Read: How uncertainty became a weapon in the Tara Reade story
In the two and a half years since the first wave of #MeToo allegations, scores of famous and non-famous women (and fewer men) have come forward with experiences of sexual harassment, assault, and rape. There have been “cancellations,” job losses, and convictions. There have also been edge cases, uncomfortable gray areas, and men who have said their lives were ruined by nebulous allegations. “Believe women” was intended to capture an undeniable truth: Sexual harassment and sexual assault are so endemic in society that they make the coronavirus look like a rare tropical disease. False allegations do exist, but they are extremely uncommon. (Men are more likely to be raped than falsely accused of rape.) When thousands of women tell us that there is a problem with sexual aggression in our society, we should believe them.
That broad truth, however, tells us nothing about the merits of any individual case. And as my colleague Megan Garber has written, “Believe women” has evolved into “Believe all women,” or “Automatically believe women.” This absolutism is wrong, unhelpful, and impossible to defend. The slogan should have been “Don’t dismiss women,” “Give women a fair hearing,” or even “Due process is great.” (Or, you know, something good. Sloganeering is not my forte.) Why did “Believe women” catch on? Possibly because it is almost precision-engineered to generate endless arguments about its meaning, and endless arguments are the fuel of the attention economy otherwise known as internet, newspaper, and television commentary.
As a rallying cry, “Believe women” groups cases together in a deeply unhelpful way. In a court of law, there are grades of offense, and sliding penalties. In the court of public opinion, we talk about rape and a hand on the knee in the same breath. A man who becomes “#MeToo accused”—but whose case is never publicly aired in full—carries a miasma of unspecified wrongdoing. And if there is no possibility of “serving your time,” all the incentives point toward denial rather than confession.
Each new case tends to be read through other, typically unilluminating, reference points. It is hard to find an opinion about Reade that is not also one about Christine Blasey Ford, who publicly accused Brett Kavanaugh of attempted rape when he was nominated by Donald Trump to the United States Supreme Court. (Kavanaugh denied the offense, and he was confirmed.) “Believe women” lumps Reade and Blasey Ford together, demanding that politicians, the media, and observers treat their stories exactly the same. After all, they’re both women, aren’t they?
But the cases are not the same, neither in their details nor how they came to light. Laura McGann at Vox writes that she was one of several mainstream journalists approached by Reade in April last year, and tried hard to corroborate her original allegation—that Biden touched her on the neck and shoulders in a way that made her uncomfortable—but failed. Others did too. Those journalists did not “believe” or “disbelieve” Reade; they didn’t find enough evidence to publish anything close to a definitive account. “If I were an old friend of Reade’s and she told me this same story privately over the course of a year, I doubt I would question her account,” McGann notes. “But I’m not an old friend. I’m a journalist.” The New York Times’s executive editor, Dean Baquet, made a similar point in a spiky interview with his paper’s own media columnist. (Reade later found a hearing among journalists and outlets that have been critical of Biden, and broadened her allegations to include sexual assault. These claims have now been conscripted into the case for ditching Biden as the Democratic nominee in favor of Bernie Sanders.)