Believing Sexual Abuse Survivors
Trump, Kavanaugh, and Biden
The response to sexual assault is particularly horrible. Many victims are disbelieved because of the myth that women frequently make false reports. The likelihood victims will not be believed in turn discourages true reports. The problem is even worse when the public has political reasons to disbelieve or believe reports about sexual abuse. The response to reports of sexual assaults by Donald Trump, Brett Kavanaugh, and Joe Biden illustrates this problem. Perhaps the differences and similarities can also help us understand the issues with society’s response to sexual assault.
Most people do not know the factors to consider in evaluating a sexual abuse report, and many would discredit reports for non-probative reasons. Even professionals involved in investigating and prosecuting sexual offenses often do not have the needed expertise. I have spent the last 37 years working on gendered crimes. I have written some of the leading books about domestic violence, sexual abuse, and child custody.
In this article, I will discuss ten of the essential factors in determining the credibility of sexual assault reports. And then apply these to the controversial reports against Donald Trump, Brett Kavanaugh, and Joe Biden. For transparency’s sake, let me state openly that at the time of the reports, I had a strongly unfavorable opinion of Trump and Kavanaugh and a very favorable opinion of Biden.
Ten Important Factors in Evaluating Sexual Assault Reports
Is there a good reason to believe the alleged offender and victim were at the same place at the same time so that there was an opportunity for the crime to be committed? This is basic because, without opportunity, there can be no crime. This factor is easy for the three alleged offenders because there is no serious dispute that all three accused men had the opportunity to commit the crime.
Two. The reputation of the man
A reputation for improper sexual behavior does not prove a report is true, and a good reputation does not prove the report is false. Still, a bad reputation certainly makes the report more likely. A reputation for cheating on your intimate partner does not prove that a report is true but makes it more likely. Trump is known to cheat on his wives and has a reputation as someone who has assaulted women. In divorce papers, he was accused of raping his first wife. Neither Kavanaugh nor Biden has a reputation for cheating. Kavanaugh has a reputation for assaulting women, at least in college. Biden has admitted touching women inappropriately but not sexually. This makes sexual assault more likely but does not prove it. When Biden was a Senator, there were Senators known for sexual assault, but he was not on that list.
Three. Political support for women
Support for political issues that protect and support women is relevant because it says women should be treated with respect. At the same time, there are many politicians that vote for women’s issues but treat them badly, and other politicians opposed to women’s rights who act like gentlemen. Trump’s record on women as opposed to needed protections. His administration has undermined protections for rape victims on campus and has opposed the Violence Against Women Act. Kavanaugh has a conservative political approach that opposes women’s rights. Biden was the sponsor of the Violence Against Women’s Act and has been a strong supporter of women’s rights. His major negative in this regard is that his committee severely mistreated Anita Hill during the Clarence Thomas hearings. He has since apologized for failing to make sure she was treated fairly.
Four. Treatment of women
A man’s treatment of women is important because sexual assault is generally based on a sense of entitlement and sexism. Trump did hire some women in his business for essential positions. He has also repeatedly mistreated women working for him and women opponents. Trump has referred to women with the vilest language and regularly treated women as if their only value was their appearance and sex. Kavanaugh allegedly mistreated girls and women when he was a student, but has treated women well during his professional career. Aside from making some women uncomfortable when he touched them, Biden has hired women for positions of influence, treated them with great respect, and created practices to encourage equal treatment of women.
Trump made the infamous admission that he can grab women by their privates. This goes to the essence of sexual assault. He has also admitted cheating on his wives and used incredibly sexist language to describe women. Kavanaugh and Biden have not made any admissions related to sexual assault.
Six. Other victims
Women making reports of sexual assault should never be required to produce other victims in order to be believed. At the same time, most sexual offenders commit multiple crimes, which is an additional reason to do everything possible to hold them accountable. As a practical matter, having multiple victims makes a report more likely to be true and more likely to be believed. Trump has more than a dozen victims and probably has committed even more sex crimes. In Kavanaugh’s case, there were two very credible victims, and there could be more because the investigation was severely curtailed. All of Kavanaugh’s alleged sexual crimes occurred when he was a student, and there were no sexual abuse reports more recently. For Vice President Biden, Tara Reade is the only woman to report a sexual assault.
