Afraid of False Accusations? Try Trusting Women.

Afraid of False Accusations? Try Trusting Women. November 29, 2017

But what will happen if women feel emboldened to report every little slight?!… people seem to be wondering. I see the specter of hysteria at work.

Photo in public domain. From Pixabay.
Photo in public domain. From Pixabay.

With the #MeToo movement maintaining momentum and the growing list of powerful men who’ve been accused of sexual harassment, Americans are having more expansive cultural conversations than ever about the prevalence of sexual harassment. We’re seeing terms like rape culture bandied about on a large scale, and debating what repercussions are appropriate for serial harassers.

Mostly, these are good things. As a feminist, I always want to see more dialogue around rape culture, sexual assault, gender based violence, and so on.

However, I’m aware that there’s backlash. I don’t see much of it, in the socially conscious circles I travel in, but I know it’s there.

I can predict how many of those conversations go, based on my longstanding familiarity with patriarchal bullshit:

  • What about the prevalence of false accusations? Those could destroy a man’s life.
  • Well sure, harassment and assault are bad, but if we start believing survivors EVERY time they come forward, what’s to stop them from reporting really insignificant things?
  • These women are being too sensitive, and detracting attention from the real crimes that happen.
  • If consent is so hard to understand, how does anyone have consensual flirtatious or sexual interactions without it being at risk of becoming harassment? (…and, the implication runs, without someone reporting me for doing what I thought was okay)

But here’s the thing: there’s a centuries-long history of disbelieving women when they make claims about their lived experiences. Whether it’s the pseudo-scientific (but accepted in its day as legitimate) diagnosis of hysteria that haunted women in the Victorian era but has roots as far as as ancient Greece (Vogue has a surprisingly well-researched article tying the historical phenomena to treatment of women today), or the medical institution’s refusal to treat women’s pain seriously, Western culture trivializes women’s reports of their own experiences.

In the face of this cultural refusal to take women seriously, I believe there is some fear around the possibility of reversing that stance. This is a typical patriarchal response to feminism: to view power relations between the genders as only ever hierarchical, and thus to fear that if women aspired to have the same rights as men did, they would come at the cost of subjugating the other gender (surprise: not actually what most feminists want).

We know that false accusations are rare. As classicist Donna Zuckerberg points out, they have a long history in the West, and the furor over them is largely based in social status:

Phaedra’s story, ironically, shows that male terror of false rape allegations is largely unfounded. The only way an allegation will be given weight is if the right kind of non-victim accuses a likely-looking non-rapist and provides some kind of tangible evidence to support her claim. Otherwise, the chances of her being taken seriously are more or less nonexistent. In some ways, not much has changed in 2500 years.

When we take the long view, we see that the fear of false accusations, the fear of women abusing what little power they have, is still with us, albeit in a slightly different form. How many women have to come forward with accusations about the same man’s actions in order to be believed?

And yet when I see this rhetoric, I wonder: what if we simply trusted women to not overreact and turn every little slight into a court date? What if we accepted that most women understand the difference between a “whoops, hand slipped in a tight elevator” and malevolent intention? The way I see it, there is a little slice of gray area, where consent miscommunications happen…but for the most part, abusers know what they’re doing, and they know it’s wrong, and they try to get away with it using strategies that we can identify (such as being a “bumbler” and pretending to not know the rules of social interaction).

If there is concern about women being hyper-vigilant and ready to call any unpleasant interaction sexual harassment or assault, well, that also provides useful information: maybe that is what happens when you are a subjugated class of human expected to swallow up your personhood daily by performing incessant emotional labor while being aware that you are at high risk for sexual assault and domestic violence by the same people you’ve been conditioned to care for.

Most men do not rape, harass, stalk, or abuse women. I understand this (as well as the false claim that mainstream feminists assert the opposite and are trying to demonize all men; no, that is not the point of feminism and never has been). Research has shown that serial rapists tend to have particular attitudes and strategies, and comprise a small segment of the population. The “real men do not rape” language, viewed from an intersectional perspective, offers another window onto how rape culture works to obscure and shift the real blame.

I think, moving forward, it will be necessary for people who care about women’s lives (and yes, I include trans women and sex workers and so on in the category of “women”) to trust women to report on their own life experiences. That may well include hearing “You violated my consent in these ways, and I want to talk to you so that you do better in the future,” which is a far cry from the outlandish claims I identified earlier in this post as fears informing this conversation. It might also include “Since you violated my consent, I no longer trust you and want you in my life,” which no doubt would be hard to hear, but then, I think the hardship of hearing what you’ve done wrong is less than the hardship of being the wronged party.

Actually listening to women might prove unpleasant if you are complicit in our oppression. But trusting us to know our own lives, to understand the varying degrees of severity of transgressions, to articulate our view from the bottom of an increasingly-made-visible power structure that is beginning to falter? That’s a start.

See also: Why Speak Out About “Mild” Sexual Harassment

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