Trigger Warning: Discussion of accusations of sexual harassment, assault, rape, #MeToo, #TimesUp, #TheEmptyChair, Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby, Larry Nassar, and the social consequences of all of this.
There’s a lot of talk lately about whether the #MeToo movement has gone too far, especially after the accusations about Aziz Ansari came out. And honestly? It’s a good question to ask. Society is experiencing a massive shift, and people who once got away with horrid behavior are now, finally, being held accountable for it. Often, that means being held accountable for mis-judged comments or creepy behavior. Many times, it means getting in trouble for violating consent. And it also means being held accountable for assault and/or rape.
I think that, in a way, it has gone too far. But the twist?
I don’t think that’s a bad thing. In fact, I’m glad it’s going too far, and I think it can go further.
And here’s why…
With #MeToo and #TimesUp in the news and popular consciousness, the history has been less talked about. But the reality is that all of this became part of the wider public discussion not with Harvey Weinstein and #MeToo, but with Bill Cosby and #TheEmptyChair.
A lot of people think it started when, in October 2014, a video of Hannibal Buress leaked on the internet calling Bill Cosby out for yelling at people about cussing while being a rapist. But it didn’t. It started many decades before, in December 1965. Kristina Ruehli was potentially the first of Cosby’s victims. She told her boyfriend at the time about it and told her daughter in the 1980s. But she didn’t go public with it until… 2005. It was during the Andrea Constand case, and she came forward anonymously, as Jane Doe #12.
However, women came forward even earlier than that, despite their stories not being published. First was Joan Tarshis, who told her story in the early 1980s to freelance reporter John Milward, who chose not to publish it. Then, in 1996, Playboy Playmate Victoria Valentino made accusations in a video exposé about the lives of playmates. That video was also never released. Then, in the year 2000, Lachele Covington filed an accusation against Cosby with Detective Jose McCallion of the Manhattan Special Victims Bureau. After questioning Cosby (who, of course, denied it), the police handed the case over to the D.A., who decided not to prosecute.
Then there was Andrea Constand in 2004, and, in 2005, Tamara Lucier Green, Beth Ferrier, and Shawn Upshaw Brown all came forward. Brown has a daughter, Autumn Jackson, who claims to be the illegitimate daughter of Cosby. By the time accusations against Cosby had stopped, at least 59 women had accused him of attempted or completed sexual assault and/or rape.
As can be seen, the accusations against Cosby had already been filed well before the infamous Hannibal Buress video was leaked. But it was that video that started the sudden stream of accusations. And it was in that stream that #TheEmptyChair became a hashtag.
On the week of July 27th to August 9th, 2015, the magazine New York published an exposé about the allegations. The cover featured 35 women sitting in chairs, and a 36th empty chair. Elon James White, CEO of TWiBNation, saw that and started a hashtag called #TheEmptyChair, where he shared the horrid stories of people on Twitter, keeping their anonymity. Other users used the hashtag to go public with their own stories, as well. And all of this sparked a national conversation… one very similar to the conversation we’re having now.
Things quieted down after a bit, but there was a palpable feeling that something was in the atmosphere. And the conversation, while it became page 2 news, never died. And then, three years later, things suddenly exploded in a way that went far beyond #TheEmptyChair.
The reality is that, like Cosby, people in the industry knew about Harvey Weinstein. People made jokes and comments about him as far back as 1998. But it all became a public spectacle when, on October 5, 2017, New York Times journalists Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey published a report about the accusations against him. Not five days later, journalist Ronan Farrow published yet more accusations in The New Yorker (side note: I find it interesting that Ronan Farrow gets so much credit, here, while I’ve barely heard of Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey). As of right now, there are over 100 accusations against Harvey Weinstein, and of course there’s likely more.
Since the accusations against Weinstein broke, a good 41 men have been accused of sexual harassment, assault, and rape, and that’s the minimum. This includes both Ben and Casey Affleck, Mario Batali, Al Franken, Charlie Rose, Matt Lauer, Kevin Spacey, and so many others. And of course, there’s Larry Nassar, whose victims number over 265.
What I find odd is that this “trend” (god I hate that word used in this context) of people coming forward to expose powerful men for the creepy harassers, assaulters, and rapists that they are is being called the “Weinstein Effect”. I’m curious as to why it’s not being called the “Cosby Effect”, since it was with him that this all technically started (at least, depending on how you look at it). It’s also being forwarded by the hashtag #MeToo, not started by Allyssa Milano, as many seem to think, but by social and civil rights activist Tarana Burke back in 2006, who started the movement to let victims know that they aren’t alone. Of course, at the time, it was not a hashtag, but an activist movement. It was Alyssa Milano who made it an active Twitter hashtag, although it already existed as a hashtag before that.
