Volume XXII

She's Crazy (To Think We'll Believe Her): Credibility Discounting of Women with Mental Illness in the Era of #MeToo

by Katherine M. Cole

“What? Don’t believe her. She’s crazy.” And often, we don’t. Women are frequently disbelieved just by virtue of being women, and “crazy” is a convenient, gendered shorthand to further discredit—regardless of whether or not the target of such “credibility discounting” actually experiences mental illness. These women are not, however, uniformly disbelieved in all aspects of their lives: Credibility discounting is particularly potent for those women with mental illness reporting sexual violence, either because we suspect that they are lying or we simply do not trust their perception of events.

This Note is the first analysis of credibility discounting at the juncture of gender, sexual violence, and mental illness. Credibility discounts operate throughout the course of litigation, from the decision whether to bring suit at all, the ability to win, and even to valuation of damages. Of course, not all claims of sexual violence have merit. But automatic assumptions that claims are false merely because of the accuser’s identity are no more just than the opposite conclusion.

Sexual harassment law in particular operates to discredit women living with mental illness. The “hostile environment” determination, at first glance, appears cabined into objective and subjective inquiries. In practice, however, women’s credibility is reflexively and pervasively discounted. Even though the objective standard is designed to be judged from the “perspective of a reasonable person in the plaintiff’s position, considering ‘all the circumstances,’” the relevant circumstances have not been effectively extended to mental illness. This Note proposes adoption of a contextualized reasonableness standard that consciously incorporates mental illness and recognizes that mental illness and reasonableness are not mutually exclusive.

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