The debate over what “believe women” means, explained
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The debate over what “believe women” means, explained

Tara Reade on April 11, 2020. | Max Whittaker/The New York Times/Redux

America still doesn’t know what to do with allegations of sexual assault.

What does it mean to believe women?

It’s a question Joe Biden had to consider last week when he went on national television to address Tara Reade’s accusation that he sexually assaulted her in 1993.

Biden denied the allegation forcefully: “It never, never happened,” he said.

But Morning Joe host Mika Brzezinski pressed him to square that denial with previous comments he’d made about sexual assault. In 2018, when Christine Blasey Ford accused then-Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh of sexual assault, Brzezinski reminded Biden, “You said that women should be believed.”

Brzezinski wanted to know: When it comes to Reade, do different rules apply?

“From the very beginning, I’ve said believing women means taking the woman’s claim seriously when she steps forward, and then vet it,” Biden responded, adding, “In this case, the truth is the claims are false.”

His answer was a reminder of something crucial about the phrase “believe women”: It’s easy to say, and perhaps significantly harder to act upon.

The term, along with the broader “believe survivors,” rose to prominence as the Me Too movement gained national attention in late 2017 and became even more common as a response to the Kavanaugh hearings in 2018. In September of that year, Me Too campaign founder Tarana Burke and other activists led a walkout in support of Ford, encouraging supporters to tweet with the hashtag #BelieveSurvivors.

Over time, the phrases “believe women” and “believe survivors” became broadly used, not only by activists but also by politicians and members of the public. Biden, for example, said in a 2018 PBS interview that “women should be believed.”

But the concept has been controversial almost from the beginning. Critics have charged that the phrase “believe women” is simplistic and implies that women are somehow biologically incapable of lying. But many advocates say that the call to believe women doesn’t mean we shouldn’t investigate allegations. Instead, they say, it’s simply an appeal for people to take such allegations seriously — something American society historically has not done.

The message of “believe survivors” is that when people come forward to report sexual assault and seek support, “Their stories are listened to and are taken into account and are not immediately discredited,” Sage Carson, manager of Know Your IX, a project combating sexual violence at schools and on college campuses, told Vox.

But it’s not always clear what it means to take allegations seriously, especially when they’re made against the presumptive Democratic nominee for president. Biden has called on the National Archives to “identify any record of the complaint [Reade] alleges she filed,” but Reade has asked for a fuller investigation.

Meanwhile, the public is weighing the allegation: 26 percent of Democrats now want a different nominee, according to a Morning Consult poll conducted after the Morning Joe interview (though some respondents may have preferred a different candidate to begin with). And others, including prominent Democrats like Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Kirsten Gillibrand, are lining up behind the former vice president, saying they still support him despite the allegation.

Whatever happens with Reade’s allegation, it’s clear that Democrats are in the midst of a reckoning around what it really means to believe women. “What we’re seeing now with Tara Reade’s story is that there were too many people who jumped on that catchphrase for political purposes,” Lucy Flores, a social justice advocate who wrote at the Cut last year about experiencing an unwanted kiss from Biden, told Vox. “It was very easy to jump on this because it was politically convenient.”

Now, it’s politically inconvenient for Democrats to believe an allegation against their party’s presumptive nominee for president — especially since he’ll face President Trump, who has been accused of sexual misconduct by more than 20 women. And this particular moment in history has focused new attention on what it really means to believe women and what it means to give their stories a fair hearing, even when it’s not easy to do so.

“Believe women” rose to prominence with the Me Too movement

The phrase “believe women” has been around since before the Me Too movement entered its most public phase in October 2017.

But “believe women” became more common as Me Too gained attention. “As America’s very public reckoning with sexual harassment and assault continues, the conversation around ‘believe women’ and #MeToo, inevitably, also becomes more complicated and fractured,” Gillian B. White wrote for the Atlantic in November 2017.

In addition to “believe women,” many activists used the term “believe survivors” in recognition of the fact that people of all genders can experience sexual harassment and assault. And both terms became even more visible during the confirmation hearings for Kavanaugh, who was accused of sexual misconduct by Ford and other women. In September 2018, Washington Post columnist Monica Hesse called the Kavanaugh confirmation process “a test of what it looks like to believe women.”

Hesse argued that a vote on Kavanaugh’s nomination should be postponed until Ford’s allegation could be investigated. “That’s how the Senate can show it believes women,” she wrote. “By saying, We believe women’s stories should be heard. We believe this is a serious enough topic to deserve our attention.”

