Photo by Michael Prince/Gallery Stock


A survivor speaks

Victims of sexual assault are commonly judged by the consistency of their story. But consistency is not a high road to truth

by Linda Martín Alcoff + BIO

Photo by Michael Prince/Gallery Stock

When I was nine years old, on a sunny summer afternoon, I was kidnapped and sexually assaulted. I didn’t have words to describe what happened; I was too young to know the vocabulary of sex. I lacked an understanding of the event: how to name it, what its effects were likely to be. In the raw, I knew what had happened, where it had happened, who my assailant was, and where he lived. Yet today I could not tell you the date, not even the month. I can’t describe the clothes he or I wore. The man got away. I still have post-traumatic stress disorder. At the time, I told no one.

Much later, my mother described how my personality changed during this period. My normally high grades dropped precipitously; I became withdrawn, staying mostly inside the house. She thought I might be going through early puberty but, out of concern, she made an appointment for me to meet with the school psychologist. I was called out of my fourth-grade class and taken to a small room with no windows. I found myself sitting next to an adult man I had never seen before. The door was shut. I vomited all over the desk.

Decades passed before I could start the work of piecing together a way of understanding the event and its impact on my life. I was in my mid-20s, in couples therapy with my husband; we had gone in for help with our sex life. Only there did I begin to realise the repercussions of my childhood experience. I startled easily, and could never bear to be chased, so I had difficulty with sports. Films with certain kinds of scenes triggered terror for me, so I had to walk out but could not explain why. I had recurring nightmares. And there were certain things in bed that I simply could not do.

As I began fitting together these parts of my life into a pattern, the question of language arose. What to call the event? The perpetrator was a neighbour, but not someone who held power over me through his role in my life. He simply caught me as one might catch an insect. So when I read accounts of abuse and molestation, often involving seduction, manipulation and a build-up of trust before physical violence, none of that rings true in my case.

I have used crisis hotlines several times over the years, when a panic attack has been triggered, a flashback set into a loop that I can’t turn off. During one call, I tried to tell the kind person on the other end of the phone what happened. She told me: ‘You were raped.’ I replied that I wasn’t sure that was quite the right word. She insisted. I hung up the phone. I never understood myself to be in denial: I’ve always known that what happened was awful. But I wavered over terms, and still do. Eventually, I came to alternate between the terms ‘sexual assault’ and ‘rape’ in order to convey what happened to others.

Now, when I am watching sexual-assault trials unfold on the news, I find myself immobilised by a flood of troublesome memories. Each new case brings up debilitating recollections I’d rather forget. Yet the scrutiny these trials elicit also motivates me to remember more: in particular, to remember what I said, when and to whom, to check whether my story is consistent.

Consistency is an everyday norm of judgment. It’s a common test of credibility in the courts, as well as a staple of epistemic practice – that is, a way of arriving at knowledge. An Australian study in 2004 found that consistency was the most frequently cited criterion by which juries assessed the credibility of a victim. They looked for consistency in the statements by the accuser, and also expected consistency in the victim’s post-assault behaviour. If that is the focus of juries, attorneys and prosecutors are bound to follow suit in an attempt to attain convictions. Judges sometimes give instructions to juries about ‘explainable’ discrepancies, but such directives are unlikely to pre-empt entrenched, pre-existing cultural narratives.

In 2018, Christine Blasey Ford, a psychologist at Palo Alto University in California, accused the US Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh of sexual assault when they were teenagers. In the report issued by a Republican Party-appointed attorney, the first point claimed that: ‘Dr Ford has not offered a consistent account of when the alleged assault happened.’ Point three is that ‘Dr Ford has not offered a consistent account of the alleged assault.’ During cross-examination in the Senate, the attorney asked Blasey Ford about topics apparently peripheral to the event: the distance between her home and the house where the assault took place; the names and number of all of the people present; her reported fear of flying, her history of flights, and the reasons for and destinations of those flights. These questions were designed to test Blasey Ford’s consistency in reporting certain details, even when they were irrelevant to the accusation at hand. It was the answers that Blasey Ford gave to these questions that were used to discredit her reports of what Kavanaugh had done to her at that party.

So what’s wrong with consistency? It might seem like a relatively objective measure, free of the implicit bias that affects other credibility judgments. Arguably, it’s a better indicator of truth than, for example, a confident demeanour, which might indicate entitlement, and can depend on how you are socialised by race, class and gender. Looking for inconsistency appears to replace fuzzy qualitative criteria with a hard-nosed quantitative one, and so to circumvent our susceptibility to prejudice. The criterion of consistency could serve as a modest baseline for establishing a credible accusation.

