Sexual harrasment: whom to believe?

In a recent editorial board meeting, The Vanguard was discussing the sexual assault accusations that have recently become rampant across so many sectors of public life: the government, the media, the entertainment industry, Silicon Valley. We agreed that all alleged victims of sexual assault, in both high-profile and personal cases, should be respected and granted a fair trial. We also agreed that sexual assault—and all views that treat sexual assault as anything less than a crime worthy of legal investigation—must stop in all environments.

But as members of the court of public opinion, we disagreed strongly about the proper way to approach and receive accusations. Several of us felt we should always believe accusers who come forward, while others argued that we should try to stay neutral about their claims until the justice system has heard and decided the cases.

Below are both sides.


Believe the accusers

We students may feel as though our political influence is less than substantial, but we are part of the court of public opinion. We have a powerful role to play in combating both the prevalence of sexual assault in our culture and the shame attached to victims in and out of the public eye. With this responsibility, we must assume that in cases of alleged sexual assault, the accuser is telling the truth until there is reason to believe otherwise after due legal process.

To be clear, the responsibility of the court of public opinion is different than that of the justice system. The justice system must uphold its principle of innocent until proven guilty in its administration of fair trials. However, no such principle applies to the public at large, who can effect widespread cultural and attitudinal changes by voicing important perspectives verbally or online.

Institutionalized biases against sexual assault victims as well as the stigma surrounding those victims coming forward mean sexual assault crimes come with more baggage than most other crimes and thus warrant special treatment. According to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), two out of three cases of sexual assault are not reported. Of those victims who did not report from 2005 to 2010, 20 percent listed fear of retaliation as a reason for not coming forward, 8 percent believed the event was not important enough to report, and 13 percent thought the police would not act on their behalf.

Given the laborious, emotionally straining, and time-consuming process of seeking legal action for sexual assault—not to mention the overwhelming possibility of inadequate punishment, as perpetrators of sexual assault are less likely to face prison time than other criminals, RAINN also found—victims already have little incentive to come forward.

On top of these disincentives, the media frequently construe sexual assault stories so that the victims seem responsible for the act. According to an Australian study referred to in The Huffington Post, one in six news reports indirectly blames the victim. Of those news reports, 16 percent implied women had put themselves in a risky situation, 14.5 described the behavior of the victims, and 14.8 percent included information excusing the perpetrators. The fact is, too often victims are blamed or accused of fabricating aspects of their story.

Our culture’s largely unsupportive approach to victims of sexual violence is responsible for the amount of unreported—and consequently unprosecuted—cases of sexual assault. To most effectively counteract this societal prejudice against victims when judging a case of sexual violence, we members of the court of public opinion must recognize the disadvantageous positions occupied by those victims. We also must consider that according to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, only 2 to 10 percent of all reported sexual assault cases are falsely described, making the percentage of false accusations lower than the percentage of false acquittals. In the court of public opinion, we should be willing to gamble against the rare circumstance of a false accusation to account for the more worrisome margin of error in lack of punishment.

Given these points, it’s necessary—and fair—for the public at large to accept all allegations as truthful in order to express support for victimized women and men and to help diminish their justifiable fear of opposition and character defamation if they tell their story. We must trust our justice system to discover false reports of sexual abuse when they occur, but until then, we must aim to change the culture around sexual assault by balancing out the prejudice that has historically caused victims more suffering. We must believe the accusers.


Stay neutral and wait for the facts

News of sexual assault cases has become pervasive. It seems as though almost every day we get a notification with the latest charge of sexual assault against a politician or another person of influence. We are constantly faced with the choice of which side to believe. Instead of automatically siding with the victim or the perpetrator, we should stay neutral and wait for the investigation of the facts.

Our country’s judicial system proudly values the principle of innocent until proven guilty. To deny someone’s innocence before deliberation is to give up on a fundamental tenet of our democracy. Just as the judicial system should uphold this tenet, the court of public opinion should as well. How can we—as members of a democratic body—uphold our democratic ideals if we initially believe one side over the other?

To turn our back on victims would certainly be inexcusable, but recent events, including the #MeToo movement, the #TimesUp campaign at the Golden Globes, and the number of resignations or firings of high-profile public figures on the basis of sexual assault allegations, have illustrated that accusers are not entirely without support. Movements like these are evidence that the culture of silence and shaming around sexual assault victims is changing. The #MeToo movement and others like it show appropriate support and solidarity to victims of sexual assault, but we should be careful not to develop an unfair bias against the accused before their guilt is even established.

The other side mentions that 13 percent of victims of sexual violence don’t report their case because they believe the police would not help them. A public stance that defaults into belief in the accuser will not change this situation. In order to improve these odds, victims should feel confident that no one involved in their case has developed any premature bias—toward either party—and that they will receive a fair trial upon reporting.

What is the practical difference between giving accusers the benefit of the doubt and perpetuating blind belief in their stories? Both honor accusers but the latter would encourage and embolden false accusers and could introduce a different kind of bias against the perpetrator. Instead of choosing to believe either side before a case of sexual assault goes to trial, we should strive to check or eliminate our biases, just as our legal system should.

Accepting all reports of sexual assault as the truth when 2 to 10 percent of those reports are based on false accusations is unacceptable. Although not the majority, 2 to 10 percent is not zero, and we should not risk assigning guilt to an innocent person on either side of the assault scenario. Accusations of sexual assault can ruin reputations, repel loved ones and colleagues, restrict employment opportunities, and lead to steep fines or serious jail time. Given these dire consequences, we ought not rush to judgment.

Sexual assault is a crime like all others, in that a fair trial should be given without an emotional responsecausing bias and swaying people’s opinions. Therefore, we should not treat sexual assault, and how we approach those involved in such cases, as a special crime. If we are going to condemn someone, then our condemnation must be rooted in just deliberation and fact, not prejudice and opinion.

Note that we would never suggest that accusers’ stories should be discredited; we believe they must be treated as important and urgent. But when encountering these stories, we must listen with an open mind. Evidence can be hard to find in cases of sexual assault, and we should no more immediately look for loopholes or discrepancies in an accuser’s story than we should side with their allegations from the get-go. In a democracy, we should wait for the evidence and make an unbiased decision based on facts—a process that coincides with our foundational principle of innocent until proven guilty.

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