sexual harassment = salem witch trials?

Accusations of Sexual Assault: Today’s Salem Witch Trials?

I can write this because I am a woman. A man would be afraid to touch it…

More than 400 years ago, nearly 100 years before ratification of the U.S. Constitution, mass hysteria took hold throughout the Massachusetts Bay Colony, most famously in Salem Village, outside of Boston. Almost 70 years ago the same fever gripped the roughly decade-long McCarthyism era. Today it’s the growing chorus of women accusing men of alleged sexual assault. These three events share many characteristics: mostly unfounded and unproven allegations; no consequences for accusers making untrue claims; and, essentially, no recourse for men accused of alleged sexual “crimes.”

Men today who are accused of some ill-defined sexual impropriety that in many cases allegedly occurred one, two, three, even four decades ago, are assumed to be guilty simply because a woman said so (and let’s be candid: nearly all accusers are women and the accused, men). These men have been effectively deprived of rights enshrined in the U.S. Constitution, including the presumption of innocence. They are often publicly tarred and feathered before an accuser’s accusation has even had time to land at the top of that day’s newscast.

We are taught today that the vigilantism characterizing the Salem witch trials and the McCarthyism era were fueled by hysteria, prejudice and lawlessness. So how exactly are many of today’s accusers any different from accusers during those chaotic and shameful times? And who in our enlightened era is speaking up for the rights of those men accused, many of whom have been effectively buried by an avalanche of unsubstantiated allegations splashed across the evening news? Nobody.

Frighteningly, the silence is deafening from journalists, our supposed first responders to separate an allegation from a fact. Equally disturbing, to me at least, is that our nation’s so-called progressive and liberal women, instead of calling out this travesty of justice and standing up for the rights of their brothers, are instead cheering on the accusers at the head of the finger-pointing line. It’s a free-for-all world where anyone can accuse anyone of anything, with no fear of being called to account if proven wrong.

Sex sells, and sells very well indeed. Our culture today is saturated with it: married sex (or lack thereof), living-together sex, geriatric sex, gay sex, bisexual sex, transgender sex, self-sex (did I miss anything?). And whether we admit it or not (ratings provide actual data), as a culture we sit salaciously in front of our idiot boxes hanging on the words spoken by earnest-looking anchors eager to be the first to spill the beans on who did what to whom, where they did it and, if possible, in what position. I rarely even hear the word “allegedly” anymore; this critical word, protector of the truth, seems to have disappeared from the English language, just when it’s needed the most.

To be clear: Rape is a violent felony and should be treated as such in the eyes of the law. Accusations by some accusers may eventually be proven to be such felonies. A comedian mugging more than a decade ago in front of a camera, pretending to grope a woman fast asleep, fully clothed and wearing a flak jacket to boot, is not. Poor taste, yes. A crime, no. A reason to force a respected liberal U.S. senator to step down from his seat in the U.S. Senate: no. In these rancorous, partisan times, Al Franken’s vote was precious to Democrats. You don’t see Republicans dethroning representatives committed to advancing their political agenda because of a bunch of decades-old non-criminal allegations. It’s just us liberals, shooting ourselves in our collective foot yet again. The old adage “cutting off your nose to spite your face” comes to mind.

I’m frequently told that this sexual harassment hysteria should be exempted from protections in the law because it’s impossible to determine the truth in a “he said/she said” situation. I beg to differ. Divorce and family custody courts somehow manage to navigate through the noise to reach equitable conclusions under similar circumstances. To say it’s impossible is to take another step down the road to mass hysteria and the absence of reason. And, as history has shown us, it’s so easy to go there, all it takes is enough of us to turn away and focus on something else.

So the upshot is that the lives of the men so accused have been ruined in this firestorm of vigilantism, apparently to the delight of progressive women cheering them on. But who are the losers? Young men and women, for one. Have you noticed that, aside from the pop singer Taylor Swift, the great majority of accusers are older women like we are? An allegation 30 or 40 years old effectively seals that deal. Their stated reasons are varied, of course, almost certainly including some rooted in self-interest: the role not won, the surge of personal power from bringing down a powerful man (in this environment accusers, assuming a martyr’s stance, have little to lose and everything to gain), the chance to grab the brass ring for their Warholian 15 minutes of fame.

But assuming that most accusers believe this travesty of justice is for the greater good, exactly how is it a good thing? It’s shown our young people, the country’s literal future, that protections in our Constitution might sound good on paper but don’t apply and can be easily cast aside if enough people are accused of a hot-button, high-profile “crime,” whether true or not. As for young people in today’s workplace, let’s not pretend that unfounded allegations against men (and the lack of options for countering them) are somehow promoting equality and collegiality between men and women at work.

I was discussing this with a close friend’s son-in-law, a corporate director. He told me he’s minimizing his contact with the women he works with. He says he’s afraid he could lose his job, his source of livelihood for his family, if even one of them charges him with some version of assault, inappropriate touching, “uncomfortable” feelings (whatever that means), even when he’s done absolutely nothing wrong. He understands, practically but sadly, that it doesn’t matter whether an accusation is true or not.

A former communications director and friend of mine took this a step farther, predicting that men will be less likely to hire women in the first place, that the risk is too great that they could destroy their careers with retaliatory allegations or innuendo (bad performance review?).

But perhaps worst of all it tragically diminishes the plights of women who are actually raped and brutalized. They’ve been tossed into the same bucket as a woman who didn’t even know until 40 years later that a comedian had shot a gag photo of her while she was sleeping and covered head-to-toe and wearing a flak jacket.

Photo by Will Shirley on Unsplash

Marilyn Davin

View posts by Marilyn Davin
Marilyn Davin is a writer, political columnist, and former news reporter who lives in the Bay Area.

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