The common charge that female accusers have economic motives resonates with this old history

However, the focus on consistency needs to be put in a larger social and historical perspective. Women have long been considered less credible than men, and forced to assume a defensive posture before they have uttered a word. Socrates believed that women’s attention to their dress was proof of their intention to dissemble. Aristotle declaimed the tenor and pitch of women’s voices as a sign of insincerity and depravity. Jean-Jacques Rousseau advocated the educational segregation of the sexes so that boys could achieve their potential for independence of thought, while girls would remain properly deferential to the opinions of others. Immanuel Kant considered darkness of skin tone a contraindication of intelligence.

In A Social History of Truth (1994), the American historian and sociologist Steven Shapin wrote about why certain groups were excluded from the most powerful knowledge-seeking practice: science. In early modern Europe, illiterate peasants were deemed too ignorant, Jews too cunning, slaves too obsequious, and children and the mad too unreliable. Interestingly, nobles were also suspect on the grounds that they were likely to be engaged in some court intrigue, and schooled in the art of persuasive dissimulation. The problem with women involved their purported sentimentality, but also their economic subordination and subsequent need to flatter and manipulate. This idea remains powerful today: witness the acquiescence in the US to the idea that wealth enables political candidates to freely speak their mind. The common charge that female accusers have economic motives also resonates with this old history.

Against this backdrop, the reliance on consistency might not counteract prejudice. Rather, the demand for consistency might itself rely on and reinforce the belief that women, among others, are the ones considered guilty before proven innocent. The requirements are inflated for some groups, while others enjoy greater leniency. Consistency, I’d argue, can be a tool wielded by the powerful against the vulnerable.

The politics of consistency show themselves in at least four areas. One is in the failure to appreciate that inconsistency does not spell deception, especially if it concerns peripheral details. My own childhood case is proof of that. Kara Shead, an Australian prosecutor, explained in a 2014 article that, from her experience:

victims of relatively isolated offences maintain a vivid, albeit distressing, recollection of the crimes. A victim may not remember what colour shorts she was wearing when, at eight years of age some 20 years ago, her uncle put his finger in her vagina, but the victim remembers that event with certainty.

Sexual violations, whether violent or of the more manipulative sort, tax a victim’s mental capacities. She or he might be trying to assess the danger and calibrate available options, all while maintaining a conversation and a neutral facial expression. It can be like taking a mathematics test while swimming in the open sea. One’s faculties don’t always shut down, but they are engaged in high-stakes multitasking. This can explain the fuzzy contours of some of our peripheral perceptions, even as we maintain with crystal clarity the memory of the physical act and who did it. The identity of the perpetrator is reinforced after the fact by survival instincts, because we need to remember whom to avoid.

In the aftermath, the contexts in which conversations take place, and the types of interlocutors we talk to, can affect both the precision of our narrative and how we reconstruct the story for ourselves. In some settings, we might have good reason to intentionally misdirect the listener – if we fear that the person might try to seek revenge against our perpetrator, for example. Here, inconsistency can be a form of self-protection. In my case, as an adult, it took some time before I could establish the time period in which my assaults occurred. I had to look at old pictures, recall related events at school in order to figure out what grade I was in, and gather up the courage to direct some questions to my mother.

Secondly, the demand for consistency encourages victims to create a narrative that can be memorised and rendered in simple form. Susan Brison, a professor of philosophy at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, writes in her book Aftermath (2002) about being violently raped and left for dead while out on a morning walk in France. When she finally gave her testimony in court, her immediate feeling was one of relief that she would no longer ‘have to keep the story straight … I could let go of the details I’d kept alive in my mind.’ Any small deviation could have been used to discredit her. She had lived with great anxiety over her ability to memorise and repeat what happened, especially in court, in the same room with the man who had tried to kill her.

With the testimony over, Brison was finally able to think freely about the attack: what she remembered, how she understood the event, how it affected her. Her brain could then continue to operate, after months of being stuck on repeat-mode. That is why the demand to maintain a perfectly consistent account, she argues, can ‘impede the process of recovery’.

Of course, when an accused person’s future and freedom are at stake, there needs to be some method of ascertaining credibility and ensuring a fair trial. But today, as in the Kavanaugh case, accusers must not simply testify with a consistent narrative and maintain consistency in cross-examination. They are also held accountable for other statements they might have made on text or email, on social media, or to co-workers, therapists, friends and family. Any variance across these domains will likely be used to undermine credibility, pre-empt investigation, and (hopefully for the defence) absolve the accused.