A few days later, Me Too founder Tarana Burke, along with Planned Parenthood, the National Center for Transgender Equality, and other progressive groups, participated in a nationwide protest called the #BelieveSurvivors walkout. Participants were encouraged to post photos or videos of themselves with the hashtag.

When Kavanaugh was confirmed despite Ford’s testimony, Burke and other advocates wrote a public letter to her. “This letter is our love offering to her so that she has a constant reminder that there is enormous support for her and other survivors like her,” they wrote. “We heard her. We saw her. And we believed her.”

For many, calling for Americans to “believe women” and “believe survivors” is a way to push back against a culture in which people who report sexual misconduct — especially if they are women — have often been automatically disbelieved.

That knee-jerk disbelief is still a problem, many say. When someone comes forward to report sexual misconduct, “we do still very much default to immediately questioning the person telling the story,” Flores said. “We immediately ask, what’s their motive, what is their character like, why are they saying this now? It’s literally a litany of questions that people jump to first and foremost before even processing the entire story.”

People who report assault are also often blamed, shamed for their clothing or sexual behavior, or subjected to public scrutiny. These are some of the reasons why less than a quarter of assaults are reported to police, according to Rainn.org. And only a tiny fraction of assaults that are reported ever lead to a conviction.

Ultimately, in many allegations of sexual assault, only the person reporting the assault and the person accused know firsthand exactly what happened. And for years, American society’s response to that uncertainty has been to discount the person reporting — especially if the person accused is a powerful man. “Believe women” and “believe survivors” are meant as antidotes to that tradition, as calls to question the status quo.

“I understand these phrases sort of as correctives,” said Moira Donegan, a columnist for the Guardian US and the creator of the Shitty Media Men list, a crowdsourced list of men accused of sexual misconduct that roiled the worlds of literature and journalism as Me Too rose to prominence.

“We live in a culture where it is historically presumed that women are both less competent and less honest than men are,” she explained. The call to “believe women,” she said, “asserts women’s capacities as knowers and as credible interpreters of their own experience.”

The concept has often been misinterpreted

But as with many other aspects of the Me Too movement, “believe women” soon inspired backlash.

“The huntresses’ war cry — ‘believe all women’ — has felt like a bracing corrective to a historic injustice,” New York Times opinion editor Bari Weiss wrote in November 2017. “But I also can’t shake the feeling that this mantra creates terrible new problems in addition to solving old ones.”

Weiss was concerned that the call to believe women would leave men with little recourse if they were falsely accused. “In a climate in which sexual mores are transforming so rapidly,” she wrote, “many men are asking: If I were wrongly accused, who would believe me?”

However, many anti-sexual assault advocates say that “believe women” doesn’t mean that women are incapable of lying or that allegations should be accepted without investigation.

“I think that folks have really twisted the idea of what ‘believe survivors’ means, into this idea that you never provide a fair process for folks to go through, you never require there to be reporting mechanisms, you never have formal processes available,” Carson, the Know Your IX manager, told Vox. “That’s simply not true.”

Instead, Carson said, believing survivors means that when someone does report, that person is heard rather than brushed off. “When I worked as an advocate directly with survivors, there were so many times that when someone went to report, they were immediately questioned,” she said. “Believe survivors” is a call for something different, a caution that the first response to a story of assault should not be “trying to discredit that story,” Carson said.

The Biden allegation shows how the catchphrase has become mostly political

In the past several years, many Democrats have expressed support for this message. Even accused men have at least paid lip service to the idea of listening to women. In a 2017 speech announcing his resignation after allegations of sexual misconduct, Sen. Al Franken said, “all women deserve to be heard and their experiences taken seriously.”

And during his Morning Joe interview on Friday, Biden also talked about the importance of hearing women’s claims. “Women are to be believed, given the benefit of the doubt,” he told Brzezinski. “If they come forward and say something that is, that they said happened to them, they should start off with the presumption they’re telling the truth. Then you have to look at the circumstances and the facts.”

What’s less clear, especially in the statements of accused men, is what hearing women really means. Biden’s position on Reade’s allegation is that the “circumstances and facts” in the case have already been examined and found wanting. As he put it, “the facts in this case do not exist.”

However, several people have come forward to corroborate that Reade told them about the alleged assault in the 1990s. Others, including Reade, are now pressing Biden to allow an investigation of his papers held at the University of Delaware to see if a complaint filed by Reade is held there. Biden has resisted this, though he has called on the National Archives to release any record of a complaint by Reade from his time in the Senate. “If there was ever any such complaint, the record will be there,” he said in a statement ahead of the Morning Joe interview.

