If you want to write an influential political slogan, it’s best to use only three or four words: Me Too; Time’s Up; Black Lives Matter; Make America Great Again. The two words of Believe Women are curtly imperative, radically concise. They aggressively deny any need for elaboration. But defining political principles and applying them to the real world takes more words. Quite a few more, in fact.
For a brief but critical time—between the Kavanaugh hearings and the emergence of Tara Reade’s accusations of sexual assault against Joe Biden—believe women was one of the most important phrases in public discourse. Many of the leading lights of the feminist movement adopted it and expounded on its meaning. Jessica Valenti and Jaclyn Friedman even put together a book of essays titled Believe Me: How Trusting Women Can Change the World. After Reade came forward, the phrase suddenly declined in popularity. A new wave of pieces emerged, attempting to put distance between the excesses of believe women and the feminist movement. But such revisionism cannot undo what has been done. Believe women discourse weakened public commitment to important norms, such as the presumption of innocence, and created a culture that unwisely favored accusers over the accused.
The Elusive Definitions of Believe Women
We are more often told what believe women does not mean than what it does. Nearly every feminist who has adopted the believe women mantle is adamant that it is not interchangeable with believe all women. Rebecca Traister, for instance, assures us that “‘believe all women’ is NOT A THING.”
Also, let's be clear: "believe all women" is NOT A THING. Weiss has pumped it up from the original "believe women" to make the "huntresses" sound even more threatening. This is exactly the process many of us have been talking about: transformation of women into the aggressors.
— Rebecca Traister (@rtraister) November 28, 2017
Valenti and Friedman make the same point in the introduction to Believe Me, and several others have devoted pieces—including one of Vox’s explanations—to exactly this point. Many of these pieces were written in response to Bari Weiss’ article “The Limits of ‘Believe All Women.’”
When people say look both ways before you cross the road, do unto others as you would have done unto you or put on clean underwear before going to the doctor, they mean always look both ways before you cross the road, always do unto others as you would have done unto you and always put on clean underwear before going to the doctor. Given ordinary English usage, then, believe women is most naturally construed as always believe women. When no qualification is given, the hearer is usually justified in inferring that there is none. (Snow is white means all snow is white.) Supporters of believe women did not specify that it did not mean always believe women, until Weiss made that connection.
Furthermore, if believe women does not mean always believe women or believe all women, it is not at all clear what it does mean. This becomes particularly clear when sympathetic writers get down to actually defining it. A number of the writers in Believe Me end up with essentially vapid formulations. Moira Donegan defines believing women as “incorporating women’s experiences into our shared understanding of the world.” Katherine Cross defines “the real essence of belief” as “taking a victim seriously” and “respectfully evaluating and engaging” with her claims. The problem with these formulations is that no one would oppose them. They hollow the phrase out into a tautology: believe women when they are believable.
Fortunately, some construals are more substantial. Some of the best believe women arguments interpret the slogan as highlighting the historical distrust that women have faced from institutions and the public. They urge that we believe women as a corrective to this longstanding tendency. Valenti defines believe women as the claim “That listening to women and bearing witness to their experiences—and having faith in their stories—could be the antidote to the American default of men’s word trumping all else.” Similarly, Rebecca Traister notes that she has always found the slogan “compelling but flawed.” After disavowing the overly strict believe all women, she decides that “the very idea of believing women doesn’t have to be an imperative; at its most radical, it is a long-overdue corrective to the benefit of the doubt that powerful men are given over and over and over again.” This formulation is somewhat confused. The saying believe women is an imperative, even if it is interpreted as a qualified imperative, and the categories of corrective and imperative are not mutually exclusive. But Traister’s larger point is clear. She sees believe women as an injunction to overcome the unwarranted disbelief often directed at women. In construals like Traister’s and Valenti’s, believe women amounts to don’t disbelieve women. Katie McDonough also arrives at this simple formulation: she defines believe women as don’t reflexively disbelieve women.
The don’t disbelieve arguments represent believe women discourse at its most defensible. If supporters of believe women limited themselves to such reasonable and politically necessary claims, I would support the label myself. Unfortunately, the believe women brand is regularly used to advance much more radical and far less reasonable ideas.
