‘Believe All Women’: The Problem with Hashtag Politics

An article by Bari Weiss in The New York Times in 2017 argued that “’believing all women’ can rapidly be transmogrified into an ideological orthodoxy that will not serve women at all.” Weiss goes on to argue that the concept fetishizes women in the sense that they become “truth personified”.

What is not mentioned however, is that though the ‘believe all women’ concept fits well into a hashtag and is easy and simple to chant at protests, it is once again a simple solution to a complex problem. Or more accurately, a plaster to a much more complex and intersectional wound.

Rape, sexual assault and harassment are incredibly difficult to not only define, the latter more so than the former, but are also near impossible to prosecute. In the United Kingdom for instance, the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) will only prosecute those crimes that they stand a good chance of winning; rape and sexual assault not being one.

Both are incredibly difficult to prosecute for a number of reasons – physical evidence or lack thereof, the he said/she said accounts, which because of the trauma don’t always follow a clear timeline, as well as the age-old and dominant narrative that women are not be believed based in previous sexual history and behaviours, their attire at the time in question, and the amount of alcohol or drugs consumed. All these factors create a ‘Bermuda Triangle’ of sorts, that make rape or sexual harassment near impossible to prosecute in the current legal system of most countries in the world.

This week the BBC aired a statistic in which it stated, proudly I might add, that reporting’s of rape were down in the UK. After hearing this report, I dug further and found that it was the number of rape charges that are at their lowest level for 10 years, not reportings of rape. Clearly, the BBC’s interpretation was that the reporting of rape or rather the number of people being charged with rape were down, because rapes and sexual assaults were also decreasing. However, it is because a large number of cases were “administratively finalised”, which has led to rape case referrals from the Police to the CPS decreasing by 9.1%. This means that the Police stopped their inquiries after advice from the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS), or after a suspect went missing. According to Women’s Aid, even though more victims than ever are reporting cases of rape, the Police and the CPS are making the decision to not go forward with a prosecution based on informal discussions at the point of reporting.

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At this point, where are the perpetrators of these crimes to be held account? Where are the victims to get justice if the legal system is choosing to only prosecute based on near certain success? Which is where the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements come in and the flood of sexual assault and harassment experiences being told in the social media sphere, where one Tweet can be more effective and illicit more justice than any Police investigation can. But in that simplicity and chorus of voices comes the dangers of ascribing mob rule and one dimensional (hashtag) definitions, to crimes that even a fully qualified prosecutor is unable to prosecute effectively.

If we do in fact ‘believe all women’, do we therefore ‘disbelieve all men’, or are we merely taking a leaf out of Matt Damon’s ‘not all men’ playbook?

This black or white, us versus them attitude is dangerous because what happens when (and I am saying when here, not if), a woman comes forward with an accusation that is later deemed to be false? Because this will happen and has happened in the past – Rolling Stone’s ‘Rape of Campus’ story in 2014 and the Duke lacrosse case of 2006. I was once naïve enough to believe that no woman would put forward a false allegation of rape or sexual assault and harassment, because they would have nothing to win and everything to lose. But like every cross-section of society there will sadly be women who will lie for a myriad of reasons jeopardizing the women have told the truth. The reasons will range from the clichés of money and revenge, to furthering their own careers, or for deeply misguided reasons, or quite simply, to debunk the movements of #MeToo and #TimesUp and the media which covers the stories. ‘Believe all women’ leads itself wide open to not only these types of problems but also to the inevitable blowback of those who were critical of the movements to begin with.

This mantra, this religion if you will, of ‘believe all women’ will then crumble leading to no women being believed, even women who have previously been shown to be telling the truth. There will be nowhere to go because the ‘believe all women’ narrative is so certain, so final in its belief about women. As Weiss says, “they will tear down all accusers as false prophets”, and we will be stuck forever in the status quo where the word of a man is more sacred, more equal than the word of a woman.

There is also the potentiality that if ‘believe all women’ is abided by, then a number of innocent men will go down as collateral damage. Teen Vogue columnist Emily Linden has strongly vocalised this viewpoint on Twitter saying that “I’m actually not at all concerned about innocent men losing their jobs over false sexual assault/harassment allegations.”

Linden has already undone the main principle of ‘believe all women’. If innocent men have to suffer at the hands of false allegations it therefore means that the women who make those accusations are not telling the truth and are therefore not to be believed. Therefore ‘believe all women’ is inherently flawed because the basic concept is compromised through the unwavering belief of accusations that we know to be false. This straw horse is asking to be burned down.

I am not sure how this flimsy and simplistic argument will serve us or distinguish us from the dominant narrative we are attempting to unpick and rewrite. For example, claiming your biological makeup entitles you to be believed unequivocally. Sound familiar? It’s a bit like claiming you are a progressive and that freedom of speech is sacrosanct, but only if you are not Steve Bannon.

I am fully aware of why ‘believe all women’ concept has come to fruition: women have not been listened to let alone believed for such a long time that a break in the damn was inevitable. Like I said previously, if you have legal system that does not protect you or give you justice as a victim and survivor of rape and sexual assault, where do you get your justice?

Until the legal the system is significantly revised and rewritten with regards to these types of crimes, along with societal attitudes changing, and before that, education at home and in schools, there will continue to be no answer, and therefore no change in the dynamics in which are seeing being played out in front of us both online and in the world. But what I don’t think is helpful is this all or nothing attitude. As Weiss concluded her article with, “’Trust but verify’ may not have the same ring as ‘believe all women’ but it’s a far better policy.”

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