Seven. Eyewitness confirmation
The demand for eyewitness confirmation is a typical example of gender bias. Gendered crimes like rape and domestic violence are rarely committed in public for obvious reasons. Accordingly, there is rarely an eyewitness. Many of Kavanaugh’s defenders claimed there was no corroboration because there were no eyewitness reports. There are no eyewitness reports for any of the three men discussed in this article, and that tells us nothing about the truthfulness of the stories.
Eight. The credibility of the victim
The women who reported President Trump and Justice Kavanaugh were all highly credible, and there were no legitimate reasons to disbelieve them. When I started thinking about writing this article, it seemed like Tara Reade was a credible witness. I expected to reach some kind of equivocal conclusion about her report. Since that time, however, extensive journalistic investigations have raised serious doubt about her credibility. I believe it is significant that the uncertainty did not come from partisan witnesses lined up by supporters of the alleged offender, as Kavanaugh attempted, but from reporters’ neutral investigations.
Central to Ms. Reade’s story is that her firing was retaliatory. A Biden staffer told reporters that she was unable to do the work assigned, and he had to take over her assignment. This appears to be the real reason she was fired. Ms. Reade lied about having a college degree and claimed to have a senior-level job with Biden when she didn’t. This is significant because the lies came as part of court testimony under oath as an expert witness that led to convictions. The exaggerated position and claims she worked on the Violence Against Women Act were part of her false qualifications. And these apparent lies are recent. Many people who knew her in the last few years, said that she spoke highly of Biden; was proud of the work she did for him and volunteered this information. Victims of sexual assault or harassment sometimes maintain a relationship with the offender and might even speak well of him. Anita Hill provides an excellent example of this. In the present case, however, her praise was decades later, and there would be no reason for her to gratuitously praise Biden to people he would never come in contact with. Her brother told reporters he remembered her telling him about the sexual harassment, and a few days later said he now remembers her report of sexual abuse. It doesn’t sound credible to me that a brother would forget a claim that her boss penetrated her. The reporters found many recent acquaintances who described a pattern of lies, manipulation, and other unethical behavior they experienced from Reade. She tried to explain this as the result of an unfortunate financial situation and being unable to pay her rent, but the actual stories go far beyond that. My first concern about her credibility was postings praising Putin that were taken down prior to making her charges. Why would a professed liberal feminist be praising Putin? She was also a supporter of Bernie Sanders when he was Biden’s main opponent. This made me wonder what her motives were.
Nine. Corroborative Evidence
When I was an attorney, protective mothers would often say they had no evidence of the father’s domestic violence, and I would explain that their testimony was important evidence. Women rarely lie about abuse, so if a woman reports a sexual assault, her statement should be viewed as strong evidence. Any response in defense of a report that assumes most women’s reports are false should be seen almost as an admission. If we just believed women’s reports, society would get a much higher percentage of cases right. Of course, that would be an unfair response, so we must consider corroborating and undermining evidence.
For Trump’s victims, his Access Hollywood statement is strong corroborative evidence because it was an unintentional truthful statement about what he believes about women. Most of the women made contemporaneous statements to friends and family. A large number of reported victims and the constant misogynistic attacks on women strongly corroborate the belief these reports are accurate.
Dr. Christine Blasey Ford and her husband went for marital counseling long before Kavanaugh was nominated for the Supreme Court. They had a dispute over remodeling their home. Professor Ford insisted on an extra door that did not seem necessary. In the course of counseling sessions, she revealed Kavanaugh’s attack when she had no means of escape and so now needed an extra door. The chances she made this up long before Kavanaugh was nominated in order to undermine his confirmation are close to zero. Other witnesses also confirmed her earlier discussion of Kavanaugh’s attack on her.
Tara Reade told a few people about the alleged sexual assault who confirmed the contemporaneous report. She says she filed a report with the Senate, although it did not mention a sexual assault. If the report were found, this might provide some corroboration. Many of her initial reports did not include the alleged sexual assault. It does not undermine her present claims because it is common for victims to report only part of an offense initially.
Ten. Undermining Evidence
Although Trump and Kavanaugh attacked the sexual assault reports, they provided no probative evidence that undermined the reports. There is substantial undermining evidence to Ms. Reade’s reports of a sexual assault.
Significantly, the undermining evidence comes from media investigations from NPR, CNN, and Politico rather than from Biden. Ms. Reade said she made reports to Biden’s staff, but none of the employees remember any such reports. Ms. Reade described how she was told to bring material to Biden, who was in the gym, and he assaulted her in a nearby alcove. Several of the staff described the route to the gym and that there would be no secluded areas where an assault could have occurred. They also said there would have been substantial traffic in the area. It doesn’t make sense that an ambitious Senator would risk everything by committing a sexual assault in a very public area; or that no one reported it. The reporter reviewed the route and confirmed there was no secluded area where the attack could have been committed safely.
