#19: “Believe all Women”

Here we go again. A leading public figure is accused of untoward behavior towards a woman, but it seems politically expedient by some to not look into that behavior too closely for obviously political considerations. Where the rallying cry used to be “Believe all Women”, this call seems muted now, somehow less relevant.

Now, in principle, there is the presumption of innocence. Should we always believe the accuser? Should we always automatically prejudge the accused as guilty? Of course not. But there’s a caveat.

“Believe all women” surely does not mean to believe against evidence. It means, however, to believe that survivors of sexual assault typically do not speak about it all too easily, on the contrary. Most survivors stay silent. “Believe all women” is addressed to a society still deeply plagued by so-called “traditional” role models.

I am a biological male. I am not a woman. I cannot speak for women. My role as a man, as uncomfortable as that may well be for someone who does not condone sexual assault, is to listen very closely and compassionately to accusers. I have friends who are survivors. Most people do. I would venture to guess that everyone knows someone who is a survivor of sexual violence, and if you do not know, assume this is the case. Sexual violence is frighteningly common, and astonishingly frequently tolerated by both men and other women. Far too many women find excuses for their husbands, should the husbands commit assault on other women. Ever more men do well contribute to a societal discourse of openly or secretly objectifying women.

“Sexual violence” is not sexual, it is violence, pure and simple. Sex should be an act of love, of passion, of mutuality and consensuality. Sexual offenses are predatory behavior, and survivors are typically not believed.

“Believe all women” means to give the accuser the initial benefit of the doubt, and yes, it may well mean that the burden of proof could very well be reversed. Let’s call it a critical presumption of innocence.

Surely, false accusations do happen, and it is a severe disservice to victims that this is the case. However, these seem to be in the minority. We have seen high-profile cases in the past that certainly ruined some people’s lives, but typically, they were not quite innocent.

Sexuality is confusing, love is confusing, and if you are young, your life may be much more under the control of hormones than you would like. But this is different from predatory behavior, from behavior that takes women for granted, that only sees in them a means for gratification. Typically, such offenders have a pattern of unwelcome approaches or advances, and the more powerful the accused, the more critical we should be.

“Believe all women” means that in any such case, a rigorous examination should be welcomed by all parties. If the accused is innocent, then he and his allies should enthusiastically endorse such an investigation. After all, what is there to hide?

Don’t mistake this for an endorsement of so-called witch-hunts (“witch” is gender-neutral). Surely, there is the danger than an innocent person could be dragged through the mud and be victimized. We need to be aware of that, and proceed carefully and diligently. But being “presumed innocent” only means not to come to a final judgement before evidence is presented and both parties can be heard. We need to have due process, and “believe all women” is simply a call to never callously and self-interestedly throw out such an accusation without such a process. That’s all.

And above all, respect the accuser, because the likelihood she is telling the truth is typically high. This is why Joe Biden was part of the movement to push Title IX reform, which basically means to “believe all women.” As he would say, “come on, man!”