Though there has been no shortage of scandals involving the intersection of sex and power over the decades, this time, it feels like something different is happening in our culture.
In another time, the revelations against Harvey Weinstein may have been a big controversy for a week or two, and then we would have moved on. But this time, it seems like the dam has broken. Ever since the initial stories about Weinstein emerged last month, women have come out to share their stories about being subject to reprehensible male behavior, particularly in fields connected to power — Hollywood, media, and politics. And there appears to be no end in sight.
The stories that have been told are disturbing and harrowing. Hopefully, however, they will help create an environment in which women who have been subject to harassment or assault feel more comfortable coming forward, in which male abusers are shamed (and brought to justice where possible), and decent men in the position to do something actively work to stop predators well before they compile a catalogue of victims.
For things to change, though, it will be important for women accusers to be taken seriously, and for their claims to be evaluated based on their merits, without regard to who is being accused, and what the ramifications are for people’s preferred party or policies. An environment in which people are eager to weaponize accusations against their political opponents and dismiss them when levied against their political allies will create a barrier to real progress.
Saying that women accusers should be taken seriously is not the same thing as saying every woman who makes an accusation against a man should be automatically believed, without considering the facts or hearing any defense or explanation. If a person who is accused points out inconsistencies in a story, or highlights aspects of the account that are verifiably untrue, or raises reasonable questions about whether it could have happened as described, those counterclaims shouldn’t be dismissed simply out of an ideological commitment to the idea that we must believe all accusers. It’s important to remember, however, that in well-publicized hoax cases that are often pointed to — Tawana Brawley, Duke Lacrosse, and the University of Virginia — the stories fell apart when key details of the accounts did not hold up.
But oftentimes that’s not what we get when it comes to attempts to discredit female accusers among partisans. Defenders of former President Bill Clinton smeared accusers as trailer trash, and dismissed Monica Lewinsky as a whore, slut, and stalker. Defenders of Roy Moore have focused on the fact that accusations depicted events from decades ago and made unsubstantiated suggestions that the Washington Post was going around paying Alabama women to make up accusations against the Senate candidate. On Twitter this week, some defenders of Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., were sending out photos of accuser Leeann Tweeden in Playboy, as if that somehow undermines her story or makes Franken’s groping of her while sleeping OK. Donald Trump’s many accusers were dismissed by his supporters as politically-motivated, even though they were describing the very type of behavior he boasted about on the “Access Hollywood” tape.
These sorts of defenses are not very convincing or discrediting to accusers. To start, coming forward with a public accusation against somebody powerful is not generally going to bring fortune or fame (or at least not the type of fame that most people would want). Women generally don’t want to be want to be brought into the public eye as victims, and especially when accusing somebody in politics, exposed to opposition research teams seeking to discredit them by bringing up anything unflattering in their pasts, even if it is completely irrelevant. Somebody who is not an angel could still be a victim.
Also, the time elapsed between when an event took place and when an accusation is made should not be used to discredit an accuser. I know women who have shared terrible experiences with me that occurred in old places they worked in, or elsewhere, of varying degrees of seriousness that never went reported.
There are many reasons why women could remain silent for years or even decades. It could be because they feared consequences of taking on somebody more powerful; or because they worried nobody would believe them; or because they assumed nothing would happen; or because they were ashamed and blamed themselves in some way; or because they didn’t want the attention; or simply because it was a traumatic or gross experience that they just wanted to try and forget about rather than re-live. All of those explanations are reasonable and consistent with psychological research into how victims grapple with their experiences.
What’s happened in the wake of the Weinstein allegations is that there’s been a culture shift. Women are starting to realize that if they come forward, they will be taken seriously and receive support, that there is strength in numbers, and that there can be consequences for those in power. As awful as it is to read these stories, this is a positive development. As difficult as it may be for women to come forward, the reality is that there are decent people who want to help, but they cannot do so without information on which to act.
It would be tragic to squander this long-overdue moment because of partisanship. The policy should not be, I will err on the side of believing accusations against politicians I don’t like, and err on the side of portraying anybody who accuses those I do like as being gold-digging whores. No party has a monopoly on virtue, and we have seen that there are disgusting men of every ideological stripe.
The policy should be, accusations should be treated seriously and evaluated on a case-by-case basis. And everybody accused should be given a chance to offer a defense. And we shouldn’t let our partisan or ideological blinders get in the way of rendering judgment.