drunk men?” that tells them you think it’s their fault because we should expect men to be incapable of controlling themselves; that tells her men are predisposed to force themselves on women. This view thinks just as little of men as the view that says women should be believed because men can’t control themselves. (Incidentally, this response also ignores that Ford says she was pushed into the room, and this view actually supports Ford’s accusation because it assumes drunk males will force themselves on females.)

When you say, “my 15-year-old daughter would never wander upstairs for a bathroom at a party, that’s just common sense,” that tells them you blame her, not the person who actually did it, and you think women bear the responsibility to prevent their own sexual assaults.

When you say, “I am not interested in whether Mrs. Ford, an anti-Trump activist, is telling the truth,” that tells them you only care about sexual assault depending on the politics of the victim and the assailant.

When you say, “it is a very scary time for young men in America,” or when you say, “I am more worried for my sons being falsely accused than for my daughters being sexually assaulted,” that tells them you are willing to ignore statistics that suggest it is far more likely a person will be sexually assaulted in his or her lifetime than falsely accused.

These reactions explain why a victim would choose to stay silent, would decide not to come forward, would be afraid he or she wouldn’t be believed, or would decide it’s better not to subject him- or herself to further agony and humiliation, just to not be believed.

Some people argue the solution to this dilemma is to say we should “believe all women.” But this, too, is flawed. The rush to automatically believe is just as harmful as the rush to automatically not believe.

We should take each accusation seriously. But we do that by reviewing each accusation individually, on its own merits, to determine if it is credible. We should demand proper procedures are followed once an accusation is made. We shouldn’t pick a side based on external or unrelated factors. And we shouldn’t forego due process.*

It is not wrong to ask for more details to corroborate an accusation or to insist on due diligence; in fact, it is necessary. At no point in this piece have I criticized that or healthy skepticism. My point is that it is possible to do so without mocking or trivializing the possibility of sexual assault.

The discussion around sexual assault was long overdue, and the last year has resulted in many valuable and thoughtful pieces that further the discussion, including the following:

  • Dear dads: Your daughters told me about their assaults. This is why they never told you” shares other reasons why victims don’t tell their parents, from daughters who wanted to protect their fathers from pain and agony, to a son who wouldn’t tell his father about his assault by an older man because “he said manliness was important” to his father.
  • Regarding that latter point, the New York Times wrote about male college wrestlers who said they were abused by an Ohio State University doctor: “Having built their identities around traditional notions of toughness and stoicism, many are struggling with a new identity — #MeToo, or in their case, #UsToo.”
  • This POLITICO piece by Tiana Lowe is a worthwhile read, even if I don’t agree with every point entirely. Lowe criticizes both parties for using sexual assault as a partisan weapon. (Though I think it’s worth mentioning Ford attempted to come forward before Kavanaugh was nominated, so her accusation itself isn’t necessarily 11th hour.)
  • National Review’s Alexandra DeSanctis wrote “[r]eal justice requires finding as much of the truth as we can; the middle ground between always believing the alleged victim and immediately exonerating the accused is to seek the full truth with clear-eyed persistence.”
  • This is an excellent illustration of the catch-22 victims face.
  • The #WhyIDidntReport hashtag provides further clarity into the factors victims weigh when they consider coming forward.
  • How to Imagine the Unimaginable” explains how to ensure your children understand their autonomy and know they can tell you about any abuse.
  • As women explain #WhyIDidntReport, how can we make sure our daughter will open up to us?

No matter where you fall regarding Ford’s accusation and Kavanaugh’s confirmation, this situation does not discredit or invalidate the entire #MeToo movement. Thousands of victims have shared their stories. Abusers have admitted abusing their power. We should not let politics affect how we view #MeToo, a movement dedicated to exposing sexual abuse.

Victims should not be afraid or ashamed. We can and should be willing to listen and to keep an open mind. And let’s treat sexual assault accusations with the seriousness they deserve, even if — maybe especially when — we do not believe them.

The #MeToo movement showed that sexual abuse was more widespread than we realized. You may not believe Ford. But other victims are listening and watching.

* Some readers may argue I did not give Kavanaugh the presumption of innocence. I supported two options once Ford went public: Kavanaugh voluntarily withdraw or a comprehensive investigation be undertaken. I do not believe these are contradictory.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent those of any other individual or entity. Follow Sarah on Twitter: @sarahmquinlan.