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Saving #MeToo from itself

Taking care to pursue sexual abusers fairly does not undermine victims' experience and should not prevent us from hearing their accusations
Christine Blasey Ford, before the Senate Judiciary Committee, September 27, 2018 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC.
Christine Blasey Ford, before the Senate Judiciary Committee, September 27, 2018 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC.

As a psychologist who has worked in sexual abuse prevention and treatment for the last two decades, I have been deeply gratified to see the rise of #MeToo. While sexual abuse awareness has been steadily growing for the last half-century, it took a #movement to shake powerful men out of their protected positions. I am equally disturbed, however, to see #MeToo becoming yet another polarized issue. In the wake of the Kavanaugh hearings, #MeToo is in danger of becoming a cause affiliated with the left — there has been a distinct rise in the popularity among conservatives of #HimToo, a movement that focuses on false accusations against men. It shouldn’t be, because Democrats also abuse and Republicans are also abused. But much more than that, the polarization of a movement to protect victims of sexual abuse will have horrific consequences for both men and women.

Many critics of Ford questioned her silence for 36 years, as well her refusal to release therapy notes. I do not accept these arguments. I can readily accept that a woman (or man) could be silent for decades before stepping forward, and that a woman could hesitate greatly before sharing notes from a therapy session, which likely contain additional highly personal information. There is often a very, very strong sense of shame. Moreover, a trauma in which the victim feared for her life can still be terrifying years later. Even after extended therapy, few victims could possibly be sufficiently prepared for the impact of a public cross-examination, much less a skewering in certain portions of the press. Victims must be allowed to speak… even years later.

At the same time, the Senate hearings highlighted an Achilles’ heel of the #MeToo movement. The exact amount of evidence required for a public opinion indictment is a very difficult thing to quantify, whether in American law or in Jewish law. However, not all #MeToo claims are equal. Many of the claims of this past year were corroborated. Sometimes, there were witnesses; sometimes, there were multiple accusers; sometimes, there was a well-known pattern of lewd and intimidating behavior (what the talmudic sages termed לא טוב השמועה). Sometimes, there was not enough supporting evidence to take an accusation further.

Personally, I found the opening statement testimonies of both Ford and Kavanaugh to be moving and credible. It may be that both believe they are telling the truth, and that one was more drunk than acknowledged that evening and misremembers or doesn’t remember. It is possible that one of them is lying. Each of them could have reason for doing so. But in this case, there was no clear corroborating evidence to demonstrate Kavanaugh’s guilt.

But hang on – before anyone jumps to conclusions of any kind, allow me to share a cautionary tale of years gone by – about another psychology professor from the West Coast, who also found herself in the spotlight of sexual abuse accusation controversy. Dr. Elizabeth Loftus, professor of psychology at the University of Washington, came to national prominence in the 1980s. Two decades had passed since the phenomenon of sexual abuse had come to national attention, and women had begun to come forward to confront men, often family members, with recovered memories of sexual abuse. In many of these cases, women struggling with symptoms of unexplained emotional dysregulation experienced the surfacing of early repressed memories of sexual abuse. Often with the support of a therapist, the women explored their memories and then confronted the alleged perpetrators.

Loftus, a memory researcher encountered these stories, and felt that it was critical to bring research to bear to help clarify the veracity of these claims. One of the take-home lessons of her research was the malleability of memory, and the need to relate to recovered memories with a strong dose of suspicion. She also demonstrated how leading questioning could create false memories, as in the case of the McMartin pre-school in Manhattan Beach, California, where investigators discovered nursery school teachers who allegedly molested tens of children – and which closed years later, with no convictions.

Loftus was demonized and vehemently attacked by some proponents of sexual abuse prevention. They argued that by publicizing her research and providing expert testimony at trials, she was undermining their efforts. The claim was that she surely made people doubt sexual abuse claims, and weakened victims’ resolve to come forward and tell their stories.
But the sexual abuse prevention movement has not grown weaker since Loftus’s research surfaced. On the contrary, when I began to work at Ohel Family Services in Brooklyn in 2003, the acceptance of sexual abuse as a widespread phenomenon was growing stronger and stronger. Our organization was welcomed into schools, yeshivas, and conferences across the Orthodox Jewish spectrum to help educate and guide parents, teachers, administrators, and community leaders in prevention work. It was clear that the American public’s belief in the reality of sexual abuse was growing, across all sectors of society.

Rather than weakening the movement, Loftus’s work helped establish parameters for determining the veracity of sexual abuse claims. Subsequent research revealed that when professionals avoid leading questions and do not hunt for repressed memories, children report sexual abuse spontaneously and could almost always be believed (with the exception of cases in which there was a custody battle). Absent Loftus’ work, the movement might have supported claims that could have undermined the acceptance of sexual abuse as a phenomenon.

To be clear: I am NOT saying that Ford’s testimony is recovered memory or false. I AM saying that we must take a reasonable approach to sexual abuse accusations, and not a dogmatic one. We should learn from the history of the movement. Efforts to address sexual abuse will be strengthened — and not weakened — by engaging in balanced discussions regarding the levels of evidence necessary to take action against an alleged abuser.
Men deserve to be presumed innocent until proven guilty, and not the reverse. In an apparently true story, a few years ago, a female teen hitchhiker in Israel insisted that the man who had stopped to give her a ride take her all the way to her destination (not the norm in Israeli hitchhiking culture). When he refused what amounted to an obnoxious demand, the teen told him that, if he did not, she would report that he had molested her.

But just as importantly, women stand to gain.

Protection of sexual assault and abuse victims should not and cannot be a party line issue. Both predators and victims come from both sides of the aisle. In order for the #MeToo movement to succeed, it must be a movement of all just and moral people, not an identity movement. Kavanaugh’s grilling sent a clear message to the nation — nobody is above the law and nobody is too powerful to be held accountable for sexual abuse. Kavanaugh’s confirmation sent an equally important message: the pursuit of sexual abusers will be done thoroughly and fairly in the pursuit of a just society.

About the Author
Dr. Dan Jacobson is a psychologist in private practice, specializing in work with teens and young adults. He is the coordinator of the Mesos Chatan Hadrachat Hatanim course run by The Eden Center and Eretz Hemdah. Dan made aliyah from New York in 2005. He and his family live in Gush Etzion.
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