Opinion: "We Believe Women"
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of the Sanford Journal of Public Policy.
Every 98 seconds someone is sexually assaulted in America. Every 8 minutes, that victim is a child. False claims of sexual assault account for only 2 to 10% of all accusations.
Ines Hercovich, a sociologist and social psychologist who spent her life researching discrimination against women and sexual violence, says that 1 in 4 women either has been or will be the victim of sexual assault. Only 10% will report the incident. Of the 90% who choose not to report, half of them will keep quiet because the assault involves a family member or close friend. The other half will remain silent because they don’t think anyone will believe them. “And we won’t,” she says. “We don't believe [women] because when a woman tells what happened to her, she tells us things we can't imagine, things that disturb us, things we don't expect to hear, things that shock us.”
Hercovich goes on to say, that to avoid the discomfort of really listening, we either blame the victim (look what she was wearing), or victimize her by tuning in to the parts of the story that confirm our own biases about rape (it occurred in a remote location, the man had a gun, the door was locked).
But rarely is assault tidy or linear. Rarely does it fit within our neat narrative of the world. And so, to believe a woman—or women, writ large—is uncomfortable.
That a woman could be assaulted by two acquaintances, in an upstairs bedroom, while a small gathering takes place downstairs is unnerving to consider. That it could occur in a posh Maryland suburb feels ever so slightly off. It calls into question our basic assumptions about the way in which the world works.
But as a fellow classmate said to me, “This isn’t an abstract issue. This isn’t a big W women’s issue, it is the woman next to you, across from you. It is the friend who hasn’t told you, and the girlfriend who never will.”
I sat with a group of Sanford students Thursday morning, and I watched as Dr. Christine Blasey Ford spoke with care in detailing the alleged assault. Her words were perfect, detailed, clear. She paused before she answered, breath in throat, to consider. She corrected inconsistencies, highlighted ambiguities, and kept her composure. A piece of hair rested in front of her eyes for much of the early testimony, and I couldn't help but wonder if she didn’t brush it away for fear of revealing the extent to which her hands were shaking.
The twelve Republicans on the committee sat above her, their faces stoic, each silent during their allotted five minutes—each ceding their time to a prosecutor.
It was not a trial. Which makes the fact that the Republicans flew in a female prosecutor an odd choice. Perhaps it was optics. Certainly, twelve men—all white and mostly old—questioning a woman about an alleged assault is not a good look. Some pundits argued it was so that the lawyer would catch Dr. Blasey Ford in a lie—and in doing so, discredit her testimony.
But in the days since the hearing, I’ve begun to think it was a deliberate attempt to create the appearance of a trial. Because since Thursday I’ve heard “innocent until proven guilty” so many times I fear my head might explode. Innocent until proven guilty is the standard of proof in criminal cases where a conviction results in a sentencing. In civil cases, the burden of proof is a preponderance of evidence. And a preponderance of evidence is about: Is it more likely than not that the event in question did in fact happen?
But it also seems like the threshold for appointing someone to the Supreme Court, the highest court in the land, should be even lower. Closer to: Are we almost positive that Brett Kavanaugh did not attempt to rape a fifteen year old girl when he was a senior in high school?
Brett Kavanaugh looked like a man undone on Thursday. He raised his voice, acted belligerently, revealed an unnerving temper. He was emotional, angry, and—at times—unhinged. He was everything women aren’t allowed to be.
And then the men stepped in. They calmed him. Assuaged his anger. Justified his righteous indignation. And in doing so, they erased the testimony of Dr. Blasey Ford. His anger was more important, his hurt more real, his “hell” more credible.
And by the day’s end, it was as if Dr. Blasey Ford hadn’t spoken at all.
90 to 98% of accusations are credible—this is backed up by academic research. “We believe women” isn’t a partisan stance, it is evidence-based policy. Or, well, it should be.
But “we believe women” isn’t just about women, it’s about all survivors of sexual assault—of which 82 to 90% are women. And it’s a nod to the fact that when it’s a “he said, she said,” the scale almost always tips in favor of the he.
My worst fears were confirmed as I sat watching the testimony on Thursday. We value the word of men and women differently. We think a man’s pain is somehow more real than a woman’s. Men get to be angry, emotional, undone, and women must be soft-spoken, composed, deferential. Credible, by any other name.
“Is this good?” Dr. Blasey Ford asked early into her testimony.
And it was. It just wasn’t good enough. Because for women in America today, there’s no such thing.
Meg Fee is a second-year student at the Duke Sanford School of Public Policy focusing on the application of Human Centered Design to social issues.