Believing the Victim


A week or two ago there was a bit of a to-do within American comics fandom when Brian Wood, a prominent writer often praised for his commitment to feminism and his well-written female characters, was accused of sexual harassment by Tess Fowler, an illustrator and artist. This has been the occasion for a lot of hand-wringing about the chronic problem of harassment at conventions, which mostly seems to consist of people making blog posts about how this is a serious issue. There's very little sense of what can be done.

So here's a suggestion: by default, we should believe the victims. On a basic, human, personal level, if someone makes an accusation of abuse, assault, or harassment, we should believe them.

Here's what happens instead. Fowler's account of what happened was, inevitably, picked over by large swaths of the male-dominated comics fandom who were eager to minimize the severity of what Wood did or to find a way to blame her for it. All of this is accompanied by lots of skepticism, usually with phrases like that Wood is "innocent until proven guilty" or that it's "his word against hers."

It's not, of course. Fowler noted that she had several people who had e-mailed her with similar experiences. I've seen at least one person come forward with a similar allegation against Wood. There's a pattern of behavior on Brian Wood's part that's disturbing, to say the least.

But never mind the specifics. Let's look at some of the usual canards that get brought out around this point in the discussion, just in the abstract case. Because this isn't really about Brian Wood. "Innocent until proven guilty," for instance. Which is an important principle... in criminal law. It's there because the standards by which the state can declare that someone ought be locked up in prison really should be high. If we are, as a society, going to sanction violence against people then we need to have serious safeguards. And one of them is that we wait until there's proof in a court of law, beyond a reasonable doubt, of guilt.

But that's not the standard that should apply to everyday interactions. If a guy at a comics convention offers to take you up to his room and you know that three people have reported that he's sexually harassed them or assaulted them, you're not unreasonable for deciding that you don't want to go up there. Even if he's never been "proven" guilty. And you're not unreasonable for thinking that if someone knows that the guy chatting you up has a litany of accusations against him they should probably warn you about it.

Similarly, the "his word against hers" line. Yes, it is. But once you have an accusation of assault or harassment, the person being accused has a pretty obvious reason to deny it regardless of what actually happened. Whereas the victim... doesn't really. I mean, yes, false accusations happen occasionally. But they're very, very rare - much rarer than the rate at which sexual assault and harassment take place. The overwhelming majority of accusations are true. There is no massive epidemic of false accusations. There is one of harassment and assault.

This is not to say, of course, that one should simply believe the victim blindly. But the person being accused ought be held to a fairly high standard of evidence, at least for social purposes. A stunning example of how not to effectively defend yourself can be found on the part of Brian Wood, who basically called Tess Fowler a liar without ever coming out and saying it and totally ignored all mention of the fact that he had other victims. If someone has multiple accusations of abuse or harassment against them, any defense needs to grapple with that, not just make vaguely apologetic noises and hope to be trusted again.

Nor is it to say that one should believe rumors. Believing the victim is not the same as believing every accusation. "X sexually harassed me" is a different statement than "I heard stories about X sexually harassing some people once."

But there growing evidence for what's called the predator theory of abuse, which suggests that most acts of abuse and harassment are committed by serial offenders who are shielded from the consequences of their actions by a culture of silence and apologism. That is to say, the culture in which we shield abusers and harassers from consequences because we give them the benefit of the doubt or decide to be "impartial" because we "don't know who to believe" is what lets abuse and harassment happen.

Whereas if we believe the victims and take their stories seriously, we eliminate the circumstances that foster abuse. Every time an abuser or a harasser's name becomes public knowledge it becomes harder for them to operate. Every time someone signal boosts a victim's story it becomes one more person who can step in and warn the next victim before it's too late.

Of course there's pressure not to believe the victims. Because a culture of believing the victims is the absolute nightmare scenario for an abuser. It's the worst thing that could happen to them.

Which is, of course, why we should make sure it does.


arcbeatle 7 years, 2 months ago

Philip- thank you so much for this article. I'll write more later... but for now just thank you.

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Spacewarp 7 years, 2 months ago

It's still not black & white and by God you have to tread carefully. In the UK the point has recently been raised that making the accused's name public knowledge can actually harm the case for the prosecution, because you risk being unable to find an impartial jury.

I have just three names to mention - Michael La Vell, Dave Lee Travis, and Rolf Harris. One of these has been proven innocent despite the UK Press being absolutely convinced he wasn't. The other two we don't know about yet, but they are also dangerously close to being proclaimed guilty by public jury.

