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How the Jussie Smollett case became part of a larger controversy around believing survivors

The call to “believe survivors” has risen with the #MeToo movement, but it’s sparked a conservative backlash.

Jussie Smollett Performs At The Troubadour
Jussie Smollett performs on February 2, 2019, in West Hollywood, California.
Scott Dudelson/Getty Images for ABA
Anna North is a senior correspondent for Vox, where she covers American family life, work, and education. Previously, she was an editor and writer at the New York Times. She is also the author of three novels, including the New York Times bestseller Outlawed.

Since the #MeToo movement gained widespread public attention in 2017, the call to “believe women” has become a core part of the fight against sexual harassment and assault.

That phrase and a broader version, “believe survivors,” are reactions to a long history in which women and others who reported sexual misconduct were dismissed, smeared, shamed, or ignored. The call to believe survivors “is a recognition that we live in a society with a pervasive rape culture, in which marginalized communities are more likely to be harmed than folks who are in the majority,” said Preston Mitchum, a law professor at Georgetown and a sexual abuse survivor.

Critics point to allegations of sexual assault that have been called into question — or, more recently, to the hate crime allegations made by actor Jussie Smollett — and argue that it’s a mistake to believe any allegation without concrete proof. Smollett’s case received renewed attention on Tuesday when false report charges against Smollett were suddenly dropped, with a county official saying, “I don’t see Jussie Smollett as a threat to public safety.”

For many who use the term “believe survivors,” it’s not a substitute for investigation, or a demand that the accused face consequences without due process. Rather, it’s a call for the voices of survivors to be heard and taken seriously in ways that, many advocates argue, they haven’t been in the past.

“Believe women” is “not meant to replace the presumption of innocence,” Sandra Newman, a writer who has studied false rape allegations, told Vox. “It’s a political slogan that asks us to foreground the vast majority of cases where women are telling the truth.”

“Believe women” and “believe survivors” gained attention during the Kavanaugh hearings

The phrase “believe women” has been in use since before the #MeToo movement entered its most public phase in October 2017. It’s been used in feminist circles since at least February 2017.

“Believe women” became more common as #MeToo gained attention. “As America’s very public reckoning with sexual harassment and assault continues, the conversation around ‘believe women’ and #MeToo, inevitably, also becomes more complicated and fractured,” Gillian B. White wrote for the Atlantic in November 2017.

Both “believe women” and “believe survivors” became even more visible during the confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, who was accused of sexual assault by Christine Blasey Ford. In September 2018, Washington Post columnist Monica Hesse called the Kavanaugh confirmation process “a test of what it looks like to believe women.”

Hesse argued that a vote on Kavanaugh’s nomination should be postponed until Ford’s allegation could be investigated. “That’s how the Senate can show it believes women,” she wrote. “By saying, We believe women’s stories should be heard. We believe this is a serious enough topic to deserve our attention.”

A few days later, #MeToo founder Tarana Burke, along with Planned Parenthood, the National Center for Transgender Equality, and other progressive groups, participated in a nationwide protest called the #BelieveSurvivors walkout. Participants were encouraged to post photos or video of themselves with the hashtag #BelieveSurvivors, according to the Cut.

For many, calling for Americans to “believe women” and “believe survivors” is a way to push back against a culture in which people who report sexual misconduct — especially if they are women — have often been disbelieved. Many who came forward as part of the #MeToo movement told stories not only of the trauma of being assaulted or harassed, but of the pain of having their experiences discounted afterward.

“I was sexually assaulted and nobody believed me,” activist Maria Gallagher told Sen. Jeff Flake when she confronted him outside an elevator during the Kavanaugh hearings. Calls to believe women and survivors are an attempt by activists to make such experiences less common.

But as they’ve risen to prominence, the terms have also sparked controversy.

Critics say “believe survivors” ignores false accusations

#MeToo-era calls to believe women and survivors faced almost immediate pushback.

“The huntresses’ war cry — ‘believe all women’ — has felt like a bracing corrective to a historic injustice,” New York Times opinion editor Bari Weiss wrote in November 2017. “But I also can’t shake the feeling that this mantra creates terrible new problems in addition to solving old ones.”

Weiss was concerned that men would be falsely accused as part of #MeToo, and that when that happened, the call to believe women would backfire. “If the governing principle of this movement is still an article of faith, many people will lose their religion,” she wrote. “They will tear down all accusers as false prophets.”

Many responded that “believe women” was not an invitation to prosecute men without due process. Katie McDonough of Splinter wrote that “‘believe all women’ is not a thing. It’s ‘believe women.’” The slogan, she argued, “is another way of saying “don’t reflexively disbelieve women.”

But controversy around the phrase continued to build in 2018, coming to a head again during the Kavanaugh hearings. “I have continuously heard the argument that if we don’t ‘believe’ Ford, we somehow don’t ‘believe’ that women are sexually assaulted or that women don’t matter,” wrote Christine Cherkasky, a defense attorney specializing in military sexual assault cases, in an op-ed for USA Today. But, she said, “simply because someone says something happened — even if they are ‘100 percent’ certain — it does not mean that it actually did.”

Cherkasky expanded on her views in an interview with Vox: “It’s important to look at every case and every allegation in a fair way to both people,” Cherkasky said. “You have every right to bring forth your story and to get sympathy and to not be questioned if all you want to do is bring forth the idea that this happened, but when you are asking for consequences to another person, then that is when your story needs to be scrutinized.

