NY Times Opinion: 'Believe all women' has its limits

The Harvey Weinstein accusations hit the culture like a bomb going off. Since then we’ve had lots of smaller bombs going off in Hollywood and Washington, DC. But we’re far enough into this cultural shift that people are (rightly) starting to wonder about where we end up when this all settles down, i.e. when the backlog of predators is dealt with. I’m not suggesting that will happen in a week or even another month or two as it seems to be a big backlog, but it will happen eventually and what then?

Today Bari Weiss has written an opinion piece for the NY Times which looks ahead with some trepidation. While she’s glad to see predators face the music, she also worries that at some point the “believe all women” mantra will invite trouble.

In less than two months we’ve moved from uncovering accusations of criminal behavior (Harvey Weinstein) to criminalizing behavior that we previously regarded as presumptuous and boorish (Glenn Thrush). In a climate in which sexual mores are transforming so rapidly, many men are asking: If I were wrongly accused, who would believe me?…

I believe that the “believe all women” vision of feminism unintentionally fetishizes women. Women are no longer human and flawed. They are Truth personified. They are above reproach.

I believe that it’s condescending to think that women and their claims can’t stand up to interrogation and can’t handle skepticism. I believe that facts serve feminists far better than faith. That due process is better than mob rule.

Maybe it will happen tomorrow or maybe next week or maybe next month. But the Duke lacrosse moment, the Rolling Stone moment, will come. A woman’s accusation will turn out to be grossly exaggerated or flatly untrue. And if the governing principle of this movement is still an article of faith, many people will lose their religion.

The bit about the Rolling Stone moment is undeniable. In fact, it already happened which is how we know it will definitely happen again. Women, like men, sometimes lie or exaggerate. If our approach to this issue doesn’t allow for that possibility we’re going to be wrong again. It’s only a matter of time.

When the Rolling Stone story first broke about “Jackie” (not her real name) followed by some questions about how reliable her account was, I was initially hesitant to disbelieve her story. Yes, there were inconsistencies but some of her friends described her being genuinely upset. I didn’t want to be the person who accused a distraught rape victim of lying over a few breaks in her story.

It later turned out the entire story was a fabrication. All of it. The person Jackie claimed had led her to a gang rape at a frat house didn’t even exist. He was an invention designed to make a male friend jealous. The lesson I and a lot of other people learned was that stories like this have to be scrutinized.

That’s one reason I support the changes to campus sexual assault investigations promoted by Education Secretary DeVos. Because, under the system promoted by the Obama administration, I wonder if Haven Monahan (the imaginary rapist at UVA) might have been convicted before anyone realized he didn’t exist.

Asking for scrutiny of potential sexual assault victims is not a feel-good position. It’s much easier to be a “believe all women” cheerleader. But as even Lena Dunham recently found out, there’s a big downside to that. It means your male friends can be accused and you’re not in a position to ask for even the most basic fact-checking. As NY Times author Bari Weiss concludes, “Trust but verify” is a better approach for everyone involved.