One evening, my senior year in college, there was a knock at my door. When I answered, a student I didn’t know was standing there. He asked my name, and when I told him, he very politely asked if I would perform a sex act on him. After I picked my jaw up off the floor and told him he was out of his mind (or words to that effect), he said, “I’m sorry. I heard that you did that sort of thing.”
I was well and truly dumbstruck. I asked where he’d heard that, and he gave me a name. It was another male student I’d never met. I was baffled. Furious. And now, on a mission.
As I recall, it took several days of traipsing across campus and multiple unannounced visits to referred strangers before I finally tracked down the source of the rumor: a fellow student I did know, who worked with me at the campus bar. Months earlier, the entire bar staff had stayed after work one night to hang out. The rumor-starter was holding a stand microphone, which was connected to the bar sound system. As some of us sang along to ‘80s tunes, he danced from person to person, holding the mic up to our faces to capture our voices. But he was perilously close to smacking me in the mouth with it, and as it was a fairly heavy piece of sound equipment, I told him to knock it off.
That was the source of the rumor. My co-worker took an innocent (though annoyed) statement about not wanting to be hit in the mouth with a microphone, infused it with unsubtle sexual innuendo and then spread the story around campus. In short order, I morphed from an obscure bartender/disc jockey into a notorious hussy whose sexual services were available on request.
I had completely forgotten about this incident until watching Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh defend against decades-old allegations of sexual misconduct – some absurd, none with any witnesses or other corroborating evidence.
I will never be a nominee for the Supreme Court, but I could certainly be considered for positions for which character matters. As it happens, I discovered the rumor about me – and its author. But what if I hadn’t? If someone determined to torpedo my shot at a plum job floated an unprovable allegation, how many people from college – beyond the four or five I found at the time – could come forward and attest that they’d heard sordid things about me, all from one flippant remark that blossomed into a campuswide game of telephone? Beyond emphatic denials, how could I ever defend myself, decades later?
There are women across the U.S who are incensed that a man they’ve been told is a sexual predator could end up with a seat on the nation’s highest court. The spreading hysteria is proof of how dangerous this is. Across print, electronic and social media, people are throwing around the word “rapist.” But Brett Kavanaugh has not been accused of rape by Christine Blasey Ford (or credibly accused by anyone else).
More importantly, Christine Blasey Ford produced no evidence to support her accusations. An accusation without more is not evidence. I have not – thank God – been the victim of rape. But I have been harassed. I’ve been groped. I have witnessed indecent exposure. I’ve been slammed up against a wall (for saying no) and suffered other legitimately lifelong sorrows at the hands of predatory, abusive and/or irresponsible men. So I’ve got my #MeToo bona fides.
But I am also an attorney, trained in the Anglo-American legal tradition. Our system is not perfect; it is protracted, expensive and often frustrating. But it is nevertheless one of the sturdiest legal systems in the history of human civilization.
The question is not whether we “believe” Christine Blasey Ford (and there are many gaps and inconsistencies in her testimony). The question is whether she had proof necessary to overcome the presumption of innocence that is the cornerstone of our system: evidence, witnesses or persons whom she contemporaneously told about the alleged assault.
There are solid and serious reasons why our legal system – and our culture at large – requires proof of allegations. Conviction by accusation has a horrific pedigree. Use of the terms “witch hunt” and “lynching” are not hyperbole: Tens of thousands of people accused of being witches were executed in Europe in the Middle Ages. In tiny Salem, Massachusetts, in 1692-93, 20 people were hung – most of them women. Nearly 4,000 blacks were lynched in the U.S. between 1877 and 1950 – many for false accusations of sexual assault against white women.
People whipped into a fervor of righteous indignation, unconstrained by process and the rule of law, do unspeakably evil things. Even short of criminal convictions, false accusations can destroy someone’s career, livelihood and reputation. (This is why we have defamation laws.)
We cannot punish one man for the sins of others who have wronged us. We cannot countenance the abolition of the presumption of innocence. Nor can we – even out of commiseration with the victim of an alleged assault – tell her that her accusation was enough to convict someone, whether in a court of law or in the court of public opinion.
This isn’t cruel. It isn’t heartless. And it certainly isn’t patriarchy. It’s self-preservation. Women have been hung. Women have been lynched. Women have been falsely accused and have been the false accusers.
Women can be destroyed, too. If we clamor for procedural protections to be tossed away when our political opponents are the victims, we’ll have nothing to protect us when the devils turn ‘round on us. And they will.