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prandeamus 7 years, 2 months ago

Absolutely agree with this about treading carefully, for moral reasons as well as pragmatic reasons in UK or US law. I wouldn't want to continue a culture of silence, for victims should never be prevented from speaking out, and yet an over-enthusiastic campaign to "name and shame" can end up making a jury trial nearly unworkable. It's a dilemma.

Of those two persons mentioned above for which a case is not yet proved (DLT/RH), I have wildly differing reactions. For one of them, I instinctively feel he is innocent. For another, I vaguely feel he is probably guilty. And yet, I have not a shred of evidence for either position: it's entirely emotional. One person I care nothing about, the other will be a shattering of lost innocence if I feel he is found guilty. But they, and their victims (alleged or real) deserve equal treatment in law and by the public.

What does one do? I would hope that the accusers have a clear path to the police, that the police and CPS assess evidence carefully, and that the criminal justice system does its job if called upon in court.

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doktorvox 7 years, 2 months ago

What's absurd to me is that people get itchy about this idea in a purely abstract setting when nobody's reputation is at stake at all. Look, I understand that in the real world, we might feel a previously established fondness for a real person who abuses others—and hence our instinct may be to defend him/her—but to defend a faceless theoretical abuser bespeaks not affection for a person, but affection for the ability to abuse. Good grief.

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doktorvox 7 years, 2 months ago

"I would hope that the accusers have a clear path to the police, that the police and CPS assess evidence carefully, and that the criminal justice system does its job if called upon in court."

I would hope to have wings, a million dollars, and world peace.

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doktorvox 7 years, 2 months ago

Sorry prandeamus—I didn't mean to snark. I just think that the way that the US legal system treats abuse (esp. between adult acquaintances) inordinately favors the abusers, by statistics alone. It's enough to keep a lot of people from pressing charges. I can't speak to the UK's system, but I'd be surprised if it's much better. Until this can change, I think a lot of victims feel like they're just asking for misery, humiliation, and a waste of time and money.

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prandeamus 7 years, 2 months ago

I'm glad you clarified that. I understand your point. There's an interesting paradox. Many people feel the same as you do, that situations like this favour the abuser. I think that's a fair comment.

Logically, though, it's hard to get the statistics: if someone is found innocent in law, that's the end of it - he's innocent and won't be retried under double jeopardy unless there is new evidence. He is as pure as driven snow. Even harder to refute the finding of the court in specific cases, for statistics can't be used to refute specific cases.

Which of course is just rehashing old arguments - I know it's nothing new.

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prandeamus 7 years, 2 months ago

I would not defend a theoretical abuser in the abstract. Nor would I attack one in the abstract, because in the abstract there are no facts. Everyone accused deserves a defence, and every accuser deserves a day in court - subject to open system and the presence of evidence. And yes, we are back to wishing for unicorns if we pretend that any system is perfect. I would agree with anything that simplifies and encourages people to enter the criminal justice system, and I would agree with any reforms that make the prosecution system more objective. There is vast room for improvement.

Without evidence, I should no more believe the accuser or the accused. Evidence. Get it, value it, diligently seek it out, present it. Evidence.

Criminal defence/defense is a specialised calling; I certainly could not do it. But I hope to God if I'm ever in court on a serious charge I'd have a defence lawyer speaking for me.

So yes, I will defend the right of the world's worst serial accuser to be assumed innocent until proven guilty. And defend his right to be judged on the evidence. Just as I will defend the right of the accused to have their day in court. I will defend the right of any abused woman to be listened to.

To address the articles concerns, I would not want to automatically assume all accusers are truthful. But - and to my mind this is the heart of the problem - I would not want the guardians to the justice system to assume the reverse, that women are "asking for it" or "consent was implied". They should accept the complaint as legitimate and investigate it.

I'll take the title of the piece as polemic, not literal truth.

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Froborr 7 years, 2 months ago

You're aware you're doing exactly what Philip's talking about, right?

Link | Reply 7 years, 2 months ago

This is one of those issues that I can't really comment on objectively, because it's way too personal. Maybe it's true that false accusations are rare, but when it happens to your dad, accused by his step-sister to cover up her own wrong-doings, it doesn't feel rare enough.

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Iain Coleman 7 years, 2 months ago

Our private judgements about individuals do not need to meet the criminal standard of proof. Phil is entirely right about that. The criminal standard is about ensuring that the overwhelming violent power of the state is only applied to people who are certainly guilty of crimes - and even this safeguard fails too often.

However, there's no need to go all the way to "always believe the accuser". There are enough malicious and deluded people in the world for that strategy to fail too.

Instead, let's try to be clear what we're really talking about. It's not private beliefs: what I might believe inside my head about any other person is of no consequence until I translate that belief into action. Nor is it physical or material punishment: no one will be imprisoned, fined or otherwise sanctioned based on my private beliefs about them (and a jolly good thing too).

