What It Means to Believe Women

A few months on, the #MeToo movement is still gaining strength. A group of Hollywood power players calling themselves Time’s Up has formed to advocate on behalf of women at all levels, from movies and media to lower-wage farm and factory jobs where victims of sexual harassment have far less power to publicize their stories.

If the comments on my last post about #MeToo are typical, the main source of resistance from men is fear that a false accusation will ruin their lives. (As usual, some male atheists are loudly echoing this sentiment, like Sam Harris promoting an op-ed that calls the #MeToo movement a “warlock hunt” and a “moral panic”).

Here’s what I have to say to that.

If someone says, “We should believe women when they say that they’ve been sexually harassed or assaulted,” and your immediate reaction is “Oh no, here come the torches and pitchforks! All standards of evidence and critical thinking are about to be thrown in the trash! Lynch mobs will roam the streets! Innocent men’s lives will be destroyed without any proof!” – then that says more about you.

Obviously, women’s testimony shouldn’t be believed without question or exempted from verification. Women are human beings, and human beings sometimes lie or make mistakes. Insofar as it’s possible, we should always scrutinize a claim and determine whether it’s corroborated or disproved by available evidence. That’s why the Washington Post did the right thing when they exposed the conservative fraudster who lied about being molested by Roy Moore in an attempt to discredit the testimony of actual victims.

However, although people sometimes lie, most people are trustworthy most of the time. The vast majority of the time, when someone tells you about something that happened to them, they’re telling the truth.* As I’ve said before, the sad truth is that a wealthy or powerful man abusing his position to prey sexually on his subordinates isn’t an extraordinary claim, but an ordinary one. And when one claim is corroborated by others – for example, multiple women accusing the same man of sexual harassment, with no obvious collaboration between them – the probative value of that evidence goes up dramatically. It’s possible that one witness is lying or mistaken; it’s far less likely that many witnesses are lying or mistaken in exactly the same way.

It’s this conclusion that sexists fear and resist the most. Whether or not they’re willing to admit it, what they’re really arguing is that women should be disbelieved by default, unless there’s physical evidence that would realistically be impossible to obtain in most cases. (What do they expect women to do, carry multiple cameras to record all their interactions in hi-def from every possible angle, just in case?) This is a radical, hyperskeptical standard that would make daily life impossibly difficult if the people who espoused it followed it consistently.

The call to “believe women” isn’t an assertion that women’s claims ought to be held to a less rigorous standard of evidence. It’s a rejoinder to the sad reality that, for most of history, women were held to a more stringent standard than men and their claims were reflexively disbelieved.

Atheists should know all about this. For instance, holy books such as the Qur’an say that a woman’s testimony is worth half as much as a man’s:

And call two witness from among your men, two witnesses. And if two men be not at hand, then a man and two women… (2:282)

This is still the law in theocratic countries like Yemen. Pakistan’s notorious Hudood Ordinances, partially repealed in 2006, took it even further: a man couldn’t be convicted of raping a woman unless there were four adult male Muslims who had personally witnessed the crime. A woman wasn’t permitted to testify to her own rape, and if she tried, she would be punished for adultery.

Judaism, too, has historically oppressed and devalued women. In Orthodox Judaism, women are forbidden to serve as witnesses in a beth din, the rabbinical court, save for a few rare exceptions. (One Jewish apologist attributes the restriction to respect for their “modesty“, a classic example of how chivalrous language is used to deprive women of rights.)

And as for Christianity, well, we know the situation there. Christian churches across the political spectrum have a long, entrenched history of sexism that results in women being disbelieved or blamed when they try to speak up.

Whether we like it or not, these patriarchal norms linger in our society and bias our views. They’re like a thumb on the scales, encouraging instinctive disbelief of women even in people who don’t consciously think of themselves as holding such prejudice. And this makes sexual harassment and assault more common than they otherwise would be, because predators know this perfectly well. It encourages them to think they can get away with it.

The only cure for this problem is to reset the balance. The call to “believe women” isn’t a call to cast aside the usual standards of evidence, but to evaluate women’s claims by the same ordinary evidentiary standard that men have always enjoyed. But that will only happen if we recognize this bias and make allowances for it, which is the same thing as admitting that we as a society have treated women unfairly up till now.

* As I’ve written, testimony is fallible, but that’s not the same thing as saying it’s untrustworthy in all or most cases. What it means, instead, is that testimony should be admitted as provisional evidence so long as we bear in mind the ways in which human memory tends to be mistaken. A person testifying about sexual harassment may misremember specific details, like what the harasser was wearing or the exact wording of what was said, but they’re far less likely to fabricate memories of an event that never happened at all.

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