What do you think? Leave a respectful comment.

Why we often don’t believe women who report sexual assault

The response to sexual assault allegations made by writer E. Jean Carroll against President Trump is again raising questions about what women face when they take their accusations public. Judy Woodruff speaks with Emily Bazelon of The New York Times Magazine and Soraya Chemaly of the Women’s Media Center Speech Project about rape myths, language around assault and the role of masculinity.

Read the Full Transcript

  • Judy Woodruff:

    The sexual assault allegations made by writer E. Jean Carroll against President Trump are raising questions again about what women face when they go public.

    Carroll has said the president assaulted her in the 1990s in the dressing room of a New York City department store. Her description meets the legal definition of rape.

    At the time, Carroll told friends, but got conflicting advice about whether to speak up and file charges. She says she didn't because she was fearful.

    Her story and others are prompting questions about the choices women make after these incidents.

    We look at this with Emily Bazelon, an author and staff writer for "The New York Times Magazine." And Soraya Chemaly, she's a writer and media critic. She's also the author of "Rage Becomes Her."

    And we welcome both of you to the "NewsHour."

    Emily Bazelon, you have interviewed a number of women over the years who have accused other men of sexual assault. What have you learned from them about why they don't come forward?

  • Emily Bazelon:

    I think this is still a really difficult thing to do, even in the MeToo era.

    Women receive really mixed results. And I think we're seeing that play out yet again with these accusations from E. Jean Carroll. She has been taken seriously, certainly, but we seem to have a different standard for President Trump than we do for judging the conduct of many other men who have been credibly accused of sexual assault.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Soraya Chemaly, what about you? You have looked at this issue.

    I know you have talked to so many women. What's your sense of why women hold back?

  • Soraya Chemaly:

    Well, I think she articulated reasons that are enduring.

    I think there's fear of shaming, of blaming, of retaliation, of being doubted. It's very hard, because we have a cultural predisposition to perpetuate a lot of rape myths. And one of those is that women excessively exaggerate as victims, that they make things up, that there are misinterpretations.

    And so, as opposed to having the woman's testimony be considered valid, or even giving her the benefit of the doubt of the innocence of not being a liar, the culture in general attributes lying to women who come forward.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Emily Bazelon, do you think there is a change? I think you mentioned women even today. Is there a generational change, do you think? Are women today, younger women, feeling more comfortable about speaking up than women, say, of my generation did?

  • Emily Bazelon:

    I think, in some contexts, yes, younger women are really leading the way in terms of being more open and willing to take a risk by coming forward.

    But, as Soraya was saying, there are still women who are paying a price for being public. And this kind of public arena, where you're in the spotlight of the national media, you have Donald Trump's denials, that's a powerful disincentive.

    I think one thing that is important about this story that E. Jean Carroll is telling is that she has corroboration from back when she says that this attack happened from these two friends of hers.

    In other stories, the lack of corroboration has been kind of counted against a woman. Here, we have corroboration, and yet it's not really clear what consequences are coming out of this, this set of news events.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    How do you see this generational piece, Soraya?

  • Soraya Chemaly:

    I think the way I would distinguish generationally what's happening is that we have equipped people with a language that maybe didn't exist before.

    So, even E. Jean Carroll essentially said, well, I didn't call it rape, I'm not that person, I'm not a victim, I wasn't raped. She sort of alludes to that or explicitly says that.

    And I think that younger women, a younger generation of women, understand the language and also have gone through a process where the culture,where feminist culture is actively trying to destigmatize rape, so that the rape victims who are able to feel very strongly that the shame is not theirs, that, in fact, the shame should be the rapist's shame.

    And that's a struggle in our culture. We don't live in that culture where perpetrators really pay consequences.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And speaking of that, Emily Bazelon, how much of an effect does it have on women overall that high-profile women like Anita Hill, like Christine Blasey Ford, who didn't start out as high-profile, but became so during the Brett Kavanaugh confirmation hearings, the fact that these women were not believed?

  • Emily Bazelon:

    Right. I mean, I think that still has a powerful effect.

    Soraya is right about this new language that we have and the way in which I think some younger women are able to call sexual assault or rape what it is, without feeling that it's consuming their whole identity.

    I think one of the reasons some older women are more reluctant to make that kind of accusation is that to be a rape victim feels like it can kind of take over your whole life.

    And some women want to say, no, there are obviously more parts to me. This was one experience.

    So I think making more room for that kind of understanding of naming — naming the behavior what it is, but also allowing women to be fuller, more three-dimensional people that are more than victimhood.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And I guess, you know, picking up on that, Soraya, the fact that we are talking about this more openly, we're having conversations today, people are writing about it, speaking about it in a way that — it was all hush-hush.

  • Soraya Chemaly:

    It was hush-hush.

    And mainstream media — still, today we see this — was accustomed to using family-friendly euphemisms for rape, things like, he took advantage of her, or a child prostitute, or there were all of these words that we used to downplay what was happening, to minimalize and trivialize it.

    And you could even hear that with E. Jean Carroll, when she said, well, it was only three minutes, and I wasn't one of those women like the women that are in migrant camps.

    And so being able to use accurate language to be able to describe clearly what happened is really important. And media, I think, needs to do a better job of that, needs to do a better job of talking to victims, of sourcing stories much more inclusively, and really understanding that the issue is not that a victim has no objectivity.

    The issue is that we need to be able to think about credibility, and understand why the experience gives them a certain kind of knowledge, and make them legitimate as sources.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    I also want to ask you too, finally, Emily, about the role of men in all this.

    Do we see more conversation among men about this? How — is there anything changing there?

  • Emily Bazelon:

    Well, I think some men are really trying to figure out how to support women, how to talk about this with women, how to listen in a way that feels deeply empathetic.

    And then I think some men are very nervous about the surfacing of all this conversation in the culture, wondering about how far it goes, whose conduct is in jeopardy. And these are all really deep and important questions that it's going to take a while to sort out.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Soraya.

  • Soraya Chemaly:

    I agree with Emily.

    I mean, I think part of the issue with MeToo is sort of the flip side, which is men quietly thinking me too. Like, if he did that, I have done that. Does that make me this person?

    And, really, it comes down to an interrogation of masculinity and manhood. We see in survey after survey that men are much more likely to doubt women's testimonies, unless they themselves have been assaulted.

    And that makes the difference.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Unless the men themselves have been…

  • Soraya Chemaly:

    It's the men — I mean, I believe, in our culture, we have many more boys and men who are assaulted than we are willing to admit to or who can come forward, because, in fact, their shame is very, very deep.

    It usually takes a man until he's in his 50s or 60s to come forward. And so, if a man has experienced assault, he responds to stories of assault the way a typical woman does, which is much more sympathy or empathy or likelihood to find the testimony credible.

    And so I think it's hard for men because, in fact, if all the women around them are saying this is happening, we're being threatened or harassed, it means they are failing, in fact, to perform a fundamental function of their manhood, which is to protect them.

    And nobody wants that information, because it's an impossible ideal. Men cannot protect the women in their lives. They can't follow them around 24/7. So, in fact, the best way to do that is to confront other men.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Such a tough subject, but it's one that we need to keep talking about and keep coming back to.

  • Soraya Chemaly:

    Thank you.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Soraya Chemaly, Emily Bazelon, thank you.

  • Soraya Chemaly:

    Thank you.

  • Emily Bazelon:

    Thank you.

Listen to this Segment

The Latest