Before Alice Sebold became a bestselling, critically acclaimed novelist (the film The Lovely Bones was an adaptation from her first novel of the same name), she signaled her arrival as a writer with an important voice and compelling tale, as evidenced by her memoir entitled, Lucky.
The book was a searing and, at times, improbably witty retelling of her freshman year at Syracuse University when in 1981, while she was walking late at night, an assailant with a knife dragged her into a tunnel and raped her. The book details her experience with the hospital that treated her injuries along with her own efforts to heal—unsurprisingly, without much success. Much of the book is devoted to her reliance on law enforcement and the criminal justice system to hold her attacker to account.
It made for a gut-wrenching read: A woman who served as an eyewitness to a heinous crime committed against herself.
Sebold ended up identifying the man who assaulted her and testified against him. He was convicted of rape and sentenced to 25 years in prison, serving 16.
At the police station, one of the detectives thought it might be helpful for her to know that the last sexual assault victim on campus was raped and dismembered by her attacker. In this way, he reasoned, Sebold should consider herself “lucky”—hence, the book’s alluring title.
Surely any reader would recognize, without having to actually read the book, the ironic inkling in any attempt to find good fortune in such a gruesome and life-altering event. Justice, in whatever form it takes when not on the set of “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit,” never results in feeling lucky. Even the anticipated sweetness of personal vengeance wears off and soon curdles into the bittersweet. Stories of sexual violence against women are inexorably disqualified from happy endings.
Since its publication in 1999, Lucky has had an enormous influence on rape victims, crime victim advocates, and law enforcement personnel. It is sometimes mentioned as a benchmark in how to gauge the hierarchies, and some of the vagaries, of sexual violence. For instance, are all acts of rape, or accusations of rape, the same? Many victims drew some comfort in thinking, “At least I didn’t experience what happened in Lucky.”
For most women, “no means no,” no matter where it is said—whether in a dark tunnel at knife point, or in a boy’s dorm room after drinking too much at a party. But is there no difference at all between the “luck” that Sebold survived and the misfortune of a tipsy co-ed who wakes up the next morning with cloudy memories that moments later will morph into regret?
Consent is the coin of the realm in the crime of rape. It’s the reason why the sexual histories of women so often became the primary defense strategies in rape trials—that, along with the absence of physical bruises to demonstrate that the woman neither resisted nor fought back. Most women, however, did not resist, which resulted in tragically adverse inferences about whether the accuser was telling the truth.
These are some of the reasons why rape has been so often astoundingly under-prosecuted. Studies show that only 5 out of 1,000 (another source places the figure at 7) committed rapes ever result in a felony conviction. That doesn’t even account for the thousands of acts of sexual violence that never get reported because women do not wish to voluntarily place themselves onto the conveyor belt of the legal system, with its cold machinery, grinding gears, and timeless delays. Who would want to repeatedly relive the experience and expose themselves to intrusive, embarrassing, and re-traumatizing questions that often flip the storyline, making them feel like the accused rather than the other way around?
And there are no assurances of guilty verdicts.
Moreover, police departments are notoriously delinquent in gathering evidence of sexual violence. Hundreds of thousands of rape kits go untested, and sometimes are destroyed to free up space in evidence rooms. The police often do not assign an investigator. The investigator often doesn’t interview the victim. The police fail to interview potential witnesses. The case never gets referred to a prosecutor and no criminal charges are ever brought.
No wonder the #MeToo Movement received such a critical mass of uncritical support. Many women had simply had enough. A new arena for judging and punishing sexual offenders materialized–one that led to the public downfall of those who otherwise were seemingly beyond reproach. If the law wasn’t going to do its job, then perhaps human resource departments, cancel culture, and the general public’s purchasing power could be deployed to punish men for rape, sexual violence, and sexual harassment. In some cases, like with Harvey Weinstein and Jeffrey Epstein, chastened legal systems were politically compelled to take a fresh look at cases they had earlier declined to prosecute: to the fullest extent of the law… or at all, for that matter.
So the question must be asked, now that several years has passed since #MeToo so radically changed the social and cultural landscape: Has the movement empowered women, turning them into their own private avengers simply by reciting “Me, too!” which resulted in actions finally taken that had been ignored by legal systems that failed to dispense justice? Or has #MeToo set feminism back, infantilized women, and obliterated the difference between being “lucky” and being a responsible adult?
It surely succeeded in transformative, wholly unexpected ways—especially in the workplace where hundreds of men saw their careers come to an end, relieved of their jobs and, in many cases, replaced by women—Al Franken, Andrew Cuomo, Charlie Rose, Matt Lauer, Kevin Spacey, Mark Halperin, Louis C.K., Paul Haggis, Roger Ailes, Leslie Moonves, and Bryan Singer, among many others.
While false accusations are rare, they are not nonexistent, meaning that some men lost their jobs based on uncorroborated, unproven accusations, and at other times, without even knowing the identity of the accuser—the very definition of lacking due process. #MeToo’s alternative legal system played by a very different set of rules. Men have spent nights in jail due to police filings that included no reported incident and no history of violence–just unspecified fears of husbands and boyfriends.
