The debate over what “believe women” means, explained

What does it mean to believe women?

It’s a question Joe Biden had to consider last week when he went on national television to discuss Tara Reade’s charge of sexually assaulting her in 1993.

Biden firmly denied the claim, “It never, never happened,” he said.

But Morning Joe host Mika Brzezinski urged him to match that denial with previous comments he made about sexual assault. In 2018, when Christine Blasey Ford accused then-Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh of sexual assault, Brzezinski reminded Biden, “You said women should be believed.”

Brzezinski wanted to know: When it comes to Reade, are there different rules?

“From the very beginning, I have said that women of faith mean that she takes the woman’s claim seriously when she steps forward and then investigates them,” Biden replied, adding, “In this case, the claims are false.”

His answer was a reminder of something crucial about the phrase “believe women”: it is easy to say and perhaps much more difficult to act on.

The term, along with the wider ‘believe survivors’, came to prominence when the Me Too movement gained national attention in late 2017 and became even more common in response to the Kavanaugh hearings in 2018. In September of that year, the Me Too campaign was conducted founder Tarana Burke and other activists led a strike in support of Ford, encouraging supporters to tweet using the hashtag #BelieveSurvivors.

Over time, the terms “faith women” and “faith survivors” have been widely used not only by activists, but also by politicians and members of the public. Biden for example, said in a 2018 PBS interview that “women should be believed.”

But the concept was controversial almost from the start. Critics have claimed that the phrase “women believe” is simplistic and implies that somehow women cannot lie biologically. But many advocates say that the call to believe women does not mean that we should not investigate allegations. Instead, they say, it’s just an appeal to people to take such accusations seriously – something that American society hasn’t historically done.

The message from “believe survivors” is that when people come forward to report sexual violence and seek support, “their stories are listened to and taken into account and are not immediately discredited,” said Sage Carson, manager of Know Your IX, a project to combat sexual violence in schools and on university campuses, Vox said.

But it is not always clear what it means to take allegations seriously, especially when they are directed against the presumed Democratic candidate for president. Biden has appealed to the National Archives to identify each record of the complaint [Reade] claims she’s filed, “but Reade asked for a fuller investigation.

Meanwhile, the public weighs the claim: 26 percent of Democrats now another nominee, according to a Morning Consult poll conducted after the Morning Joe interview (although some respondents may have chosen a different candidate in the beginning). And others, including prominent Democrats such as Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Kirsten Gillibrand, line up behind the former vice president and say they still support him despite the allegation.

Whatever happens to Reade’s assertion, it is clear that Democrats are weighing up what it really means to believe women. “What we see now with Tara Reade’s story is that there were too many people who used that slogan for political purposes,” said Lucy Flores, a social justice advocate who wrote at the Cut last year about experiencing an unwanted kiss from Biden, Vox said. “It was very easy to jump into this because it was politically useful.”

Now it is politically inconvenient for Democrats to believe an allegation against their party’s presumed candidate for president, especially as he faces President Trump, who has been accused of sexual misconduct by over 20 women. And this particular moment in history has brought new attention to what it really means to believe women and what it means to give their stories a fair hearing, even if it’s not easy.

“Believe women” became known with the Me Too movement

The phrase “believe women” was nearby since before the Me Too movement entered its most public phase in October 2017.

But “faith women” became more common as Me Too attracted attention. “As America’s highly publicized settlement of sexual harassment and abuse continues, the conversation about” believe women “and # MeToo inevitably also becomes more complicated and fragile,” Gillian B. White wrote for the Atlantic in November 2017.

In addition to “faith women,” many activists used the term “faith survivors” in recognition of the fact that people of all genders can experience sexual harassment and abuse. And both terms became even more visible during the confirmation hearings for Kavanaugh, who was accused of sexual misconduct by Ford and other women. In September 2018 Washington Post columnist Monica Hesse called the Kavanaugh affirmation process “a test of what it seems like to believe women.”

Hesse argued that a vote on Kavanaugh’s appointment should be postponed until Ford’s allegation can be investigated. “This is how the Senate can show that she believes women,” she wrote. “By saying, We believe that women’s stories should be heard. We believe that this is a topic serious enough to deserve our attention. ”

A few days later, Tarana Burke, founder of Me Too, along with Planned Parenthood, the National Center for Transgender Equality and other progressive groups, took part in a nationwide protest called the # BelieveSurvivors strike. Participants were encouraged to post photos or videos of themselves using the hashtag.

When Kavanaugh was confirmed despite testimony from Ford, Burke and other advocates wrote a public letter to her. “This letter is our love offering to her, so she constantly reminds that there is tremendous support for her and other survivors like her,” they wrote. “We heard her. We saw her. And we believed her. ‘

Many argue that Americans “believe women” and “believe survivors” are a way of pushing back against a culture in which people who report sexual misconduct – especially if they are women – were often not automatically believed.

That disbelief is still a problem, many say. If someone comes forward to report sexual misconduct, “we’re still doing everything we can to question the person telling the story immediately,” Flores said. “We immediately ask, what is their motive, what is their character, why are they saying this now? It is literally a litany of questions that people jump to before they have even processed the whole story.”

People who report ill-treatment are also often charged, ashamed of their clothing or sexual behavior, or subject to public scrutiny. These are some of the reasons why less than a quarter of the attacks are reported to the police, according to And only a small fraction of the reported attacks ever lead to a conviction.

In the end, in many allegations of sexual assault, only the reporter and the first-hand accused know exactly what happened. And for years, American society has responded to that uncertainty by ignoring the person making the report, especially if the accused is a powerful man. “Believe women” and “faith survivors” are meant to be an antidote to that tradition, as calls to question the status quo.

“I understand these phrases as sort of remedies,” said Moira Donegan, columnist for the Guardian US and creator of the Shitty Media Men list, a crowd-sourced list of men accused of sexual misconduct and representing the world of literature and journalism as flooded me. Too high in the foreground.

“We live in a culture that has traditionally been believed to make women less skilled and less honest than men,” she explained. The call to “believe women,” she said, “confirms women’s abilities as experts and credible interpreters of their own experience.”

The concept has often been misinterpreted

But as with many other aspects of the Me Too movement, ‘believe women’ quickly led to backlash.

“The hunters’ war cry -” believe all women “- felt like a scraping correction for a historical injustice,” Bari Weiss, opinion officer for the New York Times, wrote in November 2017. “But I also can’t shake the feeling that this mantra creates terrible new problems in addition to solving old ones.”

Weiss was concerned that the call to believe that women would give men little redress if they were falsely accused. “In a climate where sexual mores are changing so quickly,” she wrote, “many men ask, if I were wrongly accused, who would believe me?”

However, many proponents of anti-sexual violence say that “women believe” does not mean that women cannot lie or that accusations should be accepted without investigation.

“I think people have really twisted the idea of ​​what ‘believe survivors’ mean, in the idea that you never go through a fair trial for people, you never want reporting mechanisms, you never have formal processes available,” he said. Carson, the Know Your IX manager, at Vox. “That’s just not true.”

Instead, Carson said believing survivors means that when someone comes in, that person is heard instead of chased away. “When I worked directly with survivors as a lawyer, there were so many times that when someone reported, they were immediately questioned,” she said. “Believe survivors” is a call to something else, a warning that the first response to a mistreatment story should not be “to discredit that story,” Carson said.

Biden’s claim shows how the slogan has become largely political

In recent years, many Democrats have expressed support for this message. Even accused men have at least paid lip service to the idea of ​​listening to women. In a Speech of 2017 Sen. Al Franken announced his resignation after allegations of sexual misconduct, saying, “All women deserve to be heard and take their experiences seriously.”

And during his Morning Joe Friday’s interview, Biden also spoke about the importance of hearing women’s claims. “Women are to be believed, given the benefit of the doubt,” he told Brzezinski. “If they come forward and say something that they say happened to them, they should start with the suspicion that they are telling the truth. Then you have to look at the circumstances and the facts.”

What is less clear, especially in the statements of accused men, is what hearing women really mean. Biden’s position on Reade’s claim is that the “circumstances and facts” in the case have already been investigated and found to be inadequate. As he put it, “the facts in this case do not exist.”

However, several people have emerged to confirm that Reade told them about the alleged attack in the 1990s. Others, including Reade, are now urging Biden to allow an examination of his documents at the University of Delaware to see if a Reade complaint is filed there. Biden has opposed this, although he has called on the National Archives to release any Reade complaint from his time in the Senate. “If there has ever been such a complaint, the record will be there,” he said a statement prior to the Morning Joe interview.

