I just turned 40 this year, which means that I first started really paying attention to the world around me in the late 1980s. The first major national stories I can recall concerning women who made sexual assault allegations were Tawana Brawley and Anita Hill. Then came Bill Clinton’s accusers, many (but not all) of whom had credibility problems. As time went on, the list went on. Crystal Mangum. Jackie from UVA, and so on. I even once wrote a story of my own researching and pointing out heretofore undiscovered factual problems with a prominent rape accusation. When multiple women accused then-candidate Donald Trump of various forms of sexually inappropriate behavior during the 2016 campaign, I likewise found many of their stories to be lacking credibility and likely politically motivated.
I guess to some extent you could say that I’ve been primed to skepticism when it comes to stories involving sexual assault. Certainly, I have believed, it does not occur as often as the modern-day feminists would have you believe.
Then the #MeToo movement happened this year. Sure, some of the people I saw participating were trying to catch on to the fad and talked about #MeToo experiences that could best be described as micro-aggressions. But then I put aside my sarcastic smile for a minute and noticed something else.
I noticed a lot of very credible women, who had no reason to lie (and weren’t even naming their accusers or hoping to get anything in a lawsuit) who told horrible, believable stories of behavior they had quietly endured over the years. I saw close family members of mine — women who I’ve known closely for literally my entire life — telling stories I had never before heard. Many times these stories were decades old. Many times they came with shameful apologies that sounded the same refrain: I didn’t speak because I was embarrassed. I was ashamed. I did not think I would be believed. I thought I was alone and that I was the only one I knew who had ever experienced something like this.
Politics ain’t beanbag. It is a dirty, high-stakes business. I have known people who would say literally anything to see a given candidate win or to see another candidate defeated. I have never understood what would lead someone to tell a monstrous lie about another person just for the sake of winning an election, but our experience teaches us that it happens all the time. I would never suggest that we should abandon a healthy sense of skepticism, especially where a possible monetary award or a political election is on the line. But I am saying, maybe it’s time to realize that sexual assault in one form or another is a lot more common than any of us should be comfortable with. Accordingly, maybe our default stance even when a political candidate we like is in the crosshairs shouldn’t be flat out disbelief, even in the face of a story we would believe if it were about one of our political enemies.
Conservatives have been practically gleeful about the recent downfall of one prominent liberal celebrity after another. Harvey Weinstein. Kevin Spacey. Louis C.K. Bill Cosby. Not one of these men has been found guilty in a court of any crime. Not one of their accusers has come forward with any physical or DNA proof or anything of the sort. But you’ll be hard pressed to find defenders of their innocence, especially on the right. Generally speaking, the fact that their accusers have been willing to go on the record, by name, and tell similar stories that are corroborated by circumstantial evidence (such as proof that they were, in fact, in the same place at the same time as their alleged sexual predators and discussed their ordeal contemporaneously with friends) has been enough.
Talk to any conservative that you find on the street and they tell you the same thing: These guys are guilty as hell. Anyone who says different should be shouted down. It doesn’t matter that in many cases the accusations are decades old, or that they were initially reported by disreputable outlets such as the New York Times. There’s too much similarity in the stories for it to be coincidence. It’s easy to believe when the target of the accusation is someone whose downfall serves a purpose in validating your own belief system.
It gets harder when we have to look in the mirror and answer for how we assess the troubling allegations against Roy Moore. I’ll say up front that I don’t know whether the accusations are true or untrue. I’m certainly waiting to hear the rest of the story, if there is one. But I’m troubled by the reflexive disbelief I see in many quarters of the conservative movement, just because Moore happens to be running for Senate as a Republican.
Sure, the story first appeared in the Washington Post, which has a well-deserved reputation of unfairness to Republicans. If the story had been Washington Post reporters quoting anonymous sources, I would happily dismiss it as rubbish. But that’s not what it is. It is a story that extensively quotes real women with real names who have put their lives and reputations out into the world, knowing that doing so will invite intense public scrutiny. Any of these women could have come forward by now and said, “The Washington Post misquoted me or mischaracterized what I said.” None have yet. Until and unless one does, this is not the Washington Post’s story. It is the story of these four women.
I feel relatively confident in saying that if these same four women had told the exact same story with the same corroborating evidence about, say, George Clooney, virtually everyone who reads this website would have already convicted Clooney firmly in their minds. The women have come forward by name. One has voluntarily aired all her embarrassing dirty laundry. None of them know each other. Many of them talked about their experiences contemporaneously with their friends. Where possible, their stories have been checked against dates to verify that they were, in fact, in the same place at the same time as Moore. They have invited and practically dared the world to contradict their stories.
None of the excuses currently being offered in defense of Moore — that the stories are decades old, that there is no physical proof, that they were initially carried in a newspaper known for bias — have mattered in the slightest when it came to Weinstein, Spacey, Louis C.K. or Bill Cosby. And that ought to be reason enough for us to say, at the very least, that their story looks credible on its face. That while we don’t want to believe it about someone who is on “our side,” and we want to give him an opportunity to defend himself, that it looks pretty bad. It looks a whole lot like a pattern we would believe about anyone else. If it can be true about liberals in Hollywood, it can be true about conservatives in Alabama.
And most importantly, we ought to be willing to at least provisionally accept that women who come forward with allegations of sexual assault are telling the truth, especially where there is not an obvious factual reason to disbelieve them. It is certainly possible for every human being to lie, and that includes every woman. No one is suggesting anything different. Don’t leave your critical thinking faculties at the door whenever one of these stories pops up. But maybe it’s time to realize that a lot more of these stories are true than we previously believed.