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.

Shifting our Paradigm - "Delayed" (Really 'Triggered') Reporting is the Norm

By Katie Feifer

Our colleague Roger Canaff has hit the nail on the head again with his commentary on “delayed reporting” of sexual assault crimes and what it really means. Matt Sandusky’s “Delayed Report” and What it Really Means « Roger Canaff

In the aftermath of the Jerry Sandusky trial, when the defense tried to cast doubt on the veracity of Sandusky’s victims' accounts of long-ago sexual assaults, Canaff correctly points out that most victims of sexual assault who do report the crime (and that’s a minority of victims) do so after some time has passed. They stay silent for various reasons – fear of being blamed, of friends’ and families’ reactions, needing time to deal with the shock and trauma they experienced. And when they do report the crime, their reports are triggered by something – an event, a stressor, a circumstance in their lives.

We will reflect the reality of sexual violence more accurately once we stop using the inaccurate and un-nuanced phrase “delayed report” and start using “triggered reports” to describe the claims of those who finally (and bravely) come forward to speak about the violence perpetrated against them.

We all need to readjust our thinking to acknowledge that the norm in sexual assault cases is for victims to remain silent for a time or forever, especially when the perpetrator is someone known to them – the vast majority of cases. And our laws and policies need to reflect that as well. So we hope that Pennsylvania will finally take the leap into the 21st century and get rid of the jury instruction that allows jurors to potentially discount the validity of accusations of sexual assault because the “ordinary” person would make a prompt outcry.

As Canaff writes, “Few places are lonelier than the heart of a survivor living with sexual abuse, or having been the victim of a sexual attack, who feels he or she can’t reveal it. The struggle is titanic, and usually the decision is made to simply bear the abuse and move on. Again, this is changing, but slowly. And survivors who decide to remain silent are blameless for it and should never be judged. But when a trigger finally does compel a survivor to speak out, the mere fact of a delay in the interim should not cast doubt on it.”

The Power of Survivor Voices

By Katie Feifer

In the wake of the deeply disturbing accounts of how Jerry Sandusky, a coach at Penn State and a boys’ mentor and advocate at (now closed) The Second Mile molested and raped young boys over many years, whose assaults were witnessed and discussed with authorities but never stopped, many are writing about the impact sexual violence has on its victims. And several writers are writing eloquently about the effects of the silence so many victims live with, unable to disclose the harm done to them. Others are writing about the effects many victims live with when they dodisclose the harm that was done to them.

Sexual violence hurts and wounds its victims, without a doubt. Even talking about it can hurt survivors.

Jane Brody, writing in the New York Times about The Twice Victimized of Sexual Assault notes “More often than not, women who bring charges of sexual assault are victims twice over, treated by the legal system and sometimes by the news media as lying until proved truthful.”

On the other hand, not talking about it can hurt survivors. Donna Jenson writes powerfully about this in a Chicago Tribune article Speaking Out About Staying Silent, “My silence had layers. The first layer was fear. The second got formed from believing it was somehow my fault; this wouldn't happen to a "good" child. Another was shame for having come from a family that would abuse and not protect its children."

And Roger Canaff, in a blog post about the repercussions from Jerry Sandusky’s alleged crimes coming to light noted “Victims are usually never more alone than after the abuse is discovered, whether they purposely revealed it or not. Siblings, non-offending parents, even grandparents are suddenly distant or much worse. The victim, after all, has “torn the family apart,” interrupted possible financial support, brought shame upon the family because of a ‘splash effect’ that will surely color the whole clan, etc, etc. The fact of the perpetrator’s utter and sole guilt for all of these depredations simply gets lost…”

A classic case of being damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

And yet.

We believe that using survivor testimony is critical if we are to change our laws and our culture around sexual violence. When we listen to individuals tell their stories, we can be moved to change even more than when we simply read statistics.

Anne Ream, director of The Voices and Faces Project, was recently quoted in a Chicago Tribune article Shedding Light on the Stories of Sexual Violence Survivors: "A story can be a conduit to change people's minds and hearts about public policy, about institutions, about the way we look at victims of sexual violence and trafficking. The only way we can challenge and change the way the world responds to sexual violence is to bring these stories to the attention of the public."

We believe one of the reasons why shifts in attitudes and cultural norms about sexual violence have been so slow in coming is that those who can persuade us best, the survivors themselves, are too often silenced. Those of us who speak out are applauded by supporters for being brave and courageous. And in this climate, we are.

