Shouting arson in a crowded theatre: rape reports, reputations and reasonable suspicion

Greta, over on her blog, has a summary of statements made to date against Michael Shermer.

As of this writing, August 20 2013, 12:19 Pacific time, according to Jason Thibeault’s timeline: We have one unnamed source reporting that Shermer, to use her own phrasing, coerced her into a position where she could not consent, and then had sex with her. We have one unnamed source reporting that this first unnamed source told them about this incident shortly after it happened, and was visibly distraught. We have one unnamed source reporting, not that Shermer assaulted her, but that he deliberately got her very drunk while flirting with her — a story that corroborates a particular pattern of sexual assault. All of these are people PZ knows, and whose reliability he is vouching for.

In addition: We have a named source, Carrie Poppy, stating that she knows the woman who said that Shermer coerced her, that she knew about the assault, and that she’s the one who put her in touch with PZ. We have one pseudonymous commenter, Miriamne, reporting in 2012 that she was harassed by Shermer. We have one pseudonymous source, delphi_ote, reporting that they personally know a woman who was assaulted by Shermer. (Important note: These other reported assault victims may be the woman who said that Shermer coerced her, or they may be different people: since they’re unnamed or pseudonymous, we don’t at this point know. It’s deeply troubling in either case: these are either multiple independent corroborations of the same assault, or they’re multiple independent reports of different assaults.) We have one named source, Brian Thompson, saying he personally knows a woman who was groped by Shermer.

In addition: We have one named source, Elyse Anders, reporting on behavior from Shermer that wasn’t assault but was inappropriately and uninvitedly sexual. We have another named source, Naomi Baker, reporting on behavior from Shermer that wasn’t assault but was inappropriately and uninvitedly sexual. We have a pseudonymous source, rikzilla, reporting on behavior from Shermer that wasn’t assault but was inappropriately and uninvitedly sexual. To be very clear: By themselves, these wouldn’t be evidence of anything other than creepiness. But added to all these other reports of sexual assault, they corroborate a pattern.

It’s quite a list. I’m prepared to say now that personally, in light of all these accounts and their consistency, contextualised by the compelling rarity of false reports, I find the case against Shermer significantly plausible and not to be dismissed, if ever it justifiably could have been, as baseless gossip. It may not meet criminal standards of proof required in court – not being a lawyer, I can’t speak to that – and certainly doesn’t provide grounds to conclude with no time for new data or room for doubt that he’s guilty of what’s been reported. It does, however, provide grounds in my view for a reasonable person at least to entertain that suspicion, and more than sufficient grounds for investigations to be made.

In terms of our community’s reaction, to comparable situations elsewhere as well as to this one, whether criminal standards of proof have been met is not the sole point of concern. When a serious question mark overhangs an individual’s prior conduct, event planners – conference-holders especially – have to decide whether they want them present. That judgement call, whichever way it goes, means gambling with the potential safety of their attendees. As in Pascal’s scenario, there is no way not to bet.

If as a conference official I received the range of reports above stating someone’s behaviour was abusive, severely unethical or inappropriate, I would not be comfortable inviting them to my event. Could I be certain? No. But I’d have to err on one side or the other. Personally, my choice would be to err on the side of caution, apparent likelihood, and not placing someone among my guests whom a reasonable person could suspect had raped. If it transpired the allegations were all false, falling within a tiny number of such reports (which I don’t deny is possible) – if it turned out those making them conspired at great personal risk to smear someone blameless – then in my opinion it would still, at the time and with the facts at hand, have been the most responsible decision.

What statements we have don’t warrant certainty and may or may not meet legal standards of proof. But they do meet what standards we need to ask ourselves, ‘Should this person attend our conference?’ or ‘Should we invite them to our group?’ – and to answer these questions reasonably, if provisionally. This does not amount to pitchfork-laden mob rule; it does not amount to vigilantism; and the evidence we have, while many no doubt would welcome legal proceedings, should not in my opinion be deemed wholly meaningless in the absence of court action.

The ‘Take it to court or else’ approach – the all-or-nothing suggestion that until and unless a trial is held and a guilty verdict reached, no statement can ever be more than idle gossip or demand concern – is naïve and illogical. We know only a tiny percentage of rapes end in conviction. Refusing to entertain, even hypothetically, the notion someone may at some point have raped because no court has deemed them guilty is likely to mean ignoring almost every instance of rape in the real world. It evokes, too, the ‘Just tell the police’ response to conference harassment.

