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Shree Paradkar: 'Believe Women’ is also about presumption of innocence

False accusations are wrong and damaging, and they undercut real cases of sexual violence. But they are given importance that far outweighs their existence.

Former Progressive Conservative leader Patrick Brown stepped down last month amid sexual misconduct allegations from two women. He has denied the allegations, calling them "troubling."

AARON VINCENT ELKAIM / THE CANADIAN PRESS

Former Progressive Conservative leader Patrick Brown stepped down last month amid sexual misconduct allegations from two women. He has denied the allegations, calling them "troubling."

To hear people outraged by lack of “due process” in the recent wave of sex assault allegations against high-profile men, you would think women are merely duplicitous creatures seeking any chance to trip a man on his upward path to success in a burbling fit of malevolence.

Women used to be accused of using their vaginas to climb their way to the top. Sluts! Now they’re being accused of using them to bring down the guys at the top. Bitches!

And, to rub salt in the wound, they get to laugh as they do it — the anonymity offered them all but guarantees it.

In reality, the last time a definitive trend of false accusations of sexual assault was established was when white women used it as a cover for their consensual but taboo relationships with Black men in the last century. 

Those accusations got Black men lynched. Safe to say that “due process” back then was indifferent to lynching.

False accusations are wrong and damaging, and they undercut real cases of sexual violence. But they are given importance that far outweighs their existence; they account for between 2 per cent and 8 per cent of complaints, research in North America, the U.K. and Australia shows. To put that in context, only 5 per cent of sexual assaults were reported to police in 2014, according to the Canadian Women’s Foundation.

Across society, the sexist trope of lying, opportunistic women is like gold: alluring, malleable and passed on from generation to generation.

It might explain why the takeaway from “Believe women” is mixed. The literalists take it as a demand to suspend all critical thought and sound the alarm bells.

A more reasoned understanding suggests that “Believe women” asks us to discard the reflexive disbelief of those who complain — simply because they are women. “Believe women” seeks presumption of innocence from ulterior motives.

With the #MeToo movement, the first signs of cracks began to appear in the thus-far insurmountable walls of disbelief.

A few women, finding courage in numbers, began to tentatively raise their hands.

Some women publicly shared “Sh---y Men” lists — more like “Be careful” lists, naming men from media, from academia, from the music industry. Some of those lists were quickly made private after threats of legal action.

Some women came to mainstream media to speak out against politicians.

Out came threats — as in the case of the woman who accused former federal cabinet minister Kent Hehr of inappropriate sexual remarks.

News outlets can’t afford to be libelous, making it very much in their interest to be fair and journalistically accurate rather than indulge in hearsay. Where the courts fail, journalism with due diligence can fill the gaps.

Newsrooms are also reluctant about acquiescing to requests for anonymity; leaning on it as a tool puts their own credibility on the line. Yet, that anonymity is likely the saving grace for the two women who spoke to CTV about their experiences with Patrick Brown, leading to his ouster as Ontario’s Progressive Conservative Party leader.

Accusations are not above investigation, but not all accusations need to be tested in a court of law.

Neither the women nor CTV sought the sacking of Brown, who has denied the allegations. It was political due process, in his case, a lack of support within his party, that led to it.

In the case of TVO’s Steve Paikin, who is facing a sexual harassment allegation, which he dismissed as “pure fiction” in his first public statement Tuesday, it’s corporate due process that allows him to stay on while a third party investigates the accusation.

So, how do you offer proof of violation?

There are rape kits (not always in stock), for cases where the assault is violent enough to be medically established.

However, kits cannot establish consent or lack thereof.

How about the countless, everyday violations women endure?

Man gropes you on the subway. You want to complain. Where’s the proof?

Guy who interviews you for a job has his gaze firmly fixed on your breasts. You want to complain. Where’s the proof?

These then are the guardians of “due process:”

  • A legal system ill-equipped to handle cases of sexual violence and misconduct;
  • A workplace where HR exists to protect the company from employee problems;
  • A society more comfortable with allowing a multitude of women to be manipulated, intimidated or violated than holding men accountable.

Through all this, unheard still, are the voices of women who were never privileged to begin with: neither the privilege of fame, nor of education, access to journalists or know-how of digital platforms and social media.

Presumption of innocence is a foundational pillar of our legal system. It is not under attack. But the disingenuous hand-wringing around it aims to send a message to all women: keep your mouths shut.

We won’t.

Shree Paradkar writes about discrimination and identity. You can follow her @shreeparadkar

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