UPDATE 2 In Part 1, I began exploring the issues raised by the Kavanaugh confirmation hearings. I keep writing on these issues in the hope of finding the right tone, persuading those with an open mind how we can make progress, so that women are satisfied their voices are being heard and changes being made, and men are satisfied they’re not being unfairly targeted. No one in either camp has asked me to be a negotiator, but as an essayist I’m free to offer suggestions and look for things we can all agree on.
The idea strikes me with some force that women could spread the word among themselves, and help to educate the next generation, that if you’re sexually assaulted you need to report it promptly to the proper authorities, such as the police or a rape crisis center. You need to be interviewed immediately.
There may be many reasons why women don’t report sexual assault, or wait years to do so, and even then don’t report it to a body having some legal authority to act, but rather to the media (including social media) or to a partisan political figure. But such failure to report in timely fashion or to the proper authorities poses serious problems for the complainant, for the accused, for investigators, and for society at large.
Sexual assault is a serious crime. The main way to ensure that it is taken seriously is to report it promptly to the appropriate authorities. However difficult this may be, it’s one way to make a major dent in the incidence of such crime — a way that most people (both women and men) can agree upon, because it’s consistent with principles of fairness and due process.
There’s a lot of shoddy thinking coming from extreme camps on both sides — that is, from man-haters among women and woman-haters among men. Solutions will be found mainly by people in the middle — by women and men who love and respect each other, who share a sense of outrage at sexual violence, and who want to see a society where women and girls feel safe from such violence.
The very existence of sexual violence is something which drives a wedge between men and women, causing them to retreat into their separate camps. So, lessening actual (undisputed) incidents of sexual violence should be a major goal. Obviously, for men this means not engaging in sexual violence! For women, it means making use of social control mechanisms meant to curb sexual violence, (again) through prompt reporting.
This is not to suggest that the available mechanisms are perfect. They are not. Still, many police departments have revised their procedures so that a woman with a sexual assault complaint can speak to a female officer who has training in this field, and will treat the complainant with sensitivity.
Sexual assault is not pleasant, and neither is speaking about it with strangers; but filing complaints and seeing the process through is one sure-fire way to reduce the incidence of sexual assault. If women who are victims of sexual assault make a point of reporting it promptly, those men who still haven’t gotten the message that sexual assault is wrong and illegal will find themselves being prosecuted for it. This will send a strong message of deterrence.
At the same time that women need to up the statistics for reporting clear incidents of sexual assault, I think they also need to be very clear about what isn’t sexual assault. Bad dates are not sexual assault. Clumsy (but utterly nonviolent) attempts at courtship are not sexual assault. Consensual sex about which you later feel regret or have recriminations is not sexual assault, even if decades later you feel you’re a completely different person who would not consent today, and should not have consented at the time.
There are gray areas having to do with relationship dynamics, the consensual use of drugs and alcohol, and parties at which both men and women know in advance what type of activities to expect. But my main point here is that there are many clear instances of sexual assault which go unreported. Focusing on creating a culture where women and girls know they need to report such instances promptly is a positive step we can all agree on.
There’s a backlash against certain excesses of #MeToo. This backlash is felt by people who value rationality and due process, and don’t feel that everything can be upended on the basis of the raw emotion of the moment, and the demands which raw emotion makes.
Some women have implied that names, dates and places don’t matter, only the feeling that abuse happened. In what sense is this true or not true? It may be true emotionally, but it’s obviously not true legally. That’s why one of the best things we can do is encourage women to file complaints promptly so that they’re interviewed by someone who will get names, dates and places which can be used as evidence in a court of law.
Why is this important? There’s an underlying problem in society of sexual abuse of women and girls. But there are also cycles in which this problem escalates into a moral panic, with frantic finger-pointing and abandonment of due process. The periods of moral panic lead to backlash and are actually counterproductive to the larger goal of ending sexual abuse. So are false reports, which do happen.
To understand these issues we need to study their history, at a minimum going back to the 1990s and the whole repressed memory movement. This was spawned in part by books like Courage To Heal, which said in essence that if you feel abused or have certain psychological symptoms, then you probably were abused. You have to rifle through your past, locate an abuser, and ultimately name and confront him. This psychological fad led to a high incidence of false claims based on feelings rather than facts. “Abuse survivor” became a ready-made identity with its own culture, support system, and a sign on the door saying Join us, sister!
People who lived through that era understand the dangers of moral panics and psychological fads. People who temper emotion with intellect recognize the parallels between the current period and that period in the 90s when it became a social, political, and therapeutic necessity to “come out” as an “abuse survivor.” To respawn that era will not be of genuine benefit to women.
We can help curb sexual assault by making sure women and girls know they need to report it promptly to police and provide details. Unfortunately, Christine Blasey Ford is a polarizing figure because her type of claim is one which many people find troubling. It conforms to a particular M.O. where there’s an above average incidence of false, inflated, or confabulated claims — sometimes sincerely conveyed, but still inaccurate. Factors which can make claims of sexual assault appear less credible include:
– Not reported until years after the alleged event.
– Never reported to police, but only to the media or to a partisan political figure in connection with advocacy on a hot-button issue.
– Place/date/time absent from report.
– No corroboration.
– Therapists and/or attorneys involved in shaping client’s account of past events.