And so, we get here, where we are today. And now the think pieces are coming out, the letters signed by dozens of people are being released, and they all say the same thing: #MeToo has gone too far.
Why? Because, I guess, men are having their lives ruined over “innapropriate comments” or… something.
What do I say to this?
I say good.
Have you ever watched a pendulum swing? It starts on one side, then swings wildly back and forth, before eventually coming to rest in the middle.
That is what’s happening here, and it’s good. For just about ever, society has shamed and ridiculed victims while protecting the accused. Many will defend this practice under the guise of “innocent until proven guilty”. And yes, that is a very powerful and very important ideal in upholding justice. It is a requirement in a court of law. But it has also been used by society to basically destroy the lives of rape victims and coddle and comfort their rapists, making it near impossible for victims to come forward.
Now, suddenly, the pendulum has swung in the opposite direction. Suddenly, we’re believing the victims and cancelling the accused. But people misunderstand this. They are so afraid of false accusations that they ignore the fact that these are exceedingly rare. They misunderstand the idea of “believe victims”, because they think it means ignoring facts, when it demonstrably doesn’t:
Contra Weiss, “believe women” does not actually come into conflict with fact-checking sources; there’s a difference between engaging with sexual assault claims in good faith and having the legal grounding to print those claims, and even passionately feminist reporters understand that journalism has to adhere to the second standard. The other accusers’ stories were not discredited by association, as O’Keefe evidently hoped; in fact, they actually look more credible, now that we know they passed through the same rigorous fact-checking process that Phillips’ failed.
Though “false rape accusations” make for a good bogeyman, they are both rare and, according to the best evidence we have, shockingly obvious. Quartz recently published a round-up of the available research on false rape allegations, finding in the most detailed study ever conducted, “out of 216 complaints that were classified as false, only 126 had even gotten to the stage where the accuser lodged a formal complaint. Only 39 complainants named a suspect. Only six cases led to an arrest, and only two led to charges being brought before they were ultimately deemed false.” And furthermore, the research finds that false accusers tend to fit a recognizable profile: “[Almost] invariably, adult false accusers who persist in pursuing charges have a previous history of bizarre fabrications or criminal fraud.” Finally, these accusers usually make claims of exceptionally violent sexual assault—if they want to frame somebody, there’s no point in framing them for a crime that might be dismissed as “minor.”
We say “believe victims” and “believe all women” because society doesn’t. It’s an attempt to force the pendulum to swing. It does not mean uncritically believing every accusation regardless of the evidence. For the police and the D.A., it means taking all accusations seriously, genuinely investigating every piece of available evidence as thoroughly as possible (if an accusation does indeed turn out to be false, this is how it’ll be proven as false). For society at large, it means not outright dismissing victims, burning down their homes, and making fun of them. It means not blaming victims for what happened to them, and not crying crocodile tears over the “ruined futures” of “poor” rapists. It means building a society in which victims, regardless of their gender, feel safe going public and pressing charges. It means building a society where pressing charges isn’t potentially even more traumatic than the assault and/or rape itself.
So sure… maybe #MeToo is “going too far”. Maybe it’s catching men in its net that perhaps only deserve a light smack on the wrist and a “don’t do that again”, who instead are seeing their futures thrown into jeopardy.
But I cannot, for the life of me, see that as a bad thing. It’s not because I want men overall to be torn down. It’s not because I want innocent men to be caught in the crosshairs. It’s because society has been at the opposite extreme for far too long. And because the justice system has failed victims so thoroughly and so completely, this may be the only way to affect some real change.
I also hope that a part of that change is the broadening of the scope of who can be a rapist, and who can be a victim. There are more than two genders. Cis men are not the only rapists, and cis women are not the only victims.
I foresee the pendulum evening out. I foresee a (very near?) future when accusations are taken seriously and investigated thoroughly. When victims don’t feel as if a Twitter hashtag is the only avenue they have to talk about what happened to them because the police refuse to actually investigate. I foresee a future when #TheEmptyChair, #MeToo, #TimesUp, and similar hashtags are no longer needed.
