Deciding Who to Believe
Updated: May 12
TW: sexual assault
I read Malcolm Gladwell's "Talking to Strangers" last week, which is about the assumptions we use to create our perceptions of others, particularly when it comes to truth vs deception. He examines cases such as Brock Turner's and Jerry Sandusky's and what caused people to doubt their crimes. He discusses injustices such as occurred with Amanda Knox and Sandra Bland and what caused them to be perceived as criminals by the law enforcement officials associating with them. He assesses our expectations of how we think people should act in certain scenarios and provides arguments about how those expectations can be very wrong.
As I was reading it, I was thinking a lot about cases of sexual assault (even outside of the cases in the book specifically related to this topic). Why are the accusers so often dismissed? Why, for instance, might so many believe Joe Biden over Tara Reade? (I'm not here to say what happened or tell anyone what to think. I mention this case because it's currently in the news. Anyone who knows me knows I certainly would not be trying to encourage voting for the Republican candidate who has a pattern of unacceptable and abhorrent behaviors and actions, and for whom many of his most fervent supporters likely simply don't care how he treats women. Sub in the names Brett Kavanaugh and Dr. Christine Blasey Ford for a case that received a lot more attention and landed in the same way.) Joe Biden is an old white man. He looks like he's probably nice. He acts generally confidently. He's associated with President Obama. He was featured in commonly loved silly Biden memes. He's made previous positive political actions in general and for women specifically. Many assume something would have come up publicly before if he'd in fact sexually assaulted someone. In light of all that, he's given the benefit of the doubt, and people ignore his previous widely noted frankly creepy touching of women, his role in the Anita Hill hearings, and public lies such as being arrested in South Africa and his involvement in the civil rights movement. Tara Reade is a woman we don't know much about. There's no context in which to place her. People focus on allegations of her stealing in the past. Many assume ulterior motives when someone without power speaks against someone with it. The public has expectations about when and how someone should process, respond to, and report a sexual assault. Society constantly blames and shames women about anything that has to do with sex or our bodies.
The last two of the these are the most pervasive and generally most problematic. For some reason, there's this public perception that someone who is sexually assaulted will always immediately report it to law enforcement/authority figures, that there will be definitive evidence, that the assailant will be arrested or reprimanded in some way, that it would be obvious in the subsequent behavior of the victim/survivor that something had happened.
There is no right way to respond to an assault. No one gets to decide what traumatizes someone else and how they handle that trauma. There are many obstacles to reporting. We ingrain a sense of guilt into women about these issues from a young age, causing them often to question or blame themselves, making it difficult to know if they should even report (I am NOT suggesting only women are sexually assaulted). There is rarely physical evidence. Most assailants will never face the consequences of their actions - EVEN in circumstances when the victim/survivor IS able to report the incident AND provide evidence.
A few years ago when I was 30, I thought back and was able to identify at least one major specific impressionable incident of harassment, inappropriate behavior, or assault that occurred to me every year of my reproductive life from 15 years old onward. I mention this not for people to feel sorry or bad for me but to note how common this is, how much this is essentially a routine and expected part of women's lives. These events ranged from a man stalking me through the streets of a town in a foreign country one evening to the friend of a guy I was dating repeatedly groping my butt despite me repeatedly telling him to stop while we all walked to an event together (and the guy I was dating simply laughing) to someone who a second before had been apologizing to me about his previous behavior toward me then masturbating on me while I cried to incidents that I'm not comfortable sharing publicly. It started with awkward, naive 15-year-old me being blamed that a guy with a girlfriend climbed on top of me and kissed me while I sat stunned and motionless. After it was clear that he'd manipulated the story and tried to make me the bad guy, one of my friends continued talking with him regularly "because he was nice". The message through it all: what happened to me didn't matter, it was my fault anyway, and his virtues were more valid than my emotions. I carried that message with me, and with almost all those other incidents, I blamed myself in some way or brushed it off as a joke or decided I was overreacting or justified it based on previous consensual encounters or simply felt I wasn't worthy of better treatment and that it didn't matter. I talked to friends about some but not all of these incidents. If I brought any of them to public light now, I wouldn't necessarily be able to supply direct witnesses or people who could vouch that I'd shared the story with them at the time or after. I don't have any physical evidence. I've lived through it all and have a very happy life. I can admit that I am certainly not a perfect person and have made my share of mistakes. I'm definitely not famous or powerful. Does that mean none of this ever happened to me? Does that invalidate my experiences? Does that make me a liar? Does that mean I haven't been forever impacted by these events? If you didn't know me, would you believe me (or care) if I made a public statement about one of these incidents years later? I know that even going to law enforcement with the contact information of an assailant does not necessarily result in justice. I'm a privileged cis heterosexual white woman who could easily report an incident right away. Many people who experience sexual assault do not have these advantages; what hope do they have? For most - even those who experience the most horrific assaults - it makes most sense to just ignore, repress, and try to move on. That's not okay.
When I see vitriol aimed at people who come forward with reports of sexual assault, flippant attitudes about what's "bad enough" to cause someone trauma, and regulations that make it even more difficult for victims/survivors to find justice, it makes me sad, angry, and fearful of the world we are shaping for ourselves and for future generations.
Please carefully consider the assumptions you make in creating your opinions and perceptions of others, and always remember to be kind.