Believe the victims! That was the burden of hashtags, tweets and FB status updates on a monumental scale last week, after Judge William Horkins delivered his verdict in the trial of Jian Gomeshi. This is ironic, since the not-guilty ruling in this case rested entirely on the fact that the accusers gave stunningly unbelievable testimony, larded with inconsistencies, inaccuracies, and some outright lies.
Even so, there was a furious consensus that the way the trial went down exposed a deep, misogynistic deficiency in the Canadian legal system as regards sexual crimes against women. Protesters flocked to the court waving “Believe the Victim” placards. The judge, it was said, had been influenced by sexist stereotypes of how women are supposed to behave after sexual trauma. Ghomeshi’s lawyer was held to have betrayed her sisters. All over Canada, heads grimly nodded—the Ghomeshi case confirmed yet again that women are the ones who are put on trial when they come forward with accusations of sexual assault. No wonder the rates of reporting and conviction are so low!
And it’s all pretty much bollocks.
Ghomeshi’s accusers were specifically not judged on their behaviour after the alleged assaults. It was irrelevant to the judge, and to the case, that some victims of assault may continue to cosy up to their assailants. What was relevant that all three accusers swore to a dramatically different narrative, one which the evidence showed to be both untrue and self-serving. No sexist stereotypes were involved in that finding. Their sexual history was not put on trial. They were not victim-blamed or slut-shamed. They were believed by the cops and Crown, just as the rallying cry demands—until they were met with a cold, hard reality check in the form of cold, hard evidence. It was not a miscarriage of justice; it was the court working as the court should, in all our interests.
No, I think the justice system, though not perfect, works pretty damn well. But I think there are serious problems with the “believe the victims” mantra, and the Ghomeshi case illustrates them very well. I’m going to look at these problems over the next few posts, under these headings:
- “Believe the victims” assumes the guilt of the accused.
- “Believe the victims” can be wrong: false accusations.
- “Believe the victims” can be wrong: false memory.
- “Believe the victims” can be counterproductive.
- “Believe the victims”: a recap.
“Believe the victims” assumes the guilt of the accused.
“Believe the victim assumes a priori that the accuser is indeed a victim, which means in turn that the accused must be presumed guilty. This collides head-on with the presumption of innocence, and with every individual’s right to a defence. This week, a shocking number of people effectively declared that those basic rights should not apply where sexual assault accusations are concerned—that the very existence of an accusation proves the accused is a scumbag unworthy of defence. Indeed, a great deal of anger was directed at Ghomeshi and especially his lawyer, Marie Henein, for mounting a defence at all.
At an event in Iowa on September 14, 2015, Hillary Clinton declared, “I want to send a message to every survivor of sexual assault . . . You have the right to be heard. You have the right to be believed and we’re with you.” She also posted the following comment on Twitter: “Every survivor of sexual assault deserves to be heard, believed, and supported.” Subsequently, someone asked her this question: “You recently came out to say that all rape victims should be believed? But would say that about Juanita Broaddrick, Kathleen Willey, and Paula Jones? Should we believe them as well?” Hillary Clinton responded: “Well, I would say that everybody should be believed at first until they are disbelieved based on evidence.”
That is astoundingly hypocritical. Also, stupid, and dangerous. This kind of thinking does no service to the victims of sexual assault, while having real potential to ruin innocent lives. Do we honestly want to live with a justice system where an accusation is sufficient to establish guilt?
Next: “Believe the victims” can be wrong: false accusations.