Ms. Reade claimed that her firing was retaliation, but one of her co-workers said he had to take over some of her work because she could not do it, and that was the reason she lost her job. Ms. Reade claimed that Biden wanted her to serve drinks at an official event. But, staff familiar with his practices said he avoided ever having women staffers serve him because he didn’t like the sexist appearance it would create.
Ms. Reade’s credibility is severely undermined by what appears to be repeated lies and manipulation, including under oath. She offered two explanations for how she could have an undergraduate degree. But, they were shot down by the school’s registrar. Transcripts of her testimony claimed she was a legislative aide to Biden, who did substantial work on the Violence Against Women Act. This was critical to her testimony because she was trying to justify her expertise in domestic violence. But, she was a junior aide with no involvement in creating this vital legislation.
Sexual assault is a huge problem that ruins victims’ lives. It exacerbates the differences between men and women. It undermines our economy, and it costs trillions of dollars in health care, crime, and other expenses. The widespread failure to believe women increases the frequency of this dastardly crime because it makes it less likely rapists will ever be convicted or punished. Sexual assault committed by prominent political leaders is harder to deal with because partisan differences are more influential than probative evidence.
My purpose in writing this article is to elevate the discussion. We need to stop discrediting reports of sexual abuse based on common circumstances that are not probative. This is true whether the offender is a Republican, Democrat, or a garden variety misogynist. Victims must always be treated with respect because it is the right thing to do, and we need to encourage reports to reduce the frequency of sexual assault.
Particularly significant is the burden of proof we require. Our system of jurisprudence places enormous value on our freedom and rightly so. Accordingly, a defendant should not be convicted without proof beyond a reasonable doubt. However, defendants burdened by racism and economic inequality too often do not enjoy the same protections.
Issues that do not involve criminal conviction, and loss of freedom should not have the same protections or the criminal standard of proof. Holding public office is a privilege, not a right. If there is good reason to believe someone may have committed sexual assault, it would be better to select someone of unquestioned integrity.
During the Kavanaugh confirmation hearings, Senator Susan Collins said that Judge Kavanaugh should be considered innocent until proven guilty. This is the criminal standard, and the standard for a Supreme Court Justice should be far more than not being convicted.
Protecting children from a possible sexual predator should certainly be a higher priority than an alleged offender’s rights. No responsible parent insists on innocence until proven guilty when their neighbor is charged with sexual assault, and then lets their children play in his house. A typical example of gender bias is for family courts to treat the lack of a criminal conviction as proof the reports of sexual abuse or domestic violence must be false. This means courts are requiring a “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard in a court that only requires a “preponderance of the evidence.” The last thing courts should do is err on the side of risking children.
Sexual assault is too important to be judged based on partisan beliefs. Reports should not be dismissed based on the assumption that this man who I support is not the type of person to commit such a heinous crime. Most sexual assault is committed by someone the victim knows, and the offenders often act very differently in private than in public. Joe Biden was right when he said that people shouldn’t vote for him if they believe he sexually assaulted Tara Reade. In other words, sexual assault should be disqualifying. That would create a real problem if both Presidential candidates committed sexual assault.
Any discussion should start with an understanding that it is unusual for a woman to make a false report. In the case of Trump and Kavanaugh, there is no probative evidence that undermined the reports and significant evidence that supported it.
For me, Biden is the hard part because I have supported him and admire the work he has done in support of abused women. There is good reason to support any woman who reports sexual assault. This is especially so when there is corroborative evidence in the form of witnesses who confirm she told them about the assault contemporaneously. At the same time, the journalistic investigations have articulated several probative factors that undermine the report.
This is an unusually tricky decision if approached from an unbiased position. A reasonable person could decide in either direction. The truth is that based on the evidence now available, I don’t know if he committed sexual assault. Am I leaving open the possibility he assaulted Ms. Reade because I am biased in favor of believing women? My personal belief is that he did not assault her. I think this because of her history of lying, the lack of a secluded place where the assault could have occurred, and the vice-president’s extended support for women. I recognize I could be biased because I believe he is now our only hope to save lives in the current crisis and to save our democracy.
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Domestic Violence Writer, Speaker, and Advocate
Barry Goldstein is one of the leading domestic violence authors, speakers, advocates, and a frequent expert witness.