Late last night, we learned that the story of Carlee Russell, a 25-year-old woman from Alabama who went missing and returned home two days later claiming she was abducted, was likely a hoax. This news was a shock to concerned and outspoken users of apps like TikTok and Twitter, who had used their platforms to spread awareness of Carlee’s abduction and help bring her home.
The story is still evolving, and I won’t be speculating on what did or did not happen. Instead, I want to discuss the probable implications this story will have on women’s stories in the future.
There will be people — those who were already inclined to disbelieve women — who will use this story to further discredit and invalidate us when we come forward with allegations of harm or abuse.
The patriarchy continues to uphold the “good ole’ boys club” that exists primarily, it seems, to protect men from their own unconscionable behaviors. To allow them to act with impunity in whatever ways serve them best. That system, that structure that upholds and perpetuates mens’ harms against women, is swift in its weaponization of stories like these.
The same men who see evidence that an incredibly small number of women’s allegations turn out to be false and say, “this is why women can’t be believed” will see evidence of the profound and far-reaching harms done by men against women and say, “not all men.” They are so quick to disbelieve all women based on the bad actions of one, while giving the benefit of the doubt to all men despite the bad actions of many.
Carlee’s case is already being weaponized by these “not all men” men to cast doubt and speculation upon women’s stories. They aim to paint women as calculating, vindictive, manipulative cheats who lie about men to receive money, attention, clout, or revenge.
The goal of these men is to enable their abuses against women to continue with impunity. But of course, those men will never say that part out loud.
They will say they’re just fighting for justice. Protecting “our” right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty. Defending “poor, unsuspecting young men” from being falsely accused.
But I’d ask — if that’s true, where is their outrage when women’s right to freedom from danger, harassment, and physical harm is violated? Where is their fury when young women go missing, sold into human trafficking, and murdered? Where is their podium-pounding over the missing and murdered Indigenous women, the Black women who disappear and no one bothers to look for them because that’s a “community problem”?
Asking these questions makes their motives obvious. It’s not about anyone’s rights, not about due process or the Constitution. It’s simply about protecting men’s unencumbered access to overt and covert abuses of women without facing penalties for their crimes.
And it’s certainly not about women.
The Carlee Russell case will have a negative impact on how women’s stories are received by the public going forward. The negative impact isn’t because Carlee has that power, but because men do. Because powerful men, and the women who haven’t yet unpacked their internalized misogyny, will never let this story die. They will use it as a reason to not believe women’s stories in the future, to pay no mind to the women who go missing every day. And because white supremacy continues to reign in this country, Black women and other women of color will receive the worst of it.
In the face of this, it is crucial that we, as women, continue to believe women. Two things can be true at once. You can choose to believe women when they come forward with such allegations, and still advocate for all evidence to be explored before judgments are made. You can believe women, and still believe in due process of law. You can believe women, and still be willing to amend your beliefs based on the evidence.
“Believing women” simply means listening to them, receiving their story with empathy, and giving benefit of the doubt that their story is true. It doesn’t mean you have to keep believing them when the evidence negates their story. It just means that you provide a safe space for women to come forward with their stories and trust that they will be believed.
Carlee Russell needs to be held accountable for her actions. If women’s stories are to be believed, we must have a zero tolerance policy for women who make choices that cast doubt on all of our stories. Even if she doesn’t face legal consequences, Carlee will have to live with the humiliation of what she’s done for the rest of her life. For that, I pity her. I feel sad that she will be used as a prop for men who hate women, and Black women in particular, for the foreseeable future. But we still must publicly sanction her actions, as they threaten harm to us all.
The real story here isn’t the misguided actions of a young woman who made a terrible mistake. The real story is of the chronic, pervasive, and systemic malice toward women that will be further enabled through the weaponization of that mistake.
Women, the best thing we can do, is to continue believing women. It hurts to be duped, to have offered our voices, our platforms, our resources to help someone who was lying the whole time. But we can’t become jaded. We must remember that stories like these are rare. And the women who come forward with real stories deserve to be met with empathy, respect, and most of all, belief.