I wouldn’t want legality to be the sole requirement for conduct at my event, and reporters of harassment don’t always want punitive action anyway (they might just want a sympathetic ear; they might want organisers to look out for them throughout the conference, have a private word with someone who’s bothered them or keep an eye on that person; they might want to be placed with a friendly, reliable group or companion during social hours, so as to feel less stranded). But things like expulsion from conferences do not, in any case, require criminal convictions or the standards of proof those demand. Innocent-till-proven-guilty, with no shades of intermediate, probabilistic grey is how court systems work, rightly, when incarceration or registration as a sex offender is on the cards; it’s not how the rest of the world, where degrees of reasonable suspicion exist, has to work – and the idea accusations less than totally airtight must never be made is a dangerous, damaging one which silences a great many victims.

Last year a guest in my friend’s house raped her. She was paralytically drunk, unable to stand up or speak coherently, when he had sex with her. (It doesn’t matter why she was drunk, whose fault this was or what she’d previously said. When someone is so drunk they can’t talk, sex with them is rape. This isn’t complex.) The following day, when I’d gone with her to file a report, police officers asked if she knew him, if she’d done anything to suggest attraction to him, and whether there’d been friction between them – all of which was irrelevant. She was made to choose, in the space of an hour, between pressing charges or dropping everything; she had no chance to seek legal advice, consult family members or even sleep on it. It shouldn’t be surprising, then, that she let it go.

We had, as it happened, fairly incontrovertible evidence both that the man in question had sex with her and that she wasn’t able to consent. A public solicitor would, I’m quite sure, have told her as much, but she wasn’t allowed a professional’s legal view. The all-or-nothing message she got that unless and until taken to court, her report could mean nothing at all – that she had no right to be taken seriously by anyone before that point – was exactly what stopped her pursuing it. (One officer’s worldweary comment that rape was ‘just something that happens‘ didn’t help.) If you’re only willing to treat reports as plausible or act on them, even provisionally, once court procedures are in motion, I sincerely hope no victim ever needs your support: most only come forward, including via legal action, when reasonably sure what they say will be listened to rather than dismissed.

Ignoring plausible reports, refusing to act on them even provisionally since no legal verdict has been reached, has major consequences. When at school, another friend had a sister in the year below her whom, while on a school trip at the aged fourteen, another student raped. Their parents, once informed, told both police and the school, where during breaks and over lunch, my friend’s sister was so visibly distraught that teachers isolated her inside an empty classroom. This prompted a two month withdrawal from attendance and ultimately a change of schools. The student who raped her and denied anything had happened, meanwhile, saw no consequences whatsoever, since the school’s head teacher ruled that while investigations were ongoing, no action would be taken.

No course of action existed which presupposed neither that the victim told the truth nor that she hadn’t – again, authorities had no way not to bet. I presuppose the former here because I trust my friend, but also because again, only a few reports of rape – the clear exception to the rule – are false. Given this and the girl’s obvious terror, beside the prospect of leaving a pupil among the student body who’d raped, wouldn’t suspending or isolating him while investigations continued be a more conscientious choice? Like conference organisers, they had to make a judgement call: it should have been quite clear whose account provisionally to believe. (Teachers, after all, are paid to be judges of character: I don’t accept a 14-year-old girl could feign trauma, with no clear motive, well enough to fool experienced school staff.) If the report did turn out to be false – one of a tiny, exceptional few – it would still, again, have been the best approach to take given the facts they had. A choice between which student to expel certainly wouldn’t be a comfortable one – but nor, in my view, should it be such a hard one ethically.

When I say things like this, I hear responses like ‘Yes, but couldn’t this all just stay behind the scenes? Couldn’t conference organisers communicate, discreetly, amongst themselves? Someone’s reputation is at risk!’

I have three replies.

The first one is, that happened. Since the current wave of allegations broke, corroboration and agreement in most cases have rippled back – sometimes in the format ‘That happened to me too’ and sometimes in the format ‘I’ve heard that too’. (In one particular case, six people I know told me, independently of one another, that they’d witnessed or been told of the individual’s serious misconduct.)

