Even the qualifier most frequently used when describing the allegations against Justin Fairfax, the Virginia lieutenant governor accused of sexual assault, tells a story.
Republican Speaker of the House Kirk Cox on Saturday urged Fairfax to resign after “multiple, serious credible allegations of sexual assault.”
The Democratic Party of Virginia also said Saturday that Fairfax must leave his post, “given the credible nature” of Meredith Watson’s claims.
Former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe was one of the first to call for the politician’s pink slip on Twitter Friday night. He said the allegations made against Fairfax were “serious and credible.”
“I think there should be an investigation to determine what happened,” the California Democrat told reporters on Capitol Hill. “Certainly her letter reads — it’s quite detailed — and suggests that there’s credibility there. But there needs to be an investigation to determine what exactly happened.”
Virginia Del. Patrick A. Hope, in a letter to his Democratic colleagues:
“Whereas the House of Delegates believes all allegations of sexual assault must be taken with the utmost seriousness; and whereas the House of Delegates believes the allegations made by Dr. Vanessa Tyson and Ms. Meredith Watson to be credible in nature, while also respecting the principles of due process; now, therefore, be it resolved by the House of Delegates that proceedings for the impeachment of Lieutenant Governor Justin E. Fairfax shall be initiated.”
Credible, in this context, means believable. And what tells the story here—well, what tells a story here—is that such a word needs to even be used. Because if Dr. Vanessa Tyson and Meredith Watson are considered credible victims, what would be the inverse? Is credibility based on story or status, or some congelation of both? Would they be less credible if these were less accomplished women with lighter resumes? If Vanessa Tyson was a Starbucks barista instead of a professor, would her status be invalidating, her story less likely to be believed?
The answer, of course, is of course. The default, in regards to sexual assault, is to give accusations a doubt-finding scrutiny. Women are not to be believed. And, even if they are, they’re expected to shoulder blame. Maybe they shouldn’t have looked how they looked. Maybe they shouldn’t have been where they were. Maybe they should have said no more forcefully. Maybe they should have fought back. Maybe they shouldn’t have waited so long to report it. And this skepticism exists despite the fact that less than 10 percent of rape accusations are proved to be false, and that only roughly a third of sexual assaults are even reported. And when this pervasive cynicism is the standard, credible is just a clean-sounding way of hedging bets.
The use of credible is also a synopsizing product of a culture where considerations that should be moral become algorithmic. Because Justin Fairfax is next in line for governor—and because the two white men sandwiching him have histories of blackface; and because the highest-ranking blackface-less white man in Virginia’s government left is a Republican—maybe we give him some time to dig out of this. Believe women, of course, is the edict of those who consider themselves to be progressive. Always believe women. But maybe just this one time, we can embargo that always believe women thing, because keeping Virginia blue is more important. Because clearing this prominent black man’s name—and keeping our investments in him and what he might possibly mean to us—is more important. Of course we believed Christine Blasey Ford, but this is just different. Justin Fairfax is one of us.
And then, sometimes, the algorithmic becomes intentionally disingenuous. “So does ‘believe women’ mean that we shouldn’t bother investigating or even listening to what the accused has to say? They don’t get a chance to defend themselves?”
The sorts of people who ask those sorts of questions know the answers already. “No, providing victims a space to be heard does not replace investigations. And yes, the accused will have every opportunity to share his side of the story.” But the questions are an integral function of the doubt-finding economy. They’re not asked to be answered. They’re asked to introduce more questions.
It’s natural, sober-seeming, intuitive, and adult to claim that there are no easy answers here. It’s also a lie. There’s nothing unclear about believe women, even when it’s personally and/or politically inconvenient. What’s hard is finding a airtight moral rationale for allowing them to be collateral damage.