In the struggle to define believe women, twelve of the twenty-nine contributors to Believe Me invoke justice. This produces yet another interpretation of believe women: believe women when it is just to believe them. Rendering this meaningful would mean giving substance to the term justice—no easy feat. But it would be wrong to dismiss it as meaningless. It would be meaningful if, by just, feminist writers meant to imply that accusations should be dealt with in a way analogous to the way accusations are treated by the law in liberal societies. Nearly everyone is familiar with norms such as due process, the presumption of innocence, equality before the law and equal application of the law without favor or fear. If these were the norms feminist writers wished to import into the informal social sphere in which we negotiate reputational goods and harms and social censure, it would be an attractive position.
Sadly, feminist writers are not merely importing familiar notions of justice into social negotiations. Rather they are seeking to redefine justice—and not for the better.
This redefining is quite explicit in a couple of chapters of Believe Me. In Sarah Deer and Bonnie Clairmont’s chapter, “Gossip Is an English Word,” the authors seem suspicious of western notions of justice. They note that American law allows many sexual assailants to walk free, while incarcerating too many people in general, including a disproportionate number of people of color.
Deer and Clairmont turn instead to their Native American heritage for inspiration. According to the two women, the (unrelated) Ho-Chunk and Muscogee peoples have a similar way of dealing with sexual abuse and other societal transgressions. They gossip.
However, gossip, as the title of their essay notes, is an English word, and the English freight the term with negative associations. Gossip is trivial, a guilty temptation, and the information received lacks credibility. Both of their comparatively enlightened Native American tribes have, they claim, in their very distinct languages, words that reflect a nobler, distinctly non-western idea of justice. These words describe the activities that we term gossip—without the negative associations. Deer and Clairmont suggest reforming English, in the fashion of these native languages: “Let’s stop calling it gossiping and start calling it truth-telling”:
What are other ways to find justice when the dominant society’s legal system fails us? We believe that believing survivors who come forward, naming and shaming offenders, and protecting one another from those offenders are integral to finding a path to justice. While we work to develop a system that will ensure effective accountability for offenders, we must guarantee that survivors have access to the kind of justice that happens when we acknowledge and believe each other.
This is a direct attack on due process. It is the inverse of the liberal notion of presumption of innocence. Liberalism offers a guarantee to the accused, not to the accusers. No authority views itself as entitled to punish or coerce, except in cases where a provable wrong has occurred (though what counts as probative varies based on the context and the nature of the accusation). This precept means that many harms go unpunished, but liberals prefer to accept that fact than to empower some authority to coerce without proof. Liberals fear authority more than they fear one another.
Deer and Clairmont instead offer a guarantee to the accuser, with the exact opposite justification. In their vision, the authorities have an overwhelming responsibility to redress harms, not to secure rights. The “failing” with which they charge the legal system is part of its liberalism. They prefer to risk falling prey to overweening authority than accept that many harms will go unpunished, if authority is not empowered to act in the absence of proof. They fear the people around them more than they fear any authority.
Only briefly do Deer and Clairmont address the problems that might confront a system that grants a blanket guarantee to accusers. First, they dismiss as “ludicrous” the idea that anyone would have reason to make false accusations. This optimistic assessment frees them of that problem. More tellingly, they also reiterate the fact that a more liberal approach leaves many offenders unpunished: “When one considers how rare convictions are in the criminal justice system, we must understand that hundreds of thousands of perpetrators are walking around, life unscathed by their behavior.” For them, this settles everything. More punitive justice is required and, it is implied, false accusations be damned. They end with these arresting statements: “Call it gossip. Call it judgment. Call it biased. We call it justice.”
