No, You Can’t Pick & Choose Which Men You Side With When They’re Accused Of Sexual Misconduct
In the wake of the Harvey Weinstein scandal in which dozens of women accused the producer of sexual assault, women and men have felt more empowered to speak up and publicly name prominent figures who have allegedly harassed or assaulted them. And, that's revealed a seriously problematic dynamic that survivors of harassment know well: the fact that the alleged perpetrator's supporters — be they fans, friends, or family — may disbelieve you, or publicly work to discredit you. Lena Dunham encapsulated this problem when actor Aurora Perrineau accused Girls writer Murray Miller of alleged sexual assault, which Miller "categorically and vehemently denies," his attorney told The Hollywood Reporter.
Dunham's initial statement reacting to the allegations, with fellow Girls producer Jenni Konner, said this:
During every time of change there are also incidences of the culture, in its enthusiasm and zeal, taking down the wrong targets. We believe, having worked closely with him for more than half a decade, that this is the case with Murray Miller. While our first instinct is to listen to every woman's story, our insider knowledge of Murray's situation makes us confident that sadly this accusation is one of the 3 percent of assault cases that are misreported every year. It is a true shame to add to that number, as outside of Hollywood women still struggle to be believed.
This statement sparked massive backlash, in part because Dunham had also tweeted earlier this year that "women don't lie" about being raped. Dunham has since apologized, issuing a statement that read, in part:
I naively believed it was important to share my perspective on my friend's situation as it has transpired behind the scenes over the last few months. I now understand that it was absolutely the wrong time to come forward with such a statement and I am so sorry... Every woman who comes forward deserves to be heard, fully and completely, and our relationship to the accused should not be part of the calculation anyone makes when examining her case.
Here's the thing: You don't get to pick and choose which survivors you decide to believe because you know and like the people behind the scenes. Men we like, whom we consider nice, can also be rapists, assaulters, and perpetrators of harassment. The fact that they are charming, likable, provide for their elderly parents, publicly and privately support women, and claim to be a feminist or an ally, does not automatically exempt them from making harmful decisions that compromise the safety and dignity of others.
This has played out even before #metoo became a phenomenon in the entertainment sphere. When actor Amber Heard publicly accused her then-husband Johnny Depp of alleged abuse, citing evidence in the form of photographs and text messages, iO Tillett Wright, one of Heard's friends, wrote an essay detailing the many ways in which Depp had acted as a brilliant friend and generous man, and explaining how he had found it difficult to square that behavior with Heard's allegations. People can contain multitudes; that is purely human nature. It's possible to condemn alleged harmful behavior even if you have not directly been harmed.
This works on the political level, too. It is possible to be both a human who works to help others, and somebody who violates boundaries, consent, and trust. Senator Al Franken, who was shown cupping the breasts of radio host Leeann Tweeden while she slept in a photograph from 2006, has been a liberal Democratic for decades. Sen. Franken responded quickly after the allegations were made public, saying, "The first thing I want to do is apologize: to Leeann, to everyone else who was part of that tour, to everyone who has worked for me, to everyone I represent, and to everyone who counts on me to be an ally and supporter and champion of women." Sen. Franken's statement went on to say, "While I don't remember the [alleged incident] as Leeann does, I understand why we need to listen to and believe women's experiences." His statement shows that even someone whose literal politics hinge on supporting women can also perpetuate abusive behavior toward women. This isn't a contradiction — it's a statement of fact that Sen. Franken himself admits.
The argument that Dunham and her producer appear to have made — that they know Miller, and he has "filled [their] world with love," and that, therefore, a woman with nothing to gain, and everything to lose, by accusing this writer of alleged sexual assault — does not take into account the fact that even "nice" men can be abusers. "He's just not that type of person" is not a good enough excuse, because, as we're increasingly seeing, there is not just one "type of person" who commits these acts. People are abusers across the political divide, among rich and poor, powerful and the powerless.
Additionally, the backlash against Dunham's initial statement also stems from how it perpetuates an enormously damaging stigma that has stopped women from coming forward about their assault for millennia. Specifically, it reinforces the ideal of the "perfect victim," which drives too many women to avoid reporting assault because they fear they won't be believed. The bar for women to pass before they're believed in their accusations is tremendously high, and in many contexts, hinges on many factors that would never be considered in a crime of any other nature. Were they drunk? Were they alone? Had they once used drugs, years before the incident? Did they report it too late — or too early? Do they pay taxes? Have they been divorced (a factor that's been used to discredit the accuser of Roy Moore)? Have they ever lied about anything in their lives before? And is the man they're accusing at a fancy university, a writer on a popular TV show, or simply well-respected and liked by people who have the power to discredit the accuser? Women, it seems, can leap all these hurdles, can pass all the unfair tests that have been set, and still be undone by the belief that "he's just not that type of guy."
Perrineau, as with all women, deserves to be taken seriously, regardless of any "insider knowledge" Dunham cites. Human beings are far more complex than abusive/non-abusive. To issue a statement that perpetuates that false myth does damage to both the accuser, and to all women who do not come forward for fear that they won't be believed.