It’s obvious that for the last few years, these discussions have gone on under the radar – in fact, much of last year’s drive for anti-harassment policies was prompted by Jen McCreight’s comments that several female activists swapped anecdotes about certain male skeptics’ behaviour. Given the rapid explosion of public namings which followed Karen Stollznow’s disclosure, it seems to me things may by this point simply have come so far – behind-closed-doors revelations and private statements spread so widely – that accusatory floodgates were bound to open sooner or later. If harassment and assault had, under the surface, grown so prevalent such a deluge could be released, doesn’t that suggest we needed to address them earlier? Might those hushed whispers and private comments, just perhaps, been insufficiently effective? (See also reply number two.)

After Jimmy Savile – a veteran British broadcaster, if you hadn’t heard the name – died in October 2011, reports from people he molested and raped as children poured in by the hundred. He may, it’s now thought, have been one of UK history’s most prolific sex offenders. Why did this happen only after his death? Because while he lived, his reputation was at stake; because victims, no doubt, were afraid to smear a much-admired celebrity; because many feared reprisals, equally doubtless, from a multimillionaire’s legal staff. In view again of the speed at which reports emerged, it seems certain confessions, accusations and intimations made the rounds in private before Savile died, as they did in skepticism till recently. Consider: how many of his crimes might have been prevented, and how many people saved a major trauma, had the kind of scandals broken decades back which are breaking for us now?

My second reply is that frankly, we cannot always rely on institutions to take action. The BBC, we know now, failed for years to act against Savile; the Catholic Church failed for decades to act against child-raping priests; my friend’s school failed to act after her sister’s rape; it seems reasonable to conclude based on statements like Carrie Poppy’s and the apparent extent of this problem that skeptical organisations too have failed to act. If things had never reached the point where we now find ourselves – and in many cases, they wouldn’t have if organisations had trusted and supported victims – that would, agreed, have been quite wonderful. Most people who’ve spoken out of late (prompting a barrage of condemnation, bullying and legal threats) would I’m sure also agree. Unfortunately, things have reached this point. Didn’t something more need to be done? And if not this, what?

My third reply, the one I feel matters more than anything, is the following:

Reputations matter, but no reputation matters more than stopping sexual violence.

Plenty of reputations have been endangered recently, and not just Michael Shermer’s or the other leading skeptics’ accused. Individuals’ reputations – PZ Myers’, Carrie Poppy’s, Karen Stollznow’s – are on the line. Organisations’ reputations – the JREF’s, CFI’s – are on the line. Our entire movement’s reputation, and that of atheists at large, is on the line.

I am convinced none of this matters.

At least, I’m convinced none of it matters more than addressing, for the sake of our community, things like rape, harassment, assault and abuse. Damage to reputations is serious; this is more serious still.

If there’s one common lesson from the Savile affair, the Catholic Church’s history of sex abuse, the rape of my friend, the rape of my other friend’s sister, the allegations currently overrunning skepticism – it’s that sometimes, when fires in a crowded theatre are being lit or a reasonable onlooker might think so, shouting arson is defensible even if that means naming as arsonists the guests of honour in the royal box.

We share a communal stake in our movement’s safety, especially at events and conferences, and when reasonable suspicion (even if not demonstrable certainty) exists that someone’s actions there endanger others; when off-the-record conversations, on-the-record reports and open secrets have failed to prompt resolution, surely there comes a point when public statements are justified – even if making them threatens that person’s public image? Surely in certain circumstances, concern for the public safety of our movement – not based, necessarily, on certainties, but based on reasonable suspicions and reports that seem overwhelmingly unlikely to be lies – can trump individuals’ PR concerns? Isn’t there a case for the principle of public interest here?

I don’t, in the end, believe this debacle will ruin atheism’s image. I accept that, in the short term, religious critics may use it to snipe at us – but what right, anyway, does religion have to take swipes at sex abuse controversies? On the contrary, I smell an opportunity.

If two or three years down the line from now, we’ve taken painful steps to clean up our act; if the scandals breaking today have been seen through to their conclusions, with appropriate investigations made and sufficient measures taken where necessary; if guidelines for the future are established which set out clear, well-defined ethical boundaries of accepted conduct, and we rise to the challenge of fixing our community – then religion will have lost, definitively, a major fortress in the culture war. We will, as an organised community of atheists, have shown we take sexual and social ethics seriously, and done in ten years what the Catholic Church failed to accomplish in two thousand.

Isn’t that a challenge worth embracing?

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