But, it’s not so simple, is it? It should be, right? If someone told you their daughter died in a car accident, you wouldn’t tell them, “Well, your daughter really shouldn’t have been out driving by herself so late in the afternoon,” or “I think she asked for it. She was driving a red car.” What makes sexual violence so different? Why are we so quick to shame and blame and not believe?
First, the fact that we normalize sexual violence in our daily lives—hear jokes about it, see rape depicted on TV and film without comment, participate in calling one another dehumanizing words for women, decide not to intervene when our pals are trying to “nail a girl” using alcohol to make her vulnerable—makes acts of sexual violence seem less, well, violent. A song like “Blurred Lines” topping the music charts around the world for several weeks offers us a social barometer for how we think about these issues—as blurry, as normal, and even fun. Seriously. Have you listened to the song? It’s catchy, and easy to find yourself jamming to in your car. And that’s really the thing: it’s easy. It is an easy choice to ignore the parts of the song that suggest anal rape, to pretend that “I know you want it” isn’t something said by rapist after rapist. It is a lot more difficult to turn off the radio if the song’s got a great beat; it is easier to dismiss the song’s critique as “rapey” because it allows us to continue living the easy life that does not involve having to think about sexual violence as a daily reality for so many individuals.
Second, though all of us would certainly agree that rape is bad, what “counts” as sexual violence in the general public seems to be dependent on a variety of factors: what someone was wearing when the act of violence occurred, what they were doing, the person’s “reputation,” or how much we like the person being accused of sexual assault. Instead of simply believing someone when they come to us and tell us something horrible happened to them, we immediately come up with all these reasons that thing just could not be true. I think one of the reasons we do this is to feel safe, like this couldn’t happen to us, that it couldn’t happen to me. If I blame someone for drinking too much, I can feel safer thinking that I would never drink that much. If I blame someone for what they were wearing, I can think I have some security because I would never wear that. See, blaming someone for what happened to them shifts responsibility for an act of sexual violence from the person who committed that act—who could commit that act against any of us—to the victim of that act. And shifting that blame allows to us deal less with the fact that rape is so prevalent and something that could happen no matter how “careful” you are, how many self-defense classes you take, or how much you trust someone. This is a difficult reality, and it is a reality we have to deal with when we choose to truly believe someone who discloses they have experienced sexual violence.
Third, choosing to believe means acknowledging that people we have trusted—people we look up to—are capable of committing rape. When Andrea McNulty reported that Steelers quarterback “Big Ben” Roethlisberger had raped her, she was told by a security guard at the casino where it happened that its president was friends with Roethlisberger and that most girls would feel lucky to have sex with someone like him. She wasn’t believed. A couple years later Big Ben faced similar allegations from another woman, but the public cheers him on like nothing happened. Though charges against Kobe Bryant were dropped because the woman he attacked did not want have to testify in court and become identified to the public, he wrote a letter admitting that he knew he raped her. He is still celebrated. Mike Tyson was actually convicted of raping Desiree Washington but his fan base grew stronger than ever at her expense. When The New York Times published Dylan Farrow’s letter describing her abuse at the hands of her stepfather, Woody Allen, she was brushed off by many as being manipulative, brainwashed by her mother, and crazy. Now I am certainly not a judge or a jury, and I was not there in these situations to know exactly what went down. But what I do know is that as a public, we are far more likely to quickly dismiss survivors who come forward than to believe them—because that would mean believing that these men we admire as athletes and cheer on at sporting events and support at the movie theater might possibly be rapists. And believing they may be rapists means we have to rethink the stereotype we have in our heads of what a rapist looks like: a stranger who jumps out of the bushes who looks and acts creepy. We can feel safer thinking we know how to identify someone who might hurt us, even though 90% of the time survivors know their attackers. It can be a difficult process to figure out how to deal with the fact that Woody Allen might be a terrible human being. Or how to negotiate loving the Steelers and recognizing Big Ben as a rapist. It is easier to just put it out of our minds and continue watching Woody Allen flicks, to “forget” Kobe admitted to rape while we cheer on the Lakers.
I watched this happen in a town I worked in several years ago. Six teenage girls came forward after being molested by their high school volleyball coach. Though they were believed by their parents, the town turned against them. Community members painted messages of support on their cars for the coach, they organized a rally in his honor. The girls were harassed and thrown into their lockers at school. They were not believed because believing this coach had done these things would mean that everyone was wrong about him, that he couldn’t be trusted—this man coaching their daughters’ sports teams. It was later learned that he was fired from his previous school district after similar allegations there. I still catch Facebook friends of mine hailing this coach in their status updates. It is far easier to continue believing that the world does not work this way. That coaches don’t touch their athletes inappropriately. That fathers don’t abuse their children. That someone we trust would never do this.
But individuals who have experienced sexual violence do not have that luxury. And if we are really honest with ourselves, and consider the statistical probability that many women and girls in our lives—as well as boys and men and transgender individuals—are affected by these issues, and if we take a moment to empathize with someone who just wants this thing to go away but instead comes to us to tell us what happened, wondering what we will say, how we will treat them—I hope we will make the choice to start by believing every time, no matter how difficult it might seem at the outset. It is a simple act with a profound effect. Just imagine how ideas about sexual violence would change in our culture if millions of people around the world simply started by believing. Not only would we create a worldwide network of support for individuals who have experienced sexual violence, we would simultaneously communicate an intolerance for sexual violence and accountability for those who commit it. So let’s start now. Let’s Start by Believing.