Why #BelieveAllWomen is Dangerously Anti-Science

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“Can you remember something that didn’t happen?”

The question was first posed to me as an undergraduate psychology major. “Of course not,” I thought.

But after being confronted by research on and real life examples of the fallibility and malleability of human memory, I realized, to my horror, just how unreliable our memories can be, especially when it comes to the traumatic.

Sometimes it’s harmless – like when participants in a research study I conducted incorrectly remembered me reciting them certain vocabulary words when I had actually recited related, but different words.

Other times, these false memories can be far more devastating – like rape survivors inaccurately remembering what their rapist looked like, and accusing the wrong person in a police lineup. (Yes, this has actually happened.)

Even more troubling, fairly recently, there were multiple instances of people retrieving memories of child abuse with the “assistance” of their therapists, although the abuse had never happened.

See, back when I was getting a master’s degree in counseling, I was repeatedly warned to never imply or suggest to my clients that they had been abused. We were (rightfully) taught to word questions about potential abuse very carefully.

“People are suggestible,” one professor warned us. Of course, if a client shared memories of abuse (or even recovered them on their own), we were trained to express empathy and offer validation and support – but not to automatically accept every aspect of the memory or to pass judgment on their alleged abuser.

Fast forward to today. After the emergence of the #MeToo movement and the coattail-riding #BelieveWomen movement, it seems that the kind of scrutinous, balanced approach to understanding abuse allegations that I was trained in is on its way out the door. Its replacement? A careless, blanket acceptance of the veracity of any allegation of assault and abuse of a woman, as well as the condemnation of the alleged aggressor.

This Isn’t Just Bad, It’s Anti-Science

Ignoring the reality that false memories happen (which means false accusations of abuse and assault can also happen) not only damages the credibility of the fields of counseling and psychology, but also hurts the actual survivors of assault and abuse.

Accusing those who question the veracity or reliability of certain abuse or assault allegations of “sexism” or of “blaming the victim” focuses the public’s attention on the victimhood rather than the strength of survivors of actual assault or abuse. And it infantilizes these survivors, while making an outright mockery of the pursuits of both truth and justice.

Ironically, many mental health professionals who make a point of calling individuals who have been abused or assaulted “survivors” send a troubling implicit message: that these women are weak, perpetual “victims.” By shouting down those who mention the reality of false accusations (since this reality will supposedly “trigger” survivors), counselors do a disservice.

Rather, in my own professional opinion, an abuse/assault survivor who is triggered by mention of the real phenomenon of false memories might benefit from some distress tolerance skills, and a therapeutic reminder that their experience is unique and is not necessarily being referenced as a false memory.

Going forward, I also suspect that bias against law enforcement and the legal system in my field will also be worsened, since criminal investigations of abuse and assault will eventually be viewed as unnecessary. After all, if everyone must #BelieveWomen completely, 100 percent of the time, then figuring out where the evidence (or lack thereof) points kind of seems like an unnecessarily traumatizing waste of time and taxpayer money, doesn’t it?

It is a fact that human memory is messy, often suggestible, and even malleable. But acknowledging this scientific fact of human existence is no longer politically expedient, nor sufficiently progressive for 2018.

The views expressed here are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of CatholicVote.org

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About Author

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Virginia Davison Madden is a graduate of Belmont Abbey College (B.A., Psychology) and Regent University (M.A., Clinical Mental Health Counseling). As a mental health counselor and life coach, she has experience helping hundreds of youth and adults cope with and overcome difficult life circumstances, as well as behavioral and emotional difficulties. Virginia has also written scripts for Holy Heroes' best-selling Glory Stories audio saint stories, as well as creating the free online Spiritual Adoption Prayer Adventure. She additionally contributes to the Holy Heroes blog.

9 Comments

  1. This is an oddly timed article. Are you prepared to make the same claims regarding alleged victims of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church? CatholicVote has published a lot of articles about the recent investigations in Pennsylvania, etc., and it’s great to see strong statements condemning all clerical sexual abuse. Yet for some reason, no one felt the need to point out that alleged victims in Pennsylvania might not be accurate in their claims? I’m sorry, but this reads like a fishy excuse to defend continued support for Kavanaugh.

