Woody Allen and Rejecting the Monster Myth

By: Kaethe Morris Hoffer

I enjoy (many) Woody Allen movies, even though I've long believed he molested his daughter. I sing along when I hear Michael Jackson on the radio, even though I think he was a pedophile. I'd even vote again for Bill Clinton, even though I've always regarded the women who accused him of sexual harassment and assault as credible. 

It's not that I think there shouldn't be consequences for abusive sex--I just believe that we should be able to hold predators accountable while still making space for them in our society. Condemning someone's worst acts simply doesn't require that we stop acknowledging their humanity or talents. Allen, Clinton, Jackson: I think all these men engaged in some monstrous acts of violation. But I don't think they are monsters, and the idea that only monsters engage in sexual violation is a myth we need to reject.

I am the Executive Director of the Chicago Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation, an organization whose mission is to create accountability for sexual harm and eradicate sexual exploitation. I've spent the better part of the last twenty years standing with individual survivors of rape and prostitution, urging police and prosecutors to believe victims and initiate prosecutions, and filing civil lawsuits to create accountability when the criminal system fails to act (which is very often).

But does vilifying those who engage in sexual predation actually help survivors? To begin with, the more we insist that being decent or admirable is fundamentally incompatible with engaging in sexually abusive behaviors, the more difficult we make it for individual survivors who are abused by people whose humanity and/or talents are undeniable. While most people never engage in sexual abuse, most of those who do have good qualities that are plentiful and undeniable.

The monster myth isn't only a problem because it increases hostility and skepticism towards victims who report being harmed by apparently or otherwise decent men (or, rather less often, women). Extreme rhetoric and draconian penalties also discourage violators from taking responsibility for their actions: admitting to a sex offense is tantamount to declaring oneself an irredeemable degenerate. The legal consequences include lifetime pariah status and never-ending career and housing limitations pursuant to sex offender registry laws.

When Dylan Farrow recently wrote about being sexually violated as a child, she challenged readers to name their favorite Woody Allen film before and after reading a description of the sexual abuse he inflicted on her--quite explicitly endorsing the idea that it is not possible (or acceptable) to celebrate a person's talent and believe they engaged in sexual abuse. I can't blame her. An unwillingness to acknowledge that individuals can be capable of both extreme good and extreme bad is not unique to her, and our entire culture bears responsibility for the fact that she regarded celebrations of Allen and his work as a personal rebuke to her—a message that she should be silent and "go away."

So I understand that admiration for Allen feels like a slap in the face to his accusers. But still, I don't think that standing with victims requires adherence to the view that only evil men engage in rape. This view is far too simplistic, and it promotes the idea that evidence that a man is capable of kindness, love, respect, or gentleness, somehow constitutes proof against allegations of him engaging in sexually violating behavior. Just last week, for example, Barbara Walters implied that she could not believe Dylan's allegations because she has personally seen Allen be a loving and attentive father.

As a society, we must stop acting as if there are only two legitimate responses to an accusation of sexual violation: either choice A) "He is a monster" or choice B) "She is lying (or mistaken)." We must stop this because as rape victims quickly apprehend, most people quickly gravitate towards option B. For as long as those victims who do speak up are mostly disbelieved and disregarded, the great majority of victims will continue to nurse their wounds in silence, and that minority of men who engage in sexual predation will have little incentive to change their ways.

To prevent sexual violation from occurring, we must be willing to see that otherwise good people might be perpetrators. Consider, for example, what Woody Allen said to People Magazine in 1976: "I'm open-minded about sex.  I'm not above reproach; if anything, I'm below reproach. I mean, if I was caught in a love nest with fifteen 12-year-old girls tomorrow, people would think, yeah, I always knew that about him."  I find this quotation chilling, but it is not proof that he is a monster. Despite this quote—which rather clearly suggests a sexualization of pre-teens--I imagine that the majority of people in his inner circle--people who were exposed, as Barbara Walters has been, to his genuine capacity for loving and attentive kindness--viewed him as someone who "couldn't" be a man who would sexually violate a seven year old.