Re-description is unlikely to travel from the heinous to the benign, but many survivors change their accounts

Third, we see the politics of consistency in a broader failure to appreciate the evolving, malleable way that humans arrive at an understanding of our lives. Like any significant experience, we are likely to mull over an assault, assess and reassess its meaning, our actions, and the culpability or not of the other party. Our considered appraisal of major life events is always ongoing: new events and new relationships can cause us to reinterpret things from our past. The sedimentation of memory generally involves a process of sharing with others, what the philosopher Sue Campbell of Dalhousie University in Canada called in 2003 ‘relational remembering’. Long-term memory is most likely with regular repetition. In these conversations, over time and with diverse audiences, our understandings can be modified, developed, nuanced. This is human memory working correctly, Campbell argues – not faltering or succumbing in the face of external influences. Intelligent judgment is increased in a collective process that includes open-minded, perceptive interlocutors.

Some incidents of sexual violence are unambiguous, but many are not. Arriving at a settled understanding can be a lengthy process. Often, we talk it out with others, friends or professionals, or just endlessly in our heads, and might eventually re-assess, re-describe, or even re-name an event. The range of re-description is unlikely to travel from the heinous to the benign, but many survivors change aspects of their accounts. In the recent autobiographical film The Tale (2018), the US filmmaker Jennifer Fox shows an adult survivor who has spent many years ruminating on her teenage relationship with a much older man, debating with herself as well as with others whether she was harmed at all.

These realities are eclipsed by the demand for consistent narratives. The fourth problem with this standard is that it treats survivors as mere sources from which ‘the truth’ must be extracted. The philosopher Miranda Fricker, now at the City University of New York, has explored how social status can affect how we use testimonial reports from others – carving up knowledge-making roles so that some people are treated as instruments, akin to a thermometer, while others are accorded the ability to interpret, analyse and judge. As a tool of bare perception, a victim might be believed, but only in a severely limited domain. Perhaps we have the necessary information that can be used as evidence, but we mustn’t overstep in trying to parse, assess or examine what we know.

This reduced role gives derided groups very little room to move. Yes, we might be relied upon (some of us, some of the time) to read the weather report, but it’s not for us to do the difficult work of meteorologists in interpreting the subtle signs of a coming storm. Our perceptual mechanisms are in working order, but that doesn’t entail a capacity for genuine, considered judgment. So when we fail to be consistent about simple facts, we are failing in the only epistemic capacity we are granted: the ability to name the date or record the colour of a shirt. We are supposed to leave it to others to judge the worthiness, significance and moral meaning of the facts that we recall. Judging the intentions or motives of our attackers, for example, might be out of bounds.

The knowledge that survivors have is far greater than just a recounting of one detail after another. But our ability to reach this knowledge sometimes requires the ability to ask complicated questions and consider, over a period of time, with the help of others, how to answer them. It is our thoughtfulness and integrity, in fact, that can sometimes lead us to be inconsistent about large and important questions.

To redress the epidemic of sexual violations, we need a space for exploration in which survivors can mull over, assess and re-assess what happened to them, without fear of undermining their credibility with friends or losing the chance to make a formal and definitive charge.

When the legal team’s defence of the US comedian Bill Cosby – accused of rape by more than 50 women – began to strain under the weight of allegations, his lawyers discovered a new tactic: the high level of consistency between the various accusers’ stories became grounds for rejecting their credibility. It was an ‘Ocean’s 11-style script’, claimed Cosby’s spokesman Andrew Wyatt, referring to the heist movie, and thus supposedly orchestrated for the purpose of extorting the renowned comedian.

Consistency is complex, of course. There is no real inconsistency in having contradictory feelings toward a flawed human being. In the Patrick Melrose novels, based on the life of their English author Edward St Aubyn, and their 2018 TV adaptation, the protagonist expresses tenderness and sympathy toward the father who raped him, while in another moment he delights in his death. This is what it means to be human.

We needn’t jettison consistency entirely – but we should be careful about using it as a litmus test of credibility. Otherwise, important questions about which details truly matter, and about the causes of inconsistency, will all be lost. Today, I honour the time it took me to arrive in a place where I can name the abuse that happened to me at the age of nine. I’ve ceased to worry about the consistency or inconsistency of the details I conveyed to others. Finally, I have brought my childhood experience into my own language, and come to an understanding of its effects on my life. With the help of loving friends and family, as well as skilled therapists, I claim the capacity to judge it for myself.