The revived sexual abuse allegations against filmmaker Woody Allen have become the newest gender-war battlefield. Renewed claims by Allen’s 28-year-old adopted daughter, the former Dylan Farrow, that he sexually assaulted her more than two decades ago have generated an intense debate about the facts and the issues. Yet some voices, all from the feminist camp, are saying that there shouldn’t be a debate at all: We must “believe the survivor” and condemn the perpetrator. While allegations of child abuse certainly should be taken seriously, the assumption that such an accusation equals guilt is repugnant and dangerous — not only to innocent men but to women too.
Writing for The Nation, Jessica Valenti argues that if we believe Dylan Farrow’s account leaves any room for doubt, it’s because “patriarchy pushes us to put aside our good judgment.” After all, says Valenti, we know that sexual violence against women and girls is pervasive and vastly underreported, and victims come forward at great personal cost.
What about the fact that the charges were originally made during a bitter breakup and custody dispute between Allen and Dylan’s mother, Mia Farrow? If you think this is relevant, the feminists say, you are embracing the misogynist myth of vengeful women using sexual abuse allegations as a weapon. In fact, asserts Zoe Zolbrod in Salon.com, “research shows that it is not more common for accusations made during custody battles to be proved false than it is for any other sex abuse accusation,” with only 1% to 6% of abuse charges found to be maliciously fabricated; what’s more, writes Zolbrod, custody-related false accusations usually come from fathers, not mothers.
But these claims are contradicted by a major Canadian study that tracked more than 11,000 reports of child abuse and neglect in Canada in 2003. While reports of sexual abuse made during custody or visitation conflicts are fairly rare — the study identified 69 such cases — they are also quite likely to prove unfounded. Child protection workers substantiated just 11% of these charges, while 34% were “suspected” to be valid but not fully confirmed; 36% were classified as unsubstantiated but made “in good faith,” and 18% as deliberately false. By contrast, the rate of false allegations for all child sexual abuse reports was 5%. (The claim that malicious accusations in custody disputes come mostly from fathers is based on an earlier phase of the same study. However, fathers’ false reports were overwhelmingly of child neglect and sometimes physical abuse; false charges of sexual molestation were more likely to come from mothers.)
In a 2007 U.S. survey of child welfare workers, 80% reported having seen cases in which a child was coached to make false allegations of sexual abuse, usually by the mother in a custody dispute; more than a fourth said they had encountered 20 or more such cases. Notably, as author Kathleen Faller pointed out, these estimates came from professionals inclined to be supportive of children; it is also worth noting that three-quarters of them were women.
Research cannot tell us anything about the specific allegations made against Allen in 1992. But it does show that, statistically, there is at least a 50-50 chance that sexual abuse charges brought in such circumstances are groundless — either deliberately false, or sincere but mistaken. And the lines between malice and mistake are not always clear. When you’re ready to think the worst of your ex, innocent parent-child contact — playful roughhousing, cuddling, helping a child get dressed — can seem suspect.
In the Allen/Farrow case, this is magnified by Farrow’s discovery that Allen, her 56-year-old longtime partner, was sexually involved with her adopted daughter. While Soon Yi Previn was an adult (her birthdate is unknown but her age was in the range of 18 to 20) and Allen had never acted as her stepfather, even his defenders generally agree that the affair was sordid and grossly inappropriate. While this does not make Allen a pedophile, Farrow may well have seen the relationship as quasi-incestuous child abuse, coloring her perception of his conduct toward Dylan.
Does Dylan Farrow’s present-day insistence that she was abused by Allen prove that it’s true? Not necessarily; children can be coaxed into false memories, especially when they want to please an adult, and such memories can last. Some of the now-grown “victims” in the day-care sexual abuse scandals of the 1980s, now widely recognized as hoaxes, still believe that they were abused and claim to have painful flashbacks. Of the dozens of children who testified in the notorious McMartin Preschool case in California, only one has recanted.
The claims and counterclaims over Dylan Farrow’s accusations and Woody Allen’s defense will keep flying, with partisans lining up on both sides. I have, for the record, no strong investment in Allen’s innocence; I am not a major fan of his work or his person, both of which display an obnoxious streak of narcissism. My concern is with the attacks on the presumption of innocence — perhaps “only” in the court of public opinion, but with likely spillover into the legal system — and the state of our conversation on gender.