For as long as our rhetoric about sex offenders continues to be as extreme as it is, accusing someone of rape will continue to be taboo (perhaps more taboo than engaging in sexual violation).  And expectations that only 'monsters' are capable of rape will continue to limit our ability to acknowledge or respond to conduct that violates dignity and integrity--let alone attitudes or comments which suggest that an adult is inappropriately sexualizing children. 

Dylan Farrow Touched a Nerve: Are Women and Girls to be Trusted?

By Katie Feifer

Last year, Vanity Fair published an article that reported (again) Dylan Farrow’s claims that Woody Allen, her mother’s partner, had molested her when she was seven. A few weeks later, Woody Allen was given a lifetime achievement award at the Golden Globes. Mia Farrow took to Twitter to proclaim her disgust that he would be honored in this way. The battle began anew. Is Woody a child molester, a creep, a degenerate (albeit a wildly talented one)? Is Mia a vindictive, manipulative, jealous bitch who just can’t forgive that Woody had sex with and then married her daughter?

And then, the adult Dylan Farrow wrote an open letter, published in the New York Times, in which she testified to the abuse she endured at the hands of Woody Allen. And here’s where it gets really interesting.

Unbelievably – to some – the fact that we heard evidence from the victim, in her own words, from her adult perspective, escalated, rather than resolved the battle. Rather than saying “there you have it; now we know, she said in public what he did to her” many went wild trying to discredit her, and her mother, and to re-frame Dylan’s experiences of trauma and abuse into a case where Woody Allen is the victim, framed and vilified by Mia and her minions, including her children.

We’re living in “he said, she said” land. And in our culture – our rape culture – he and she are just not equivalent. Aaron Bady exposed our cultural bias against women’s truth telling in The New Inquiry: . "...you can’t presume that both are innocent at the same time. One of them must be saying something that is not true. But “he said, she said” doesn’t resolve to “let’s start by assume she’s lying,” except in a rape culture, and if you are presuming his innocence by presuming her mendacity, you are rape cultured.”

Soraya Chemaly deepened our understanding of how and why this happens in a brilliant article. “Dylan Farrow is in a situation that thousands deal with every day. In general, people want to look away, muttering some variant of "he said/she said." But, that phrase implies an equivalence where we have a gross imbalance, because "he" is more trusted, virtually always, in every capacity, than "she." “

It’s important to ask ourselves why we, as a society, have such a hard time simply believing the testimony of a girl or a woman. Chemaly and others have used the Farrow firestorm to showcase – again – our society’s deep mistrust of female people. If you care to look, or to think about it, the evidence you need is right in front of us.

Those who are trying to discredit Dylan (and Mia) Farrow have been coming up with all sorts of arguments – “proof” why Woody Allen couldn’t have done such a thing (“He’s claustrophobic! He wouldn’t go into an attic!”), and why Mia was absolutely plotting to destroy Woody (custody battle, woman scorned, etc.).  Why Dylan Farrow’s own account, her testimony, can’t be trusted. (And by the way, for those who claim “there is no evidence” to support the charges, testimony is evidence. Except perhaps when it comes from a female testifying about sexual violence.)

One of the most widely read defenses of Woody/attacks on Dylan was written by a friend of Woody Allen’s, Robert Wiede, in The Daily Beast. And a week later, Woody Allen himself wrote a long and ridiculous (if you know anything about the case and about child sexual abuse) self-defense piece in the New York Times.

On the (somewhat) bright side, as a result of the attacks on Dylan and Mia Farrow, many respected experts on child sexual abuse have weighed in to discred the myths that abound, and in so doing educating those who care about the realities of child sex abuse and its prosecution. If you want to educate yourself, check out the following articles. All well-written, all by experts talking about what they are expert in. 

