Each person has undeniable truths, like being very tall, or speaking several languages, or growing up Catholic: These are facts, generally only as heavy as the weight you assign them, strung together in whatever combination you choose to tell the story of you. In this way, one day, you come to terms with the fact that you are a survivor of abuse—not necessarily that you’re at peace with it or past it, just that it happened. Facts are facts: I was assaulted. It happened. But when I tried to talk about it, I was discredited and shamed instead of believed.
Several years ago, after leaving an emotionally and sexually abusive partner who was also a prominent member of our small punk scene, I came forward to a handful of people about what had happened, and the fact that he was still stalking and threatening me. I screencapped his sexually violent, frightening text messages— sometimes dozens in one day— and sent them to close friends so they could help me document what was happening. This was a risky move on my behalf: He reminded me regularly that if I ever told anyone about what he had done, he would kill himself and make sure the world knew it was my fault. But I needed to know that in the event of my disappearance, there were people who could point the authorities to the person who might have caused it. I needed to know that I wasn’t completely alone; that someone, somewhere would listen when I told them what was going on.
My friends dutifully read and acknowledged every horrifying message. They served as a support network, texting me periodically to check in, alerting me if they thought they saw him in the neighborhood around where I worked, and telling me if he was likely to be in town for a show I might be attending. They also respected my desire to keep the situation low-key: I’d lost friends to suicide before, and though he was no friend of mine, I still felt the very real worry that comes with knowing someone in your life is threatening to kill themselves. Outside of my immediate circle, few people were willing to treat my situation with seriousness or respect.
At a meeting about a month after our breakup, when friends of his from our community started trying to discern the truth about what had happened, it was discussed whether or not he should still be allowed to attend events at the community show space we’d helped maintain. When one of my friends mentioned the screencaps as evidence against him, she was immediately told that I was lying and had somehow faked hundreds of messages for attention. When this was relayed to me the next day, it almost felt worse than the actual threats I’d been receiving, day in and day out for weeks. I had the receipts: What more could I do? Many of the people at the meeting were friends of his who had been to our house often enough to know firsthand that our relationship was extremely unstable. There was no denying that he regularly exhibited racist, sexist, transphobic behavior that made a number of people in our community feel unsafe. For them to willfully deny my experiences and choose to afford more belief and trust in a guy who had inarguably threatened to rape and kill me felt like a knife in the gut.
He was still welcome at shows for several months after my situation became known, whereas I had friends of his coming to my door drunk in the middle of the night trying to start verbal altercations with me. It was only after he started a romantic relationship with a close friend’s ex-girlfriend that he was finally pushed out of the community for good. It took an act of bro-on-bro betrayal for him to finally be seen for the monster he truly is: Not because he had traumatized and endangered a woman, but because he’d “conquered” the wrong one.
An old but oft-cited statistic posits that only around 2 percent of reported instances of sexual assault are false claims. For a huge variety of reasons, it’s estimated that only 40 percent of rapes and sexual assaults are reported to the police. Some statistics place the amount of rapes that go unreported at a staggering 64 percent to 96 percent. This makes the number of false claims, reported and otherwise, remarkably small. Still, it’s almost guaranteed that community members will accuse a survivor of lying if the attacker is one of their friends or is otherwise a person of significant social status. There will be no end to people’s claims that someone is incapable of committing a heinous act; after all, he’s such a nice guy. And just think what effect this will have on his future!
The sick truth is, rape allegations are often misrepresented by those who discredit them as a way for women to gain power over men. This argument distracts from the truth of what rape really is: a way for men to assert their culturally-sanctioned power over women (yes, it is important to acknowledge that people of all genders can rape and be raped, but a disproportionate amount of sexual assaults are committed by cisgender men against people assigned female at birth).
It’s one of the cruelest situations a person can find themselves in; to know that it’s unlikely anyone will believe that violence was done against you, even when there’s evidence to the contrary. The power used against you in those moments comes from the exact same place as the power that wants to call you a liar and keep you quiet, that provides police and clergy and academic boards the agency to protect the men who have tried to break you. It keeps so many from coming forward. This power protects rapists and abusers and leaves victims to fend for ourselves, struggling to form bonds with people who haven’t been through similar experiences. It’s been years, and I still have major, emotionally crippling trust issues as a result of my own abuse, in regards to both dating and community involvement.
Why are people more willing to publicly side with a rapist rather than a survivor? When women are sexually assaulted, others sometimes assume they were complicit or otherwise “asking for it”—this wrongheadedness is commonly referred to as “victim blaming.” Or, worse, the victims are accused of lying outright, accused of making up events that never actually happened. Usually, this is because people don’t want to confront the reality that their friends, family, or community members are abusers, so victims’ stories are discredited. People dig back into our pasts trying to scare up even the vaguest of evidence of our “bad reputations;” that we were dressed provocatively; that we’re compulsive liars, not to be trusted.
One of the easiest ways to retain your power over someone is to posit yourself as being honest and good and the other person as a very bad liar. This is why, when a friend comes forward as a survivor of rape or abuse—even if that friend is a compulsive liar, because liars can be raped, too—the most important thing you can do is BELIEVE THEM. The power of belief, in this instance, means showing someone they can trust you after they’ve had their trust violated. Trust is radical: It’s a way of subjugating the system that set them up to be assaulted in such a hateful way in the first place.