The Patriarchy’s Perfect Weapon: ‘But What If She’s Lying?’

Nowhere in this country do we have an apparatus that is set up to believe those among us who are sexually harassed, abused, raped, when we tell our stories. There is no perfect case. But there is patriarchy.

Nowhere in this country do we have an apparatus that is set up to believe those among us who are sexually harassed, abused, raped, when we tell our stories. There is no perfect case. But there is patriarchy. Shutterstock

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: But what if she’s lying?

That’s the gist of yet another take on yet another high-profile rape case, this time in the Daily Beast, whose writer Cathy Young trotted it out as the least counterintuitive of all possible premises when it comes to sexual violence.

This time, “she” is Columbia University student Emma Sulkowicz, who has been physically carrying a dorm room mattress around campus in protest of her college’s handling (or lack thereof) of the rape case she brought against a Columbia senior. But “she” could be any number of other women, at any number of other American universities, who have had the courage to come forward to recount stories of sexual violence and seek redress from the collegiate entities that, ostensibly, are meant to ensure safety on campus—only to have their stories doubted because, well, doubt is the default when it comes to the way people hear stories of sexual violence. Because it is entirely too easy to suggest that if “she” were telling the truth, “she” would have done x, or y, or z, to prove that something really happened.

Of course, “she” needn’t be “she.” She might be he, or they. But one thing is consistent: Nowhere in this country do we have an apparatus that is set up to believe those among us who are sexually harassed, abused, raped, when we tell our stories.

Instead, we nitpick and hand-wring and wait and wait and wait for that perfect case, as if finding just the right scenario is the only thing gumming up the ever-so-slowly turning wheels of American justice. Oh sure, when we find that perfect case, we’ll be more than willing to rally behind a survivor. It’s really just that simple! Don’t get all bent out of shape about it!

The right case. The one where the cops were called immediately (but not too soon, you don’t want it to look like this is a set-up). The one where a completely sober victim (a white, cisgender woman who has never before had penetrative sex) consented quickly to a rape kit (but not too eagerly or too reluctantly, with just the right air of damaged comportment appropriate to a real rape victim). The one with the right kind of physical evidence (real rape victims immediately bag and label their clothing, and are careful to preserve bodily fluids and fingerprints with the skills of a CSI forensics expert). The one with records of text messages and, ideally, a phone recording in which the accused rapist admits wrongdoing (victims should, of course, take care not to be too confrontational in obtaining these messages, because crazy bitches are always asking for it.) The one without a promising athletic career at stake (won’t someone, anyone, think about the football program!?). The one with this, the one with that, the one with …

There is no perfect case.

But there is patriarchy. A perfect, many-armed monster, which lives and thrives in this perfect universe of its own design. And it wields the perfect weapon: rape culture.

The longer we wait for the perfect case to try in the court of public opinion, the more opportunities this many-armed monster has to craft its ongoing attack on justice, to perpetuate a culture of shame and skepticism that silences those who would challenge it.

The monster is smart, and it knows where and when to hide and when to strike. Of course it does. The world is its playground, its lair, a welcoming cavern outfitted with comforting amenities like the phrase, But what if she’s lying.

They say the greatest trick the devil ever pulled is convincing the world he doesn’t exist; so too, this many-armed monster rarely manifests with gnashing teeth and bloody claws. Rather, the monster looks a bit like a beloved American film director with quirky views on modern romance. It looks like a goofy, all-American dad. It looks like a sports star.

The monster moves with a kind of vicious grace, countering every attack with cool, collected reserve. Just, you know, asking honest, innocent questions: Why was she wearing that skirt? What was she doing out so late? Didn’t he find her attractive? Wasn’t he aroused? But wasn’t he already in prison? Why did they have so much to drink? Why did they keep dating? What’s up with those text messages?

Couldn’t it all just have been … a misunderstanding?

We excuse, or even perhaps like, imperfection in our accused rapists. The monster offers us so many rejoinders to smooth out their stories, a call-and-response to any survivor’s attempt to define the terms of their own experience. Maybe they were just a little confused? Isn’t it easy to misinterpret signals in the bedroom? Couldn’t it just have been an awkward, bumbling attempt at romance? Don’t we all know that the human libido is an unpredictable thing?

From our victims, though, we demand perfection. We offer empowering language to them—we offer them terms like “survivor,” a good, strong word that hisses and strikes at the monster. It is one that I myself claim, perhaps in an effort to appear … more perfect. Less cowed by the monster. Less willing to succumb to its brutal grip.

But there are also, indeed, rape victims. Not just rape survivors, not just those of us who have experienced sexual violence and abuse and come out on the other side with the word “survival” on our lips.

There are those among us who do not survive, either in the literal or figurative sense of the word, the violence done to them. People who are irreparably bruised and broken by rape and abuse and harassment and sexual assault, and who are silenced and condemned by this many-armed, all-powerful beast of patriarchy. Those people need not be “survivors” to be loved and respected and believed.

There are no perfect victims. There are no perfect survivors. But the monster wants us to keep looking, to interrogate them rather than focusing our attention on perpetrators. This sends a message—nothing subtle about it—that to speak is to be at risk of awakening this monster’s ire when they don’t present the perfect case.

And of course, they—we—never do present the perfect case. This is the cruel catch: The monster has us on a quest for a reward we can never find. That’s what I mean when I say we are battling a beast that is both in and of this perfectly constructed universe, who wields the perfect weapon of doubt. The more we fruitlessly look for that perfect case, the less we look for ways to best that beast, who thrives on the search itself, a villain who is perfectly skilled in the art of finding new, exculpatory questions, who grows stronger every time we wonder: But what if she’s lying?

We must stop looking for that perfect case; we must stop trying to appease those who would demand it. We must believe survivors. We must trust their stories. Maybe that seems like a small step. An obvious step. But it is a tremendous intervention.

Then, and only then, might the scales of justice tip anywhere near a balance.