In recent months, we’ve seen an unprecedented wave of testimonials about the serious harms women all too frequently endure. The #MeToo moment, the #WhyIStayed campaign, and the Larry Nassar sentencing hearings have raised public awareness not only about workplace harassment, domestic violence, and sexual abuse, but also about how routinely women survivors face a Gaslight‐style gauntlet of doubt, disbelief, and outright dismissal of their stories. This pattern is particularly disturbing in the justice system, where women face a legal twilight zone: laws meant to protect them and deter further abuse often fail to achieve their purpose, because women telling stories of abuse by their male partners are simply not believed. To fully grasp the nature of this new moment in gendered power relations—and to cement the significant gains won by these public campaigns—we need to take a full, considered look at when, how, and why the justice system and other key social institutions discount women’s credibility.
We use the lens of intimate partner violence to examine the ways in which women’s credibility is discounted in a range of legal and social service system settings. First, judges and others improperly discount as implausible women’s stories of abuse, based on a failure to understand both the symptoms arising from neurological and psychological trauma, and the practical constraints on survivors’ lives. Second, gatekeepers unjustly discount women’s personal trustworthiness, based on both inaccurate interpretations of survivors’ courtroom demeanor and negative cultural stereotypes about women and their motivations for seeking assistance. Moreover, even when a woman manages to overcome all the initial modes of institutional skepticism that minimize her account of abuse, she often finds that the systems designed to furnish her with help and protection dismiss the importance of her experiences. Instead, all too often, the arbiters of justice and social welfare adopt and enforce legal and social policies and practices with little regard for how they perpetuate patterns of abuse.
Two distinct harms arise from this pervasive pattern of credibility discounting and experiential dismissal. First, the discrediting of survivors constitutes its own psychic injury—an institutional betrayal that echoes the psychological abuse women suffer at the hands of individual perpetrators. Second, the pronounced, nearly instinctive penchant for devaluing women’s testimony is so deeply embedded within survivors’ experience that it becomes a potent, independent obstacle to their efforts to obtain safety and justice.
The reflexive discounting of women’s stories of domestic violence finds analogs among the kindred diminutions and dismissals that harm so many other women who resist the abusive exercise of male power, from survivors of workplace harassment to victims of sexual assault on and off campus. For these women, too, credibility discounts both deepen the harm they experience and create yet another impediment to healing and justice. Concrete, systematic reforms are needed to eradicate these unjust, gender‐based credibility discounts and experiential dismissals, and to enable women subjected to male abuses of power at long last to trust the responsiveness of the justice system.