Believe Me

How Trusting Women Can Change the World


Edited by Jessica Valenti

Edited by Jaclyn Friedman

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What would happen if we believed women? A groundbreaking anthology offers a potent rallying cry and theory of change

Harvey Weinstein. Brett Kavanaugh. Jeffrey Epstein. Donald Trump. The most infamous abusers in modern American history are being outed as women speak up to publicly expose behavior that was previously only whispered about — and it’s both making an impact, and sparking a backlash. From the leading, agenda-setting feminist editors of Yes Means Yes, Believe Me brings readers into the evolving landscape of the movement against sexual violence, and outlines how trusting women is the critical foundation for future progress.

In Believe Me, contributors ask and answer the crucial question: What would happen if we didn’t just believe women, but acted as though they matter? If we take women’s experiences of online harassment seriously, it will transform the internet. If we listen to and center survivors, we could revolutionize our systems of justice. If we believe Black women when they talk about pain, we will save countless lives.

With contributions from many of the most important voices in feminism today, Believe Me is an essential roadmap for the #MeToo era and beyond.


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A LITTLE OVER TEN YEARS AGO, IN THE MIDST OF A PARTY IN A CRAMPED Boston hotel room, the two of us had an idea. What if, we said, we put together an anthology about ending rape. At the time, the feminist blogosphere was chock-full of innovative and radical ideas about sexual consent, assault, and harassment—but the ephemeral nature of blog posts and comment threads meant that these groundbreaking thoughts were here one day, gone the next. We were lucky enough that one of the partygoers happened to be a book editor. That’s how Yes Means Yes: Visions of Female Sexual Power and a World Without Rape, in its thirteenth printing as of this writing, was born.

We published Yes Means Yes because past thinking on rape had not gone far enough. The “no means no” model of consent was outdated, and maybe even dangerous, setting women up as frigid gatekeepers who could be blamed for anything that happened to them if they took risks in pursuit of their own pleasure. Given the dominant discourse at the time, we assumed a book demanding more for women would reach a niche market at best, but wanted to put it out into the world anyway.

But not only did Yes Means Yes resonate as a book, “yes means yes” as a new way to think about consent became the gold standard.

Ten years later, there’s no party, but we’re in another hotel room—writing and thinking once more about the next step forward. To us, the focus for that forward movement is clear: trusting women. Believing women.

We’re already halfway there. Harvey Weinstein. Bill Cosby. R. Kelly. Donald Trump. The most famous abusers in modern American history are finally starting to be outed for what they are. Women are speaking up, risking victim-blaming and harassment in order to expose the behavior of men that was previously only whispered about.

Though the consequences for women who come forward about assault are still as present and dangerous as ever, more and more people are starting to believe them than did in the past. We are close to a tipping point on trusting women. What Americans need now is to be pushed over the edge.

This book seeks to do just that, by asking and answering the question that could change the way we think about sexual violence: What if we believed women?

This is not just a book. It’s a rallying cry, a plan for action, and a theory of change: BELIEVE ME.

The need has never been more urgent. In part because of the progress women have made and are poised to make, we’re living in an age of profound backlash. An unrepentant misogynist, accused many times over of sexual harassment and assault, is our president. “Men’s rights” groups that once were seen as the dangerous fringe are now being given front-row seats to change education policy around rape. Brett Kavanaugh was confirmed to the Supreme Court despite overwhelming evidence that he is a serial sexual predator. Online harassment is a scourge. Misogynists are more emboldened than ever. The stakes for believing women could not be higher.

And, yes, even as we’re writing this, we can already hear the backlash. It is by now almost a cliché: when women say we should believe survivors of sexual violence, a swarm of (mostly) men swoop in to rescue us from our silly thoughts. “That’s simply unworkable,” they’ll mansplain patiently. “What about due process? What about innocent until proven guilty? Women aren’t perfect angels, you know! Are we to believe every single woman?”

