Take a look at Lindsey Graham’s snarling mug. What would inspire such a mild-mannered, effeminate dandy to such heights of outrage? A woman came forward with credible sexual assault allegations against a Supreme Court nominee, claims that did no harm to Graham other than to complicate one of his minor ambitions. That is a picture of what women expect if they dare to come forward with their rape experiences.
Victims are inconvenient. They complicate plans, throwing the mud of cognitive dissonance into our otherwise comfortable assumptions about the world. Unless their narrative somehow fits our own goals, our instinct is to shut them down. When their suffering threatens our ambitions, we abuse them over again until they retreat back into silence. We face a deep, internal urge to punish victims for the crime of making us see.
Like “Black Lives Matter,” the slogan “Believe Women” can be judged by the opposition it inspires. Both have been carefully misconstrued by those with the strongest personal investment in continuing a culture of abuse and exploitation. The point of the “Black Lives Matter” hashtag is that black lives do not matter in our culture. Likewise, the point of “Believe Women” is that we don’t believe women. In a healthy civilization, neither claim would be controversial enough to earn either support or resistance. The heat they inspire should be a guide, helping us identify the wounds and illnesses most in need of attention.
To believe women means to do the opposite of our ordinary reflex. The mere fact of their experience is treated as a burden on those around them. If their perpetrator is powerful or respected, they are greeted with hostility. Almost every victim of assault faces a choice we impose on them, whether to be assaulted just once and go heal in silence, or to be assaulted repeatedly in the pursuit of justice. Most remain silent.
Believing women does not mean setting aside critical thought. It means confronting our own inconvenience. Believing women means responding to allegations with a mind open to facts rather than automatically treating claimants as a threat to our comfort, joining their abusers in repeating their assault.
Believing women means taking their stories seriously from the outset, resisting our innate temptation to torment them into silence. We don’t believe victims of sexual assault, especially if their perpetrators are powerful. We place evidentiary burdens on them that render most sexual assault perpetrators untouchable. The abuse continues as we punish assault victims for raising their voices.
Courage displayed by women and men who have come forward to face their accusers offers us an opportunity. If they succeed, they will create a safer environment for all of us. A culture that resists the urge to punish victims has far more room for intelligent truth-gathering than what we saw from Republicans in the misogynistic spectacle of the Kavanaugh hearings. Anyone with an authentic concern about the rights of the accused should be a champion of “believe women.” Sincere inquiry begins by gathering information, not filtering it out. Those wrongly accused would benefit from honest inquiry. Those hiding their crimes benefit far more from a pattern of intimidation and repeated secondary abuse.
As demonstrated in the Kavanaugh hearings, many men will go to unholy lengths to protect their relative impunity from scrutiny. Judge Kavanaugh put on a live demonstration of the power of rape denial, with his patterns of rage and weeping. Believe women doesn’t mean uncritical credulity, it means shutting down the intimidation machine that forces sexual assault victims into the Kavanaugh Choice: Do you want be assaulted just once, or do you want us all to repeat it over and over.