I hope I live to see that future, and I hope you do, too…
Commenting note: Again… as always… this blog is first and foremost an SJW blog. I will not suffer “skeptics” lightly. Conversation is open, here, but it must be in good faith and must operate on both believe the victim and innocent until proven guilty… these are not contradictory. I’ve already explained this above. You must be, first and foremost, empathetic and sympathetic to victims if you wish to comment here. I will delete any gross denialism, and I reserve the right to define what that means, as this is my blog.
Iris Vander Pluym says
Thank you so much for this, Nathan. I’ve marveled at the backlash, too. It seems to me the underlying sentiment animating much of it is that it is 100% unacceptable if one single man is wrongly accused and harmed, however temporarily, by a false accusation, and the actual reality of untold millions of victims whose lives and careers are routinely and utterly destroyed by serial harassers, sexual predators and rapists with zero justice or minimal accountability is simply the price to ensure that it never, ever happens.
Seconding both Iris Vander Pluym@1’s THANKS and her point about the odd incorrect report (accidental or otherwise) doesn’t somehow magically cancel out all reports.
Here in France there has been a slightly odd backlash, with some well-known woman conflating the abusive behaviour (and ability to “get away with it”) with respectable dating. France24 hosts a weekly show about France which recently discussed that and other aspects of this backlash, Deneuve vs. #MeToo: Exploring feminism ‘à la française’ (English).
Pierce R. Butler says
… the “Weinstein Effect”. I’m curious as to why it’s not being called the “Cosby Effect”…
Cosby’s (alleged) tactic of drugging and raping goes at least one level beyond the verbal harassment, groping, coercion, etc, for which most of the other men named earned their ignominy.
But I don’t like calling this stuff after Weinstein, either, much as he deserves it. While this sort of bad behavior goes back forever, the current wave of resistance was sparked by one well-publicized case, followed by another in the same organization -- which corporation has since done all it can to pin the phenomenon on Weinstein, and seems to have succeeded with this even among most progressives and feminists.
Let’s not collude in this biased distortion of current history. If we must name this “effect” after its perpetrators, call it the “O’Reilly/Ailes” syndrome, with an accompanying digital salute towards the False Noise corporation.
I agree with you Nathan that society’s new flirtation with the audacious idea “believe women” is a good thing. But the problem, as I see it, is that the power of the mob, when directed at truly innocent people, can have lasting effects that end up harming victims. Because like it or not, while false accusation rates are low, they aren’t zero. And every time an accusation is proven false (I’m not talking about cases where not enough evidence can be found to go forward with a prosecution, I’m talking about people who lied about being victimized), the aggrieved men amongst us, the MGTOWs and PUAs and all the other scum have a case to point to, and evidence to show that “bitches be lyin'” (excuse the idiom, but that’s the attitude I’ve seen)*. This is what will swing the pendulum back to the other side, the side when women no longer have the protection of society, the side that protects real rapists as much as it protects the unjustly accused.
I know that you aren’t saying that we shouldn’t be skeptical or hold out judgement until the facts come in, each time abuse is alleged (of any kind). But in practice, it’s hard to know what to think or how to act. Recently, someone I look up to (Neal deGrasse Tyson) was accused of rape by someone who may or may not be a former student. And PZ has spoken of a time when a student tried to manipulate him into changing her grade by threatening to report fictional abuse (fortunately he had witnesses and nothing bad happened). This is the problem with power. I get that men have held (and frequently abused) power for so long that seeing things go the other way, seeing so many people who used to behave horribly with impunity get some measure of public condemnation, mob justice if you will (well…minor mob justice) is great. Real rapists, harrasers, abusers, gaslighters and the like should be held to account. Women shouldn’t be powerless, they should have the confidence that they will be believed if somebody harms them, believed by everybody. I’m just not sure if there’s a way to balance my concerns with a system that does right by victims. I’m also not sure what to think of NdGT now. Judging from the evidence (it hasn’t even been shown that he was in the same state as the potential victim at the time of the alleged assault, and like I said, there’s no evidence that she was even his student), and the fact that no other person has made public abuse allegations against him (it is the rare rapist who gets away with it once and just STOPS; for most, the desire to have that kind of power over a victim is a compulsion they cannot control), I am inclined to wait to see if any more facts are unearthed (but still keep in mind that he may be guilty). If he’s guilty, I hope it can be proven by his accuser in court. I hope people come forward as witnesses. I hope it gets spread as far and wide as possible, and that the consequences he endures mean that he loses the opportunity to victimize anyone else. But if he’s innocent, and if he tries to prove his innocence in the court of public opinion (since that is the arena in which he has been called out), he only brings attention to the fact that someone has accused him of rape. Some people will believe women 100% of the time, no matter what the evidence says, and it is absolutely the case that any public figure who has not ever been a sexual criminal or harrasser can shoot themselves in the foot by answering an accusation and offering evidence against the claim of abuse. In a court of law, such a claim can be disproved beyond a reasonable doubt; a person thus vindicated can theoretically go back to their life and work (though the falsely accused here often find it very difficult to regain their lives and stature, especially if they used to work with children**). But if, for whatever reason, it never gets that far there will always be a cloud hovering over that person’s life. They will always be “the guy who might be a rapist.”
