Kobe Bryant's (search) accuser is viewed with suspicion because of sexual activity before and after her alleged rape. Naomi Wolf is publicly pilloried for crying "abuse!" in dramatic fashion 20 years after the fact.
Now, the high-profile abduction of college student Audrey Seiler is found to be a lie that ends with Seiler under psychiatric evaluation.
Will you be willing to believe the next woman (or man) who claims to be a victim?
I hope so. Cynicism helps no one: not victims, not those accused, not society. What benefits all three is a respect for evidence and a refusal to demonize either the accuser or the accused. Victimhood should not be sensationalized or celebrated, but neither should it return to a state of shame in which people are afraid to speak out because of public reaction. I know because my own experience of domestic violence was severe enough to result in a permanent physical disability. And, yet, I remained silent.
Many people are currently walking a thin line between skepticism and sympathy toward "victims." They ask themselves, "Does the person's story make sense to me?" This is not an act of cynicism; it is the responsibility of anyone who wishes to pass judgment.
I apply standards of evaluation to every case of alleged abuse that I encounter. A standard cannot tell you whether a particular report is true or false. For example, one of my guidelines is that alleged victims should not grow rich from their victimhood. Nevertheless, a person who cuts a movie deal with Hollywood may well be selling a true story. Financial gain doesn't disprove anything, but it does make me move a step closer to skepticism and away from sympathy. Here are some other guidelines to apply:
Is the confession of victimhood public rather than private? When Andrea Dworkin (search) revealed, in the pages of The New Statesman, that she had been raped in 1999, the fact that she had not gone to the police or any other authority before going to press made me a skeptic. If the trauma of rape prevented her from reporting the incident privately, why did it not prevent her from mass-marketing it?
Is a double standard being applied? If the same thing were to happen to a man, would it still be considered abuse? A quick test is to flip every sexual reference in an account from male to female and gauge your reaction. In matters of rape (search) or physical violence, most people would apply one standard across the board. But in cases of harassment — for example, jokes in bad taste — a double standard in law and policy often occurs.
Was there an attempt at private resolution? This may not be reasonable in criminal cases such as rape, but many accusations concern non-criminal acts. For example, Naomi Wolf (search) was a Yale student, well versed in feminism, when the alleged advance from a professor occurred. The fact that she chose not to use the university's established mechanisms of redress, with which she was familiar, should raise a flag of doubt.
Does the account dwell excessively upon the emotions or psychological state of either the victim or the accused? Legal charges should live or die on the basis of evidence, not on opinion and outrage. If emotion is constantly mixed in with the presentation of evidence, or if it begins to dominate debate, then perhaps the evidence is not strong enough to stand by itself.
Is an agenda attached? For example, does a "victim" of sexual misconduct claim to come forward in order to change the law, or on behalf of other abused women so that they will speak out? If so, the motivations involved may extend far beyond righting a personal injury; the accusations may be politically based. This possibility edges closer to probability if the accusation becomes a media event, complete with an articulate attorney and calls for new legislation.
Are honest critics excoriated and slandered for the sin of questioning? It is never wrong to question facts or ask an accuser to expand on a point. If an accuser or his/her attorney responds with a blast of ad hominem, then you should immediately suspect that they cannot answer the question in any other manner.
Is the accused being denounced for reasons irrelevant to the crime? For example, Kobe Bryant has been denounced as an adulterer and a pampered high-paid athlete. Adultery and athletic achievement do not correlate with rape. To the extent an accused is demonized for unrelated issues, that is the extent to which you should wonder if a witch-hunt is underway.
Everyone who reports being victimized by violence should be taken seriously. But an open mind is not a gaping mind, and it is always proper for people to question. The alleged victim who lies does more damage to real victims than a sea of skeptics motivated by malice because the lies make decent people doubt. The faux victim makes the vast majority of decent people one iota less likely to believe the next account they hear.
That is why the most victim-friendly policy possible is one that demands high standards of evidence and public debate, in which questioning is viewed as a healthy and valuable process.
Wendy McElroy is the editor of ifeminists.com and a research fellow for The Independent Institute in Oakland, Calif. She is the author and editor of many books and articles, including the new book, "Liberty for Women: Freedom and Feminism in the 21st Century" (Ivan R. Dee/Independent Institute, 2002). She lives with her husband in Canada.