It is appalling when a feminist blogger derides talk of the presumption of innocence and calls for hearing both sides as ways to “undermine the victim”; when Nicholas Kristoff, the New York Times columnist who published Dylan Farrow’s letter on his blog, gets attacked for merely conceding that we cannot be sure of Allen’s guilt; when people who raise questions about the evidence are bashed as rape apologists and misogynists. It is particularly appalling when Valenti, hailed as a leading feminist voice of her generation, asserts that we must “start to believe victims en masse.”
Such arguments are ostensibly rooted in female solidarity. Indeed, Valenti seems so unconcerned with male lives that she even ignores the molestation of boys — who reportedly account for up to 40% of sexually abused children — and mentions only girls’ victimization. This brings to mind the words of British philosopher Janet Radcliffe Richards in the 1980 book, The Skeptical Feminist: “No feminist whose concern for women stems from a concern for justice in general can ever legitimately allow her only interest to be the advantage of women.”
Yet undermining the presumption of innocence is not good for women, either. In the 1980s, the first wave of feminist zealotry on child sexual abuse — based on the idea that such abuse was a ubiquitous patriarchal atrocity and even a tacitly condoned method of training girls into submission — helped feed the day care sex-abuse scare and the rise of “recovered memories” of incest. Feminists, including recent Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient Gloria Steinem, played a shameful role in promoting this frenzy. Then, too, the battle cry was, “Believe the victims.” And the real victims included many women.
Some were day care workers like Margaret Kelly Michaels, the New Jersey preschool teacher who spent five years in prison before being exonerated. Some were mothers and grandmothers like Shirley Souza, the Massachusetts woman convicted of child molestation after her grown daughter underwent recovered-memory therapy and two granddaughters were heavily pressured to “disclose” abuse. Some were patients like Patricia Burgus, who sought treatment for depression and was brainwashed into believing she was raised in a satanic cult, repeatedly raped, and forced to participate in cannibalism.
Feminist dissenters who questioned the panic, such as psychologist Carol Tavris and journalist Debbie Nathan, were accused of colluding in anti-woman backlash. In 1993, after the left-wing magazine Mother Jones ran a critical story on recovered memory, Harvard psychiatrist Judith Herman accused the magazine of promoting “the myth that hysterical women fantasize about sexual abuse” and siding with men’s attempts to silence and discredit women who speak out about sexual violence.
Perhaps we still haven’t learned the larger lesson. A movement that demands belief in one person’s accusations against another as a matter of faith, not fact, is not a movement for justice. It is a lynch mob waiting to happen.
A couple months ago, Daisy and I talked about a photo that was making the twitter rounds of a woman who was allegedly sexually assaulted on the side of the street near Ohio University in Athens. Absolutely NOTHING about the photo looked like an assault, given that the woman in question was leaning against a short brick wall, with nothing and no one restraining her, while the alleged attacker was kneeled between her legs, touching her.
Let me just pause here a second and say that I in NO WAY condone people taking photographs of this and posting the photos to Twitter and Instragram or whatever. That’s just icky. But when the “victim” of this “assault” went to the police the next day, the police chief immediately condemned people for not “helping” the victim. And I’ll be honest. I shook my head at that one. Various accounts from folks who witnessed the sexcapade said that the woman was clearly enjoying herself, and didn’t need “help” at all, except perhaps for someone to tell her that she was a MORON for having a guy perform oral sex on her on the side of a busy street. In fact, while she was enjoying this guy’s mouth, she used her hand to pull his head towards her more, according to video accounts.
No one was charged in the end, because it became obvious relatively quickly that both parties were simply drunk, and that the woman in question felt like a moron the next morning and decided to cry “rape” as an attempt to scale back her humiliation. And so in that sense, it’s a good thing there WERE photographs and video, to prove that this was some pretty consensual activity. But the fact that she went to the cops in the first place?