So the false accusers have the most power here. They have the power to harm the lives of the people they accuse, and a much bigger power to harm the lives of the real victims who won’t be believed because of false accusations. And oftentimes it isn’t even necessarily their fault -- they may be mentally ill or maybe were victimized by another person who cannot be brought to justice for whatever reason. They aren’t necessarily trying to harm anyone’s life, just trying to take back some measure of control over their own via inappropriate means. Will the #metoo movement end up destroying itself when the twitter mob goes after an abuser who isn’t actually an abuser? I can see that happening, and societal doubt seeping into every story of abuse, no matter how legitimate. The problem is, I don’t see a way to prevent this from becoming reality. Type I versus Type II error. What does it mean to believe women? Hard issues to solve, but I guess the fact we’re now talking about this is the best thing to come of these movements.
Sorry this turned into a meandering essay. I don’t really have an off switch; when I get thinking, and writing, I have to get it all out there.
*That Rolling Stone case, for instance, did tremendous damage to victims everywhere.
**A former high school principal of mine was accused of sexual assault by a former (male) student the year after I graduated. The case went to trial, the jury was hung, and he was not re-tried. I don’t know if he’s guilty or not. But assuming he’s not, his life was severely harmed by the accusation. He lost his job, can’t ever get another one in that field. He lost so many friends (though a good number stuck with him). He had to start over. And he did. But I have to ask myself whether a system that, even when it works properly cannot prevent something like that from happening is the best that it can get. In this case, it was maybe the worst-case scenario for an innocent man, because he didn’t even have the vindication of a “not guilty” verdict. That 12 people couldn’t agree whether he did it or not is not exactly a ringing endorsement. If he is guilty, fine, he deserves whatever consequences happen. But innocent people find themselves in this position too, and why should they suffer because somebody decided to take out whatever anger they had against them in the form of a false accusation?
I realize now that my comment may appear to be one long WHAT ABOUT THE MENZ screed. I apologize if it seems that way. My concern is first and foremost about victims being believed. I am overwhelmingly glad that the tide has turned and abusers are being named and shamed. But as I said, false accusations harm more than innocent people, they harm every person who is ever abused in the future, because they inject doubt into every allegation. This is the most serious effect and the one I am most worried about. Innocent people should not have their lives ruined (obviously) though this outcome may be a necessary (and hopefully temporary) side effect of a system that works against real abuse. But as soon as we get one sympathetic male public figure who faces mob justice and ends up blackballed for an accusation that later proves to be false, the media will be on it and we’ll see weeks of opinion pieces arguing that this is the worst thing EVER to happen (nevermind the fact that for centuries -- millennia really -- millions of women have been abused without ANY consequence for the men who harmed them). This is a battle for the soul of a culture, and to win we need to be prepared to meet those criticisms head-on -- I don’t think it’s a matter of if this happens, but when.
Iris Vander Pluym says
Volcano Man: My point, you are making it.
Do you write these long, angsty screeds on behalf of those falsely accused and imprisoned for years or decades for armed robbery, gang murders, or other violent crimes? If not, why not?
Actually, I have. In fact, I often write about how the whole criminal justice system needs to be redesigned to remove the adversarial aspect of trial law. Prosecutors who want to keep their jobs have every reason to try as hard as they can to convict everyone they can, regardless of the quality of evidence, reliability of witness statements (eyewitness testimony is notoriously bad), etc. But if you had read the entirety of what I wrote, while I detest the thought of any innocent person being falsely accused (for any crime), the worse impact in sexual assault, abuse and harrassment cases is the impact false accusations have on FUTURE real victims. The reality that sex crimes are treated differently from others by society (including the media) isn’t one that I created, or that I agree with, but it is definitely not going away. People believe that sex criminals are the worst of the worst, the scum of the earth; thus the consequences of a false accusation are actually worse here than for most other crimes. Even people who kill can (depending on the circumstances) be thought of as better people than people who rape. And even the exonerated are often unable to ever regain the lives that they used to live.
