Some time ago (before he blessedly went to prison), when I was a volunteer admin for the Facebook page We Support the Survivors of Bill Cosby, a fellow traveler made the observation to the effect that, “When it comes to sexual assault, my default position is to believe the women.” At the time I gave that statement my unalloyed endorsement. Even so, something in it gave me pause, and it took me a while to put my finger on what was wrong with it. And then it occurred to me. It is a defensive position, and it is defensive because the current toxic paradigm makes it that way. A better position might have been, “When it comes to sexual assault, my default position is not to disbelieve the women.”
I mean that in the same way I would not disbelieve a friend who told me “my house was broken into and robbed last night.” That is to say, it would never occur to me to disbelieve her. Why should I? Of course I know that, from time to time, people stage household robberies in order to fraudulently collect the insurance money. But such instances are rare. Imagine my accompanying such a friend to a police identity parade and asking her, “Is that the man you accuse of robbing you?” Or, “Are you sure you got a good look at your alleged robber?” We reveal ourselves in the language we choose. People whose houses are broken into are victims. Women who are raped are accusers. I don’t know which is more the case, that our attitudes are shaped by our language or our language shapes how we see things. I’m sure it’s some mix of the two, together with an endemic dose of systemic and sociological misogyny.
Take Bill Cosby, and the people who defend him, for example. There’s a certain smug YouTube Cosby defender (who I won’t name) who likes to juxtapose his mellow, pleasant, rational-sounding narratives with some of the more outspoken and bellicose anti-rape activists as a way of demonstrating how oh-so-reasonable he can be. He presents his case as an opinion, one that he loftily points out that everyone is entitled to, but pushes the subtext that because he’s calm and friendly about it he occupies a superior moral high ground. But his is not an opinion, it is a position, and that position is that the 64 women who came forward as Bill Cosby’s victims of rape, sexual assault and attempted rape are lying.
These questions almost never come up except in connection with rape and sexual assault. In ordinary home burglary we don’t talk about it being an instance of “he said/she said,” as if to imply that someone is lying and it’s all just a coin toss away from deciding who the liar might be. False rape allegations are said to be roughly as uncommon as false allegations of any other crime. But since rape is one of the most underreported crimes, it seems to me that even that statistic is wrong, and the percentage of false reporting would be even smaller than average if an equivalent percentage of rapes were reported. Reporting a home burglary puts you in danger of being skeptically scrutinized by the police. Reporting a rape puts you in certain danger of not only being skeptically scrutinized by the police, but by society as well. The woman who reports a rape is slut-shamed, called a liar, called a gold digger. People demand to know what she was wearing, if she was drinking, and so on. People blame and shame the victim. It’s amazing to me that any rapes ever get reported at all, and it is a testimony to the courage and determination of the victims that they do.
So when E. Jean Carroll first reported that Donald Trump raped her in a Bergdorf Goodman dressing room sometime between the Autumn of 1995 and the Spring of 1996, I instantly believed her. I didn’t need to know that, according to an enumeration contained in the recently published book “All the President’s Women,” Donald Trump has, to date, 67 accusations of rape, sexual assault, and inappropriate, unwanted touching against him. I didn’t need to know that Trump’s reputation with women is despicable, that he’s a flagrant woman-hater, that women are his favorite target of political invective. I didn’t need to know that Trump fits the profile of the sexual assailant: a braggart who is full of himself, lacking empathy and conscience, indifferent to the needs or pain of others. Ms Carroll’s account was credible on its face. Donald Trump did it.
Trump’s “defense” was that he never met Ms Carroll. That is a lie, there exists a photograph of the two of them together prior to the rape. His other “defense” is so reprehensible I can scarcely believe he said it: that Ms Carroll is not his type. It is as if to suggest that, had she been “his type,” then, well, yes, he might have gone ahead and raped her, in that case.
E. Jean Carroll has now taken a courageous step and is suing the president of the United States for defamation. Filed in New York State Supreme Court, the suit alleges that Trump, “through express statements and deliberate implications, accused Carroll of lying about the rape in order to increase book sales, carry out a political agenda, advance a conspiracy with the Democratic Party, and make money.” The suit further states that, “Trump knew that these statements were false; at a bare minimum, he acted with reckless disregard for their truth or falsity.” The suit concludes that Trump’s statements “inflicted emotional pain and suffering, they damaged her reputation, and they caused substantial professional harm.”
E. Jean Carroll is now 75 years old, and I can only imagine the weight of stress and personal exposure to hatred and criticism this allegation will cost her. It is an impressive act of courage. Her example should fill us all with admiration for her and for women just like her. Go forth, sister.
Robert Harrington is an American expat living in Britain. He is a portrait painter.