Again and Again: Undermining Women’s Credibility

October 15, 2020
“Lady Justice” Photo by Tingey Injury Law Firm on Unsplash

In current broadcasting vernacular it has become acceptable to say a powerful man is “credibly accused of sexual assault”. However, when Stephen Colbert (I’m a big fan!!) said it of the US president this last week, it clicked. That’s bullshit. Coming out of  Colbert’s mouth, which I would generally consider feminist, it was just wrong.

This use of the word “credibly” assumes that a prominent category, if not the default position, of sexual assault accusations is that they are incredible. Using the word “credibly” assumes that women lie about sexual assault unless, sometimes, they are deemed “credible” by the male dominated criminal justice system. You don’t say of a thief that they are credibly accused of their crime, you say they are accused…full stop. A murderer? Accused. Money launderer? Accused. Rapist? Oh no don’t worry he was “credibly” accused. No other crime has this qualification of accusations.

This language perpetuates the patriarchal and societal held position that rape is overstated, that women lie and accuse men for some (imaginary) benefit to themselves, and that rape victims are not to be believed as other victims of crime are.

This is harmful and sexist messaging. To Mr. Colbert and the mainstream broadcast media I say, “Cut it out.”

Credibly Yours,
Leslie Brunanski
MA Candidate
Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies
Simon Fraser University, Vancouver, British Columbia

Extending the Conversation

“Credibly Accused”: Subversive to or Reinforcement of Legal Power Regimes?

by Nerida Bullock, PhD Student

To the best of my knowledge, the term “credibly accused” came to public consciousness between 2017-2019 when the Catholic Church started investigating widespread abuse perpetrated by Catholic Priests. 

“Credibly accused” is a designation that resides outside legal discourse. Legal adjudications rely on a particular set of criteria to assess whether a crime has taken place. Keep in mind that the legal system is a patriarchal enterprise that has not been friendly to women, the poor, racialized populations, etc. In fact, the first rape laws under English Common Law were actually property offences—the act of rape damaged another man’s property (his wife, daughter, sister, etc.)

“Credibly accused” is a language rooted in church investigations as opposed to legal investigations. The criteria for “credibly accused” have been left largely undefined by the Catholic Church, but it is a way of saying, “we believe that it is true that an abuse has taken place even if it doesn’t meet the threshold of a criminal conviction.” 

I find Colbert’s use of the phrase “credibly accused,” quite subversive and provocative because he uses it as a way of saying “this person is a rapist” without invoking problematic legal rhetoric. Colbert (who is Catholic) circumvents the burdens women face in “proving” a criminal threshold while protecting CBS (his network) from libel litigation. “Credibly accused” is a non-legal way of saying, “hey, any reasonable person would think this guy is guilty as fuck, even if a criminal conviction has not happened.” 

As Leslie highlights in her blog, the discourse on rape in Western culture is predicated upon the assumption that the perpetrator is innocent, and the victim is lying until proven otherwise. Victims have the nearly impossible burden of “proving” their truth. 

I think the commentary on “credibly accused” opens up a larger conversation on the patriarchal (and racialized) genealogy of law— universal justice is precariously sensitive to systems of oppression.

One final thought to add to this complex consideration… Can “credibility” be disentangled from gender and race? In contrast to White women accusing a White American president of rape, consider the May 2020 incident of a White woman’s allegations that a Black man (who was birdwatching) was threatening her in New York’s Central Park. By virtue of the accuser’s race and gender (white, female), she instinctively knew her false allegation would have enough credibility to have police dispatched. Video from the accused phone proved that the aggressor was in fact, the White woman.

Does Colbert present an opportunity to side-step legal thresholds by his deployment of “credibly accused”? Or is it equally troublesome? Leslie’s post reminds us that language, especially in matters of gender-based violence, is always a power-sensitive conversation.