The Credibility of Women

CW: Sexual assault, sexual harassment, legal system.


Last week Craig McLachlan filed papers to start defamation action against Christie Whelan Browne, a woman who recently alleged that he had sexually harassed and assaulted her while they worked together on the Rocky Horror Show. McLachlan, who categorically denies these charges, included in his court documents provocative images of Whelan Browne and accused her of being “notoriously foul-mouthed” among other things. This is all part of a larger strategy, conscious or unconscious, to damage her credibility. 

Sharing images of a woman alleging sexual harassment or assault is a calculated move based on a historical understanding of female “credibility” being related to female sexual virtue. Women have always had their credibility judged on their morality, men on their consistency. Women and men must fit different criteria to be viewed as credible, although no concessions are made for this within the courts of law.  

Credibility is central to most legal matters, particularly those that a sexual in nature. If accounts cannot be trusted, crimes can not be fairly judged. This is entirely understandable, however the historical backlog of discrimination against women in the legal system has created an environment where justice is tied inextricably to gender. When discussing men - credibility, honour, and truthfulness are, and have always been, interchangeable concepts. In contrast, a woman’s credibility has been interchangeable instead with her sexual virtue and chastity. Even the Oxford English Dictionary provides a definition for ‘a woman’s honour’ that relates to her sexual reputation. No distinct definition is provided for male honour. This connection was codified in the beginning of the western legal system, with evidence of unchaste behaviour leading to the automatic disqualification of women’s testimonies. The sexual history of a witness, defendant, or plaintiff in cases of sexual assault, harassment, or rape were permissible as evidence in court until recently. Although our laws have been amended to rectify this unfounded and deleterious understanding, the remnants of this kind of thinking still influence our perceptions of credibility. We still see attempts to attack women’s credibility using their sexual behaviour or any evidence of unchaste conduct. 

Women exist in a double bind where, to be viewed as truthful they must be chaste, but truthfulness may lead to an unchaste reputation. If a woman is consistently honest, it will more than likely have a negative impact on her credibility. If she lies to in order to protect her reputation, she is more likely to be seen as credible, but is in reality less credible and at a higher risk of being discredited through the exposure of direct dishonesty. When sexuality of any kind can be used to damage a woman’s credibility, objective and genderless concepts of credibility cannot exist. Adrienne Rich’s 1977 essay, “Women and Honour: Notes on Lying,” offers some meaningful insight on this issue for anyone interested in further reading.

Being honest or chaste is by itself not enough to ensure a woman’s credibility. What others think of a woman is just as important. Jean Jacques Rosseau said of this in Emilie, “worth alone will not suffice, a woman must be thought worthy; [...] a woman’s honour does not depend on her conduct alone, but on her reputation, and no woman who permits herself to be seen as vile is really virtuous.” (This is obviously horrible, and Mary Wollstonecraft dragged him for it in “A Vindication of the Rights of Woman”)

As a result women are in a position whether they are forced to constantly police their own existence, ensuring that they leave not evidence that could be construed as promiscuous. And if they do, there is a significant chance that such evidence will be used to damage their reputation, and in turn their credibility. 

While our understanding of sexual crimes and how they should be prosecuted has evolved significantly since the 18th century, the “unchaste/incredible” equation still holds true. Publishing images that are specifically sexual in nature is not a new or novel tactic to discredit an accuser. The exposure of images through the media or publicly available documents is a deliberate strategy with the desired outcome of influencing public opinion of a woman’s virtue.  

This credibility deficit is often referred to as the Cassandra Curse, referring to mythopoeic prophetess of lies. Cassandra was gifted the ability to see the future, but when she rejected Apollo who had given her the irrevocable gift, he cursed her so that no-one would ever believe her premonitions. He divested her of all credibility. Her plight is analogous to many women who seek legal redress for the crimes committed against them. Legal attitudes and societal beliefs already accord less value to the speech of socially subordinate groups; tying chastity to credibility creates an deficit that is almost impossible for women to overcome. Sexuality or crudeness on the part of a woman because the parachute ripcord from men who harass or assault. 

McLachlan including these images and accounts is a strange way to negate the the allegations made by Whelan Browne. It does very little to prove that the allegations are untrue. That is most probably because the contents of action are not designed to disprove the allegations, but rather to divest Whelan Browne of her credibility. As public opinion does have a bearing on a woman’s credibility, we cannot let ourselves be mislead to believe that these images and recounts of behaviour have any relevance whatsoever in relation to the alleged sexual assault of Christie Whelan Browne. 


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