Nancy Pelosi has seen the light — or, more likely, the glare of a backlash ignited when she defended a fellow Democrat, Representative John Conyers, against multiple allegations of sexual misconduct.
After standing up for Conyers and calling him “an icon” on “Meet the Press,” Pelosi now says that after speaking with one of his accusers, Melanie Sloan, who worked for Conyers on the Judiciary Committee in the mid-1990s, “I find the behavior Ms. Sloan described unacceptable and disappointing. I believe what Ms. Sloan has told me.”
Just a few days ago, the House minority leader seemed to dismiss the women who say Conyers sexually harassed them. “I don’t know who they are,” she said to host Chuck Todd. “Do you?”
This is not the great cultural reckoning we were promised, yet it is a turn we had to know was inevitable. When it comes to sexual misconduct allegations, women may be believed, but only to a point.
Since last month’s New York Times investigation into mogul Harvey Weinstein’s alleged serial sexual misconduct, other victims have been sharing their own nightmarish stories about sexual harassment and assault. Still, it was always a matter of time before “the Weinstein effect” hit public resistance. Now there seems to be an unspoken sense that the sexual predation net has been cast too wide and is snagging “good guys” like Conyers and Senator Al Franken — or men with powerful, outspoken friends.
That’s what happened this month when Lena Dunham leapt to shield her pal Murray Miller from a rape allegation. Actress Aurora Perrineau says Miller, who worked on Dunham’s HBO show “Girls,” sexually assaulted her in 2012, when she was 17. Miller denied the charges, but Dunham and former “Girls” showrunner Jenni Konner went all-in, blaming the “enthusiasm and zeal” of this galvanizing moment for “taking down the wrong targets.”
“While our first instinct is to listen to every woman’s story,” they wrote in a statement, “our insider knowledge of Murray’s situation makes us confident that sadly this accusation is one of the 3 percent of assault cases that are misreported every year.”
The “insider knowledge” is that Miller is Dunham and Konner’s friend. That was enough for them to shade Perrineau’s charge as a false accusation. Quickly slammed on social media, Dunham, a situational feminist who often pontificates before thinking, apologized, saying it was “absolutely the wrong time to come forward with such a statement.” She stopped short, however, of apologizing to Perrineau.
While we generally expect men to doubt the veracity of sexual assault accusations, women are just as guilty of making excuses for men they respect. Singer Jill Scott and “Cosby Show” costar Phylicia Rashad initially defended Bill Cosby against dozens of allegations that he drugged and sexually assaulted dozens of women. Actress Kate Winslet has spoken about her “extraordinary working experience” with Roman Polanski and Woody Allen. As an actor, she said, “You just have to step away and say, I don’t know anything, really, and whether any of it is true or false.”
This month, 36 women signed and released a letter in Franken’s defense. They called his behavior toward Leeann Tweeden, who accused Franken of groping and forcibly kissing her in 2006, “stupid and foolish.” Still, they said they “never experienced any inappropriate behavior” while working with him during his “Saturday Night Live” years.
Here’s the real reckoning we’re grappling with — too many people still aren’t ready to believe victims of sexual assault, especially women. Since the Weinstein story broke, we’ve been inundated with accusations forcing us to contend with how we implicitly or explicitly enable predatory behavior around us. It’s also a shock to realize that we never really know what someone may be capable of doing.
Protecting and supporting victims of sexual assault doesn’t come with an expiration date, nor should the rules change when the accused is someone we’ve long admired, liked, or even loved. If this a moment of seismic change, “believe women” must be more than a trending hashtag. It is one of the best tools for dismantling the steel curtain that gives cover to perpetrators, and it lets survivors know that whether they find their voices today, tomorrow, or decades from now, they will be heard — and believed.Renée Graham can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @reneeygraham.