But the idea that believing women about sexual violence is somehow going too far is simply horseshit. In fact, the reverse is true: if there is any fault to be found in the “believe me” framework, it’s that it doesn’t go far enough. Luckily, our contributors do.

Whether it’s Soraya Nadia McDonald on how believing women needs to start with humanizing Black women, or Sabrina Hersi Issa on survivorship as leadership, these essays pave a new path forward with an eye toward the next generation of intellectuals and activists.

There’s an interview with Emmy award–winning actor Tatiana Maslany that takes the #TimesUp conversation to the next level, a rumination from MacArthur-winning Native lawyer Sarah Deer and her mentor, Bonnie Clairmont, on the deeper meaning of “gossip” in Native communities, and a call to action from newly elected congresswoman Ayanna Pressley.

All of these visions look toward what’s next, but all have been hard-fought over these last months, too. In the time between when we commissioned these essays and when they were finalized, Brett Kavanaugh was confirmed to the Supreme Court, a Trump supporter sent pipe bombs to more than a dozen left-wing leaders, a white supremacist murdered two Black people at a Kentucky Kroger after finding himself unable to enter the Black church he planned to target, another white supremacist massacred eleven Jews in their own synagogue on the Sabbath, journalists discovered the Trump administration’s plans to erase all federal recognition of trans people, documents were released that reveal the mass sexual abuse of minors—most of them immigrant and refugee children—while in custody of the Department of Health and Human Services, and honestly too many other atrocities to list here. Suffice it to say that every one of our writers experienced a profound attack—all sponsored, sanctioned, or incited by the US federal government—on their personhood while writing these essays.

It made total sense, then, that the two most common notes we sent our writers while collaborating with them were “needs more of your own voice” and “Can you give us a vision of what a better future could look like?” When you’re fighting for your own survival, it’s hard to expose your vulnerable truths, and even harder to find the time and space to envision something much bigger than survival, a future in which the ripple effects of believing women about violence transform every corner of our culture.

But they dug deep for us, and we’ll be forever grateful that they did. Because resistance alone won’t get us to the future we deserve. To make progress, we have to know what we’re fighting for, not just what we’re against. We believe in ourselves, in our contributors, and in the collected visions of this book. We hope you’ll join us.

Our Word Alone


ONE OF THE BIGGEST TURNING POINTS IN AMERICA AROUND DOMESTIC violence wasn’t a public-awareness campaign or a piece of legislation—it was an instant camera.1 In the 1980s, thanks to Polaroid pictures, women in hospitals and shelters could immediately take shots of their injuries and use them in court if they wanted their abusers prosecuted.

Sometimes, though, the Polaroids never even saw the light of day. Women kept them tucked away in a safe or in the back of their closet—just in case. The pictures were proof of their suffering, of the violence that was happening in their own home.

Most important: the Polaroids were tangible and lasting, something that could prop up the public or private testimony of women, who are so often disbelieved or doubted when recounting their own experiences.

The truth is that a woman’s word alone has never been enough. We’ve always needed pictures, or witnesses, or some sort of irrefutable proof that—in a country where we believe and protect men even when logic and evidence damn them—doesn’t really exist.

Over the last ten years, that’s started to show signs of changing—and it has men on the right running scared.

In the same way that the Polaroid camera enacted a cultural shift around domestic violence, so too did the internet for women’s voices and experiences around sexual violence. The rise of feminist blogs, social media, and first-person essays where women share their stories has meant that more women are speaking out than ever before—and that other women can read those stories, affirm them, and see themselves in them. Naturally, women’s demand to be taken seriously and to be listened to has always been there—but the internet has made that demand more urgent and more difficult to ignore. #MeToo, a movement created years ago by Tarana Burke and made mainstream via social media more recently, demonstrated how trusting women en masse could change the shape of our country. At the very least, women were starting to believe each other—and that in itself had power. But most impactful was that influential white men started to be fired and held accountable—a change in political pace that was terrifying to a lot of people.