A massive consequence of this reality is that when a false accusation (especially one against a celebrity or popular public figure) is found out, there will be a massive outpouring of rage at people who would besmirch an individual in this way. Like I said -- every major news outlet will have multiple opinion pieces about the poor man who suffered because of a woman’s lies. This brings the idea of false rape accusations (or assault or abuse or whatever) into the public consciousness and makes every victim without concrete proof of having been assaulted have an even tougher road to justice and healing. Recency bias dictates that until the media stops reminding people of this travesty, and the event fades from memory, real victims will suffer more than they would otherwise have done.
This is why false accusations of sexual crimes are worse than those of burglary or physical assault. This is my main concern.
Unfortunately, as you touched on, any power false accusers hold is in part due to the way society is now. And that is a risk of changing the tide so forcefully. But the only way to really take any power false accusers have away like that is to change the way society handles victims.
I will be straight up honest, here. As I was about to post the OP, I had a passing thought: what if someone from, say, the SlymePit, saw this and decided to level a false accusation my way because they thought it was funny or would “teach me a lesson” or would “prove a point” or something. What would I do with that?
The reality is that I would invite them to alert the authorities, and I would cooperate and participate fully with said authorities. I would encourage the authorities to do a full investigation to find out the truth.
False accusations only hurt future victims because of the way society treats victims now. Victims have no power at all. If you want to protect future victims from the damage done by false accusations, the only way to do that is to change society, and that’s what’s happening now. Yes, it’s risky, and yes, it’s scary. But it has to be done. There really isn’t any other way right now.
When we have a society that does not condemn victims and protect rapists, then, and only then, will false accusations have no power. This is why focusing on them in this climate is so bad. The damage they are doing is part of rape culture. That is, in fact, part of the point of it.
William Brinkman says
Thank you for writing this.
Damion Reinhardt says
Maybe it’s catching men in its net that perhaps only deserve a light smack on the wrist and a “don’t do that again”, who instead are seeing their futures thrown into jeopardy.
Any likely examples of such false positives coming to mind here?
This poem is as clear as I can make it about the value of MeToo.
WHY I’M TELLING YOU NOW
I was twelve. But wait, the defense attorney in my head is arguing:
You remember the coat? But your birthday is in mid-November,
But it doesn’t snow there until December, does it?
You don’t remember if it was snowing, or not?
I tell the court, it was cold, it was winter, I remember the coat.
But it was a basketball game, you said, even though November
is still football season, isn’t that so, isn’t that so?
Answer the question.
I forget… maybe I had turned thirteen…
Had you had your first period, which came, you said,
when you were twelve?
I forget…. maybe it had happened…
I remember feeling proud and happy, now I was like the other girls,
maybe it was that very day, I can’t remember..
I can’t remember his face or say how old he was, perhaps thirty,
He sat next to Shirley and me on the bleachers, talked of the game.
I shouldn’t have answered.
Answering makes you guilty. Smiling makes you guilty.
Wearing clothes make you guilty. Being a woman makes you guilty,
being twelve years old makes you guilty, you don’t have to be thirteen.
So no, I don’t remember it all but I do remember the coat. The ivory white coat
and the patterned cloth and the toggle closures. I remember him behind me
in the crowd, holding me tightly, his hand on my white coat, on my breast.
Yes I know he didn’t hurt me but I was frightened just the same.
I never told anyone, for fifty-eight years.
I could have cried out, said something,
but you couldn’t say something, not then.
I was too ashamed and sick and sad and now I’m not
but that isn’t it.
I don’t tell you this just to say, “me too”.
I can’t do anything about him now. He must be long dead.
It’s just that I know now that he surely went on to others,
there must have been others,
To think that all these years, I have been saying
in the office, as tactfully as I could
to the girls and women who have told me their secrets,
“You have moved out, you are safe now,
I understand you don’t want trouble, you want to forget,
but you have a little sister;
Think of the little child you were when it started; how that little girl felt;
How would you feel if you found this out?- that there was someone
who knew what was going to happen to you
and who could have prevented it,
but she chose not to.”
hannahma @ #11:
Wow. Thank you. That was powerful, and a hard read. If it’s about you, I hope you’re okay, and you have people to talk to.