One of the howls that has emerged from the #MeToo stories and the ongoing breaking news about accusations of sexual harassment, sexual assault, abuse, and rape in multiple industries is the objection to those who say we should believe women when they come forward.
“But what about the women who falsely accuse men?” is the inevitable reaction, regardless of how many statistics from multiple countries on the low rate of false reports are cited. I am pretty sure this will always be a knee-jerk reaction to the notion of believing women.
Would the howls stop if we said instead that when a woman comes forward with an accusation that she is taken seriously? Can we please at least get to that point?
This is not about denigrating the vital legal principle of innocence until proven guilty. However, it is about treating women with respect when they come forward to report something that is incredibly serious.
Because there is no other crime where the accuser, the alleged victim, is not taken seriously.
When someone reports a burglary, the initial response is not usually: “But were you really burglarized? Are you sure you didn’t just put the TV in another room? Maybe you sold all that jewelry and you just forgot about it.” Yet a woman is often made to question her judgement, to second-guess herself, to ask herself if she really was sexually assaulted, as if her memory is failing her.
When I was sexually assaulted and called the police, the first thing I was asked was: “Are you sure? Are you just making this up?”. As if I was calling for a lark on the weekend, as if that is how I planned to spend my day off.
If someone is burglarized after leaving the house with a door or window left open, the worst they might get is to be made to feel a bit silly, but they are not going to be made to feel like they were totally asking to be robbed. Yet women are accused of “asking for it” all the time with the short skirt or the low-cut neckline or the tight dress being the unlocked door equivalent for a woman’s body.
When I was sexually assaulted, I was asked what I was wearing. Instead of telling the amateur Perry Mason on the other end of the phone to ‘fuck off,’ I sheepishly said I was wearing a knee-length red dress and black tights. The tights were torn in the assault, for God’s sake. The neckline on my dress was not low, yet my attacker managed to scratch my chest, drawing blood.
Or maybe the woman was not sexually assaulted while being dressed “provocatively”, whatever the hell that means except to insult men by implying that they are a pack of sex-crazed beasts with no self-control, and to insult women by removing our agency and implying that we should all dress like nuns at all times to protect ourselves.
Maybe she was assaulted in her own home by a man that she lives with, while she was dressed in a onesie and slippers, or maybe she was assaulted by a man whom she invited into her house, which could be for any number of reasons.
But what if you threw a party and got robbed? What if the block party kicked off after the kids had gone to bed and a few neighbors went over to yours for a few more adult beverages, and you later discover some of your belongings had vanished? Most people’s reaction would be: “How terrible. You invite some people over and that’s all the thanks you get!” rather than “Well, you were asking to be robbed by being so hospitable!”.
Yet that is how women are made to feel when they are attacked in their own homes. If a plumber comes over and steals your cash when you’re not looking, you might get more sympathy than if the plumber raped you instead of unclogging the toilet.
Throw a party and if you’re raped while a bit drunk, you will probably be blamed for your attack in a way that would not happen if you were robbed instead.
If you were drunk when you were robbed, you will probably get more sympathy than the woman who was drunk when she was sexually assaulted.
“Contemplate that – a woman may get more sympathy for a stolen purse than a violation of her body.”
And then there is the old chestnut about why a woman didn’t speak up at the time.
Obviously, I would urge every woman, girl, man or boy who has been sexually assaulted to speak up, to report it, to tell someone. But if there is a real likelihood of being interrogated about everything from choice of clothing, to alcohol consumption, to sexual history, to why you were alone with that person in the first place, there are plenty of reasons why someone felt as if they couldn’t come forward.
When I was sexually assaulted, I reported it quickly but I was asked why I didn’t scream. I did scream. Anyone who has known me for more than two minutes would probably not be surprised to know that I yelled and screamed. I told the officer I screamed. I was then asked why nobody came to help me.
Fortunately, I managed to get away before I was raped but even if I froze in fear and didn’t make a sound, it would not lessen the seriousness of what happened to me. There is no correct way to react when someone has pushed you off a footpath, shoved one hand down your neckline and the other hand under your dress when you are walking home after being unable to find a taxi.
And if you have ever slagged off a woman for being too mouthy, for having the temerity to be loud or outspoken, or you have tried to silence her for making herself heard, you have no right to demand to know why a woman didn’t make more noise at the time of her attack. If you are telling any girls in your life to be quiet and demure, to never speak up or make a scene or draw attention to herself, you are part of the problem.
Women are routinely told to shut up in a way that men, in general, are not. An outspoken woman may be seen as a bitch, as a mouthy cow, while an outspoken man is more likely to be seen as assertive, powerful, statesmanlike.
If we raise our girls to be demure, fearful women, who don’t feel as though they can speak up, then of course it will take days, weeks, months and even years for women to come forward when they have been sexually assaulted.
So we could argue until we are blue in the face about whether believing women is the right language to use here. Or we could quit being collective brutes as a society and treat attacks on our bodies with the same seriousness that we give to stolen material goods.
Whether it’s an accused rapist or an accused burglar in the dock, they both have the right to the presumption of innocence until proven guilty in a court of law. But the people who report the crimes deserve respect too.
My body is not the same as a stolen television.
An alternative slant may be found here.
Georgia Lewis is a journalist,
car enthusiast, and queen of snark.