Woody or Dylan: Whose Story to Believe?

02/04/2014 09:23 am ET | Updated Apr 06, 2014

There are no new allegations against Woody Allen and yet, the story of his family is once again the subject of public debate. Dylan Farrow wrote an open letter to Allen's fans published in the NYT blog on February 1. She gives a first person account of being sexually abused by Allen, telling her mother, being questioned by authorities and dismissed by the public. She tells of experiencing panic and pain at the public's adoration of her abuser, and of her concern over his access to other children.

Much of the online kerfuffle is focused on how no one can know what happened, and therefore, her view of events must be dismissed. These logical non sequiturs in public opinion about the two parties in question are a lesson in how women's stories are dismissed, men are protected and how often "we don't know" comes to mean, "she's wrong."

One of the more popular articles, for instance, by Allen's film-biographer and friendly acquaintance, Robert Weide, casts doubt on Farrow's story using a variety of tangentially related facts that lead the reader to a spurious conclusion. For instance, the addition of doubt about whether Allen and Mia Farrow's son Ronan is actually the product of "infidelity" between Farrow and the late Frank Sinatra is utterly irrelevant to the question of child sexual abuse. It assumes a monolithic agreement to monogamy that has not been established. It places decisions about sex within adult relationships against the decision to sexually abuse a child as though they are related or equal or... something. This logic mash-up is common -- discredit one or more of the participants and dismiss the argument. Most readers don't even know what's happening there; they just know something doesn't "feel right" about Dylan Farrow's story after reading Weide's article.

This is the stuff we're great at: scooping up any stories that support a view we already hold. I mean "we" as in, the general public, media, law, including me and you and any commentator on public issues. We have to put forth effort to create and discern logical arguments.

If it's true that we can't know, and assuming that both parties have reasonable credibility as sane adults, let's look at what's likely. Child sexual abuse is extremely common. While actual rates are difficult to determine because of vast under-reporting, at least 1 in 5 women were sexually abused as children. A huge majority of abusers are men and children living with non-biological parents are far more likely to be abused. Further, Dylan Farrow's account is very common. The alleged abuse seemed so "normal" and routine. The trauma she suffered included self-abuse and eating disorders. These responses are especially common among survivors who were not believed or not well-supported in healing. Lastly, the rate of false accusations about child sexual abuse is under ten percent. Of these, only a handful of accusations are made by the victim -- as in Dylan Farrow's case -- rather than by a caregiver.

Statistically speaking, it's far more likely that Woody Allen abused his daughter, as she says.

So, the question is, why are so many people -- including those like Robert Weide who have a connection to Allen but no experience with the incident in question -- so quick to disbelieve Dylan Farrow's story and to amass doubt-inducing anecdotes to do so? The combination of rape culture/victim blaming and our cultural comfort and ease with faulty logic are to blame.

Certainly, it's tough to believe something terrible about someone whose work and personality are well loved. The state of Connecticut also found insufficient evidence to arrest Woody Allen back in 1993 when the case was being investigated. This is often true with criminal investigations of child sexual abuse -- it takes a lot to "prove" that a child is telling the truth if there were no witnesses.

Perhaps more significantly, we've all been trained to believe, since childhood, that sexual predators are true crazies, deviants, and the stranger in the black sedan cruising the playground for victims. We've all been trained to believe -- despite massive evidence to the contrary, that attractive or employed or smart or famous men are less likely to be pedophiles. We've all been trained to make excuses for men and to support and protect their abilities to make a living and maintain a good reputation. We see this again and again in cases like the gang rape in Steubenville, Ohio last year where news stories focused on the boy's reputations being ruined rather than the victim's experiences. This was true even in a case with witnesses and recorded evidence.

Rather than rushing to decide whom to believe, without questioning our own socialization, stories like Dylan Farrow's should be carefully analyzed for their consistency with other stories like them. We may come to see that our cultural inability to stop child sexual abuse lies in how we treat its victims, how unquestionable abuse feels to many victims and how quickly we move to defend perpetrators who seem "normal" or indeed, laudable. Then we can begin to question the status quo in men's entitlement to the sexualization of children.