Responding to Accusations of Sexual Assault

It cannot be overstated that the lines between sexual assault, harassment, and flirtation have become increasingly blurry.  We are in the process of redefining what is appropriate behavior towards members of the opposite sex, and exactly how, and in what way, power dynamics should affect those behaviors. The Harvey Weinstein story has brought to light just how confusing such things can be; what might have once constituted a benign romantic advance might now be construed as an egregious display of sexual domination.  These things invariably change over time, most often for the better, but occasionally the moral zeitgeist begins to stomp in a direction in which no person intends to go, becoming increasingly difficult to reverse its course.

While sexual predators and misogynists should be called out and reprimanded for bad behavior, we should take care to remember that identifying these people or the acts that they perpetrate is not so easy, and that the blame does not rest fully on the accused in every situation.  Many of the cases we hear about lie on a spectrum.  At one end there is brutal non-consenting rape, and the other genuine, good-intentioned, platonic relationships.  In between these two shores we have the muddiest sludge water replete with stories of unwanted physical contact, inappropriate sexual advances, flirtation, etc…  Our job is to listen to each story closely and carefully, and to divine the true motives behind the accused, their role in the situation, and the accuser’s role and responsibility in what happened.  Information such as who the initiator was, where the event took place, the mental state of the accused and the accuser, and all relevant snippets of context, are all pieces of data that may drastically affect the culpability of the parties involved.

It’s important that we reserve judgment until all facts about the case are know.  When a woman accuses a man of rape, they both enter into a very serious and grave situation — one in which the man could ultimately go to prison.  In virtually every other domain we have a duty to presume the innocence of the accused until it can be proven beyond a reasonable doubt that they are guilty.  We are now not only being asked repeatedly to show solidarity with anybody accusing another of sexual misconduct, but facing retribution for not doing so.  We are told that to even question the circumstances under which the situation occurred, or to doubt the testimony of the accuser, is to oneself be a rape apologist, misogynist, womanizer, etc… When the stakes are so high, over generalizing about people (in this case, men) is a form of sexism in itself; to condemn a person based on stereotypes and anecdotal evidence, even if they’re suspected of rape, is still wrong.

There is a growing tendency among people to pass off the responsibility for their perceived misfortunes to others.  Rather than seeking to improve one’s own situation, or rectifying past mistakes oneself, many find it easier to simply blame others in more elevated positions.  This occurs not only with respect to the sexual dynamic in society, but with race, gender, and religion as well.  This is what makes it so easy to blame all men for the actions of a few.  Given that Hollywood is apparently riddled with perverts and sexual deviants, it’s easy to mirror that conclusion on other areas of life as well, ultimately leading many to believe that we’re dealing with an epidemic of indecency led primarily by males.  People begin to see the patriarchy at work against them every time they find themselves in an unfortunate situation, and are starting to actually believe that fully half of the human race is a threat to civil society that needs to be dealt with.  Ironically, the same people claiming that we’re dealing with a wave of sexism are the one’s readily blaming it on one entire sex.

Nicholas Kristof’s recent op-ed piece on sexual harassment, in which he interviews three prominent women’s rights figures, perfectly illustrates the confusion on the topic of sexual harassment.  In it he states, “Sandberg (COO at Facebook) also emphasized something I strongly believe: We need not just sensitivity training, but also accountability. That means firing not only the men who sexually harass but also the men and women who are complicit….One dismissal sends a stronger message throughout an organization than 10,000 hours of sensitivity training.”  This is the making of a witch hunt.  No discussion of what constitutes harassment or complicity can be found in the article, or whether or not firing the accused is the right response — only that it sends a message.

Kristof goes on to say, “Men have sometimes been prone to disbelieve victims’ stories, and one of the most distasteful aspects of the Harvey Weinstein scandal was a rush to refocus blame by questioning why female victims didn’t speak up earlier or go to the police. That tendency to victim-shame is precisely why survivors are reluctant to speak up — and let’s remember that culpability lies with perpetrators, not victims.”  In a single sentence, Kristof demonstrates what exactly is tricky about navigating situations like this.  Using the words “victim” and “perpetrator”, “blame” and “shame” only serve to virtual signal, and are typically used as a way to gloss over the details of a specific instance of harassment.  The discrepancy here is not about whether the perpetrators, rather than the victims, should be blamed, but about who exactly is a victim and to what extent.  Kristof himself, a person whose profession is to think and write about such things, and who speaks out against social injustices and inequalities, is apt to demonize and entire sex seemingly without and un

We are in a kind of moral panic when it comes to sexual harassment, and little progress has been made to refine our definitions, philosophize on why certain behaviors are undesirable, or reaffirm our commitment to the truth and reason.  The culture of outrage in which we are now living only serves to foster and encourage the closing of the mind and hardening of the heart, and is not helping anybody.