It's difficult to prove sexual assault — much less harassment — in a court of law, especially in a case of "she said, he said." Because the "he" is innocent until proven guilty, the "she" bears the burden of proof. (We choose to use as default language "man" for the accused and "woman" for the victim, because while men are also victims of sexual assault, the rate of incidence for men compared to women is very small.) Having documentation and corroborating witnesses helps, as does finding other women to tell similar stories. But lacking hard evidence puts many women in the role of defendant.
The problem turns even more daunting when the man holds a position of power, such as a supervisor, a senator, a celebrity or a Catholic priest. The refrain of "no one will believe you" rings in the ears of women who have been harmed by such men. Often, the women are not even sure they should be believed, especially if they fault themselves (wrongly) for the actions of someone else.
Right now, at least, it does feel as if women are being heard. Matt Lauer of NBC's "Today" show, was fired a day after a woman colleague said he had exhibited inappropriate behavior toward her. From all accounts, NBC executives acted quickly to listen to the woman and to let Lauer go.
His on-air partner, Savannah Guthrie, summed up the issue well. She called Lauer "my dear, dear friend and my partner." But she went on to say "we are grappling with a dilemma that so many people have faced these past few weeks: How do you reconcile your love for someone with the revelation that they have behaved badly? … This reckoning that so many organizations have been going through is important, it's long overdue and it must result in workplaces where all women, all people, feel safe and respected."
We agree. Women, children, anyone who has been abused or who has felt some sexual pressure by a person in power must be shown the respect of our trust. They must feel confident that if they tell their stories, people will listen. Moreover, they must be able to draw from that sense of public trust in finding the strength to push back when faced with an ugly situation.