Why We’re So Afraid to Believe Women

Our collective dysfunction

By: Jaina Kelly

The media world is in frenzy this week as they follow what are now fifty womens’ allegations of rape and assault against Harvey Weinstein. Since Ronan Farrow’s initial exposé in the New Yorker, women across industries have been taking to social media with their own experiences. Not just one or two, but thousands of stories are surfacing. These are stories that would normally go disregarded by media, but at present, the world is listening.

PC: John Carucci, Associated Press

If we’re going to be frank, it’s not just film: any woman can tell you that sexual harassment is rampant in our society. If you’re in the business world, you likely face criticism, reduced opportunity, and skepticism toward your capability. If you’re in the service industry, you will have learned to keep smiling despite  lewd comments, butt grabs, and demeaning jokes among male staff. Any woman can tell you that because of the patriarchal system we live in; simply existing in our bodies means making sacrifices. Walking down the street comes with complications. Are you looking stone-faced today? Watch out, you may be told to smile by a random man. Are you too aggressive or direct? You may be pegged as a monster with no soul. In the olden days, women’s oppression was masked as a biologically unavoidable happenstance. We were presumed weaker, less intelligent, less physically able, simply because men’s philosophy had expressed this since the dawn of time and who was going to argue with male privilege? We have lived for centuries fighting against being silenced and patronized by men.

 

Farrow has appeared on various news shows to discuss the findings of his thorough exposé. He does an incredible job of re-directing the interview to focus on a few main points. He re-iterates that firstly: telling people about a sexual assault meant these women had nothing to gain and everything to lose. This is such an important point because it shatters the commonly held belief that women willingly fake allegations in order to gain some sort of mysterious traction in society. The reality is, putting men on blast for assaulting you normally comes with zero perks. It’s not hard to see this, but, calling “false” allows for a lot of unwilling skeptics to educate themselves on the prevalence of assault.

 

One of the most powerful emotions in an assault survivor’s psychology is internalized guilt, which makes them (as the victim) feel responsible for the assault. Farrow emphatically repeats fear, shame, and power as the key parts of every single woman’s’ testimony. There is fear in every step of the experience, especially when your attacker has power and influence to use against you. In the case of Weinstein, publicity smearing, and huge sums of money were used to deter survivors from speaking out. Active retaliation was a part of the movie studio’s method to avoid fallout from Weinstein’s behaviour.

Watching Farrow’s interviews with people, such as Anderson Cooper and Jake Tapper, bring about mixed emotions. On the surface, it’s a couple of men talking about assault. Except Cooper and Tapper, in true talk show host fashion, move away from the womens’ testimonies and try to delve into logistics. “Did Weinstein’s company know?” they ask. “Did anyone have any idea how bad this was?” they ask. Farrow sits back, feigning neutrality and notes that any speculation would be unprofessional. Yet the curl of his upper lip tells the viewer his blatant opinion: of course they knew. However, knowing is very different than caring. When a company is profiting immensely in awards, money, and fame, they are not likely to willingly dismantle that power. This is how systems of power work; they profit off of the oppression of their vulnerable players and often, go to great lengths to turn the odds against their vulnerable players. By successfully ensuring that their victims feel powerless, they continue to profit without consequence.

 

This power dynamic extends to all of society. It develops knee-jerk responses to sexual assault allegations, by claiming falsity. Instead of being honest about the toxicity of mens’ abuses of power, we are eager to think women would make up trauma for attention. Why are we so afraid to believe women? Probably because it’s uncomfortable to admit the dysfunction we are complicit with. Victim blaming expresses a deep fear that women are telling the truth. Of course, the idea of a culture overrun with sexual predators isn’t fun to admit, but we have to start speaking candidly about it. We need to start believing women. Women have always adjusted our lives around the expectation of fearful situations with men, both strange and familiar—those which seek to exploit our bodies. It’s time that men adjust their lives by taking accountability for their part in the matter. This doesn’t mean calling foul when women spill their truth- it means believing them, even if it makes you uncomfortable.

When men talk over sexual assault claims with assertions of their potential falseness, it’s clear they have absorbed and internalized the misogyny that runs through our society every day. The argument goes like this: “in a world where anyone can accuse anyone of anything, women can easily falsely accuse for some ulterior motive.” What this position fails to understand is that crying ‘sexual assault’ is not some self-satisfying way to automatically take down a powerful man. Speaking out places a huge target on one’s back with no guarantee of justice, instead it often adds harassment, doubt, and shame.

 

The thin silver lining in these painstaking recounts is the opportunity for a society-wide conversation about assault. Men facing consequences for their predatory behaviour is one of the most satisfying and hopeful outcomes—except that it rarely happens. Assault is so engrained in our culture that it will require personal accountability on an individual level for things to change. At this point, men need to take on a responsibility toward diffusing our culture of sexual violence. Women should no longer bear the sole burden of condemning a crime committed overwhelmingly by men.