Which brings me back to the awesome article I source linked above, also from Total Frat Move. In it, the author calls out chicks like the drunk Ohio University girl for making these sexual assault accusations simply because they’re embarrassed by their own behavior, and I found myself nodding along with every last word she said.
Girls could go and check their inhibitions at the door, responsibility at the coat check, and self-awareness at the bar. We could drink to our heart’s content, be stupid, be dumb, dance up on bars, kiss a stranger, go home with a different one, and then wake up and not have to take ownership for any of it. The flyers on our hallway bulletin boards piled up. Seminars commenced. PSAs were abound. “My rapist doesn’t know he’s a rapist,” they all told us. And we believed it.
So we went to the pre-games and we went to the bars and we went to the frat parties. We did drink to our heart’s content and we made bad decisions. We did go home with strangers. And then we woke up and we decided that we didn’t like what we had done. We regretted it. We didn’t like that we had willingly taken eleven shots of cheap vodka at the pre-game with “our girls.” …We didn’t like that we had drunkenly danced on the counter and we were embarrassed that a bar full of strangers had likely seen our panties. We didn’t like that we were blacked out, and we most certainly did not like that we had stumbled back to campus after last call to attend a party… We didn’t like that we had wandered into the bed of someone who was even more intoxicated than we were, and we didn’t like the fact that we woke up wearing nothing but a dirty rush t-shirt. And so we freaked out.
Faced with our poor decisions of the night before, we had no excuse but to take them all back. After all, that’s what all of the flyers and the seminars and the PSAs said. That’s what our professors told us, as did the nurses at Student Health. That’s what the protestors wearing the skimpy outfits and holding the glittery posters said. “It’s not your fault,” they all told us. Yes, you were drunk. And yes, you flirted with him. And yes, you initiated the first makeout…and the second one. Yes, you whispered, “Let’s get out of here.” But you felt guilty this morning. And so you take it all back. No matter that he was drunk, too, and you were a willing participant — you take it back. And in the game of your word against his, you will always win.
And this is, I recognize, where things get sketchy, because from a legal standpoint, as the author also points out, if you’re incapacitated you cannot consent to sex. But how do you actually DEFINE incapacitated? And what about the boys? What if they’re drunk, too? Why is it only men who end up being responsible for what they do when they’re drunk in these cases? A guy too drunk to consider whether or not a fuzzy definition of consent applies in a situation where a drunk woman is offering up her body to him can literally have his entire life destroyed with an accusation of rape from that woman. And the woman? Well, she’s a victim, you see.
Rape and sexual assault are horrible things. So are false accusations of rape and sexual assault. And saying that out loud doesn’t make me a “slut-shamer” and it doesn’t mean I’m “blaming the victim.” It means I’m using common sense.
We’ve created a culture where it is completely acceptable for girls to get drunk, make bad decisions, and then take it all back. There is no ownership, no responsibility, no acceptance of one’s own mistakes.
This culture that we now live in, this societal acceptance of regret and unaccountability — it’s wrong. We’re creating a mockery of the real victims of sexual assault, the ones who are violently attacked. The ones who didn’t willingly take the shot, drink the drink, and climb into bed. We’re discouraging them from stepping forward. We’re preventing police officers from taking them seriously and district attorneys from pressing charges. We’re creating a world where all females are victims and all men are attackers — and that is simply not the case. Perhaps there is a gray area. Maybe something does, in fact, exist between the spectrum of rape and a consensual one-night-stand. But that doesn’t mean that every drunken hookup is the result of a violent attack. That doesn’t mean that women can go into a situation knowing good and well what will happen, and then take it back when the sun comes up. It simply doesn’t work like that. Something has got to give.
Why are we going out and making stupid decisions and then acting like we are in no way responsible for ourselves? That’s not how it works. We don’t get to arbitrarily take things back. We don’t get to be stupid and then blameless. We don’t get to be held unaccountable for our actions. Doing so sets us back. Doing so makes us weak and it makes us powerless. It’s time that we stop playing the blame game. It’s time that we start taking responsibility for our own actions — no matter how bad they may be.
Standing ovation for that column. Seriously. That’s what real feminism looks like – a chick who demands other chicks own their own behavior, and not blame men for it simply because it’s the easier out.