And so when the backlash began, it started right in the most important place—women’s word.

There’s a reason that the most resounding and viral motto of the modern anti–sexual violence movement is “Believe women.” It’s the recognition that underneath the policy debates, anti-violence laws, and cultural progress, the foundational shift that needs to happen is simple but radical trust in women. That listening to women and bearing witness to their experiences—and having faith in their stories—could be the antidote to the American default of men’s word trumping all else.

That’s why it was so telling that this simple request—believe women—became deliberately distorted by conservatives and those afraid of women’s progress. Those invested in the backlash to #MeToo insisted that feminists wanted Americans to “believe all women,” a seemingly small change to the original call to action that completely misrepresented what women were really asking for.

Whereas “believe women” is a plea for justice and fairness, “believe all women” implies one should blindly believe women’s stories about sexual violence despite all evidence to the contrary. It’s a one-word bomb.

Bari Weiss, a New York Times opinion editor, was one of the first to distort the phrase, characterizing it as “the huntresses’ war cry.”2 “[I] can’t shake the feeling that this mantra creates terrible new problems in addition to solving old ones,” she wrote.

In response, writer Rebecca Traister homed in on what was so troubling about Weiss’s claim:3 “‘Believe all women’ is NOT A THING. Weiss has pumped it up from the original ‘believe women’ to make the ‘huntresses’ sound even more threatening. This is exactly the process many of us have been talking about: transformation of women into the aggressors.”

Indeed, a pivotal part of the backlash to #MeToo—which at the time was outing individual abusers at record speed—was to paint victimized women as vengeful and unhinged. Even more: painting them as the ones with real power.

Even though the men being accused had vast amounts of wealth or public profile—from world-renowned journalists and TV personalities to famous comedians—the right was managing to make it seem like it was women with all the power. As if it were possible that a woman who had risked everything by coming forward was somehow more powerful than a man who had millions of dollars or a well-respected career.

When claiming that women coming forward had all the power became a fiction too ridiculous to be believable, conservatives tried a different line of attack. When Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, for example, accused now Justice Brett Kavanaugh of sexual assault, the right knew that they could not frame Ford—who was likable and compelling—as power hungry or as part of a witch hunt lest they be seen as sexist. Instead of attacking the truthfulness of her words, they focused on her memory. She wasn’t a liar, just “mistaken.” The meaning was the same: her word could not be trusted.

To be clear, this kind of shift from Republicans and conservatives would not have happened if Ford weren’t white, attractive, deferential, and a professor. Women’s word and believability are inextricably tied to their identity—women of color, low-income women, Native women, immigrant women, and others in marginalized communities are not just disbelieved but also not defended from being called liars in the same way that more privileged women often are.

This conservative obsession with women’s believability, along with the sharp turn in cultural progress women have made, is likely to continue. The backlash has picked up more steam since the 2016 presidential election, and the focus on the power of women’s word alone has intensified. But so has women’s determination to make sure we don’t lose footing.

When Moira Donegan created and circulated the now-infamous Shitty Media Men list in 2017, for example—a crowdsourced document shared among women so they could warn each other about potential predators in their industry—the criticism was that men were being maligned without evidence, based only on a woman’s word. (Since the list was anonymous, the usual ire and harassment that women face when they come forward was aimless.) In the months following the list’s release, however, several men who were named ended up being fired for their behavior—not because their accusers were believed unreservedly, but because their word was taken seriously. They were listened to, their accusations were investigated, and in many cases they were found serious enough to warrant action.

Now when women come forward, the media pays attention. There doesn’t need to be a dozen of us to tell our stories to be trusted, just one.

Trusting women’s word is literally starting to change the trajectory of men’s lives. That’s not to say there’s been justice; Justice Kavanaugh and Donald Trump remind us of that every day. Women are still disbelieved, men are still given the benefit of the doubt. But the fact that our word is starting to scare the powerful, and that we are demanding that we be taken seriously without a Polaroid in our hand or a witness by our side—it means something. It means that maybe there will be a day when our voices, our word alone, will be enough.

