The perfect storm of the Brett Kavanaugh confirmation battle and the sexual misconduct accusations against him is moving at such a dizzying speed that any opinion about it risks being swept away within hours.
But from the start, reactions to this story have fallen into two broad camps, generally but not always along partisan lines: one focused on the evil of sexual violence, the other on the peril of wrongful accusations. Last Thursday’s riveting hearing in which both Kavanaugh and his main accuser, Stanford University psychologist Christine Blasey Ford, testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee only underscored that division. And each camp has a point.
Even Kavanaugh’s supporters generally agree that Ford, who says Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her at a party in 1982 when she was 15 and he was 17, gave a compelling and credible account of the incident. Another woman, Deborah Ramirez, says that when she and Kavanaugh were students at Yale, he exposed himself to her at a drunken dorm party; her allegation, complicated by shaky recall and her own intoxication at the time, is being looked into by the FBI.
To many people, these stories have become emblematic of a rampant rape culture in America, and particularly of sexual violence against women by privileged young white men. Numerous women (and some men), including conservative Republicans, have come forward to share their own painful experiences of being assaulted and keeping silent about it.
Many others, however, find it troubling that someone’s career and life can be ruined by an allegation of a 35-year-old offense which almost certainly cannot be proved or disproved — and not all of those people are partisan Republicans. A friend, a professional woman in her late 30s who voted for Hillary Clinton, says she is disgusted by the rush to judgment against Kavanaugh and by the widespread mockery of his anger and pain by many on the left.
“I find Dr. Ford’s accusation as compelling and believable as Judge Kavanaugh’s denial,” Michael Totten, a journalist who considers himself a political centrist, told me in an email. “Plenty of us felt that way after watching their dueling testimonies, so it’s no wonder most of us are retreating to our partisan camps.”
For many on the left, the answer is simple: Believe women (or, in a more gender-neutral version, believe survivors). Ford’s supporters say that false accusations of rape or sexual assault are rare and that to treat guilt and innocence as equal probabilities in such a case is a grave injustice to victims.
But in fact, no one knows how common false allegations are. A commonly cited figure is that studies, and FBI statistics, show 2 to 8 percent of rape reports are false. However, this refers only to cases in which police or campus investigators definitively conclude that no crime occurred. Many other complaints are left unresolved, ending in dismissal or acquittal even if an arrest is made; surely at least some of these cases involve wrongful accusations. And none of these statistics include informal accusations made in the media or in the political arena, or accusations made years after the alleged crime when memories may be altered and reconstructed.
There was a time when women reporting rape were routinely treated with suspicion, especially if they were not paragons of virtue. That such accusations are now taken seriously is a sign of progress. But we should not substitute one set of prejudices for another. And finding the right balance, especially in a climate of partisan rancor, may be a near-impossible challenge.
Cathy Young is a contributing editor to Reason magazine.