“Believe women.” Since the #MeToo movement gained traction in 2018, the two-sentence command rings through mainstream feminist circles like a mantra. Believe women. The statement — designed as a mechanism for encouraging that the public not automatically dismiss accusations of sexual misconduct — serves as a mechanism for recognizing and adjusting behavior that enables the visceral, oft-cyclical trauma of sexual assault. It’s not an inclusive term, ignoring that one in 10 rape victims are male, and that there is a disproportionately high rate of violence against trans people, particularly trans women of color. But it acknowledges, in simple language, the underlying problems regarding sexual misconduct cases: that, often, little evidence exists beyond witness testimony, and witness testimony is frequently dismissed using smear-like campaigns against survivors’ characters. Believe women.
But this term has quickly found new use. This week, Elizabeth Warren’s presidential campaign released a disputed statement that Bernie Sanders had told her in confidence that a woman could never win the presidency. The response from many progressives? Believe women. This phrase, designed to evoke necessary conversation about sexual misconduct, feels nearly devoid of meaning in this context. Instead of uplifting Warren, it shields her from criticism in a way that infantilizes her, suggesting that she cannot substantiate her claims without the need for blind support. It forces us to respond: Believe women when they do what? Literally anything?
This phrase is part of a disturbing trend in progressive politics. Liberals appropriate language designed for people to describe and process trauma, repurposing it to describe considerably less severe situations. As Yale students, we see this all the time. Words like “toxic,” “gaslight” and “manipulation” now feature in regular stories in mainstream publications and constitute our routine vocabulary in seminars. Outside of class, I’ve often heard one person asks another, in jest, “Are you gaslighting me?” Most people understand the language of abuse not because they have been forced to confront that abuse, but because they utilize it when speaking to each other — even, and perhaps especially, in situations that ignore its gravity.
Some have objected to repurposing language before, often using the half-baked argument that the repetition of language leads to its dilution. You may have heard the argument that saying “I love you,” too often or to too many people diminishes its value. But I am not a language purist. Instead of objecting to repetition of words reserved for specific situations, I am objecting to the broadening of contexts in which that language is used. Say “gaslighting” all you want. But saying it should come with the recognition that the term is designed to describe a specific manipulation tactic in emotionally abusive relationships, one that when applied most severely, can cause the victim to question their own judgment and memory. This often leads to lasting psychological damage.
The problem with these shifts in vocabulary is that they take terms used by survivors to describe their abuse, then divorce the language from the context that made it so empowering to use in the first place. When we acknowledge another person’s behaviors as “toxic” or “manipulative,” we are able to regain control by identifying harmful behaviors for what they are. When I talk about the abusive relationships I have been in, however, including the psychological pain I still feel from being gaslighted, I am valorized by liberals, sure — not as a person, but instead as a function of someone else’s political project. This is the crucial reason why feminist language on sexual misconduct should not be appropriated beyond its original purpose; when these terms broaden, they don’t harm merely a sanctified vision of language but make the process of describing and healing from sexual misconduct more taxing.
So, then, why do liberal feminists use terms like “believe women” to support their agendas, rather than supporting sexual misconduct survivors outright? One response is that they simply haven’t considered these ramifications.
But I think this is an insult to their intelligence. When people use feminist language to express things unrelated or even contrary to feminism, they declare an ideology that focuses less on feminist movements as a process of liberation and instead as a mechanism for making noise. They make feminism a core aspect of their identity not because they live up to its principles, but precisely because they don’t. And most insidiously, they co-opt the language of abuse to describe the day-to-day slights of misogyny. They use the #MeToo hashtag to post their grievances rather than elevating the stories of survivors. It’s not just that they need to feel oppressed — which they, as women, are — but that they need to feel oppressed equally, as if the marks of abuse were badges of honor.
Every woman experiences misogyny in some form, but by speaking the language of abuse in situations that call for banal vocabulary, liberal feminists who have enjoyed the financial benefits of Silicon Valley or the D.C. bureaucratic machine simultaneously ignore that their privileges shield them from the more traumatic aspects of sexism and delegitimize those who have had those experiences.
And if you begin to critique them? Well, they can just say, “Believe women,” right?
MCKINSEY CROZIER is a sophomore in Timothy Dwight College. Her column runs on alternate Fridays. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .