The opening episode of Netflix’s 2019 drama Unbelievable ends with its lead character, Marie, standing at the edge of a bridge, contemplating suicide. A deeply flawed investigation by sceptical detectives has coerced her to recant an allegation of rape, which we later discover was absolutely true. But not before Marie has been charged with gross misdemeanour for 'filing a false report', vilified in the press, and seen her life fall apart around her. As ‘unbelievable’ as this may sound to some, the drama, which is a faithful retelling of a true story, will be painfully familiar to many women.
There is almost nothing our society finds as hard as simply believing women when they tell their own stories. From American lawyer Anita Hill (who made history in 1991 for testifying before Congress about the sexual harassment she said she had experienced while she was an aide to a Supreme Court nominee, who denied the allegations) to Dr Christine Blasey Ford (who accused Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh of sexual assault, which he also denied), women who come forward with their experiences of trauma and abuse have historically been dismissed, disbelieved and deluged with further abuse.
The resurgence of the #MeToo movement in 2017 brought hope and progress, with the courage of millions of women standing together to share their experiences forcing the world to acknowledge the reality of sexual harassment and abuse. Former film mogul Harvey Weinstein was found guilty and jailed. Many workplaces overhauled their sexual harassment policies. The world seemed to be listening.
But too many people want to believe that the moment is over, the problem solved. Meanwhile, countless more women are already being shamed, undermined and branded liars. From Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to FKA Twigs, Evan Rachel Wood to Meghan Markle, whether women are describing their experiences of rape, domestic abuse or racism, they find themselves reviled, doubted and torn apart on an international stage.
So here are the answers to the six of the most common questions and accusations that continue to swirl when any high-profile woman speaks out about her experience of sexual assault:
1) Why should we believe her when false rape allegations are so common?
This narrative has become so insidious that it has almost completely inverted our societal perception of sexual violence. Many people (including an alarmingly high percentage of the boys I speak to in schools on a weekly basis) really believe that false rape allegations are a bigger problem than rape itself.
So rare are false allegations that a man in the UK is 230 times more likely to be raped himself than falsely accused of rape. Meanwhile the very real epidemic of male sexual violence flourishes with almost complete impunity: Of the 55,259 rapes that were reported to the police in 2019, only 2,102 cases were prosecuted and of those just 1,439 resulted in a conviction.
2) One woman’s word can ruin a man’s life with no proof – it’s a ‘witch hunt’ gone ‘too far’
A New York Times investigation following the #MeToo movement found evidence of around 200 prominent US men who had lost jobs, roles or projects after public allegations of sexual harassment, with just a handful facing criminal charges. Compare this to the over 12 million women who used #MeToo on social media to share experiences of harassment, abuse and rape, the majority never seeing justice. The dial is hardly swinging 'too far' the other way. And the investigation revealed 920 accusers in those cases, suggesting it takes over four women on average to accuse a man before any action is seen at all.
Need I mention the election of former US president Donald Trump, the confirmation of Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court or the flourishing career of director Woody Allen? The idea that women’s words ruin men’s careers is nonsense. Far more often, men’s actions ruin women’s lives.
3) She’s just looking for money/fame/attention
High profile allegations of harassment or abuse don’t bring these things, despite the insistence of thousands of men on Twitter. They result in smears, international denigration, death and rape threats and character assassination.
Look at how the careers of many Weinstein accusers stalled or ended after they were blacklisted when they tried to speak out.
4) Why didn’t she come forward sooner?
See above. The cost of coming forward can be unbearable. The impact on a survivor’s life might be greater when she’s still in the same career or social circles as her abuser. Seeing other women speak out might later embolden her to tell her story.
It can take many years to find the immense courage required to undertake such a difficult step. None of these things mean she is making her story of abuse up.
5) Why didn’t she just leave?
Sophie Francis-Cansfield, Senior Campaigns and Policy Officer at Women's Aid says: 'At Women’s Aid, we know one of the biggest misconceptions is asking "Why don’t women just leave?"'
This question not only indicates a lack of understanding about the power and control which is at the heart of domestic abuse but that leaving can be the most dangerous time for a survivor.
The last word on this one goes to the magnificent FKA Twigs, who recently told Gayle King during a CBS interview: 'I think we have to stop asking that question… The question should really be to the abuser: "Why are you holding someone hostage with abuse?"'
6) She’s an actress so I don’t trust her
Frequently levelled at Markle and Wood in recent weeks, this portrayal of women as cunning deceivers is so old it’s literally Biblical. And the idea that an actor would make up an experience of crime is purely a misogynistic blind spot reserved for sexual violence: you don’t see the accusation being applied to male celebrities who’ve experienced robbery or violence.
These might be arguments you’ve seen in the context of celebrity survivors, but the trickle down effect means that they have a huge impact on the lives of ordinary women. When hundreds of these smears go unchallenged on social media and are provided credibility by the national media, they begin to shape our public narrative. This affects the attitudes of the people sexual violence victims come into contact with, from friends and family to police officers and juries.
Francis-Cansfield explains: 'The first response a survivor receives when they disclose their experience is crucial. A poor response can leave women struggling to escape the abuse permanently, build their independence and get their lives back.'
And of course, the more survivors who witness the obscene treatment of famous women who come forward, the fewer women feel able to disclose their own abuse. So the cycle of impunity continues.
We took a hugely important first step when women began coming forward with their stories. But if we want to make progress, it’s time to start believing them.
Men Who Hate Women by Laura Bates is published by Simon & Schuster and is out now in paperback. It is available to buy at Bookshop.org
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