Even more remarkable is the chapter entitled “The Power of Survivor-Defined Justice,” by attorney Stacy Malone, an advocate for victims of sexual assault. Malone shares with Deer and Clairmont a deep suspicion of liberal notions of justice. She remarks: “The criminal justice system, by design, is an adversarial process centered around the accused to determine innocence or guilt.” Malone is deeply concerned about the burdens such a system places on accusers. Drawing on her experiences with victims of sexual assault, she recounts the very real toll the process can take on the “emotional and psychological well-being” of accusers. She rues the fact that, “As it stands now, even in the rare cases in which the criminal justice system ‘works’ for sexual assault victims by delivering a significant conviction and incarcerating the perpetrator, the costs to the victim can be incalculable.” The court requires accusers to go through such a process because it believes it cannot act without proof of harm. Malone is unsympathetic to this concern. She writes: “Victims who engage in the criminal process often feel retraumatized by having to relive their assault(s) over and over so that decision makers can get to the ‘truth.’ What this implies to victims (even if it’s not intended) is that they are not enough to be believed.” Due process and presumption of innocence get in the way of the system “working” by convicting and incarcerating people.
Malone offers a different conception of justice: “True healing for victims and real accountability for perpetrators can only happen when a victim gets to define the justice, and we uplift her to access that justice on her terms.” A system that automatically believes accusers and allows them to freely define what they are entitled to may run into some practical problems. Malone is honest about this: “I am often accused of believing survivors. I admit it. It’s true. I do. The rates of false reports about sexual violence are so small. I like my odds. So I believe survivors.”
Of course, in accepting these “odds,” Malone is not gambling with her own money but with that of the innocent people who will be destroyed by false allegations.
Admittedly, these three writers are extreme cases, representing the outer verge of the believe women debate. But their writings reflect a broader tendency within recent feminist thought—towards credulity and favoring the accuser—which is starting to have a real effect on American politics.
The same tendency can be seen in the chapters of Believe Me by authors who are less radical and contribute to more mainstream publications. There is something quite remarkable about the way in which supporters of believe women manage to avoid the basic problem of false allegations. One method of evasion is linguistic. Nearly all the contributors to Believe Me—including at least two trained attorneys—refer to accusers as “victims” or “survivors,” as if presupposing that their allegations are true. This choice of terminology allows them to rhetorically evade the profound epistemic problem faced by any authority: namely, that it cannot always know who is telling the truth. Liberal notions of due process and presumption of innocence are premised on this uncertainty. We presume innocence because we often don’t know who is innocent and who is guilty. Supporters of believe women ignore this uncertainty far too often.
Ignoring this problem requires some quite willful looking the other way. Here is how Valenti and Friedman tackle this in their introduction:
It is by now almost a cliché: when women say we should believe survivors of sexual violence, a swarm of (mostly) men swoop in to rescue us from our silly thoughts. “That’s simply unworkable,” they’ll mansplain patiently. “What about due process? What about innocent until proven guilty? Women aren’t perfect angels, you know! Are we to believe every single woman?
Valenti and Friedman have no intention of answering these questions. Instead, they declare them “horseshit” and say that if there is a problem with believe women it is that it doesn’t go far enough. Friedman reuses exactly this rhetorical device in the final chapter. She mocks the “rational” (in sneer quotes) concerns of those who object to believe women and declares that questions about false allegations and presumption of innocence “are less questions than straw men, a sleight-of-hand trick drawing our focus to a shadowy bogeywoman who will take everything you hold dear if you don’t contain her with your distrust.”
These two passages serve as fitting bookends to a project remarkable for its evasiveness and intellectual laziness. Nowhere in a book-length exposition of the meaning of believe women—which devotes considerable space to the ethics of service dogs, Native American LGBT youth and the BDSM practices of homeless queer people—is this basic problem resolved. But, in real life, these problems are not so easily avoided.
Illiberalism Seeps into the Mainstream
Believe Me speaks only for a dedicated minority, who are suspicious of or even hostile to due process and other liberal norms. But there is evidence to suggest that this minority is influencing the broader conversation. For example, in her 2018 piece “Do We Really ‘Believe Women’? How the Kavanaugh Accusation Will Put a Slogan to the Test,” Monica Hesse writes:
Last year, shortly after #MeToo spread as a hashtag and shorthand, a companion phrase also emerged: “Believe women.”