Roger Canaff.  Legal expert and child protection advocate. He exposed some of the unfair and false notions that are floating around about what “real” child sex abuse looks like, and how to prove it. Among them…

"No physical evidence “proving” the case. Anyone with a cursory understanding of both the typical nature of child sex abuse and pediatric anatomy knows that child cases almost never yield compelling physical evidence, even when reports are immediate. Very few abusers seek to inflict injury and know that doing so will likely interrupt the grooming process and trigger a report. Further, the genital area is blood-rich and heals very quickly even if tissue is damaged. Dylan reported nothing to my knowledge likely to yield physical evidence.” 

Wendy Murphy, who noted in her “Open Letter to Woody Allen,”  

 “In one of the statements from your representative, it's said that the allegations of your adoptive daughter, Dylan Farrow… are false because a 7-year-old child cannot be trusted to distinguish between fantasy and reality. This claim makes you look particularly guilty, Woody. See, little girls fantasize about becoming princesses and doctors. They don't "fantasize" about being told to lie face down and watch a toy train go by while being sexually abused from behind. They have no context to conjure up such a fantasy.”

Lisa Bloom. She gave us “Six Reasons Why Dylan Farrow is Highly Credible” and struck at the claim that this was all conjured up by Mia Farrow, lying and conniving as part of a custody battle, and out of general spite, being a woman scorned and all.

“Blaming the mother is a tired, common strategy for those accused of sexual abuse. (Mothers also get blamed when they fail to act promptly in response to a child’s accusation.) A loving, healthy mother will be sickened and outraged when a child tells on an adult for sexual abuse. This is how Mia behaved. She should not be faulted for it.

The claim that Mia Farrow manufactured all of this does not ring true because (i) Dylan reportedly told a babysitter first; (ii) Mia Farrow reportedly gave her daughter multiple opportunities to recant if she wanted to; and (iii) Dylan is now a mature, happy adult who would have no motivation to continue to lie for her mother, twenty two years later, who lives a thousand miles away from her.” 

Natalie Shure, a victim of child sexual abuse at the hands of an older cousin, gave us some compelling insight into how a child deals with what happens when s/he reports being abused - and why young children may not tell what adults consider to be "coherent" accounts - and why that doesn't mean they are making it up.

“Yet there is something inherently imbalanced about a child abuse case. The very secrecy that makes the truth “unknowable” is an instrument of the crime. With no witnesses or credible legal evidence, the “he said/she said” conundrum prevails. The assailant knows this, and he can use it to his advantage. As soon as children make allegations, they enter a world filled with adult concepts—ideas they themselves don’t entirely understand. In order to even tell their stories, they have to learn a new language, putting vague, undefined feelings into unfamiliar words. The whole drama plays out in a grown-up context, which means the grown-up always has the upper hand. Neutrality never even has a chance.”

And Maureen Orth, the author of the original Vanity Fair piece in 1992 and a second published last fall, weighed in with 10 "undeniable facts" about the allegations against Woody Allen. All of which should go a long way toward defending the veracity of Dylan Farrows account - which should never require this much defending. 

But still does.

"Boys and Men Healing"

By Katie Feifer

Male child sexual abuse happens. A lot. We don't know exactly how prevalent it is because, even more than with female child sexual abuse, victims are unable or unwilling to speak about what was done to them.  Estimates are that 1 in 6 boys are sexually abused. Male survivors of childhood sexual abuse need our support and understanding just as much as female survivors do. When male survivors do speak out, giving us a glimpse of what they've gone through, it's a gift for all of us - an opportunity to learn.

Roger Canaff, a founding member of CounterQuo, has recently called our attention to a film done by Kathy Barbini and Simon Weinberg, called "Boys and Men Healing." The 60 minute documentary focuses on the stories and journeys of three men who were sexually abused as children. One of those men, David Lisak, is one of the most important and insightful researchers in the field of sexual violence. 

Roger's blog on the film and the issue of male childhood sexual abuse, titled "Vertigo" is beautifully written, and a compelling read.

The film, "Men and Boys Healing" is well worth seeing. And fortunately, you can buy or borrow it (for free!) from 1in6 - itself a valuable resource for those interested in the issue of male sexual abuse.