“People lie all the time,” she said. “Maybe that’s not a nice thing to think about, but it’s just reality.”

Critics of “believe survivors” bring up allegations of sexual assault that have been disproven or called into question, like a University of Virginia student’s claim, in a 2014 Rolling Stone story, that she had been gang raped at a party. After the Washington Post pointed out discrepancies in her story, Rolling Stone issued a statement saying its trust in her had been “misplaced.”

More recently, debate over believing survivors flared after Empire actor Jussie Smollett told Chicago police he had been the victim of a homophobic attack by two men, one of whom said, “This is MAGA country.” Soon after his allegation, reports by unnamed sources suggested that Smollett might have planned the attack himself, and in February, he was arrested and charged with filing a false police report.

On Tuesday, prosecutors suddenly dropped the charges. Joe Magats, an assistant state’s attorney in Cook County, said the charges had been dropped in return for Smollett’s agreement to do community service and forfeit his bond to the city of Chicago.

“Public safety is our No. 1 priority,” Magats said. “I don’t see Jussie Smollett as a threat to public safety.”

Meanwhile, Smollett’s lawyers denied that a deal had been made, saying Smollett “was a victim who was vilified and made to appear as a perpetrator as a result of false and inappropriate remarks made to the public causing an inappropriate rush to judgement.”

Though Smollett wasn’t alleging sexual assault, his case has been a flashpoint for controversy around the larger issue of believing those who say they are survivors of violence, with many conservatives arguing that liberals and media outlets are too quick to accept allegations as fact.

“Reality is often quite complicated, and it’s important for reporters to add context, clarification, and caveats when discussing the news—no matter how much this displeases the automatically-believe-victims crowd,” Robby Soave wrote in a Reason article on the case.

Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA), who recently announced her campaign for president, has faced ire from the right for tweeting, shortly after Smollett made his allegation, that “this was an attempted modern day lynching.” Confronted about the tweet by reporters on Monday, she asked, “Which tweet? What tweet?” before saying that “the facts are still unfolding” and calling for an investigation. Her hesitation angered many conservatives, like Republican National Committee Chair Ronna McDaniel, who tweeted, “Now that she has the facts, why can’t she even remember her divisive language?”

Meanwhile, conservatives questioned other Democratic lawmakers for deleting tweets supporting Smollett:

And Donald Trump Jr. mocked “Hollywood and media types” for tweeting #JusticeforJussie.

For some conservatives, the Smollett case was a reminder of the dangers of unquestioningly believing people who report violence.

“It was just this individual case where we see all of this spiral out of control,” said Amy Swearer, a legal policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation’s Meese Center for Legal and Judicial Studies who has written about her experience being drugged by a stranger. “The presumption of belief really damages everything” if claims turn out to be false, she said, because it encourages people to doubt future claims.

For advocates, the existence of false allegations doesn’t invalidate the need to take survivors seriously

The available evidence suggests that false allegations of rape are uncommon, comprising somewhere between 2 and 8 percent of all allegations. The issue is difficult to study — police may record allegations as false when, in fact, they just can’t find enough evidence to support them. On the other hand, Cherkasky says, a rape allegation may be false but never conclusively disproven, and may thus never be counted as false.

Still, experts have found some commonalities among false allegations. “False rape accusation is a crime,” said Newman, who has studied rape allegations extensively. “As such, it’s generally committed by the same people who commit other crimes — teenagers who are too young to understand consequences, and people with a long criminal record.”

People tend to disbelieve accounts of sexual assault that seem ambiguous or confusing, Newman said. But in fact, “ambiguous stories are much less likely to be false,” she said. “There’s no benefit to a false accuser in making up a story that might make them look bad, or might be interpreted as not ‘real’ rape, so false accusations tend to feature a very clear act of physical force.”

And while false allegations happen, advocates say they’re dwarfed by the number of allegations that turn out to be true — and that despite this fact, survivors still struggle to be taken seriously, even in the #MeToo era.

I’m actually not convinced that anybody is believed in this country,” said Charlene Carruthers, a Chicago community organizer and author of the book Unapologetic: A Black, Queer, and Feminist Mandate for Radical Movements. “I saw what happened with Dr. Blasey Ford, and if a white woman with a PhD is not believed by the government and major media outlets and everyday people, then there’s no hope for folks like us.”

For Carruthers, who gave a recent interview to Out magazine regarding the Smollett case, the allegation by the actor is an opportunity to talk more broadly about violence and belief.

“This narrative gives us the opportunity to widen the conversation” to talk about “who experiences sexual violence, who feels safe to report it” and “what happens when they actually report it,” she said.

For many advocates, “believe survivors” is less a command to uncritical acceptance, and more a call to listen. That’s something even some critics of the phrase can get on board with.

“The best thing that we can do for the women and the men that raise these allegations of assault is not to start by believing them but to start by taking them seriously,” Swearer said. “Start with empathy and compassion.”

Cherkasky, for her part, prefers the phrase “respect survivors,” she told Vox. “I think you can offer a lot of respect to somebody’s story even if there’s not enough to prove it in the legal sense.”

Meanwhile, Carruthers says, “I’m much more concerned with the kind of support systems and infrastructures that we need to build as opposed to who believes people.” She calls for improved funding for rape crisis centers, more community-based resources for trauma care, and better consent education.

And for Newman, the best approach to allegations of sexual violence is one that gives them the gravity that is their due. “We should take all such reports very seriously, knowing our reaction to them has massive potential to harm both victims of sexual assault and victims of false accusation,” she said.

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