    • When systematic abuse is demonstrated, the credibility of individual claims increases. While it is likely some claims in the Penn scandal are not true, enough have sufficient evidence, up to and including admissions of guilt, to lend credence to the sytematic issue. One must also try to avoid allowing individual priests with less credible claims from being caught in the dragnet.

      Comparisons between that situation and the Kavanaugh politi al circus are hollw. The circumstances are fundamentally different.

    • Is it even possible that some alleged victims of clergy sex crimes are lying? It is fact that many of these allegations are unconfirmed, since the abuser has long since died and cannot defend themselves. It is possible, some alleged victims are looking for easy money from the Church. I am not saying that some Priests were abusers. Some were. However, I also know human nature. When the Catholic Church hands out money as compensation, some people will take advantage.

    • There is no comparison between accusations that are made within a reasonable period of time, thoroughly investigated, and reasonably proven to be true vs. those that are made decades after they allegedly occurred, seeminly released in the eleventh hours so as to have — either coincidentally or strategically — the maximum political effect, and not investigated at all. To believe the former category of accusations makes logical, moral, and legal sense. To categorically believe the latter, especially with a great degree of conviction, is, simply folly. You may suspect one side or the other, but a high degree of conviction is just not possible. I choose to suspend judgment in the Kavanaugh-Ford allegations, but to ignore their problematic nature or pretend that there is little that casts at least potential doubt upon them is a baffling position to take. The truths elucidated by this article confirm why 30-year old crimes with no physical evidence are nearly impossible to prove in court.

  2. No, it’s a great time for the article to remind us of false memory syndrome. Remember the daycare cases? That is when we found out about false memory. I don’t doubt the accusations in the Church can be part of this as well, not everyone but some of them. Especially when money is involved to pay off the accusers.

  3. As the mother of two young men, I have shared the concerns presented in your article. We live in a time when an accusation by a woman equals guilt by a man, and that is chilling. #believeallwomen is no more just than #believeallmen. As to the earlier comments regarding abuse in the Church — the reports are not a collection of unsubstantiated accusation taken as truth, but rather a heartbreaking, detailed presentation of evidence painstakingly gathered to corraborate those accusations. As Ms. Madden’s article suggests, the #metoo and #believeallwomen movements seem to be promoting an environment where that same kind of careful, full, forensic investigation is crippled by calls of sexism. The final victim here will be the truth, which is tragic for any woman who was truly assaulted and any man who was falsely accused.

  4. Theodore Seeber on

    I greatly agree that this is anti-science, even anti-rational. But I also agree it’s necessary for a major change in the definition of the word “consent”.

    The sexual revolution has given us the false impression that anything we consent to can’t hurt us. That is an equally dangerous concept. I would like to see a discussion on changing the definition of consent to *exclude abuse*. Abuse of power, BDSM, unhealthy sexual practices, attacks on younger people by violating parental or instructor roles, NONE of this can be consented to validly.

  5. Kudos for Bernard… you draw a vitally accurate picture. When I began reading this article I was not sure if there was a target. However, as I continued it became abundantly clear it was about Kavanaugh. When the “hearing” was disgracefully played out last Thursday all Hell broke loose. The polarization was so obvious when the GOP had to HIRE a prosecutor from Arizona to interview Dr. Ford. That should not have been allowed because eye contact from senator to accuser is a vital part of the process of getting to the truth.. Senator Flake was so fed up with the circus he asked for a one week pause to let the FBI perform another investigation of the recent charges. Reluctantly our liar-in-chief who said “the FBI does not do this work”.

    I sincerely feel for Brett Kavanaugh and his family given the pain of all these investigations and vetting, however I must give some credence to Dr. Ford and her family for exposing herself to ridicule and threats. I believe Kavanaugh showed a political side when he shouted calling Ford and the Liberals performing a conspiracy to taint his past so that he would not be promoted to SCOTUS.

    Lets just hope this charade ends on a positive note.

  6. I have spoken to men in business positions who have admitted privately that, if they are in a position where they are looking to hire someone with whom they will work closely, they will no longer be willing to even consider hiring a woman, because of the danger of false accusations of sexual abuse. They know how difficult it is normally to defend oneself against a lie. If the woman must always be believed, it becomes impossible. So, rather than protecting and empowering women, this #BelieveAllWomen is actually hurting women in the workplace.

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