White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders was asked last fall how President Trump could indict then-Senator Al Franken for his inappropriate sexual conduct given the numerous similar allegations against him. “Senator Franken admitted wrongdoing,” she responded. “The President hasn’t.”
When Republican Roy Moore was accused of being a child sexual predator, Trump used the same logic to justify his continued support for the then-Senate candidate, reminding the media that Moore “totally denies it” and “says it didn’t happen.” And, most recently, when now-former White House staff secretary Rob Porter called domestic violence allegations by his two ex-wives “simply false,” Trump called the corroborated stories, which included a photograph of a blackened eye, “mere allegations”—adding that he felt Porter was being “falsely accused.”
Trump has expected the same benefit of the doubt from others who assess the numerous allegations against him—by flatly denying that he has ever groped, grabbed or molested unwilling women, the President expects that he will be believed, or, at the very least, that he will create sufficient doubt as to the veracity of the allegations so that he won’t be held accountable.
Turns out that Trump is largely right—denial works. The president is not alone in considering an accused perpetrator’s denial as the end of the story; his administration’s remarks over the past years merely echoed a dominant American attitude.
We want to believe the denials of men who are accused of doing bad things, particularly bad things against women. A glance at several high profile celebrity domestic violence cases illustrates the prevalence of this attitude. When male celebrities deny abuse, even in the face of overwhelming evidence, we largely choose to believe them—and their careers largely remain unaffected.
Boxing icon Floyd Mayweather pled guilty pleas to multiple acts of domestic violence—but contends that because there are no pictures, everything is a mere “allegation.” He has since been the highest paid athlete for many years running. Instead of holding Mayweather accountable, the culture at-large has lined his pockets and barely discusses his history as a serial abuser.
Charlie Sheen is another chronic abuser whose denials, in spite of multiple criminal convictions, have allowed him to succeed in the media industry. In one case, he pled guilty to third degree assault against his wife based on allegations that included grabbing her neck, holding a knife to it and threatening to kill her. Despite these convictions, Sheen has maintained his innocence and sought to discredit the victims—claiming the women who accuse him of abuse are “sad trolls” with ulterior motives or drug abusers who could not be trusted. Shortly after one high-profile violent incident with his wife Brooke Mueller, Sheen was offered a two-year contract to return to Two and a Half Men and earn a reported $1.8 million per episode—until he committed the ultimate crime, calling his boss at CBS a “clown.” With that, he was fired from the show.
More recently, actor Johnny Depp’s relationship with ex-wife Amber Heard came under national scrutiny. Heard alleged Depp of abuse, and a photo of her black eye dominated the cover of People magazine in June 2016. She came forward with corroborated claims of assaults and threats; Depp flatly denied all allegations, volleying back claims that Heard fabricated the stories to get a better divorce settlement. These allegations never got a full legal airing, because the case settled out of court, but in the meantime Depp’s career has flourished, with another Pirates of the Caribbean movie released in 2017 and four roles in films set to be released this year.
To accept denial as a final word on any claim is, first and foremost, a bad way to assess its truthfulness. A full assessment of the available facts is the way disputes have been settled through the ages, and the denials of the accused cannot end our inquiries. While we should listen to accused perpetrators as we take a hard look at all the evidence, they have strong incentives to deny allegations. Even in a domestic violence case, which often takes place behind closed doors, evidence often exists that corroborates the important stories that are told. In the case of Rob Porter, for example, his ex-wife Jennifer Willoughby sought and obtained a protection order, showing her evidence met a probable danger standard. There is also the now-infamous photograph. Both of his ex-wives have friends to whom they spoke contemporaneously about the violence.
But to accept a denial as proof of an alleged perpetrator’s innocence also perpetuates the dynamics of domestic abuse. Abusive relationships rarely involve only physical violence; instead, an abusive partner often psychologically torments his or her victim as well. One of Porter’s ex-wives wrote in the Washington Post about his degrading tirades that chipped away at her self-confidence. Such belittling behavior is common in abusive relationships, and a refusal to credit a survivor’s story merely mimics that behavior. It discourages other victims from coming forward—and it re-victimizes those who do just when we should support them for taking the brave step to tell their stories.
Incentivizing those accused of abuse to deny allegations against them discourages people from taking responsibility for their actions. Instead, we need to encourage perpetrators to be accountable for their own wrongdoing—and to make sincere efforts toward rehabilitation. Those who take such steps should be thoughtfully supported in their efforts to return to their jobs and to enjoy public approval. Only by incentivizing honest admissions by those who have committed these acts can our society to take steps toward eradicating this behavior.
Dismissing women’s stories as lacking credibility, or, even worse, as being irrelevant, sounds a lot like our attitude prior to the #MeToo movement—and these months of revelations by women who have finally dared to reveal stories of sexual harassment should have, among other things, taught us as a society to know better and to treat women with more respect.
We can no longer allow denials to be the end of the story when it comes to domestic violence. It is up to us to push back on Trump’s unquestioning belief in a perpetrator’s denial and the shared reprieve others find in their defenses as well. These denials should be only one of many other factors in our assessment. We must look deeply and thoughtfully at the evidence and listen to the victim’s stories. Only then can we begin to take appropriate action.
We can do better. We can start by taking the testimonies of survivors at least as seriously as the defenses of their alleged abusers.