Skepticism—and What It Means to Believe Accusers

Content note: sexual harassment and assault; denial, trivialization, and victim-blaming of same.

Believe accusers of sexual harassment and assault, unless you have compelling reason not to. That’s the principle. It’s somewhat oversimplified, but that’s the core of it. And it’s the humanist thing to do. It’s rational, and it’s morally right.

I’m not talking about convicting someone in a court of law. Whenever we talk about believing victims of sexual harassment and assault, someone will always pop up righteously to ask, “What about innocent until proven guilty?” So I want to spell this out right away: I’m not talking about a legal standard for believing accusers. I’m talking about an everyday standard.

When you hear an accusation, is your first response disbelief or belief? What do you say about the accusation to your friends, colleagues, social media connections, family? Do you say, “That’s terrible”—or do you say, “I don’t believe it”? What do you say to the accuser? Do you tell them, “I’m so sorry, that must have been awful. What can I do to help?”—or do you comb through their story for possible holes, and demand levels of evidence that could never be provided? If the accused is someone you’ve admired, do you say, “They seemed so awesome, I’m disappointed, but this is unacceptable”—or do you say, “They’re so awesome, this can’t possibly be true”? Do you continue to give them your money, publicize their work, invite them to speak at your events?

Again, here’s the guideline: When you hear an accusation of sexual harassment and assault, believe the accuser, unless you have compelling reasons not to. And when there’s more than one accuser—when there are several, unknown to each other, describing incidents with a similar pattern that happened months or years apart—then you should definitely believe them.

There’s a basic principle of rationalism: when you hear hoofbeats, look for horses before zebras. (Assuming you live someplace zebras are rare, of course.) In medicine, it means you should look for a more common diagnosis rather than a rare one, unless you have a compelling reason not to. Here, skepticism and rationalism go hand in hand. Rare events occur, of course, and shouldn’t be entirely rejected, but we shouldn’t look for rare, convoluted explanations when common and simple ones are staring us in the face.

False accusations are the zebra. Sexual assault is the distressingly common horse.

Made-up stories of sexual misconduct, harassment, and assault are extremely rare: they happen, but they’re rare. And even those very small numbers are inflated; when a sexual assault victim is disbelieved by the police and is pressured into recanting (depressingly common), it shows up in statistics as a false accusation. False accusations are rare. Sexual assault is not at all rare. It’s much, much too common.

And if you’re thinking that people make false accusations against public figures for money and fame and attention, think again. When victims of sexual harassment and assault speak up, they’re disbelieved, victim-blamed, trivialized, harassed, threatened, and even assaulted again. This is especially true when the perpetrators are rich, famous, and powerful. Victims are asked to relive the assault, to go over the details again and again while the entire world plays amateur detective. And even in this #MeToo world, victims are still largely blamed, trivialized, or outright disbelieved. When sexual assault denialists talk about false accusations, it’s like they’re in that South Park episode where garden gnomes are stealing people’s underwear and when caught explain their three-phase business plan. Step one: falsely accuse someone of sexual assault. Step two: ? Step three: profit. It’s an absurd explanation. The much simpler one is that accusers are telling the truth.

If you can handle it, I urge you to look at the statistics provided by RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network). In the United States, someone is sexually assaulted every ninety-eight seconds. One out of every six women in the US has been targeted with attempted or completed rape. When you add other forms of sexual misconduct, harassment, and assault, the numbers go way up. (I once asked the women on my Facebook page if they’d ever experienced some form of sexual harassment or assault. Almost every one of them said yes. And yes, that includes me too.)

Do these numbers seem high to you? If that many women have been assaulted, are you wondering why you’ve heard so little about it from the people you know? For starters, remember that being sexually harassed and assaulted still carries a tremendous amount of stigma and shame, with the victims commonly being blamed for their assaults or for overreacting. Remember also that many victims don’t like talking about it: they don’t want to relive the pain, fear, discomfort, humiliation, or whatever other emotions were brought on by someone crossing the line. They want to put it behind them. But I’m also going to get harsh here: if the people in your life aren’t telling you about their experiences with sexual harassment and assault, consider the possibility that your attitude is part of the reason.

It’s distressing to see how many self-described skeptics, rationalists, and humanists are responding to the #MeToo movement in ways that are unskeptical, irrational, and inhumane. People who can recite cognitive biases and logical fallacies in their sleep are spouting those same fallacies and blithely swimming in those same biases. They demand more evidence for sexual assault accusations than they would for sightings of Bigfoot. They demand kinds of evidence that are unlikely, inconsistent with these kinds of accusations, or flat-out impossible. And they move the goalposts faster than a fundamentalist. Even when they’re provided with exactly the kind of evidence they’re demanding, they still disbelieve, ask for more evidence, different evidence, better evidence. They show more suspicion than they would towards victims of any other crimes. They spew denialism and proudly parade it as skepticism. And then they wonder why the women in their lives have never told them about their assaults.

When you talk about sexual misconduct, harassment, and assault, I want you to imagine that the person you’re talking to is a victim of it. You don’t have to imagine very hard: it’s quite likely. And think about whether what you’re saying makes victims think you can be trusted—
or makes them shut their mouths.

If you have a compelling reason not to believe an accusation, then by all means, don’t believe. If someone has a well-documented history of making fraudulent claims, for instance, then be suspicious. But if extraordinary claims require 
extraordinary evidence, then surely ordinary claims should require ordinary evidence. And sexual assault is all too ordinary. If you want to work towards a world where it’s much more rare, start in your own backyard—by dismantling the culture that denies sexual assault, defends the perpetrators, and disbelieves the victims.