Like just about every woman I know, I have my share of sexual harassment/assault stories. I’ve had co-workers and bosses that made inappropriate jokes, leaned in too close, touched too much, flat out hit on me. And worse stories that I don’t share as often. Like most other women I know, I never tried to file a complaint with HR, never sued for harassment, never even made a public complaint. Because…what proof did I have? …was it just all in my head, did I just imagine it? …was I making a big deal out of nothing?
Actually, one woman at a company where I worked did sue one of our bosses for sexual harassment after I’d left, and she asked me to testify. I had never seen them interact in any unprofessional way, had never even seen him talk to her, I think.
But I believed her.
I believed her because of all my own experiences in that workplace. I believed her because I knew her, she was a lovely woman, not the “kind of person” who would make up a story like that. And I knew him.
I think this is what is so often missing from the #BelieveWomen message. #BelieveWomen is shorthand for “give women the chance to tell their stories, and don’t automatically dismiss what they’re saying as false, simply because they’re women, or because they’re not the ones with power; don’t dismiss them as ‘oversensitive,’ or ‘hysterical.’” For women, or anyone who’s experienced sexual harassment or assault, this should be fairly instinctive, as our own experiences come to mind when we hear another tell her story—we are, in other words, “triggered.” For others, this may be harder, as they bring different biases to mind.
But I don’t think #BelieveWomen is dogma. It doesn’t mean no woman will ever falsely accuse anyone; it doesn’t mean no woman will ever remember a situation in a different way than someone else. The truth is that in many instances, just like the one I was asked to testify in, there won’t be much concrete evidence. Quite often, there will be none. There will be an accuser and an accused, each telling a different story. In every such situation, we as observers, will bring to our understanding and beliefs about the “truth” our own judgement and biases. (The same is true were we to sit as jurors if such a case went to trial.)
When Christine Blasey Ford accused Brett Kavanaugh of sexually assaulting her in prep school, my instinct was to believe her. In part, that reflected my own inherent biases against the beer-drinking, prep school/frat boy type, given my own experiences with them and those of friends of mine. As I listened to her testimony, and his; learned how reluctant she was to publicly tell her story, and how she tried to stay out of the limelight; and watched his angry, red-faced response, I continued to believe her.
When first Vanessa Tyson, and then Meredith Watson came forward with accusations against Justin Fairfax, I didn’t want to believe them. I’d met him many times, many of my friends knew him. He was an up and coming superstar in Virginia. But Vanessa Tyson’s story, in particular, was credible, consistent, and made sense in the context of her life, as someone who advocates on behalf of sexual assault survivors and has worked at rape crisis centers. The timing made sense, and she’d tried to tell her story before. Her interviews were moving and genuine. His response, lashing out at her, repeatedly lashing out on Twitter, didn’t help his credibility with me. And a second accuser coming forward with another story dug a deeper hole.
Now here we are choosing the next President of the United States. And the presumptive Democratic nominee faces accusations of decades-ago sexual assault, from a woman named Tara Reade. Now, I like Joe Biden, I’ve followed his career for a long time, and seen him to be ahead of his time on women’s issues, including violence against women. I don’t know him well enough to swear that he’s innocent or anything, just enough that this accusation conflicts with my impressions of him. And right now we’re facing easily the most critical election of our lifetimes, where the choice is between the incumbent, who clearly has no respect for women and has multiple very credible allegations of sexual assault against him, and Joe Biden; so I fully admit that these two personal biases very much affect how I see these accusations. But nevertheless, after centuries of women’s voices being muted on such topics, everyone should have the right to tell their story, to be heard, and we should do our best to reserve judgement until after we’ve heard whatever evidence or testimony we can.
Tara Reade has had that chance. I’d rather not go into all the holes and inconsistencies in her story (but I’ll include a handful of links below). Along with my aforementioned biases, they’ve led me to question whether her story is true. Other peoples’ experiences and biases may cause them to weight the inconsistencies in her story differently, and draw a different conclusion. The point is that reasonable people may or may not believe this story once they’ve heard the various pieces of evidence. It’s not hypocritical for someone to advocate that we should listen to women and not dismiss them when they say they’ve been harassed or assaulted—and to still come to the conclusion that the story may not be true; or at least that it’s not clear enough whether the story is true to decide not to vote for Biden.
Personally, I’ll be working as hard as I can from now until November to make sure that we stop Donald Trump from being re-elected. This is no ordinary moment in history. We’re facing an existential threat—well, more than one, really. This election is a binary choice between Biden and Trump, and that’s an easy choice to make.
[Update: I wrote this before I knew that Biden was going to appear on Morning Joe this morning to discuss the accusations. Both his written statement and his appearance again reinforce my personal impressions about this story. He refused to insult or demean Reade, refused to be goaded by Mika into accepting the false choice here between the principle of believing women and stating his own innocence–and most importantly, he not only didn’t oppose investigation, but encouraged it, asking the Secretary of the Senate to ask the National Archives to release any records from the Office of Fair Employment Practices, where any complaint Reade filed would be archived. He’s said nothing that would cast doubt on him.]
Long Twitter thread on Reade inconsistencies: https://twitter.com/HKrassenstein/status/1255469692006936584
New York Times investigation of the complaint: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/12/us/politics/joe-biden-tara-reade-sexual-assault-complaint.amp.html
And a couple of just downright weird ones: https://romansresearch.wordpress.com/2020/04/29/tara-reades-updated-medium-post-all-material-edits/amp/