The #MeToo campaign has raised the consciousness of a nation, making space for women to articulate how difficult it is to move through the world without being sexually harassed, assaulted, intimidated or abused. As a testament to the campaign’s scope, women’s stories are being told almost daily and men — at least high-profile ones — are being held accountable in ways that simply didn’t happen before.
In a single day, two congressmen — Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., and Rep. Trent Franks, R-Ariz. — announced plans to resign over sexual misconduct allegations. Beloved entertainers and mainstays of TV news have gone down, too.
But a backlash to this stunning shift, some fear, is already brewing.
In “The Limits of ‘Believe All Women,'” New York Times opinion writer Bari Weiss argues that a false accusation — “the Duke lacrosse moment, the Rolling Stone moment, will come.” And when it does, it “will tear down all accusers as false prophets.”
This fear isn’t hers alone.
“A false accusation could certainly give a weapon to people who don’t believe women, or who want to discredit the movement,” said Stephanie Coontz, a historian and author of several books on marriage and gender.
Given the abundance of credible accusations and the dearth of unfounded ones, the suggestion that a false accusation could derail the movement perhaps shows how tenuous women’s progress on the issue of sexual violence remains.
“It feels fragile because Trump is still in office and Roy Moore has an excellent shot of getting elected next week,” said Vanessa Grigoriadis, author of Blurred Lines: Rethinking Sex, Power, and Consent on Campus. “While some segments of some parts of society are finally seeming to take harassment and assault semi-seriously … plenty of others are not — and some are definitely not.”
False reports of sexual assault are rare — 2% to 7%, according to studies cited by the National Sexual Violence Resource Center — but, as Weiss pointed out, they are remembered.
“It gives people who doubt women instinctively a seemingly credible defense for their views,” Grigoriadis said. “It sounds bad to say ‘I just don’t trust women and think they’re in it for the money or an ulterior motive.’ It sounds way more reasonable to say, ‘The last woman who came forward was just doing it for the money, so you have to show me a lot of evidence before I believe this one.'”
Of course, we’ve already seen a false accusation in this post-Weinstein era — but it was accurately reported as such: Jaime Phillips from Project Veritas approached The Washington Post with a lie about Roy Moore in an attempt to discredit their previous reporting — and his other accusers. The Post didn’t take the bait.
For a historical example, look at Emmett Till, GS Potter writes in her Medium article “The Real Reason Why We Can’t Just Believe All Women.“ In 1955, after a white woman claimed the black teen made unwanted sexual advances, Till was tortured and murdered. The accuser, Carolyn Bryant, later admitted she lied.
“This is why women of color can’t and shouldn’t accept the demand that all accusers of sexual assault be believed,” writes Potter, a rape survivor and founder of the Strategic Institute for Intersectional Policy.
“When we’re working against misogyny or white supremacy or any of these forms of oppression, we have to make sure our strategies not only work for everybody, but that we don’t give openings for people to use them against us,” Potter told USA TODAY.
Weiss argues that “trust and verify” should be the mantra, but critics say that is already the case.
“This moment is not happening because there are a bunch of women out there who believe due process and the rule of law need to give way to mob justice,” said Juliet Williams, a professor of gender studies at UCLA. “This is a moment where a class of people who have been systematically denied voice, have been denied respect, are being allowed to speak, and first and foremost we need to listen.”
In fact, Williams notes, the saying has not been “believe all women” but simply “believe women” — a phrase that implores people not to brush off victims at the outset.
After all, America has a history of disbelieving and discrediting women. When law professor Anita Hill accused Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment, she was maligned as “a little bit nutty, a little bit slutty.”
Even amid this current climate of so-called “reckoning,” the nine women who’ve made allegations against Alabama Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore have been repeatedly slammed at his rallies, painted as lying political plants. “I don’t believe the girls,” Moore’s spokesperson said. Last week, lawyers for Brock Turner, the former Stanford student who served three months for a witnessed sexual assault, announced he’s appealing because his trial was “a detailed and lengthy set of lies.” In that trial, the victim said she was asked how much she drank, what she was wearing and if she was sexually active with her boyfriend, among other intimate questions. When Emily Doe’s statement in the Stanford case went viral, it was call a watershed moment by some. Just over a year later, U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos announced Obama-era guidance on campus sexual assaults would be rolled back due to short shrift given to the accused. Among those she’d heard from: mothers of sons accused of sexual assault.
“It’s easier to just believe that woman over there is a liar than it is to believe this person that I think I know and love has done some really bad thing.” Williams said. “Most of us have a brother, a father, a guy who’s a friend. Men are not this alien class. They are at the center of everyone’s lives, and this is a really painful reckoning for everyone. … A lot of the women see their own implication in these power dynamics.”
These are some of the reasons that discourage reporting. In the case of rape, for instance, victims who report immediately face an intrusive physical exam, while those who wait (sometimes due to PTSD symptoms) no longer have much of the physical evidence best able to prove the crime. For every 1,000 rapes, only 310 are reported to police and of those only seven will lead to a felony conviction, according to the Rape Abuse & Incest National Network. Women who report sexual violence also risk being prosecuted for a false report, as has happened even in cases that later prove true. Students who file sexual assault complaints with their universities are increasingly being sued for defamation by those they accuse, Buzzfeed reported this month.
“The boundary between the social and legal are, in this moment, deeply confused,” said Williams. “Most people are familiar with the idea that in a court of law, a person is innocent until proven guilty. But in the face of the catastrophic failure of the legal system to care for and deliver justice to victims of sexual violence, it is hardly surprising that the court of public opinion has emerged as a proxy for formal adjudication.”
“Justice begins with allowing women and others who have so long been silenced to speak their truth, and to be listened to with respect,” Williams said. “What kind of world do we live in where it comes as some kind of radical demand to take people — including women — at their word?”
But is it really that people don’t believe women or is it that they don’t care? In October 2016, a Washington Post-ABC News poll showed 68% of likely voters thought Donald Trump “probably has made unwanted sexual advances toward women,” but one in five who believed this said they would vote for him anyway. And in Hollywood, many have described the predatory behavior of Harvey Weinstein and Kevin Spacey as an open secret.
“It’s not false accusations that activists should worry about, it’s lack of interest and lack of consequences for men who are credibly accused,” Grigoriadis said.
Another reason to focus elsewhere, experts point out, is that #MeToo was not born overnight.
“The UVA rape story was feared to undo all the progress survivors had made up to that point, but it didn’t,” Grigoriadis said. The conversation about sexual misconduct has been evolving for decades, not just the past two months. This is a moment, but “until society has a reckoning at all levels — where women who aren’t famous white celebrities are also believed and their non-famous, non-wealthy assaulters are also brought to justice — the movement as a whole will continue to be a smokescreen for continuing predation by men who don’t need to fear the national spotlight.”
Others agree that if the #MeToo movement’s ultimate demand is equality, it cannot achieve it without extending beyond Hollywood, Manhattan and the halls of Congress and into the backrooms of hotels and restaurants and the unsafe spaces of little-known towns hosting no-name perpetrators.
“I do think women are at last being believed,” Coontz said. “But I also think if we want this momentum to last, we have to go beyond the salacious horror stories about powerful men and their victims to talk about the problems facing even more vulnerable women.”