Is “Believe Women” being distorted for political gain or was it always flawed?

Is “Believe Women” being distorted for political gain or was it always flawed?
Source: Damon Winter/The New York Times
Though the #MeToo movement has incontrovertibly had a global impact, the language of the movement is easily weaponized.

On September 8, “Always Believe the Victim” trended on Twitter. Multiple new Twitter accounts had been created to make claims that a popular K-pop singer, Kim Woojin, had committed sexual assault. Though the accounts were anonymous and quickly deleted or suspended, the accusations spread, mostly via other anonymous accounts.

Woojin has denied the accusations but the backlash was immediate, with fans taking to social media to publicly burn and tear up his merchandise.

“Always Believe the Victim” is a variation on the “Believe Women” refrain that is attached to the #MeToo movement. Another common variation is “Believe All Women,” which, like “Always Believe the Victim,” exerts an absolutism that many are concerned can distort and undermine the sentiment’s original meaning.

Though the #MeToo movement has incontrovertibly had a global impact, the language of the movement is easily weaponized.

The politics of sexual assault

Both of the men campaigning to be president in 2020 – President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden – have been accused of sexual assault and other sexual misconduct.

Biden spent several weeks in the first half of 2020 denying that he had assaulted a former congressional aide, Tara Reade. Trump, who has been accused of assault by multiple women, is currently being sued by journalist and advice columnist E. Jean Carroll after he accused her of lying about being raped by him.

The sexual assault accusations haven’t hindered either man’s presidential run. Dozens of women accused Trump prior to him winning in 2016 and Carroll’s accusation, which came in 2019, doesn’t appear to have made any more of an impact. Meanwhile, Biden not only secured the Democratic nomination since Reade’s accusation, but he is leading Trump in the polls.

When polled on the issue in May, belief or disbelief in the accusations against the respective men largely followed political allegiances. Only 14% of Democrats thought Reade’s allegations were credible, as opposed to 55% of Republicans. Conversely, 14% of Republicans believed the multiple accusations against Trump were credible, compared to 70% of Democrats. Overall, 41% of adults in the United States believed the allegations against Trump and 31% believed Biden’s accuser.

Nearly three years since the #MeToo movement made “Believe Women” a term of support for victims of sexual assault and rape, the issue of whether or not to believe accusers has clearly been politicized.

Believe Tara Reade?

In May 2020, Vox journalist Laura McGann described how she personally wrestled with Reade’s allegations against Biden. At the time Reade approached McGann, the story she was sharing was that Biden had touched her inappropriately. McGann was never able to verify the facts of the story and did not directly report on it.

Reade went public with her accusations of inappropriate touching in a local California paper, The Union, in April 2019. Then, on a March 2020 episode of The Katie Halper Show, Reade detailed an interaction with the then-senator that she described as sexual assault.

As McGann notes, while eight women had accused Biden of touching them inappropriately, Reade was the only one to accuse him of sexual assault. And that was only after she had initially made accusations of inappropriate touching.

In the piece Reade wrote for The Union, she wrote of Biden touching her and how it bothered her. But she did not call it sexual assault, writing, “this is not a story about sexual misconduct; it is a story about abuse of power.”

McGann unequivocally states that inconsistencies in Reade’s story do not prove them wrong. Victims of rape are never “perfect” victims and there is no right way to respond. For journalists though, a desire to uphold the “Believe Women” ethos doesn’t negate their need to do their due diligence. Reade reportedly approached multiple news outlets with her story, none of which ran with it.

Reade’s rape allegation came out when she spoke to Katie Halper and, later, Ryan Grim, both of whom have been vocal critics of Biden. The political opinions of the reporters also do not negate Reade’s claims, but it raises questions about their objectivity as journalists, especially if other journalists found the evidence unconvincing.

Calls for Biden to drop out

In the wake of Reade’s accusations, criticism of Biden – and calls for him to drop out of the race – came from both the left and the far-right. Republicans, for the most part, didn’t address the issue, with Trump only saying he hoped the accusation was false. “I’ve had many false accusations made,” the president said.

Perhaps because the accusations first gained traction in leftist journalistic circles – Grim is the Washington, DC Bureau Chief for the Intercept and regularly criticizes the Democratic Party and supports progressive candidates – the calls for Biden to drop out were amplified by supporters of Senator Bernie Sanders.

