Believe the Victim Investigations:

A ‘near-religious teaching’ 


NEW: Open Letter Signed by 137 Professors and Legal Experts Regarding Victim-Centered Practices

Special Report‘Believe the Victim:’ The Transformation of Justice


Due process and the presumption of innocence are being threatened by efforts to:

  1. Remove key protections from the accused
  2. Eliminate use of the words “alleged” and “allegedly
  3. Refer to the complainant as the “victim”
  4. Instruct investigators to “believe the victim”

“Believe the victim” provides the ideological foundation for three related investigational approaches: “Start by Believing, “victim-centered investigations” and “trauma-informed” response.

Victim-Centered Investigations

Universities are required to implement grievance procedures providing for “prompt and equitable resolution” of complaints of sexual discrimination. The Office for Civil Rights’  Revised Sexual Harassment Guidance mandates that universities undertake “adequate, reliable, and impartial investigation of complaints” and employ “[p]rocedures that . . . will lead to sound and supportable decisions.”

In contrast, victim-centered investigations employ procedures that emphasize the collection of corroborative evidence supportive of the complainant and discourage the collection of exculpatory evidence, thereby increasing the likelihood of a finding of responsibility. Victim-centered investigations represent a departure from ethical standards of investigative impartiality, neutrality, and objectivity, thus removing the presumption of innocence from the accused. These are two of many examples:

  • The University of Texas School of Social Work published a “Blueprint for Campus Police” based on the victim-centered model. The Blueprint is brazen in its recommendations that investigators should seek to anticipate and counter defense strategies (Table 7.4) and presume the truthfulness of the accuser:
    • “The victim’s trauma response may make them appear less credible due to fragmented or lost memories and their attempts to make sense of what happened. Whereas, the alleged perpetrator knows what happened and therefore, appears to make more sense, which can be mistaken for credibility.” (p. 97)
    • “Victims often self-blame and feel bad about what happened, while alleged perpetrators often don’t feel badly about it, except for being caught.” (p. 97)
    • “Studies have consistently shown that detecting deception is difficult, so officers may not realize when a perpetrator is lying.” (p. 97)
  • A training program by the consulting firm Margolis Healy & Associates instructs college investigators to:
    • “Always approach a case believing that ‘something’ occurred” (slide 26)
    • Obtain “Documentation of sensory and peripheral details from the victim’s perspective” (slide 27), and
    • “Focus on offender behavior – not victim behavior” (slide 28)

Harvard Law School professor Jeannie Suk describes the believe-the-victim mantra as a “near-religious teaching” that is certain to harm rape victims: “When the core belief is that accusers never lie, if any one accuser has lied, it brings into question the stability of the entire thought system, rendering uncertain all allegations of sexual assault.”

Victim-centered investigations are giving rise to due process lawsuits by students against universities. In many cases, the accused students are prevailing.

Trauma-Informed Response

The trauma-informed response has been defined as:

“a response involving an understanding of the complexities of dating violence, domestic violence, sexual assault, and stalking through training centered on the neurobiological impact of trauma, the influence of societal myths and stereotypes surrounding the causes and impacts of trauma, understanding the behavior of perpetrators, and conducting an effective investigation.”

Scientific research does support the notion that in cases of life-threatening trauma or forcible rape, the victim may experience an immobility response and later provide inconsistent accounts to investigators. But as the above definition reveals, the concept is being applied to stalking and other types of incidents that do not qualify as “life-threatening” or are not forcible in nature.

Even then, delayed reporting and confusing testimony should not be interpreted as evidence that the alleged incident actually occurred, just as the complaint’s contradictory claims should not be presumed to be evidence of a wrongful allegation.

In addition, alcohol-induced memory fragmentation can lead to the same problem of faulty recollection of events. Psychologist Elizabeth Loftus has commented that with alcohol-induced memory fragmentation, attempts to reconstruct events are “vulnerable to post-event suggestion.” This can include a Title IX investigator labeling a consensual act as rape. It’s then “easy for exaggerated, or even entirely false, memories to be created, ones that feel completely real,” Loftus reveals.

Journalist Emily Yoffe concludes:

“The result is not only a system in which some men are wrongly accused and wrongly punished. It is a system vulnerable to substantial backlash. University professors and administrators should understand this. And they, of all people, should identify and call out junk science.”


This is a listing of editorials critical of the “believe the victim” approach: