For the last month or so, I’ve gotten a lot of messages from men. As women come out publicly with stories of sexual harassment, male friends and colleagues and casual acquaintances want to talk about it privately. They want to know where the line is, what they can do to stop it, whether that one encounter they had years back crossed a line. They believe the news reports, they believe a problem exists, they believe it’s bad.
Institutions are taking women’s stories of sexual harassment seriously, too. After Harvey Weinstein was ousted from his eponymous production company, the bloodletting spread to other companies—NPR, NBC, Amazon Studios. Because they believed the accounts of women who have reported sexual misconduct, it now feels we’re on the cusp of real change.
The arc of the #MeToo moment reminds me of another feminist-driven cause that made its way to page A1, only to fizzle and fall.
Five years ago or so, the anti-campus rape movement had headline-grabbing momentum. The U.S. Department of Education was so serious about promoting equality in higher education that they published a list of schools that were under investigation for failing to comply with rules designed to protect female students from sexual abuse. Dozens of schools held dubious positions on the list. The stats were sobering, the stories were harrowing, and then, like now, men were talking about it, too.
But then cracks began to form in the movement. Stories arose of men who were convicted of rape under eyebrow-raising circumstances. Some were never allowed to know who had accused them. Others were kicked out of school based on hearsay. And then, Rolling Stone published an article recounting the story of Jackie, a young woman who said she was gang raped in a fraternity. But it wasn’t true. She’d made it up, and the writer behind the story, out of respect for the sensitive situation, didn’t follow up and check facts.
Statistics tell us that it’s extremely rare for women to fabricate stories of rape. But after the Rolling Stone story went up in flames, those who believe fabrications are common had another example of a woman making up rape to get attention. The last nationally prominent story of campus rape—the Duke lacrosse team case from back in 2006—had also turned out to be false.
Cherry-picked stories like Duke lacrosse and Rolling Stone feed people who believe women lie about sexual assault—they see them as confirmation that their hunch was right. And plenty of people believe women lie about sexual assault. One of those people is the president of the United States. As a result, this administration’s policies toward campus rape reflect a pendulum swing in the opposite direction from where many advocates had hoped we were going, all because enough examples of fabulism exist to introduce doubt into all sexual assault allegations (including sexual assault allegations about the aforementioned president of the United States). Lying about rape makes it more difficult for other victims to come forward, but somebody unhinged enough to lie about rape can’t be expected to really care about the social implications of their sickness.
The most powerful thing women who allege abuse have is the belief of those in whom they confide. Lowering the bar for what we accept to be real opens the door for the sort of fabulists that make things more difficult for women who are telling the truth.
There’s a difference between taking sexual misconduct allegations seriously and taking the word of an accuser—any accuser—to be unassailable gospel. It takes courage to speak up about sexual abuse, and nobody in their right mind would fabricate a story whole cloth to embarrass somebody famous or bring attention to themselves. But plenty of people are not in their right mind.
It seems, for now, that news outlets have learned lessons from the Rolling Stone case and have applied journalistic rigor to fully investigating stories of sexual misconduct from men like Brett Ratner, James Toback, and Mark Halperin. But I worry that the public, caught up in the energy of a moment when we all can be hashtag anti-sexual abuse crusaders with the click of a mouse, could get carried away.
An accusation isn’t true simply because somebody tweeted something, or because a name appears on an anonymously sourced spreadsheet. Serious accusations warrant serious investigation and serious follow-up. Acting entirely based on one person’s account is what led to the Rolling Stone story’s publication. Taking accusations seriously enough to fact-check them or to wait until a reputable news outlet has fact-checked them, is not the same as doubting the words of women; it demonstrates an understanding of how delicate public trust is in this issue and how essential that trust is to eradicating this problem.