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.