Sen. Kirsten Gillbrand (D–N.Y.), one of several contenders for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, weighed in on the controversy surrounding Virginia Lt. Governor Justin Fairfax (D), who stands accused of sexually assaulting a woman named Vanessa Tyson in 2004. Gillibrand tweeted:
I support Dr. Tyson. She showed enormous courage in coming forward, and her very credible claims require investigation. In this country, institutional bias stacks against survivors, for the powerful. We have to support survivors first so their claims can be fully investigated.— Kirsten Gillibrand (@SenGillibrand) February 7, 2019
Note Gillibrand's caution: She leaves room for the possibility of doubt, or for an investigation to reach a different conclusion. She offers Tyson "support." Not belief.
This is a bit out of character. In other tweets about various sexual misconduct accusations, Gillibrand has offered not just support for the alleged victims but a kind of faith that they are telling the truth—and an insistence that everyone else do likewise. She has repeatedly stated that we must "believe women." Here are just a few examples:
I encourage you to keep raising your voices. Your stories matter. We will listen. We will believe you.— Kirsten Gillibrand (@SenGillibrand) December 7, 2017
The fundamental questions we must answer right now:
Do we value women?
Do we believe women?
Do we give them the opportunity to tell their story? To be heard?
Will we ensure they get the justice they deserve?
We must fight to be a country that answers, "Yes," every time.— Kirsten Gillibrand (@SenGillibrand) September 20, 2018
Senate Republicans aren't even pretending to consider Dr. Ford's testimony. Rushing a vote sends a clear signal: They don't value survivors. They don't believe women. https://t.co/gwQUr9b3Ci— Kirsten Gillibrand (@SenGillibrand) September 25, 2018
When Dr. Blasey Ford testifies, I'll be there. I'll have her back, and so will millions of women all across this country. America's women are listening, we're paying attention, and we believe her. pic.twitter.com/34NwVpI4cp— Kirsten Gillibrand (@SenGillibrand) September 26, 2018
Women are watching as the most powerful people in this country disbelieve, distrust and minimize their experiences.
We need to answer this: Are we a country that values women? Do we believe women when they tell us about sexual trauma? Do the stories of survivors matter to us?— Kirsten Gillibrand (@SenGillibrand) October 4, 2018
In fact, immediately following her tweet about Fairfax, Gillibrand lamented that we generally do not believe survivors:
I said this last night to @jonlovett, and here's why: Institutions—colleges, the military, the NFL—don't believe survivors, and shame or retaliate against survivors, to protect their own. We have to support survivors and take allegations seriously or there will never be justice.— Kirsten Gillibrand (@SenGillibrand) February 7, 2019
Gillibrand is correct about the Fairfax situation: Offering support for purported victims of sexual misconduct is the right thing to do, and should be noncontroversial. Everyone should take their claims seriously, show them respect, and refrain from ignoring or dismissing them out of hand. Many survivors' advocacy groups are not satisfied with mere support, of course. They proceed from the flawed notion that there are virtually no false accusations of sexual assault, and insist that victims should automatically be believed. This is a far less reasonable proposition, and one that has made the adjudication of sexual misconduct—particularly on college campuses—more prone to overreach.
What I'd like to know from Gillibrand: Does she stand by her insistence that we believe every accusation, or is her position now that we support accusers while their claims are investigated? Because those are two very different things.
Photo Credit: AARON P. BERNSTEIN/REUTERS/Newscom