A few facts: Sexual harassment is grossly underreported. Men have been falsely accused of harassment. Women should be believed. Some know perpetrators as honorable men. Perpetrators have destroyed lives and careers. Perpetrators have done good works in their communities and workplaces.
Part of the reckoning of the #MeToo movement is confronting how all those statements can simultaneously be true, and some even true of the same perpetrator.
Last week, in response to allegations of harassment made by two women against Tom Brokaw, more than 65 women in the media signed a letter attesting to his integrity and their universally positive experiences with him. I have no doubt that each of those 65-plus women were accurately recounting their encounters with the renowned newsman.
The intent of the letter may have merely been to show support for Brokaw, but its impact goes much further. When two women came forward and said a man with whom they worked was aggressively sexually inappropriate with them, more than 65 women said they worked with that man and he was nothing but appropriate. The message? Are you going to believe two women with decades-old claims, or the more than 65 women telling you that’s not the man they know?
Ironically, some of those same 65 women have also said all women who find the courage to speak out about their harassment should be believed. Women who have made yet unproven, or even unprovable, allegations have been taken at their word. Does “believe all women” only apply when the accusations made are against men outside one’s circle and beyond their personal experience? “Believe all women” is hardly the message sent by the group letter.
One of the greatest fears any person has who considers coming forward with an allegation of sexual harassment is that she will not be believed. One of the highest barriers against being believed is that harassers do not harass every person or even every woman they encounter. Undoubtedly, the harasser has many positive relationships with people who have never been exposed to the abusive side. As most victims of domestic violence will tell you, the persona an abuser reveals in front of others is very different from the one who emerges when no witnesses are present.
As more survivors of harassment and assault courageously come forward, an increasing number of us will be confronted with an accusation against a person we know. The impulse to deny another person’s account because we have not personally experienced harassment by that individual will be intense. It will also be terribly flawed. How many times have we watched interviews with the shocked and bewildered friends and neighbors of someone arrested for horrific crimes? “He was always polite when I saw him.” “I never could have imagined he had prisoners in his basement.” A car thief doesn’t steal every car. A burglar doesn’t break into every home. The mere fact that someone has not stolen from us is not a proof point that they have never stolen from others.
Small-scale versions of the Brokaw letter will play out again and again in communities across the country. Women will come forward and portions of their communities will push back against their accounts because their experiences with an accused harasser were positive. For women who have experienced harassment and spoken out, that reaction isn’t surprising when it comes from men. The context of men’s relationships and interactions with other men is unlikely to include being sexually harassed by the same man who harasses women. It happens, but it is uncommon.
To reflexively not be believed by men is what women have learned to expect. When that reaction comes from women, it packs a much greater punch, which is why this Brokaw letter is so troubling. More than 65 powerful women signaled to women around the country that, if you accuse someone of good standing in the community, you will not be believed. The wagons will be circled around the accused harasser before an investigation is even conducted.
There are tests that many of us will face as our culture reckons with the true incidence of sexual harassment and assault, and attempts to hold people to account. As bystanders, will we speak up? As targets, will we come forward? As managers and employers, will we hold people to account? As individuals, will we believe the account of one woman, or will it take two… five… 20 women coming forward before we trust they are telling the truth? And, likely most difficult of all, if the accused is someone we know well, will we still hold that women should be believed?