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'Believe Me' Author Calls For A Simple But Radical Shift Beyond 'Me Too'

SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

In a new book called "Believe Me," writer Jessica Valenti applauds the success of the #MeToo movement and social media in holding abusive men accountable for their actions. But she says that's not enough. Valenti argues that fighting sexism requires us to believe women, especially survivors of sexual assault and abuse, and that for too long, women have been silenced by questions that undermine their experiences. What about due process? Or even, should we believe all women? The book is a collection of essays around these themes.

We've called on Jessica Valenti to tell us more. She's a columnist at GEN magazine and the co-editor, along with Jaclyn Friedman, of "Believe Me: How Trusting Women Can Change The World." And she's with us now from member station WNYC in New York.

Welcome to the program.

JESSICA VALENTI: Thank you for having me.

MCCAMMON: Jessica Valenti, in your piece for your book of essays, you acknowledged that a lot of strides have been made in recent years when it comes to believing women when they come forward with abuse allegations. You write, quote, "now when a woman comes forward, the media pays attention. There doesn't need to be a dozen of us to tell our stories to be trusted - just one." So that's progress. But what more needs to change?

VALENTI: I mean, I still think that the culture needs to change. We're not quite there, right? But the media does pay attention because women have forced them to. We have made sure that they have to. I think that that was one of the great successes of #MeToo. With so many people sharing their stories, it became impossible to ignore.

But you still are seeing, you know, examples of women not being believed in the workplace, women not being believed by institutions, women not being believed in the criminal justice system and even culturally as well. Just because people are paying attention doesn't mean that women's voices are necessarily being treated as important as they need to be.

And this is something that Jaclyn has said a bunch - and I think that this is really important - is that it's not enough to find women credible. We have to find women credible and important, right? You know, again, to go back to the Kavanaugh hearings, Christine Blasey Ford was widely believed even by Republicans. But what happened was even though they found her credible, they did not find her story important enough to take action on.

MCCAMMON: And your book is called "Believe Me." You write about some of the pushback against this idea. You argue that sometimes believing women is conflated by critics with the idea that we have to sort of uncritically believe all women all the time. What is the distinction there, and why is it important?

VALENTI: It's incredibly important. And we saw this happen when activists started using the phrase believe women. What happened was sort of conservative pundits and people who are pushing back against this idea said, oh, you mean believe all women. You mean believe women even in the face of overwhelming evidence that they are lying. You mean believe women even when it's obvious they're not telling the truth - which, of course, is not the case. We're talking about coming from a place where we believe women first.

And then we can go onto the next steps. If you are talking about a criminal justice case, of course, you're seeking evidence. But too often the default reaction is to not believe women and - or to automatically assume that they are being untrustworthy.

And that's not something that happens with any other crime, right? If someone says to you, I was kidnapped, I was mugged, I was robbed, I was beat up, no one says, well, prove it, right? I don't believe you. That seems really unlikely. Women are just treated differently when it comes to being credible and believable.

MCCAMMON: And sort of on that note, days after basketball player Kobe Bryant's death, you wrote a piece called "Why Do Men's Legacies Matter More Than Women's Safety?" It was in response to The Washington Post decision to suspend one of their reporters for tweeting a news report about the 2003 rape allegation against Bryant. And this isn't a new issue. It's a question that comes up again and again as a result of the #MeToo movement. Why does it seem to be such a difficult one?

VALENTI: I mean, I think what was so interesting and important about what happened here was that, you know, we can have conversations about when it's appropriate to talk about people after they've died. That conversation is fine. But what really happened here was that a powerful institution silenced a woman and punished a woman - put her on administrative leave - simply for tweeting an article about rapes, simply for saying something true about rape, which is unbelievable.

And I think what's also important there and what didn't get talked about quite a lot is that this particular reporter had been censured previously by The Washington Post when she had tweeted about her own assault. And so she was seen as a sexual assault survivor who was not credible or objective any longer, right?

And I think that that was part of the reason that when she tweeted this article about Kobe Bryant that she was put on leave. I think if she had tweeted about any other issue that this wouldn't have been a problem. And it's just another one of these cases where women sexual assault survivors in particular are not considered objective when really they should be considered experts.

MCCAMMON: The Post did reinstate their reporter after a lot of criticism. How do you think an episode like this could shape the way we talk about these kinds of issues going forward? Because surely this is not the last time we're going to have to contend with this question.

VALENTI: Yeah. No, surely not. I think what people in power and what people and institutions need to realize is that we're paying attention, right? Social media has sort of changed the game. I think if something like this would have happened to a reporter, you know, 15 years ago, there would have not been that sort of backlash against the decision. And I think that institutions and folks who have employees and folks who have power need to understand that we're all watching, that we're all paying attention and that these issues are important to us.

But I think really this is sort of why you need diversity at top levels of management, right, and why you need women in positions of power. Representative Ayanna Pressley wrote a fantastic essay for the book about the importance of being a sexual assault survivor in power, right? That changes the way that we talk and think about these issues, and it literally changes policy.

MCCAMMON: You were one of the co-founders of the popular feminist blog, Feministing, which closed recently...

VALENTI: Yeah.

MCCAMMON: ...In part because of financial issues. When you left that site roughly a decade ago, you wrote a goodbye letter to the readers in which you said you were stepping down in part because, quote, "I feel Feministing should remain a place for younger feminists to build their careers and platforms." Where do you see the future of the feminist movement now?

VALENTI: That's a great question. And I mostly would like to defer to younger feminists on it because they're the ones who are in the mix. I mean, I - it's online, obviously, right? We knew that five years ago when we saw sort of the online feminist movement hit a fever pitch. And so what's really wonderful right now is that feminism is sort of seen as a default expectation around a lot of young women, right? Like, there's not this fear around the word. There's not fear around the movement. And so I think it's become a lot more mainstream.

One thing that it has been really exciting to watch has been young feminists are really into pushing back against school dress codes right now, right - like unfair school dress codes in high schools that tell them and they need to cover up their shoulders or wear skirts that are, like, a certain length away from their knee - and understanding that it's really sexist, that it's disproportionately targeted against women. I think that they're really taking these broad political lessons and applying them to their everyday lives.

MCCAMMON: Jessica Valenti is a columnist at GEN magazine and co-editor, along with Jaclyn Friedman, of "Believe Me: How Trusting Women Can Change The World." It's out now. She joined us from member station WNYC in New York.

Jessica, thanks so much.

VALENTI: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.