What happens when we don’t believe women

Photo posted by comedian Beth Stelling on Instagram. Click the photo to read her full post.
Photo posted by comedian Beth Stelling on Instagram. Click the photo to read her full post.

The litany of allegations against Bill Cosby is perhaps the most high profile example of how a predator can continue when people are not inclined to believe women. Somehow it took a standup comedy bit going viral to turn an open secret into a widely acknowledged disgrace that is tanking Cosby’s career. Of course Cosby had a lot of wealth and power, but even women who aren’t going up against a wealthy and beloved attacker usually start at a disadvantage. 

T. Christian Miller and Ken Armstrong, of Pro Publica and the Marshall Project respectively, wrote an in-depth piece about a case in which a woman was not only talked into recanting her story of rape, she was actually criminally charged for reporting it in the first place.

She was 18 years old, charged with a gross misdemeanor, punishable by up to a year in jail.

Rarely do misdemeanors draw notice. Her case was one of 4,859 filed in 2008 in Lynnwood Municipal Court, a place where the judge says the goal is “to correct behavior — to make Lynnwood a better, safer, healthier place to live, work, shop and visit.”

But her misdemeanor had made the news, and made her an object of curiosity or, worse, scorn. It had cost her the newfound independence she was savoring after a life in foster homes. It had cost her sense of worth. Each ring of the phone seemed to announce another friendship, lost. A friend from 10th grade called to ask: How could you lie about something like that? Marie — that’s her middle name, Marie — didn’t say anything. She just listened, then hung up. Even her foster parents now doubted her. She doubted herself, wondering if there was something in her that needed to be fixed.

She had reported being raped in her apartment by a man who had bound and gagged her. Then, confronted by police with inconsistencies in her story, she had conceded it might have been a dream. Then she admitted making the story up. One TV newscast announced, “A Western Washington woman has confessed that she cried wolf when it came to her rape she reported earlier this week.” She had been charged with filing a false report, which is why she was here today, to accept or turn down a plea deal.

Miller and Armstrong chronicle how painstaking police work ultimately led to the revelation that Marie’s story was in fact true, and her attacker had gone on to carry out a string of rapes in multiple states. On top of the trauma of her attack, Marie had to face lack of trust from those closest to her and bullying from the police. It’s a lengthy piece, but well worth your time to read the whole thing.

Despite seeing how rape survivors are often treated in the media and their communities, many still perpetuate the myth that false rape accusations are rampant. Kate Harding points out in her indispensable book on rape culture Asking For It that police who were surveyed vastly overestimated the number of rape accusations that turn out to be false. Comedian Emily Heller humorously and deftly dismantles this myth:

Hello there, I am a feminist. This is not meant as a surprise. If you google “Emily Heller f…” it autofills with “feminism,” because apparently I’m the only female comedian in the world whose feet the internet does not want to see. And, though it contradicts our Official Feminist Recruitment Platform, I have to confess something. Me and my friends – we hate men. I admit it! We often sit around talking about how much we hate men, and the society they made, and the shit they put us through on a daily basis. You got me! I confess! ;-P

Sure, there are some good ones in there. My boyfriend, for example. Terry Crews, for another example. AND YET. When my coven and I are sitting around bitching (lol) about men and plotting the downfall of the patriarchy, you know what we never, ever talk about doing? You know what strategy has never once crossed our minds?

Pretending to have been raped.

I know that might come as a shock to you, considering how incredibly certain some folks are that the women making these accusations against Bill Cosby, James Deen, R. Kelly, and many others are lying. You know, just making stuff up to try and destroy an innocent guy’s reputation, because they hate men or something, like I do. And while I’m not surprised people think that way, I feel I have to set things straight. Us man haters, when we want to ruin a man’s life, that’s not how we work.

I’m a little hurt, honestly. You don’t think we’re creative enough, smart enough – hell, evil enough to come up with better revenge plots than that? You know, stuff that would feel more at home in a montage under an angry Beyoncé song?

Be sure to click through for her list of alternative punishments for men.

These and other tropes of rape culture are what make it difficult for women to speak out and help men get away with. Comedian Beth Stelling recently published a post on Instagram revealing her history of rape and abuse in a recent relationship. Unsurprisingly, her ex Cale Hartmann has made feeble attempts to defend himself. Partly in solidarity and partly to share her own story, Courtney Pauroso dedicated an episode of the podcast We Should Have a Podcast to revealing the rape and abuse she experience in a relationship with the same man. It’s worth listening to the whole heartbreaking, important conversation. Courtney’s experience details the many forces working against her sharing her story and warning other women against him. She feared being labeled crazy. She acknowledged that she probably wouldn’t have believed women if they’d warned her about her then-boyfriend. She talks about concern that being up front about her sexuality in her public life would make her seem less credible as a victim. Ultimately, Stelling and Pauroso formed an alliance that helped them both come to terms with what happened and go public. Their bravery not only led to this man’s being ostracized and warning other women against him; it contributes to an environment that makes it easier for all women to share their stories, get the help they need, and hold perpetrators accountable.

The outpouring of support these two women have received hopefully points toward slow but meaningful cultural change, even if we have a long way to go. As Kate Harding pointed out in a recent interview, “I think rape and sexual assault allegations should be treated like allegations of mugging or burglary —which is to say, investigated promptly and thoroughly, on the assumption that the person reporting a crime is telling the truth.” Cops don’t start from a point of skepticism and try to poke holes in the story of a robbery victim. We need to do due diligence, but the foundation must be to believe women.

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Author: Rebecca Griffin

I am a passionate advocate for progressive causes with over a decade of experience organizing for social change. That organizing experience informs the way I look at the world and the challenges we face in working toward social justice. I started Of Means and Ends to write about social issues I care about and share my thoughts on how we organize in a smart, strategic way. Please visit and join the conversation.

2 thoughts on “What happens when we don’t believe women”

    1. That’s the standard for a court of law, as it should be. But as Emily Heller writes in her piece, there’s really no incentive for women to make fake claims. They should be investigated, but coming from a place of believing a woman’s story and digging into it. When multiple women come forward with stories of abuse about someone, and the court of public opinion is the only place it’s being heard, it’s reasonable to look at the evidence presented and believe women.

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