JESSICA VALENTI is a columnist and the author of six books on feminism, the latest of which, Sex Object: A Memoir, was a New York Times bestseller. She co-edited the groundbreaking anthology Yes Means Yes: Visions of Female Sexual Power and a World Without Rape, which paved the way for legislation of the same name. In 2004, Valenti founded one of the first feminist blogs,, which Columbia Journalism Review called “head and shoulders above almost any writing on women’s issues in mainstream media.” She has a master’s degree in women’s and gender studies and lives in Brooklyn, New York, with her husband and daughter.

How Bertha Pappenheim Cured Herself


IN THE LATE NINETEENTH CENTURY, SIGMUND FREUD AND HIS COLLEAGUE Josef Breuer broke with scientific convention by attempting to treat hysterics. At the time, the disease then called hysteria—unique to female patients and consisting of curious symptoms like amnesia, increased heart rate, fainting, irritability, sleeplessness, and partial paralysis—was the subject of some controversy. Some thought of it as a physical disease, originating in the uterus; others said that the symptoms were a lie concocted by immoral, attention-seeking women. Their study would take years, and when they set out at the beginning of it, Freud and Breuer anticipated that it would be their life’s greatest work. They suspected that something else was causing hysteria, perhaps some sort of previous life event involving sex, violence, or both. But after years of treating patients, crafting their theories, and dealing with the controversies that their findings provoked, Freud eventually wound up back where he had started: with the conviction that hysterics’ symptoms stemmed from their personal failings, and, in particular, that women who claimed to have been raped in the past were usually lying.

For all the controversy that the condition provoked, at the end of the nineteenth century nearly everyone agreed that hysteria was unworthy of serious scientific inquiry. Real doctors wouldn’t treat it; women with symptoms of hysteria could only seek help from hypnotists, astrologers, and quacks. But some members of the medical avant-garde were beginning to take an interest in the disease. Not long before, a French doctor had been able to isolate symptoms of hysteria among destitute women at a public asylum, proving that the condition was mental, not physical. Inspired by this work, Freud and Breuer were determined to find the psychological root of the phenomenon. And so the men began spending hours and hours talking to women in the durational, intensive setting of psychoanalysis, embarking on what one of their first hysterical patients, the pseudonymous Anna O., termed “the talking cure.” They were trying something that serious men had never done before: thinking about women’s inner lives.

The results were disturbing. Freud and Breuer found that many of the women they treated had memories of violent sexual abuse, usually in more than one instance, and many of them as children. Freud recounted being shocked by the frequency and severity of the assaults that his patients recounted, especially since these women were not from the lower classes—which at the time were thought to be both prone to violence and morally corrupt—but rather from the middle class, his own social milieu. These were women from respectable families of the Vienna bourgeoisie, saying that men from equally respectable families had raped and molested them. Their hysterical symptoms appeared to stem from these moments of abuse, with the women reliving the assaults through invasive, involuntary, and distressing memories that prompted the symptoms. His experiences with these women patients led Freud to conclude that “those with hysteria suffer for the most part from their reminiscences.” That is, they suffered from the memory of being abused.

Bringing sexual assault and rape to light is always about these “reminiscences.” The victim holds her memory of the event close, often concealing it from others for the very reason that her memory contradicts those around her: their understanding of the rapist as an upstanding man, their memory of the past as happy or peaceful. Women are right to suspect that this contradiction could be dangerous. When women give their own versions of history, interrupting a common understanding of the past to give accounts of male violence, female suffering, and widespread complicity, they are often met with hostility, suspicion, retaliation, and silencing. The consequences for a woman who speaks out about the sexual violence she has suffered are often much greater than the consequences for the man who inflicted that violence.