In other words, believe them when they tell stories of assault and harassment. Victims’ lives are rarely made easier by levying accusations against powerful perpetrators, which means that if a woman has come forward, she’s probably doing so at personal cost. So believe her. At the very least, give her the dignity of considering her claims.
Here we have the same denial that false allegations occur, the inability to explicitly address the problem of false accusations, the same reference to victims, rather than accusers or alleged victims. Perhaps sensing that she is in over her skis, Hesse pulls back somewhat in the last sentence. Like the more moderate Believe Me contributors, she prefers to define believe women as involving due process and investigation. But, even here, she suggests that due process is “the very least” that women deserve, implying that, if she had her way, they would receive substantially more—though what that would entail is not specified.
The New York Times is at the center—if there is one—of mainstream political discourse. If these ideas can be found there, there can be no dismissing them as fringe or boutique. They have achieved real political significance.
New York Times columnist Michelle Goldberg’s 2017 piece “I Believe Juanita” is one of the most interesting documents of the current moment. In order to examine the possibilities and pitfalls of believe women, Goldberg revisits the allegations of rape Juanita Broaddrick made against then president Bill Clinton. Clinton’s various sex scandals have always been a source of angst for feminist writers. Many have felt that the movement failed, at the time, to treat the accusers fairly. Goldberg returns to the topic in an attempt to exorcise some demons.
In one paragraph, Goldberg sums up all the evidence Broaddrick was able to marshal to substantiate her claim, as well as the problems with her testimony, and concludes: “Put simply, I believe her.” Her statement of belief at first seems to be based on her view of the evidence. But an interesting thing happens as the piece continues. She begins to treat believing less as a matter of involuntary commitment and more as a matter of choice. She ends her piece with a directive: “We should err on the side of believing women, but sometimes, that belief will be used against us.”
What Goldberg commits herself to is much less extreme than many of the views we have been discussing, but it is also a clear statement by a major figure that believe women, at least in practice, meant something more than treating women fairly and taking them seriously. For Goldberg, it also meant actively tipping the scales in women’s favor. Even the moderate adopters say or imply as much, and, now that the slogan is on its way out, they should own it.
However, I disagree with those who say that believe women meant believe all women. This isn’t why believe women failed, as the following example illustrates. After Tara Reade made her allegations, Jessica Valenti, one of believe women’s most prominent and enthusiastic supporters and editor of the only book on the topic, reemerged to address the issue. She writes: “feminists are being put in a near-impossible position: abandon our mantra to believe women and defend a man accused of serious misconduct, or speak out against him and in the process provide ammunition to a conservative movement fundamentally opposed to women’s autonomy.”
Believe women now means never defending anyone who is accused: in effect, it means believe all accusers. Uncareful critics may say that Valenti defined believe women as believe all accusers all along. No such inference is warranted. All we can know is that Valenti took believe women to mean believe all accusers when she wrote these sentences. Last winter, when she was writing and editing Believe Me, it meant “listening to women and bearing witness to their experiences.” That is the real problem with believe women. It never meant anything at all. It never articulated a clear principle or even heuristic that could be applied consistently to many cases. Without such content, it left its advocates free to decide cases based on gut feeling and political expediency. Believe Broaddrick and Ford, but not Reade. The best thing about not having principles is that you don’t have to worry about breaking them. The worst part is that it’s morally and politically indefensible.
The Poverty of Our Intellectual Discourse
The debate around believe women raises the question of what we want to accomplish with our social and political discourse. Why do we read and write op-eds and opinion pieces? Why are how long Louis CK waited before returning to stand-up comedy, the Twitter habits of a young New York Times writer or whether a high school student is smirking or smiling subjects of national conversation? We discuss these things not because they are significant in themselves, but because we use them as sign posts. They are ways of articulating general principles and values. Articulating principles and values in the abstract would mean doing moral and political philosophy, and God knows Americans don’t want to do that. So we seize on examples and say this is what I believe or this is what I reject. Writers try to articulate norms of decency and right conduct to define our shared moral culture.
Believe women discourse represents a failure to achieve this articulation. Believe women could have meant something definite and important, which would have made the world a better place. It didn’t only because writers and intellectuals did not step forward to give it that meaning. That is a great shame.