With more and more sexual assault and harassment claims piling up, we are inevitably seeing backlash. Some are worried that a witch hunt has begun, that all of a sudden we will believe every accusation we hear regardless of evidence, that more and more women will falsely accuse men whom they simply dislike.
The importance of the presumption of innocence
Our society and justice system, they will say, are founded on a presumption of innocence for all. People should be assumed to be innocent unless they are proven otherwise. This presumption of innocence protects us all from authoritarian regimes and arbitrary government crackdowns. It is essential to our individual liberties.
These concerns are certainly legitimate. The presumption of innocence is an important part of our society, an important part of maintaining and protecting our civil liberties, as I’m sure we all agree.
The folly of the presumption of innocence
But it is also true that our presumption of innocence can and does have insidious effects. It often works to maintain covert power dynamics that serve the status quo, that keeps criminals in power. It is part of the system that fuels and enables sexual misconduct. Because every time we presume the accused is innocent, we also presume the accuser is lying.
We know that:
- Sexual assault is pervasive and dangerously under-addressed throughout our society. Men consistently go unpunished for their crimes. It is a major, systemic issue that so far has not been sufficiently addressed.
- Unlike murder or theft, many instances of sexual misconduct are inherently unprovable. There is no incontrovertible evidence. It happens in backrooms when everyone has left and often leaves no trace. It boils down to one person’s word against another’s.
In such circumstances, the “presumption of innocence” paradigm asks victims to prove things that are often unprovable. It reliably leads to many guilty men going unpunished and remaining in positions of power where they will repeat their crimes over and over. It creates a justice system that prioritizes justice for the falsely accused over justice for the assaulted.
The presumption of truthful accusation
If we want to meaningfully address sexual assault, we have to find a way to honor and balance both our presumption of innocence (which protects our civil liberties) with our presumption of truthful accusation (which acknowledges that many in our society are the victims of unseen, unprovable crimes). Where our presumption of innocence acknowledges that everyone deserves due process, our presumption of truthful accusation acknowledges that many crimes are not provable by due process, and yet remain crimes for which people can and should be held accountable.
These are two conflicting truths, two opposing sides of a polarity. Both presuming innocence and expecting accountability for unprovable crimes are essential components of justice, essential parts of creating an accountable and equitable society. We have to find a way to hold both in balance with one another, resisting the temptation that one must win out, that one is more important.
And the first step in doing so is believing women, who for so long have gone unseen, unheard, and unacknowledged by our conceptions and systems of “justice.”