We're talking about speech. About what beliefs and opinions about a person I choose to express to others."He's a sex pest". "She's a nutter".

Saying these things does not imprison or fine anybody. But it can damage reputations, and reputational damage is not nothing. That's why we have defamation laws.

Crucially, defamation is held to a civil standard of evidence, not a criminal standard. Courts can decide on the balance of probabilities, not the much higher bar of beyond reasonable doubt.

Now I'm not suggesting the people involved in these dispute should all sue each other. In practice, the libel courts are even more screwed up than the criminal courts, and victory generally goes to the side with the deeper pockets.

However, it would be useful if we could drop the "innocent till proven guilty" refrain when we are talking about whether or not to describe somebody as a notorious harasser. The justice system does not hold us to that standard, and there is no reason why we should choose to hold ourselves to it.

Instead, look at the balance of probabilities. Is it more likely that, say, an obscure freelance author would risk her already precarious employment situation with a false accusation against a powerful editor, or that a powerful editor would exploit his position to sexually harass obscure freelance authors? It seems obvious where the balance of probabilities lies in that hypothetical case - though of course finding out more information might change your assessment of those probabilities.

So I don't go along with "always believe the accuser", but i am quite happy to go along with "I am confident my friend wasn't lying when she said she was groped by this creep, and I don't need CCTV and DNA evidence to prove it".

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Theonlyspiral 7 years, 2 months ago

I'm with Pop Arena (Big Fan) on this. I had this happen to me in Junior High. I had to attend weekly meetings with the guidance counselor. The next year it happened again, and more weekly meetings ensured. The students supported the girls who said I had touched them, and it got so bad I had to transfer to another school.

I agree 100% that we cannot allow predatory abuse. We need better structures to deal with this. But uncritically believing anyone is not something I can get behind.

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David Thiel 7 years, 2 months ago

Agreed, to "believe the victim" by default is going too far. The default should be "always take the accusation seriously."

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Spacewarp 7 years, 2 months ago

Back in the late 80s I had a very good friend (we'll call him Steve). He was about 21, outrageous, great fun, and very very gay. He lived in a shared house with a bunch of students and one day a young work colleague of mine (call him Jim) wanted to move out of his parents house and move in when one of the students left. So he did. First time away from home etc. They had a big housewarming party and the next day we went round to see how Jim was getting on, to find he had left and moved back home. The next day at work he told us that Steve had waited till he was very drunk, then helped him to his bed. Jim had then woken up in a drunken haze in the middle of the night to find Steve performing oral sex on him.

Steve denied this angrily, claiming he would never do such a thing, and that Jim (knowing Steve was gay) had been worried about living with a gay man and had dreamt it all. Jim was adamant it had happened.

We'd known Steve for years and we trusted him. We knew that if he said he hadn't done something, then he hadn't. It drove a wedge between the rest of us and young Jim, who continued to work with me, but stayed at home with his parents and never came out with our crowd again. I never got on well with him after that, knowing that he could come out with such a homophobic accusation about Steve. I eventually left that job and never saw him again.

And then a couple of years later I found our from a mutual acquaintance that Steve had in fact performed oral sex on blind drunk young Jim and had lied to us all. Jim had told the truth but because we were more emotionally invested in Steve we had believed his story over Jim. OK so we're not talking a court case here, but it just goes to show doesn't it? To paraphrase Iain, "I was confident my friend wasn't lying when he said he didn't grope that homophobic little creep Jim." Except he was. And we were all wrong.

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Cresta Bayley 7 years, 2 months ago


I know this is off topic, but I'm trying to read through your Tardis Eruditorium, and I can't get the list of posts to work. Am I the only one with this problem? Have others had this problem? I messed around repeatedly with my settings.



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William Silvia 7 years, 2 months ago

My first reaction when I saw an article about it.
1. If you're entering a large professional world, you should expect harassment, coercion, and other terrible things.
2. The fact that the vast majority of it seems to be targeted toward women is still something we should and can fight, as are specific instances of the same.

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prandeamus 7 years, 2 months ago

I'm making assertions about statistics and how hard it to gather them for a meaningful analysis.

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prandeamus 7 years, 2 months ago

@Iain Coleman - I wish I was as coherent as that. Very clear.

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Spacewarp 7 years, 2 months ago

Cresta. What happens when you try different browsers, like Firefox or Chrome (or IE if you already use one of these)? Is the problem with all of them or just one? Try resetting the browser back to default.

What happens if instead of left-clicking on the list of posts, you right-click and choose "open in new tab" or "open in new window?"

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kopiluwak nya 5 years, 9 months ago

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