Believe It Or Not: Sexual Harassment and Credibility of Victims At Play

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The recent allegation of sexual misconduct against NFL quarterback Jameis Winston adds to the dozens of celebrities, politicians, journalists, chefs, university professors, fraternities and sororities, labor unions and more who have recently been accused of sexual harassment or assault.

Sexual harassment is not a new problem. So why is it now that we are seeing a drastic increase in the numbers of publicly reported allegations of harassment? More urgent is the question of why are some victims believed and others are not.

An easy answer is that there may be safety in numbers.

As a forensic expert in sexual harassment, the typical legal case I see involves a lone female plaintiff who is alleged to have been harassed by a male perpetrator. In these cases the women tearfully describe being afraid to report the harassment as they fear they will not be believed and/or will be retaliated against by the accused or by others who support him.

In cases with multiple victims, the plaintiffs report a greater sense of credibility because it is not a “he said, she said” situation, rather it is a “he said, she said, and she said, and she said, and she said and so on” situation.

However, this has not been persuasive to many voters and the White House in the ongoing issue of  alleged assault and harassment by Alabama’s Roy Moore.  Nine women have now come forward.

Yes, the #MeToo campaign and the millions of individuals who have publicly acknowledged that they have been abused may have led to increased public reporting of sexual harassment. But it is unclear if this campaign will also lead to more victims being believed.

It is obvious that when a harasser admits to inappropriate behaviors that the victims will be believed. Recently Al Franken, Louis CK, Kevin Spacey, Dustin Hoffman, Ben Affleck, and Harvey Weinstein have admitted – or not denied committing sexual misconduct. These men have at the same time attempted to mitigate their blame by saying their behaviors were complicated by alcohol, failed attempts at humor, misunderstandings or supposed changes to the rules of social behavior.

Regardless of the excuse, in my experience it is rare for someone to confess to sexual misconduct. Certainly none of the recently accused men have publicly admitted to rape. They have primarily admitted to sexual harassment. That may be because harassment is viewed as a less severe behavior despite research confirming that harassment alone can indeed cause severe psychological distress.

The majority of the accused disparage their accusers. The women who have accused President Donald Trump, Roy Moore and Bill O’Reilly have been publicly maligned and accused of seeking financial gain or complaining about the misconduct at a time when the alleged perpetrator is running for office. This is a bipartisan issue as accusers of Bill Clinton were not initially believed.

The continued attacks on the credibility of women who come forward with allegations of harassment stem from faulty gender stereotypes of women as untrustworthy in sexual matters. The myth is these women only report the harassment as a way to get something tangible like money or fame from their complaints. The credibility of these women may also be influenced by racial, socioeconomic, sexual orientation, gender identity or other biases.

Women’s complaints of harassment may also create intense feelings of discomfort—termed cognitive dissonance–for those who are deeply committed to believing in the morality of the accused. Sarah Silverman, reportedly close friends with Louis CK, expressed this same cognitive dissonance which has caused friends, loved ones or fans of admitted harassers to struggle to love the accused while hating their behaviors.

For those who struggle to believe that someone they admire could have engaged in misconduct, the timing of reports could certainly seem suspicious. This is particularly true if a woman’s first public complaint occurs at a time when political races are at stake. However, women only report behaviors an estimated 30 percent of the time. If and when they do report, the fear of retaliation and the non-financially lucrative nature of most complaints serve as deterrents to false reporting.

The desire for personal and social justice is a better explanation for who reports and why. Many describe the act of standing up to the harasser thereby potentially reducing the possibility of future harassment of others is a key motivation. This desire for justice may also reasonably be heightened at a time when the harasser is in a position of obtaining greater power or position over others such as during political campaigns or increased visibility in the public sphere.

To believe or not to believe; that is our choice. Whether or not we side with an accuser or the accused is a decision we should make not out of instinct or prejudice, but from facts.

Dr. Angela Lawson is a clinical psychologist and Associate Clinical Professor in the Departments of Obstetrics and Gynecology & Psychiatry at Northwestern University and is a Public Voices Fellow through The OpEd Project. She has also worked as a forensic consultant and expert in sexual harassment litigation for the last 13 years.

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