We are also all working toward a time when it won’t require bravery to tell family, friends, and authority figures when sexual violence is done to us. One first step toward that end is for all of us to listen with respect to the survivors who are speaking out and testifying. All of us can meet that challenge by reading and ‘listening’ to articles like the ones quoted here, and to encourage our own social circles to do the same.

Start by Believing

By Katie Feifer

A new public awareness and education campaign developed by End Violence Against Women, International entitled "Start by Believing" fits quite well with the mission of CounterQuo: to challenge and change the way our society responds to sexual violence. "Start by Believing" is premised on the notion that every step a rape victim takes on the path to healing, and every step our authorities take to hold rapists accountable for their crimes, is predicated on people believing the victim, and acting accordingly. When someone doesn't believe - when, for example, a police officer doesn't believe and refuses to conduct an investigation, or when a victim's friend doesn't believe it was "really rape" and tells her it wasn't a crime and she just needs to "get over it", we fail. We fail to support victims. We fail to get rapists off the street - which means more crime, because we know that the "average" rapist attacks six times.

So, "Start by Believing." Know the facts and share them. And recognize what are, indeed, facts and what are merely opinions and myths about rape.

For more on that, read Roger Canaff's blog on the "Start by Believing" campaign. Among the many facts he cites (and sources with real, credible research - unlike those who would claim otherwise) "... in the vast majority of cases, there is no reason to doubt the victim making the allegation. Further, even if one believes the victim, blaming her for "her part" in inviting her victimization is both wrong-headed and counter-productive."

We can't say it enough, and we invite you to keep saying it too, using the facts at your disposal through Roger's blog and the "Start by Believing" campaign, as well as through the resources here at CounterQuo.org.

"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.

Why We Do What We Do

By Katie Feifer

We advocate. We prosecute. We litigate. We write and lobby for legislation and policy change. We teach and preach, we write and write and talk and talk and talk and keep at it because the cost of not doing so, is people's lives.

The recent suicide of St. Mary's College student Lizzy Seeberg 10 days after she reported being sexually assaulted by a Notre Dame football player has touched and angered many. We are touched - and heartbroken - because a 19 year old young woman apparently felt so much pain and had so little hope for moving past the horrific pain that she chose to end her life. And we are angered because Notre Dame and local law enforcement agencies were and are callous and cruel and unconscionably wrong-headed in how they responded (actually, how they didn't respond) to Lizzy's allegations.

Two CounterQuo members, Roger Canaff and Jaclyn Friedman, have each written about this case. Jaclyn takes aim at yet another example of our rape culture at work: "the structure of decisions, actions and inactions that protects a football player from even being investigated on a credible allegation." Roger, in a moving "Letter from a Prosecutor to a Young Woman" posted on his blog and at Jezebel, grapples with the ignorance and insensitivity that allows a Catholic university to place greater importance on keeping a football player accused of a heinous crime on the field and stonewalling investigation than taking seriously the word of a young woman who "did everything that could possibly have been asked of you."

We will continue to write and talk and advocate and litigate to change our rape culture and make our world safer from sexual violence. Please add your voice to ours. Talk, write, re-post, share... until we don't need to anymore.

Roger Canaff Takes DA to Task in Refusing to Charge Roethlisberger Rape

By Katie Feifer

Roger Canaff, CounterQuo member, former sex crimes prosecutor in Virginia and New York and currently a Highly Qualified Expert with the U.S. Army assisting in investigation prosecution of sexual assault cases within the armed forces, has just written a powerful and insightful critique of the recent decision by Fred Bright, the Georgia D.A. who recently decided not to charge Roethlisberger with rape.

Canaff notes that he doesn't know all the facts of the case, and so can't base his comments on that. However, he rightly excoriates the D.A. for his publicly stated reasoning for declining to file charges in the case, noting "your reasons... should stand as a training tool in how not to evaluate a sexual assault case."

After pointing out some of the major reasons why D.A. Bright failed in his duties, Canaff concludes "I don’t believe you dropped this case in any sort of deference to a celebrity. I think you ran from it because you’re thoroughly unschooled on how to prosecute anything like it. Thus, you have failed this woman, the citizens of your jurisdiction, and the wider world beyond it.  You have allowed a repeat sex offender to escape, let loose to rape again, which he almost surely will, despite your admonitions to him to “grow up.”  Ben Roethlisberger is grown up, Mr. Bright.  He’s a grown up rapist, and he has permanently altered and forever scarred the life of more than one woman."

We share Roger's belief that when prosecutors ignore the realities of conditions under which most rapes occur and the way many victims typically react immediately after the trauma they've endured, and use that ignorance as a basis for declining to prosecute, the ramifications run far and deep.

We urge you to read this important post, and share it broadly.