Believe Survivors

Whether you are having lunch at the office, sitting in a classroom, or watching the news, the term sexual violence is at the forefront of all conversations. It’s safe to say that the #MeToo movement has affected the lives of both men and women around the world.

However, for survivors of sexual violence, this movement has been both a catharsis and a trigger. As #MeToo focuses on calling out bad behaviour, women for the first time feel they can acknowledge their wounds to the world but are also painfully subjected to scrutiny.

As time has gone on, #MeToo has brought something complicated and ugly out of society. Women who raise allegations against their attackers are now expected to provide heaping amounts of evidence and be open to scrutinization of their personal and professional lives in order to be believed. Rather than women being viewed as survivors of violence, they are seen as liars fabricating stories to smear men for personal/political gain.

This insensitivity to sexual violence comes in the form of demeaning questions posed to discredit the victim’s experience. Did she explicitly say no? Was it a misunderstanding? Why didn’t she report it when it happened? Why bring it up now? Did she allow herself to be in that position? What’s her motivation? Did she deserve it?

Sexual violence, no matter to what degree, is sexual violence. Every case of sexual assault and/or harassment is an experience that “counts” so we can’t be the judges to categorize someone else’s trauma as being “bad enough.” Everyone deals with trauma differently, but in one way or another, their experience has been painful, traumatizing and always valid.

On September 27, Dr. Christine Blasey Ford gave a very public testimony alleging Judge and Supreme Court Nominee Brett Kavanaugh of sexually assaulting her in high school to the Senate Judiciary Committee. Her testimony resonated with millions of people with her calm, yet strong demeanour. She recounted the incident in detail, provided proof of her trauma, and asked for an independent FBI investigation. However, Dr. Ford’s bravery has been met with both support and immense skepticism.

On the other side of the world in India, Tanushree Dutta, a former Bollywood actress and Femina Miss India Universe, is refacing the public with her sexual violence experience from over a decade ago. Dutta has spoken out against Vivek Agnihotri and Nana Patekar for sexually harassing her during the filming of two separate films in 2005 and 2008 respectively. Her experiences have been corroborated by a journalist and an assistant director, yet many still question her intentions rather than admiring her courage to speak out for the second time.

In order to believe survivors, it’s important to understand why women don’t report their abuse when it occurs. The experience of sexual violence is incredibly traumatic for survivors. The attacker strips away the agency of another person’s mind and body by touching them without consent and imposing them to an unsafe and uncomfortable environment. They leave the victim in a state of feeling violated, humiliated, and dehumanized.

Survivors then find themselves at a crossroads between dealing with their emotional turmoil silently while letting the attacker go free to harm others or to hold the attacker accountable but expose their wounds to an apathetic public. Reporting takes immense courage as it’s painful to relive the experience and very few cases end in prosecution.  How do you share something so terrifying and personal when you feel that no one will believe you? Why would you make yourself vulnerable to the world when you’ll be blamed for someone else’s actions? Why would you share your story when people will look at you with pity and label you as a victim? What if the attacker tries to retaliate against you? How do you share your experience when all those before you have been picked apart by the public?

Survivors live with the effects of their assault their entire lives. Someone’s touch, smell, voice, clothes, hair, and even the most trivial of things are triggering. So, when women speak up and voluntarily unstitches their wounds, we must acknowledge them, we must respect them, and we must support them. It’s their bravery and a sense of civic duty that gives them the courage to speak up.

Believing survivors doesn’t cost us much. Saying, “I believe you” doesn’t mean that we immediately condemn the accused party, but rather that we will investigate to get to the truth. By providing support, rather than victim-blaming, women feel understood and regain a bit of themselves. Survivors spend their lives denying intimacy and love, feeling undeserving and second-guessing every decision. All that can change just by acknowledging their story.

Lately, the conversation surrounding sexual violence has been “we worry for our sons” in regards to false accusations. This conversation needs to focus less on disregarding sexual violence allegations, but rather on investigations. Fair and just investigations are our duty to conduct to prevent false accusations, all while making the conscious effort to believe women and treat both parties with respect. However, immediately disregarding the testimony of a survivor based on sexist and misogynistic views without any due process is exactly what breeds the culture that tells women not to report crimes because they won’t be believed. Survivors need to be respected and be heard.

This “it’s a very scary time for young men” rhetoric just highlights the ignorance people have about the #MeToo movement and is offensive to women all over the world. Women have suffered at the hands of the patriarchy for generations. As more and more waves of women are reclaiming their time, holding people accountable for their actions and taking their seats in leadership, it hasn’t been without a cost. Men still hold societal power, whether they are accused of sexual violence or not. Kavanaugh being sworn in as a Supreme Court Justice proves just that. A man’s life continues as normal and is able to maintain his power, no matter his actions.

Survivors are also held to an unattainable standard. They are expected to have a detailed memory of their experience due to the level of trauma faced. If it was so traumatic, how could you forget it?  Inconsistencies in memory after a traumatic event, especially sexual assault, are very common. Human memories are faulty. Memory doesn’t function as a video camera recording life. When under a high-stress situation, our peripheral vision is compromised because we go into survival mode. Our focus is limited to what’s directly in front of us to help us stay alive and get out of the situation. When we are fearing for our lives, our brains filter out all the irrelevant information and just zoom into core details. However, fixating on the gaps of survivor memories makes it harder to take allegations of sexual violence seriously. Highlighting the inconsistencies is a way to demolish the credibility of the victim as when their information can’t be recalled we view them as suspicious.

Our brain also tries to suppress memories because they are painful to relive again and again. Victims of traumatic events usually hide away the memories in order to move forward and protect their mental health. Thus, when survivors come out with their story, it’s difficult for them to recall details, however, the effects of the event are always clear.

It’s important to realize that not one person reacts the same to a traumatic event. There is no “proper” way to react. Sexual violence is something that is extremely personal to each individual. Everyone’s boundaries are different, so when they are crossed, the trauma faced is also different.

Today’s youth are apart of the media generation. Never before has the youth been so civically and socially engaged. Our actions of today are being watched closely by the generation of tomorrow, thus we need to believe survivors to show young boys and girls that sexual violence is unacceptable. When we use derogatory terms to describe women, we solidify negative stereotypes against them. When we dismiss survivors, we tell little girls that if something of the sort occurs to them or their friends, it’s excusable. It tells young boys that they will not be held accountable to their actions, thus can assert control with aggression and still gain power in society.

In 1991, Anita Hill gave an emotional testimony of sexual harassment to the Senate Judiciary Committee for the confirmation of Clarence Thomas. Sadly, Hill’s experience was dismissed and Thomas took his seat on the Supreme Court and still sits there today. We must lead by example to teach the next generation of adults what is and isn’t acceptable in order to prevent history from repeating itself. Unfortunately today, we can see great parallels between Hill and Dr. Ford.

To actively create a change in societal culture regarding sexual violence, we not only need to believe survivors but also learn to provide support. Be there for your friends, colleagues, family and strangers so they find strength from you. We need to provide a safe space for survivors to come forward with their own experiences of injustice. Be an ally, call out bad behaviour and learn to listen because #TimesUp.


*Disclaimer: The featured image is by Fabrice Villard on Unsplash.

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