However, Reade’s story could not be collaborated by The New York Times and a Politico investigation of Reade’s “deceitful” past put her claims under a harsh light. Neither definitively disproved Reade’s claims – it’s unlikely that could ever happen – but it did give enough cover for supporters of Biden to dismiss the claims, which polling suggests many have.

Turning “Believe Women” into “Believe All Women”

In a November 2017 New York Times editorial, former Times columnist and editor Bari Weiss wrote about “The Limits of ‘Believe All Women.’” The column, published less than two months after Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein was outed for multiple instances of sexual abuse and assault, was criticized as distorting the burgeoning #MeToo movement.

Weiss wrote, “I believe that the ‘believe all women’ vision of feminism unintentionally fetishizes women. Women are no longer human and flawed. They are Truth personified. They are above reproach.”

Weiss argued the phrase could easily be abused by dishonest actors manufacturing sexual assault claims. As an example, she discussed a story the conservative Project Veritas attempted to feed to The Washington Post about then-congressional candidate Roger Moore impregnating a teenager. They hoped to get the Post to publish a false story about a Republican politician to discredit the paper.

As Sady Doyle notes in her Elle critique of Weiss’ piece, though, the Roger Moore story wasn’t published exactly because the story was vetted. Doyle argues, “Not only are feminists not abandoning the need to responsibly investigate assault and harassment claims, they’re turning the tenets of responsible investigation into hashtags.”

Doyle adds, “‘False rape allegations’ are nowhere near enough of a threat to justify derailing #MeToo and its quest to bring justice to survivors. False allegations exist—but they’re rare, they’re bizarre, and they’re easy to expose.”

Experts put the number of false rape allegations at between 2% and 10%.

The Alex Morse story

In early August, a progressive Democratic candidate for Congress, Alex Morse, who is gay, was accused of sexual impropriety by students at the University of Massachusetts Amherst where he was an adjunct professor. A group of students wrote a letter accusing Morse of predatory behavior toward students as young as 18.

An investigation by Grim and The Intercept unearthed text messages and emails that appeared to show the accusations were a coordinated effort to smear Morse in favor of the incumbent Democrat, Richard Neal. In the words of The New York Times, Morse was “vindicated.” Nonetheless, Morse lost his primary challenge to Neal on September 1.

Before an investigation of the Morse accusations occurred, Grim’s initial reaction to the story was to ask, “Why do we need to have an opinion on this?” Though his immediate dismissal of the situation appears justified in hindsight, it certainly appeared to be an inconsistent stance from one of the main journalists behind the Reade story.

What the Morse story reveals is the willingness to weaponize both gay sexuality and the “Always Believe the Victim” ethos.

Weaponizing “Believe All Women”

Though Weiss’ November 2017 was pilloried by feminists at the time, the Morse situation does appear to validate her concern that bad-faith actors will weaponize the #MeToo movement and “Believe All Women” against their opponents.

Writing in The Atlantic in May, Megan Garber noted how Fox News and other conservative outlets seemed to be relishing in the Reade story and how little coverage other mainstream news outlets were giving it. Of course, the story did get considerable coverage, but the narrative quickly arose that, in the words of the Boston Herald, “Democrats say ‘believe all women’ – just not Tara Reade.”

Garber argues that the phrase “Believe All Women” is a distortion of “Believe Women,” which “was meant not as an imperative but as a corrective—to centuries’ worth of assumptions about women as unreliable narrators of their own lives.” The point was not to claim women didn’t (or couldn’t) lie, but that if a woman (or man) makes an accusation, take it as credible – not as fact.

Many conservatives, though, dispute that “Believe All Women” is a distortion. Instead, they say the Democrats accepted its absolutism when it was used against conservative figures, as when Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh was accused of rape by Christine Blasey Ford. It was only when the accusations were turned against Biden, they claim, that “Believe Women” gained its nuance.

Another writer for The Atlantic, Helen Lewis, took it further, calling “Believe Women” a “trap.” While the phrase was made with good intentions, Lewis says, “its catchiness disguised its weakness: The phrase is too reductive, too essentialist, too open to misinterpretation.”

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