Pretty prose and ugly reality

Review: “Believe Me: How Trusting Women Can Change the World” by Jessica Valenti and Jaclyn Friedman

Artillery Row Books

“This is not just a book. It’s a rallying cry, a plan for action, and a theory of change.” So begins this ambitious anthology, edited by the American feminist writers Jessica Valenti and Jaclyn Friedman, themed around a hashtag, #BelieveWomen, that was born from another hashtag, #MeToo. “What if we believed women?” the editors ask. Their contributors — mostly young, mostly American, mostly female — answer with 27 essays that vary wildly in terms of both quality and focus.

Some of the essays are rather good. Anna-Catherine Brigida writes movingly of the plight of Central American asylum seekers fleeing domestic abuse, Moira Donegan offers a pithy analysis of Freud’s writings on sexual abuse, and Mónica Ramírez provides an interesting overview of the steps that some American employers are taking to prevent and punish workplace sexual harassment.

But these essays suffer the embarrassment of sitting alongside others that range from the banal to the bizarre. I thought I had reached the nadir at a tone-deaf comic strip by the non-binary illustrator Matt Lubchansky detailing their experiences of being sexually harassed on the street and finding a certain pleasure in feeling “connected to femininity”.

But no, there was more to come. A chapter by a Marine veteran and sexual violence survivor, Anuradha Bhagwati, on her experience of owning an emotional support dog begins promisingly, but soon enough her encounters with people who simply do not like dogs are inserted into a grand narrative of bigotry and oppression. When passers-by pat the chocolate Labrador, Bhagwati feels “assaulted”. When the gym manager asks her to keep him in the reception area while she works out, she describes the request as “dangerous”.

I laughed incredulously at her account of being asked to use the lift reserved for pets: “I start to call it the Nazi elevator,” Bhagwati writes, without a hint of self-awareness. Did the editors not see the risk to their credibility in including chapters like these alongside more serious subject matter?

But then there are no obvious signs that much editing has taken place. The chapters have not been grouped by theme, meaning that essays on quite different topics rub up against one another with uncomfortable results, for instance when a rather vapid interview with an actress on representation in Hollywood is followed by an essay on women kidnapped by Isis to be used as sex slaves.

Early in the volume, a very good chapter by Soraya Nadia McDonald on the history of medical mistreatment of Black American women foregrounds the work of activist Loretta Ross. A hundred pages later, having mostly forgotten the details of this account, we come upon a very similar chapter written by — Loretta Ross. It took me several minutes to remember why this narrative sounded uncannily similar to one I’d read before, but then the chapters in this baggy and chaotic volume have a tendency to blur together.

The writers limit themselves to milquetoast solutions to sexual violence, such as helping men overcome their “masculine insecurities”

A key problem with all of these essays, even the better ones, is that the writers seem reluctant to engage with the difficult questions raised by the problem of sexual violence. Not least, the question raised by the title of the volume: what would be the consequences if we were to follow the hashtag directive to #BelieveWomen when they make allegations of sexual abuse?

We know from copious research that it is far more common for true victims to be accused of lying than for false victims to be unthinkingly believed, meaning that it is almost always safest to take the side of an alleged victim rather than an alleged perpetrator. But we also know intuitively that occasionally false victims will present themselves, given the fallibility of human beings. How should the criminal justice system respond to this problem?

We could well argue that sexual violence is so common, so destructive, and currently so rarely punished, that radical steps are justified. We could, for instance, replace juries with specially trained judges who were less inclined to believe rape myths. We could also lower the standard of evidence needed to impose penalties such as restraining orders, and reform the criminal justice system so as to make it easier for victims to give evidence without being exposed to the distress of aggressive cross-examination.

We could go further, and require that suspected perpetrators be removed from certain jobs even when the only evidence is the testimony of a single alleged victim. These are the kinds of measures that we could take, and if we did we would have to think seriously about the possibility that innocent people might suffer alongside the many more true predators who might finally be met with some justice. But anyone minded to think of this as a serious ethical conundrum is instantly dismissed by the editors of this volume. “Horseshit,” write Valenti and Friedman.

The idea that alleged victims could lie is condemned as a “straw man, a sleight-of-hand trick”, a dishonest ploy by people who falsely “imagine they have more ‘rational’ concerns”. Don’t be rational, ladies. Don’t think that the weighty matters of justice presented by this singular problem — a problem that has been with humanity since well before #MeToo — might be worthy of proper debate.

The contributors seem to be reluctant to engage with these difficult issues in part because they are so queasy about the use of incarceration. Several state their anti-racist opposition to America’s prison system, condemning “carceral feminists” who attempt to use the “government’s power to discipline others”. Stacy Malone, for instance, writes of her suspicion of a police force that did not hold the community’s respect in her neighbourhood when she was growing up: “Their sons were arrested regularly, like my brother, who spent more time in jail than in school.”

But she never tells us how exactly we are supposed to punish and restrain rapists — who are, after all, the brothers of other women — without a functioning criminal justice system. What are we to do, without the option of physically separating violent men from the women they might victimise? And without the power of the state to enforce that separation, who else are we to call on?

Rather than propose alternatives — vigilante justice, anyone? — the writers avoid answering the question altogether. They limit themselves to milquetoast ideas such as helping men to overcome their “masculine insecurities” (Tahir Duckett) or creating community spaces in which perpetrators can seek “healing and justice” (Sarah Deer and Bonnie Clairmont).

Contributors such as Andrea L. Pino-Silva write of the need to “talk seriously about ending sexual violence”, but propose nothing more concrete than workshops on college campuses that, among much else, “celebrate and empower queerness”. Pino-Silva believes that such workshops won’t work unless they also tackle every form of intersectional oppression under the sun, from colonialism to biphobia. I don’t believe these workshops will work at all, so I suppose that’s one point we can agree on.

To respond to the problem of sexual violence with nothing but pretty rhetoric is wholly inadequate. It is heartbreaking, in fact. Ultimately, Believe Me fails in its stated mission. It does not provide either a “plan of action” or a “theory of change”. It is, regrettably, just a book.

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