When Freud published his book on hysteria, Studien über Hysterie, he argued that the condition was caused by sexual abuse, that this abuse was widespread even among the respectable classes, and that the great question posed by hysteria was not what was wrong with women, but what was wrong with men for so abusing them. A century after it was published, the Harvard psychologist Judith Herman wrote that the book “still rivals contemporary clinical descriptions of the effects of childhood sexual abuse. It is a brilliant, compassionate, eloquently argued, closely reasoned document.” Freud expected to be praised for his insight and his courage. Instead, the book was almost universally condemned. He faced ostracism, rejection, and mockery from his elders and peers. “I am as isolated as you could wish me to be,” he wrote to a friend during this time. “The word has been given out to abandon me, and a void is forming around me.”

Mortified, Freud soon disavowed his theory that hysteria was an effect of sexual abuse. Instead, he posited that his women patients had invented, and secretly desired, the assaults that they complained about in treatment. “I was at last obliged to recognize that these scenes of seduction had never taken place,” Freud would write of the sexual trauma that women had recounted to him. “They were only fantasies that my patients had made up.” His new conclusion mirrors the now-typical misogynist response used by those who disbelieve women’s accounts of sexual violence: she’s lying, and even if she isn’t, she wanted it anyway.

Freud and Breuer both stopped seeing their women patients, although this break was more difficult to effect than either of them predicted it would be. “Dora,” a woman who had been raped by her father and his friends, left Freud’s office in a rage, angry after he insisted that she had been aroused by the assaults. Anna O. was particularly distressed by the abrupt cancellation of her hours-long, twice-weekly sessions, where she had examined her own inner life with Breuer for several years. She didn’t understand why the inquiry was so suddenly and forcibly cut off; she was upset. In one of her last hysterical episodes, she had feverishly claimed to be pregnant with Breuer’s child. He left her home in a cold sweat, never to see her again. As the doctors abandoned their inquiry into women’s minds, stories like Dora’s and Anna’s were removed back into the secretive realm of private life, and Freud’s reputation was restored.

I am less interested in whether Freud and Breuer’s methodology was sound and more interested in what is revealed in the story of their abortive inquiry into women’s reminiscences. Their experience sets the template for how revelations of rape and sexual assault are received in the public mind—or, rather, how they fail to be received. Freud, Breuer, and their peers had an understanding of themselves as good people, of those around them as good people, while the hysterical patients, with their accounts of molestation, assaults, beatings, and rapes, interrupted this understanding. They showed that the men who were respectable in public were often brutally violent in private. These women’s memories, if believed, would require the men to abandon their worldview and to confront a reality that was much darker, much more intimate in its brutalities. These women’s memories and Freud’s analysis of them, if believed, would signal that sexual assault was so widespread as to be pandemic, and they would imply that radical social reforms would be needed to stop it. Freud and Breuer could not accept this information—and so they did not. The reality of pervasive sexual violence was beyond what their imaginations could contain, beyond what their minds would accept. They forced the women back into silence, and they went on doing things as they always had.

As an observer of #MeToo, I’ve been struck by the growing recognition that women are the keepers of different sets of memories, that we are often tasked with keeping men’s secrets. Most of the burden of this state of affairs falls, brutally, on women. But I do not think that we can overstate the magnitude of what we ask for when we ask the public to believe women, to listen to women’s stories. The task of incorporating women’s experiences into our shared understanding of the world is giant. It is painful. It asks us to reorder all our priorities, all our understandings. It asks us to revisit our memories of times that we thought were placid or happy and to realize that they may in fact have been brutal.

But it’s one thing for women to be privately plagued by reminiscences, to keep their memories secret. It is quite another for them to make their memories public and demand a collective revisiting of the past. This reevaluation of our shared narratives in #MeToo has made a case for widespread social and cultural changes, and many people find these changes unimaginable.

