“Alleged.” “Due process.” “False allegations.” “Insufficient evidence.” They seem like reasonable counters to the idea that we should, first and foremost, believe victims. If we believe her and she’s lying, we’ve just derailed a man’s career, run a smear campaign against him, gone on a witchhunt. Reasonable voices call us to moderate ourselves, trust the legal process (though it rarely produces justice for victims of sex crimes), calm down, don’t be so hysterical, with all the sexist implications of that word.
Underneath them, though, I rarely detect respect for fairness or justice or the law. Instead, I hear fear: that a woman’s word can ruin a man’s life.
Why would men fear this so much? For most of our history, we couldn’t get the police to arrest men who were clearly abusing us. It was only in my lifetime that we could accuse our husbands of rape. Still today, many states treat rape of your wife differently than rape of a stranger. In Mississippi, if you drug your wife into unconsciousness and then rape her, it’s not rape. In South Carolina, rape within marriage requires a higher level of violence than rape of a stranger in order for it to be seen as rape.
In other words, there is a lot that men can do to hurt women without much fear of punishment. (White women’s accusations against black men, though, were death sentences.) Men walk away from sex crimes All. The. Time. without punishment.
But that doesn’t mean that some women will pretend to be raped (for the thrill, I guess, of death threats) and ruin some men’s careers, right?
That fear is really a fear of this: if women had the ability to hurt men like men have hurt women, we would.
Above, an actual witchhunt, in which the large majority of victims were women.
This is the fear of all oppressors: they know what the deserve. If the goal was justice–an eye for an eye, an equivalent exchange of pain for the harm they caused–they would be hurt terribly. They know what they deserve because they know what they’ve done. They are terrified of this world. They cannot imagine a world in which their victims would not turn into the monsters that they themselves are. And, in turn, their fear justifies continuing oppression.
But we already live in a world in which false accusations about a person’s sexual practices ruins careers.
Queer people have always been victims of this. Today, 28 states continue to permit the firing of employees because of their sexual orientation. And that’s the formal process. The informal process–rumors and gossip–has deprived queer people of their rights. Treating queer sexuality as a reason to ignore the gifts and talents of those people has prevented LGBTQ+ people from serving as Boy Scout leaders and members of MCUSA’s Leadership Discernment Committee.
Women have always been victims of this. We begin it with girls before they even develop breast buds. Call us sluts and our reputation is damaged. Call us frigid, and it’s damaged, too. Say our names to your buddies with a wag of the eyebrows or a tongue hanging out, and the same is done. Wolf whistle at us and call us a whore for responding or a bitch for not. Don’t like a girl in junior high or high school or college or the workplace? Tell people she sleeps around. Don’t like her attitude? Tell her she’s too ugly to fuck or, better yet, too ugly to rape.
Above, Lillian Gish faces the judgmental crowd as Hester Prynne in the film version of The Scarlet Letter.
It almost doesn’t matter what men say about women to ruin their lives–the point is that they think they have (and they do have) the ability to use their words to make us unhirable, unelectable, undatable, unmarriageable, unworthy.
We are killed because of these words. Around the world, women with “damaged” reputations undergo hymen reconstruction surgeries or, if they can’t afford that, buy artificial hymen kits–a Saran wrap-like layer of plastic and a squib–to convince their husbands that they’re virgins on their wedding nights, or else they risk death or, if they are lucky, divorce and shame. It doesn’t matter if they are virgins or not; their word about the matter is irrelevant because women’s words are not trustworthy. We have to offer evidence. Our words are not evidence, but our blood is.
(The other people who buy these kits are sex traffickers, who sell the same children as virgins over and over, a dozen times a day. Because when girls are called “virgins,” we are worth more to men. And, no, it doesn’t matter that this is not how sex really works. It is how men imagine it works, and women die when we don’t work within their imagination.)
How many women have been treated like Renate Dolphin? Kavanaugh and his buddies identified her as the class slut--the one they could rely on when they wanted sex and no one else was available. Without her knowledge, they mocked her and derided her–and also claimed to all have had sex with her. She, by the way, defended Kavanaugh as an honorable gentleman, before she found her name littered (like trash, because that is how they saw her) across Kavanaugh’s high school yearbook–with the implication that, “for a good time, call Renate.”
Go back and look at your own yearbook, or try to remember what the graffiti looked like. Today, we today don’t need graffiti–we’ve had had Juicy Campus, then Yik Yak, then Sarahah… anonymous messages boards where people can spread vicious rumors about the intactness of your hymen or the number of boys who ejaculated on you at the party last weekend.
It doesn’t matter if these things are true. In some ways, it doesn’t even matter if they are said. Their power comes from the fact that anyone could say them. At some point, all women fear a man saying such things about her.
We already live in a world in which people can make false accusations about others’ sexuality and sexual practices to ruin their lives. Men gave us that world. If they are afraid of the tables being turned on them, it’s because they know the damage they’ve done.