In the absence of further evidence, the decision on how to think about Reade’s allegation is left to the voters. Despite the work of the Me Too movement, we haven’t really developed the tools to do that yet.

For Flores, the concept of religious women has “never had the right conversation” because it too quickly became a way for people to resist political opponents, such as Kavanaugh. “We will never get to the root of this problem if we constantly talk about it in a political context,” said Flores.

The Kavanaugh case was easier for Democrats for a number of reasons. Kavanaugh was a Trump-appointed person who was perceived as hostile to many democratic priorities; it was in the political interest of the Democrats not to have him in the Supreme Court. In addition, Ford did so much of society’s expectations – however dishonest – about how survivors of sexual assault should behave. Media juries and consumers often expect survivors to remember their attacks perfectly, be meticulously clear in describing very traumatic events, and emotional but not too emotional in telling their pain.

Americans’ ideas of perfect victimization are so ubiquitous that I know survivors, including myself, often try to shift ourselves to fit these perfect shapes, so we’re less likely to be taken apart, “Carson said. Ford fit the mold relatively well: she didn’t remember every detail of the night she described, but she was consistent and clear, emotional yet low-key, and a powerful speaker when she testified before the Senate.

Reade has since offered several versions of her account. Last year, she said Biden had touched her in a way that made her feel uncomfortable – a claim similar to Flores and others. But this year, she said he attacked her, too. While many Democratic voters may have been willing to forgive several women’s allegations of improper touch – Biden said in April 2019 that he was an affectionate person but would be more aware of boundaries – sexual assault is more concerning.

At the same time, Reade was criticized for her support for Senator Bernie Sanders and her writings in honor of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Some have suggested that she may be a Russian plant. Overall, while Ford came close to the ideal of society as a “perfect” survivor, Reade does not.

Moreover, it is not clear what it would mean to take Reade’s account seriously. While some voters want to see a new candidate, others – including me advocate Alyssa Milano – seem to advocate the possibility of believing Reade, or at least hearing her, and still nominating Biden. “It’s up to women to navigate within the men’s design system to make pragmatic choices that we hope will lead us to a more equal future,” Milano wrote in an April opinion. “I still support Joe Biden because I believe it is the best choice for that future.”

Overall, the charge against Biden puts voters “in a really unfair position,” said Donegan. On the one hand, they face supporters of Biden “who are perpetuating some myths about women as incompetent or insincere with the alleged aim of reducing the damage by fighting to deny Donald Trump a second term.” On the other hand, they see opponents of Biden, including Trump supporters and Senator Bernie Sanders, “more or less willing to use Tara Reade and by extension the survivors’ pain as a moral shield to defend their own interests.”

“You can see that the pain of women is being used as a tool for men’s agendas,” said Donegan.

The way to move forward and explore what it means to believe women

A real conversation about believing survivors should address not only the public response to allegations of sexual misconduct, but also the options people have when they experience such misconduct in the first place, some lawyers say. “The hope, at least for me, about ‘believe survivors’ is that we can start building better ways forward,” Carson said, “that don’t force survivors to put themselves in the media and ask for attention they might not want for themselves. ‘

Reade’s statement is an opportunity for reform, both in Congress and elsewhere, so that ‘we can have fair and unbiased trials where survivors can come forward and report violence they are experiencing, and get a trial that is unbiased “That’s fair and has respect for them and that can make a meaningful result,” Carson said.

And for Donegan, it’s an opportunity for a broader study of the bargains female voters should accept. “We need to think more critically about what citizenship and the political responsibilities of women as voters really mean when we are asked to reduce the damage for many at the expense of our own dignity,” she said.

With Reade’s claim still upheld on social media and TV news – and Trump being accused of sexual harassment or ill-treatment by several women, some of whom he has publicly shamed – it’s hard to imagine a world where such litigation is the norm to be.

But change has to start somewhere. For Flores, it is a slow process of cultural shift, driven by ‘these conversations we have now, journalists dealing with these topics, opinion leaders subsequently publishing conversations about them’.

That process may be slow, but this is how we continue as a society, Flores believes. As a former Nevada legislator, she reflects on the fact that women were not allowed to wear pants on the state legislative floor a few decades ago. “No one can fathom this concept now that a woman can’t wear pants to work,” she said, but it took a steady process of change of attitude to get us to this point.

“That’s how I feel about progress in general,” she said. “It’s so many small steps, but they’re all starting to happen at the same time.”

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