All of #MeToo, and all the previous feminist efforts to bring sexual assault and rape into the public sphere, can be characterized as this kind of reminiscence, a collective return to stories that we have been telling one way—to others, to ourselves—with the demand that we look at those stories with new eyes. The old versions of the stories we’ve told one another have been inadequate; we need to retell them. In the drawing rooms of polite Vienna, where Freud and Breuer socialized and defended their work, the story was that bourgeois men were respectable, sane, upstanding; that their hysterical wives and daughters were struck, spontaneously, by illness. Their patients had offered a different version of the story, and Freud, with Studien über Hysterie, had tentatively tried to tell it—before realizing that the price of telling this story was higher than he was willing to pay.

It is worth remembering that this rupture between a past understanding and a newly informed one—#MeToo’s element of unpleasant surprise—is something that happens to many rape and assault victims themselves. Most victims of sexual violence are attacked by someone they know, someone close to them—a friend, a father, a boyfriend. Their attackers are people they laughed with, people who knew the intimate trivia of their lives. He knew those were bodega flowers on your desk, knew that it was your favorite T-shirt that he ripped. This is the rudest surprise of all, the one that every woman who has been raped by a man she knew can tell you about experiencing. He knew you, saw you in all your humanity, had all the kinds of connections to you that are supposed to make this kind of violence impossible, and—surprise—he attacked you anyway. There is no story that is more devastatingly corrected than this one: that he wouldn’t do that to you, that he’s not that kind of guy.

This disruption is what makes sexual assault so vivid in the minds of victims: the rupture between the world as we had imagined it before and the world that is revealed to be by the assault. “Indelible in the hippocampus is the laughter,” said Christine Blasey Ford, the psychologist, describing how she formed the memory of her own sexual assault at the hands of a teenage Brett Kavanaugh. It is this moment of rupturing, of realizing that you are not safe, that he is not trustworthy, that the laughter is at your expense, that burns itself into the memory. In Freud’s time, the resulting condition was “hysteria,” but later psychologists have classified it as PTSD, a condition that results from an “inability to integrate traumatic memories.” The very source of the event’s awful power is that it is out of sync with our former understanding and is incompatible with our conception of the world.


  • "Feminist champions Jessica Valenti and Jaclyn Friedman are back with their second anthology, rallying a handful of contributors like Samantha Irby, Dahlia Lithwick, Ayanna Pressley, Moira Donegan, and Julia Serano to share their personal stories on sexual assault, consent, gender norms, and overall life after the #MeToo movement."—Marie Claire, Best Books of Winter
  • "This urgent volume shines a light on the moral imperative to trust and believe women in order to save lives."—Ms.
  • "Feminist champions Jessica Valenti and Jaclyn Friedman are back with their second anthology, rallying a handful of contributors like Samantha Irby, Dahlia Lithwick, Ayanna Pressley, Moira Donegan, and Julia Serano to share their personal stories on sexual assault, consent, gender norms, and overall life after the #MeToo movement."—Marie Claire, Best Books of Winter
  • "In this urgent essay collection, feminist activists Valenti and Friedman bring together a diverse range of contributors to make the case for 'a simple but radical trust in women' ... Consistently well-written and soundly reasoned, these essays persuasively cast the tendency to doubt women as one of America's greatest social ills ... an illuminating call to action."—Publishers Weekly
  • "Inclusive and essential... a must-have for the modern reader."—Library Journal, starred review
  • "Believe Me is a book that lives up to its title. Jessica Valenti and Jaclyn Friedman have brought together writers, legal experts, actors, advocates, and more, creating both a call to action and a roadmap for a better future -- the future women deserve. It's hard to imagine a more powerful and timely portrait of the moment we're in, and where I hope we're headed."—Cecile Richards, co-founder of Supermajority and former president of Planned Parenthood
  • "A fierce, necessary volume of truth, accountability, and prognostication from a roster of the most fearless and perceptive writers working today. Believe Me feels like therapy to anyone who has been paying attention."—Lindy West

On Sale
Jan 28, 2020
Page Count
336 pages
Seal Press