The cry in the 1980s and early 1990s was “Believe the children!” as we began to understand that child sexual abuse was more common than most people knew. It started with a public awareness that turned into a frenzy and ended with show trials, including one in North Carolina. While we undoubtedly made progress in identifying victims and better protecting children, we also ruined a lot of lives by separating children from parents and jailing innocent people. It’s a cautionary tale as we pull the curtain back on the prevalence of sexual harassment and abuse of women by powerful men.
Back then, a backlash to many of the forces that defined the 1960s and ‘70s along with some brave survivors coming public with their own tales of abuse led to a proliferation of accusations. Psychologists told us that children couldn’t make up such stories so their tales were believed over the denials of those accused. As the hysteria overtook the country, we separated children from parents in nasty divorces, arrested daycare workers accused of fantastic tales and believed what now seem like obvious prevarications. The hysteria lasted for over a decade and ruined many innocent lives.
At the tail end of that period, I spent a few years doing child neglect and abuse investigations. I learned that we have a lot of sociopaths and compulsive liars who will use the legal and social welfare systems to wreak havoc on the lives of ex-partners, rivals or enemies with little concern for the wellbeing of their children. I investigated almost as many malicious reports as ones with merit. I also saw, first hand, what child abuse and neglect looks like and learned to take every accusation seriously. I learned, too, that there are degrees to neglect and abuse. Like much of life, there are a lot of gray areas.
When I hear, “Believe the women,” I worry about another hysteria and the creation of new type of victim. I think we need to take another lesson from the 1980s, “Trust, but verify.” When women make accusations of sexual harassment or abuse, we should take them very seriously, but we should also investigate the claims. The rush to judgment can do as much harm as good.
We need to acknowledge that not all abuse or harassment is the same and that circumstances and context matter. Men who make the work place uncomfortable with inappropriate boorish or juvenile comments should not be treated the same as predators who use their power to coerce or assault victims. Some people can be taught or shamed into changing inappropriate behavior while others need to face far greater consequences including losing careers or going to prison.
The accusations are probably just beginning. In the coming months, we’ll see many more men in positions of power accused of inappropriate and abusive behavior. We would be wise to judge each case on its merits and beware of our most self-righteous instincts. We need to make sexual harassment and abuse unacceptable and ensure that victims feel safe in making accusations. We don’t need another era of mass hysteria.