Over the past several years, men have reported being afraid of women, whether in mentoring them at work, giving them an affectionate embrace, or in trying to interpret nonverbal cues on dates, when the evening either comes to an end or proceeds to the more delicate matters of sexual intimacy. Perhaps all of this abundant caution and restraint is a vast improvement over a system that tended to be skeptical of women who didn’t come forward immediately, or who sent mixed messages with friendly notes, relationships maintained, gratitude extended, or acted in such a way that reinforced patriarchal notions that “Oh, please, she wanted it.”
Consent is, like most things, contextual. Sebold also said “no,” and pleaded for her life, in a very different setting and context than women confronted with abusive spouses and boyfriends, lecherous bosses, or even once promising dates that resulted in awkward, unpleasant sexual encounters. Bari Weiss wrote a column for her former employer, the New York Times, in which, as a feminist, she registered astonishment over an exposé written by a woman who went out on a date with a Hollywood celebrity and referred to it as “the worst night of my life.” What most surprised Weiss was the writer’s lack of personal agency, her apparent female powerlessness in describing a date that perhaps didn’t go as she had hoped but was well short of a crime. Sex that may have, at the time, felt degrading is not the same as criminal, and nor should it become career-ending.
Breaking through the glass ceiling was always seen as a paramount goal of the feminist movement. But lately it seems that pulling the rug out from under men whose actions are more boorish than suave has become a more satisfying accomplishment.
The overall effect of #MeToo on our legal system is not something to be dismissed. It might eventually influence jurors to disregard standards of proof, turning a jury of one’s peers into execution squads.
The rallying cry of “Believe Women!” has been enough to waylay the careers of Woody Allen, Richard Dreyfuss, Oliver Stone, Dustin Hoffman, and others. These men have largely disappeared, sentenced in the court of public opinion to moral banishment. The jurisdiction of that court is limitless and its sentencing guidelines unmerciful. After all, the chant “Believe Women!” nearly derailed the confirmation of Supreme Court Associate Justice Brett Kavanaugh.
That would have been ironic, since in a court of law, the accused, in our justice system, is always afforded the presumption of innocence. It is a signature entitlement of the accused—innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. We have always regarded the punishment of an innocent person to be so unconscionable, we are prepared to acquit the guilty—set them free without the payment of any debt to society—in order to spare even one innocent person the moral outrage of an undeserved punishment.
That has now changed. “Believe Survivors!” is perhaps the first time in our nation’s history where the presumption of innocence has been called into question, if not wholly eradicated, in the minds of the general public. The personal, subjective truth of women (persons of color, as well), are now sacrosanct. Guilt beyond any doubt at all in cases of sexual assault may ultimately hinge entirely on a woman’s word.
To reflexively believe a survivor of an alleged sexual assault is also to conclude that the accused’s professed innocence is a lie. Someone isn’t telling the truth in the quixotic plotline of “He said-She said.” But then why bother with a trial at all? The mere accusation of sexual assault, by itself with nothing more, is tantamount to a finding of guilt. The time-honored presumption of innocence is reversed. In cases of sexual violence and harassment, a new evidentiary standard would govern: The accuser’s truth overrides any exonerating facts. Survivors are unquestioningly believed. No other presentation of evidence is necessary. Indeed, to call a woman a liar becomes its own separate crime.
I fail to see the feminism in that, just as I fail to see the justice in how rape victims are presently treated under the law.
Outside of courtrooms, there is an even greater danger in trivializing the experience of Alice Sebold, and so many others, by conflating acts of contemptible violence with altogether different, less threatening encounters between the sexes. It’s essential to maintain our perspective. Thankfully, as flawed as the male gender may be, most men are not Bill Cosby or Harvey Weinstein. What good comes from lumping all men together into one gross overgeneralization?
We are seeing a parallel illogic in matters relating to white supremacy and the January 6 insurrection. Racism is far too easily charged, denials ignored, reason abandoned. A racial faux pas is as self-condemning as attendance at a Klan rally. Similarly, merely questioning whether absentee election ballots should be accepted without verified signatures instantly places one inside the Capital on January 6.
If everything is sexual violence against women, then nothing is sexual violence against women. And isn’t that the gravest insult to women who have, indeed, experienced the worst forms of sexual violence?
We are moving all too quickly from the lucky to the stupid, where perspective is lost, and moral balance is given no credence at all. Believing women without condition robs men and women of the self-respect that comes from being judged on equal terms. Believing women without thinking means that objective truth is unknowable. Believing women without question suggests that facts cannot speak for themselves, that they must be prejudged, that impartiality is impossible whenever sex is the scene of the crime. Believing women without discernment implies that women have no voice that can be used to distinguish between pleasure and pain.
Choosing to reserve judgment is not a betrayal of women or a validation of men.
One last thing to consider: Anthony J. Broadwater, the man who served 16 years in prison for raping Alice Sebold and who was released shortly before “Lucky” was published, has recently been exonerated and his conviction vacated. Nearly 40 years after the crime, a state court judge, joined by the district attorney’s office, have concluded that the prosecution was flawed, Sebold’s identification was coached, the DNA evidence discredited, and with such unreliable evidence, Broadwater should have never been sent to jail.
Even the lucky, with the emotional scars to prove it, are sometimes uncertain of the truth.