A Quick Primer on ‘Believe Women’

Richmond was rocked once again by controversy involving a statewide Democrat; this time, Lt. Governor (and Governor-in-waiting) Justin Fairfax is the subject of a “he said, she said” sexual assault allegation. The Post detailed the allegations, and the woman at the center of it has retained counsel as the case moves into the Court of Public Opinion. With how rapidly new revelations have been come out over the past five days, it seems prudent to, as the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus announced they are doing, “continue to assess this developing situation.”

But we are living in an ugly age of politics, so of course not everyone is treating this matter as sensitively as wisdom would dictate. Sadly but quite predictably, there has been a wave of Republicans invoking schadenfreude in light of a prominent Democrat being embroiled in a sex scandal, nevermind the long, long history of men in both parties (and in media, and in Hollywood, and in the corporate world, and in, and in, and in …) abusing power dynamics.

Schadenfreude means taking pleasure in another’s misfortune. Who’s misfortune exactly are we supposed to be reveling in? The actual victim here is the accuser, who felt violated and assaulted after her 2004 encounter with Fairfax. Are we taking pleasure in this happening to Fairfax, a husband and father of two young kids whose only transgression against Republicans as far as I can ascertain is to be a Democratic politician? That’s what we’ve become?

No, quite obviously, the schadenfreude is directed at the Democratic Party as a whole; Fairfax, his family, and his accuser (you know, the ones facing actual life-changing consequences) are just stand-ins. The joke goes: women accused Donald Trump and Brett Kavanaugh of sexual assault, and Democrats demanded that we take them seriously; so now that someone is accusing a Democrat of sexual assault, we have to take her seriously too, right?

Well, yes; to the extent circumstances allow, that’s exactly what that means. And that’s what is happening right now. So where’s the joke?

Is the joke that Democrats are now facing the consequences of the monster they’ve unleashed against Republicans? I guess that means Justin Fairfax should receive a lifetime appointment to political office.

No, the joke is that too many Republicans, corrupted by tribalism or envisioning themselves as counter-revolutionaries in the culture war, have missed the entire point of the movement that has been condensed down to “Believe Women;” and in missing the point, they reveal the reason why the movement had to exist in the first place.

First things first, the call to action is to “believe women,” not “believe all women.” The distinction is important, because it latter implies that we should throw facts, thinking, judgment, and fairness out the window in the name of empowering women above men. That’s the same sort of misinterpretation that led some to think that “Black Lives Matter” meant other lives do not. This could be done intentionally, to fight against a strawman; it could be also be done because sometimes empathy is difficult. Either way, if you find yourself typing, “but I thought we were supposed to believe all women”… just stop.

Moving on, let’s establish what “Believe Women” does not mean: it doesn’t mean that every man is always guilty.

This is why nonsensical ploys to weaponize sexual assault allegations didn’t pan out when used by a right-wing troll against Robert Mueller, or that time Project Veritas clumsily tried to get the Washington Post to run an invented accusation.

But even when it comes to legitimate allegations, it still does not mean that every man is always guilty. Sometimes the truth is a muddled area in between each side’s claims. Sometimes the man is truly innocent. Most of the time, the public cannot know. How we should react when the public cannot know is and will remain to be a central question for society to grapple with.

The “Believe Women” movement is simply this: do not dismiss allegations out of hand by attacking the accuser.

You’ve heard them all before, too. Perhaps you’ve even repeated a few of them:

– “She’s just looking for attention.”
– “Someone’s paying her to say this.”
– “Why didn’t she come forward earlier?”
– “Why didn’t she report it to the police?”
– “Why didn’t she tell anyone?”
– “Why didn’t she fight back?”
– “She’s just trying to ruin his career.”

It happened with Bill Clinton’s accusers. It happened with all 16 of Donald Trump’s accusers. It happened with Roy Moore’s accusers. It happened with Christine Blasey Ford. In those instances (and too many more), the accusers have been attacked, have been mocked, and have been called liars by people in positions of tremendous power.

Instead, listen to and consider what women have to say when they have the bravery to come forward. Validate that bravery by taking it seriously. Invented accusations do happen, but they are rare; certainly, they are less commonplace than assaults that go unreported. One of the (many) reasons why assaults aren’t reported is the credible fear that they won’t be believed.

One of the most bittersweet developments I’ve seen in the #MeToo movement involved one of my favorite TV Shows, Community. Years after the show was off the air, a writer on the show called out the showrunner, Dan Harmon, for sexual harassment. Harmon copped to the charges on his podcast and apologized, and dispassionately and thoroughly examined how he took advantage of the power dynamics and completely disregarded her as a person with agency. I encourage you to listen or read his account here.

After he did this, the writer posted a follow-up on Twitter where she forgave him. But what stuck out to me most was this tweet:

“I didn’t dream it. I’m not crazy. These things actually happened.”

In the year 2018, a woman being believed counted as a victory, causing relief. That’s how far we’ve come, and how far we’ve yet to go.

Which is why it’s so sad to see Republicans tripping over themselves to demonstrate how much they don’t get it. If your first response to hearing the accusations against Fairfax was laughter, enjoyment, or smug satisfaction, you might just very well be an ogre. Take a moment and reflect on what you’re doing and what kind of person you want to be.

Cover photo: Deseret News