It may be statistically true that some women who are genuine victims of sexual assault don’t report it until years later. Unfortunately, this tends to create a non-falsifiable proposition. In addition, the long delay makes it difficult to gather evidence and arrive at a true reckoning.
Some advocacy groups and media personalities are making the emotional demand that complaints which are problematic for the above reasons must be believed unquestioningly. This is an example of overreaching, and leads to backlash. Sadly, there are plenty of provable examples of sexual assault which are reported contemporaneously, with checkable details and no obvious political overtones. These make a much better rallying cry for activists than Christine Blasey Ford’s more problematic account.
At the time of the UVA rape hoax which was published (and later retracted) by Rolling Stone, I remember reading a message from a father who loved his daughters very much. He felt he needed to explain to them that just because you feel something doesn’t make it true. Feelings are important, but they’re not true north indicators. If daily life tends to trivialize our feelings, therapy culture can sometimes go to the opposite extreme, placing feelings on a pedestal. There needs to be a good balance between emotion and rationality.
Placing one’s feelings on a pedestal or assuming they are paramount in any situation is not always a sign of emotional health. It can be a sign of immaturity, narcissism, and self-indulgence. Not all therapy is good therapy. In some types of bad therapy, clients are conditioned to obsess on feelings, rather than handle the natural ebb and flow of feelings in a mature way, and temper feelings with facts and intellect. The combination of survivor-oriented therapy with victim-oriented politics can make for a witches’ brew.
I certainly don’t mean to come on like Joe Rational here. I can see the weaknesses of excessive rationalism. Back in the 1960s, U.S. foreign policy “experts” sat around smoking pipes, asking each other “How much napalm should we order this week? How many Vietnamese villages filled with women and children do we want to incinerate?” This was based on a “logical” foreign policy doctrine called the “domino theory.” There was no empathy for the living, breathing human beings who were being targeted. The same might be said of the Trump administration’s family separation policies, which are a “logical” way to discourage people from crossing the border, but are cruel and inhumane. (What’s next, strafing them with Agent Orange?)
Excessive rationality can excuse grave injustice happening right under its nose. As I’ve discussed elsewhere, this includes the harassment of religious and spiritual minorities by so-called “deprogrammers” and “exit counselors” who likewise feel a false sense of entitlement to impose their (largely secular) world view on populations with whom they disagree. There is some overlap here, because various types of operatives with a social, political, or personal agenda tend to use atrocity stories as an emotional fulcrum to leverage their objectives. But where the atrocity stories are false, atypical, or delivered in a demagogic manner, we should rightly cry foul.
To sum up: An objective which reasonable men and women can agree upon is to reduce incidents of sexual assault by encouraging prompt reporting, followed by thorough investigation of timely claims. That’s not the only thing which can be done, but it’s a high percentage move. By cooperating on that, we could forge alliances which would eventually make it easier to tackle thornier issues.
The nature of our world is that people often have to fight for their rights — to organize and make demands. The demands of Dr. Martin Luther King’s movement, based on Gandhian non-violence, were eminently reasonable: the right to vote, and equal access to education. It’s so important when going up against a “system” which can be unfair and unreasonable not to mirror that unfairness and unreasonableness. An end to sexual violence against women and girls is an absolutely reasonable demand and something worth fighting for. But I don’t think it can be accomplished by upending the justice system to the point where accusation equals guilt. To quote Cathy Young from a Slate.com article written at the time of the UVA rape hoax:
Rape is a repugnant crime — and one for which the evidence often relies on one person’s word against another’s. Moreover, in the not-so-distant past, the belief that women routinely make up rape charges often led to appalling treatment of victims. However, in challenging what author and law professor Susan Estrich has called “the myth of the lying woman,” feminists have been creating their own counter-myth: that of the woman who never lies.
A de facto presumption of guilt in alleged sexual offenses is as dangerous as a presumption of guilt in any crime, and for the same reasons: It upends the foundations on which our system of justice rests and creates a risk of ruining innocent lives.
Our focus on getting justice for women who are sexually assaulted is necessary and right. We are still far from the day when every woman who makes a rape accusation gets a proper police investigation and a fair hearing. But seeking justice for female victims should make us more sensitive, not less, to justice for unfairly accused men. In practical terms, that means finding ways to show support for victims of sexual violence without equating accusation and guilt, and recognizing that the wrongly accused are real victims too.
— Cathy Young
As for the Kavanaugh nomination itself, I’m very disappointed he seems to have squeaked through. There was enough to disqualify him without the sexual allegations, and in retrospect it may be that the Democrats erred by focusing on those allegations, which came to dominate the hearings.
When Mitch McConnell flatly refused to give Barack Obama’s eminently reasonable Supreme Court pick Merrick Garland so much as a hearing, this took politicization of the Court to a new level. It was perhaps inevitable that a later Republican pick would run into a political buzz saw powered by the injustice of the Garland snub. The Republicans also erred by presenting Kavanaugh as an abstinent choir boy.
The lesson for Democrats is to continue to work toward a more just, compassionate, and inclusive society, while not pandering to victim feminism, identity politics, and not practicing the politics of personal destruction.
The lesson for the Trump administration? Be careful what you wish for. You just might get it.
The views expressed are my own, and do not represent any other person or organization.
Breaking: Run on chemical mace at Supreme Court gift shop. RBG buys five cans…
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