Absent further evidence, that leaves the decision of how to think about Reade’s allegation up to voters. Despite the work of the Me Too movement, we haven’t yet truly developed the tools to do that.

For Flores, the concept of believing women “never got its due conversation” because it too quickly became a way for people to oppose political opponents, like Kavanaugh. “We’re never going to get to the foundation of this problem if we’re constantly talking about it in a political context,” Flores said.

The case of Kavanaugh was an easier one for Democrats for a number of reasons. Kavanaugh was a Trump appointee who was seen as hostile to many Democratic priorities; it was in Democrats’ political interests not to have him on the Supreme Court. Moreover, Ford lived up to many of society’s expectations — however unfair — about how survivors of sexual assault should behave. Juries and consumers of media often expect survivors to remember their assaults perfectly, to be scrupulously clear when describing highly traumatic events, and to be emotional but not too emotional in recounting their pain.

Americans’ “ideas of perfect victimhood are so pervasive that I know survivors, including myself, often try to shift ourselves to fit into these perfect molds, so we are less likely to be picked apart,” Carson said. Ford happened to fit into the mold relatively well: She did not remember every detail from the night she described, but she was consistent and clear, emotional yet contained, and a powerful speaker when she testified before the Senate.

Reade, meanwhile, has offered different versions of her account. Last year, she said that Biden had touched her in ways that made her uncomfortable — an allegation similar to those made by Flores and others. But this year, she said he also assaulted her. While many Democratic voters may have been willing to forgive the allegations from several women of inappropriate touching — Biden said in April 2019 that he was an affectionate person but would be more mindful of boundaries — assault is more concerning.

At the same time, Reade has come in for criticism due to her support of Sen. Bernie Sanders and her writings in praise of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Some have suggested she may be a Russian plant. Overall, while Ford came close to society’s ideal of a “perfect” survivor, Reade does not.

Moreover, it’s not clear what it would mean to take Reade’s account seriously. While some voters want to see a new nominee, others — including Me Too advocate Alyssa Milano — seem to be arguing for the possibility of believing Reade, or at least giving her a hearing, and nominating Biden anyway. “It falls upon women to navigate within the system of men’s design to make pragmatic choices that we hope will lead us to a more equal future,” Milano wrote in an April op-ed. “I still support Joe Biden because I believe that’s the best choice for that future.”

In general, the allegation against Biden puts voters “in a really unfair position,” Donegan said. On the one hand, they’re faced with supporters of Biden “perpetuating some myths about women as either incompetent or insincere with the supposed aim of reducing harm by fighting to deny Donald Trump a second term.” On the other, they see opponents of Biden, including supporters of Trump and Sen. Bernie Sanders, “who are sort of looking to use Tara Reade and by extension the pain of survivors as a moral shield for which to further their own interests.”

“You see women’s pain being used as a tool for the agendas of men,” Donegan said.

The way to move forward and examine what it means to believe women

A real conversation about believing survivors has to address not just the public reaction to allegations of sexual misconduct, but the options people have when they experience such misconduct in the first place, some advocates say. “The hope, at least for me, around ‘believe survivors’ is that we can start building better paths forward,” Carson said, “that don’t force survivors to have to out themselves in the media and bring attention they may not want to themselves.”

Reade’s allegation is an opportunity for reform, both in Congress and elsewhere, so that “we can have fair and unbiased processes that survivors can come forward and report violence they experience, and that they can get a process that is unbiased, that is fair and that is respectful of them, and that can give them a meaningful outcome,” Carson said.

And for Donegan, it’s an opportunity for a wider inquiry into the bargains that female voters are asked to accept. “We need to be thinking more critically about what women’s citizenship and political responsibilities as voters really mean when we are being asked to reduce harm for the many at the expense of our own dignity,” she said.

With Reade’s claim still being litigated on social media and TV news — and Trump accused of sexual harassment or assault by multiple women, some of whom he has publicly shamed — it’s hard to imagine a world where such processes are the norm.

But change has to start somewhere. For Flores, it’s a slow process of cultural shift, driven by “these conversations that we’re having now again, journalists that are covering these topics, thought leaders that then go on to publish conversations about this.”

That process might be slow, but it’s how we move forward as a society, Flores believes. A former Nevada legislator, she thinks about the fact that, just a few decades ago, women weren’t allowed to wear pants on the state legislative floor. “No one can fathom this concept now of a woman not being able to wear pants to work,” she said, but it took a steady process of changing attitudes to get us to this point.

“That’s the way that I think about progress in general,” she said. “It’s so many little steps, but they all begin to happen at the same time.”


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