Mary A. Lynch is a professor of law, the Kate Stoneman Chair in Law and Democracy, and director of the Domestic Violence Prosecution Hybrid Clinic at Albany Law School.
By Mary A. Lynch
Surprising as it is to folks like me, who have worked for years on the issue of violence against women, some Americans are uninformed about how to talk about sexual assault without offending survivors and their allies. Just consider President Donald Trump’s tweet last Friday in which he suggested that a woman’s failure to immediately report an assault cast doubt on her veracity, or the women on CNN’s recent focus group who shockingly — and callously — minimized the alleged crime victim’s claims.
This is not complicated or hard, although we pretend it is. Our problem is that we get freaked out by power and control allegations whenever sex is used or alleged to be used as a tool of oppression or power. If we want to progress to a fairer and more peaceful world, we can no longer pretend or refuse to talk about the pervasiveness of sexual assault of women in our families and communities.
Here are five simple rules to follow:
• Don’t say, “He said/she said.” That expression itself contains, in our psyche, the false belief/ excuse that only sexual assault allegations are difficult to prove or disprove. It also contains the implicit bias assumption that women lie about sex to obtain power over men. This assumption may well be a byproduct of our historically sexist laws, which were meant to protect men by requiring more evidence in sexual assault crimes than in any other type of crime.
• Don’t speak as if a man’s request for promotion and his choice to put himself in the public eye gives him a due process right. Given our historical legal obsession with property rights of white males, it is no surprise that our cultural psyche gets upset when a man might miss out on a promotion, but not quite as upset when a woman is sexually harassed into leaving her job. The U.S. Constitution affords individuals the right to due process when a constitutionally sanctioned right is at stake. So if, for example, the state accuses you of a crime, that’s a threat to your liberty and you deserve due process. It is not the same damage to your life as missing out on a job promotion.
• Don’t speak as if a man’s reputation is more important than a woman’s. Yes, it is true for all individuals that rumors and attacks on one’s credibility or allegations that one was violent, assaultive, deceptive or manipulative are challenging to defend against. However, it is also harder to be successful in proving allegations of sexual assault against privileged and powerful men. In the case of Supreme Court nominee Judge Kavanaugh, remember he is an adult who has had every privilege and power available in this country. That doesn’t make his reputation more important. It makes questioning it riskier. His reputation is not more important than, for example, those of Professor Anita Hill or Dr. Christine Ford.
• Assume a strong likelihood that the person with whom you are having your conversation may have been sexually assaulted, fears being dragged through unwelcome scrutiny, did not report it, and will never tell you all that. That assumption is consistent with the data. If you don’t know scores of folks who have been sexually assaulted, then you are not someone in whom your friends, family and community members have confided (yet) with this information. Work on becoming that trustworthy confidant.
• Don’t call her the “accuser.” She is an alleged crime victim. In most cases in which a person describes a criminal act perpetrated by another, the media uses the term “alleged crime victim.” When this issue is sexual assault, we suddenly all default to the term “accuser,” which shifts the burdens of proof and persuasion to the victim/survivor. These terms matter.
We can and will get better at this conversation. We must for our children, family, friends and community.