Why We Still Don’t Believe Women About Sexual Assault
In 2014, Bill Cosby’s first accuser came forward. Cosby had made rape jokes for years. Yet no one believed her. Dozens of survivors had to come forward before people were willing to consider the possibility that a woman might be telling the truth about a notoriously common crime. This week, many of Cosby’s survivors packed the court as he was sentenced to prison time.
We’ve constructed a collective narrative that makes women inherently unreliable. We dismiss women as hysterical exaggerators, as excessively emotional, as fame and status-seeking. We watch as women are destroyed by publicly coming forward. Yet we still insist that they’re doing it to get something.
How many of Cosby’s survivors can you name? Without Googling, I can’t name a single one. Clearly they’re not getting famous off of this. We all know this, deep down. We still insist that women are just so unreliable.
We hear stories of men who aren’t adequately punished for their crimes. Like the doctor who raped a patient and who will get no prison time. We watched as rapist Brock Turner was sentenced to a mere six months, and then witnessed headlines refer to him as a “Stanford swimmer” rather than a convicted sex abuser.
We don’t believe our lying eyes. We’d rather dismiss more than half of the population as frivolous liars than accept the glaring reality: men are abusing women at epidemic levels, and no woman is safe.
Christine Blasey Ford Stands Up for Us All
Our refusal to accept women as fully human, as reliable reporters of what they need and what has happened to them, is a major factor in our refusal to believe them when they say they need abortions. And now women across the nation are facing a terrifying reality: a man who attempted to rape at least one woman, and who likely sexually assaulted many more, may get to decide if rape victims get to have abortions—or if they are forced to birth a rapist’s baby, then fight with the rapist over child custody.
Courts are already ignoring Roe vs. Wade in anticipation of Kavanaugh’s appointment. Abortion clinics across the country are already forced to lie to women, to make them wait, to force them to look at images of fetuses.
Christine Blasey Ford is trying to save us from the terrifying reality of a sexual predator getting to decide what women do with their bodies. There’s nothing to gain here—only more trauma.
This week Brett Kavanaugh’s wife met reporters outside their home and gave them cupcakes. We’re supposed to see this as evidence of the Kavanaugh’s fundamental goodness. His wife makes cupcakes, for God’s sake! He was in the choir! He can’t be a sexual predator!
Doctor Ford had to flee her home after receiving death threats.
This shouldn’t come as a surprise. This is what we do—often on a smaller scale—to women who come forward. We disbelieve them, or tell them it wasn’t that bad. And when they persist, we threaten them. We expose their most embarrassing secrets. We make them repeatedly relive their trauma as we expose them to new traumas. Then we ignore their pain, and tell them they’re only doing it to get famous. After all, everyone knows women are crazy.
Dr. Ford knows this. And yet as I write this, she heads to the Senate to open up her pain for everyone to see. She does this to protect us all—me, you, our daughters, our sons. We owe her a debt of gratitude. We give her death threats.
#MeToo: Women’s Collective Meltdown, and What Loved Ones Can Do to Help
I’ve always been skeptical of the #metoo movement. Rather than just believing social science research showing how common rape is, or caring about sexual abuse because it happens to people, we put the burden on women to prove that rape and other forms of sex abuse happen.
We can’t accept that women are human beings who matter, whether we know them or not. We can’t accept that when we post something on Facebook, a rape survivor is probably reading it. We can’t believe what’s obvious. So we demand that they relive the worst moments of their lives, answer questions about those moments, subject those moments to the judgments of men. Men get to decide if any individual rape was rapey enough to count.
I don’t think I should have to share my pain to prove that it happened. I don’t want to subject my own stories to others’ judgments. Women already carry the burden of so much trauma. To have to also convince men that the trauma is real, that it counts, that it matters, is too much.
We always ask too much of women.
We’re asking too much of Christine Ford right now. She’s rising to the occasion, and so I will, too:
Three years ago, outside of my favorite plant store, a man came up behind me, put his hand on my mouth, and tried to take off my clothes. He was bigger than me, and stronger, and there was no one nearby to help. I somehow managed to fight him off, just like Dr. Ford fought off Brett Kavanaugh.
It’s not the first time I’ve been sexually assaulted. Or the worst. But it’s the one that’s proven the most salient for me this week. It’s the one I keep reliving. Because men on social media keep saying this type of assault doesn’t matter. It’s just boys being boys. Just play. Don’t ruin a man’s life over some trivial roughhousing like attempted rape.
Thanks also to the many defenses I’ve seen on behalf of Kavanaugh, I know also that the family friend who spent years grabbing my butt every time he saw me is just having fun. I know that the man who chased me on the interstate and followed me to my office was just expressing romantic interest, that the dozens of men who have grabbed me over the years couldn’t help themselves. It doesn’t matter how I felt about it. What matters are the feelings of men.
I’ve had a headache for six days because I am so tense reading the many defenses of Kavanaugh. I look at my daughter and can’t bear the thought of sending her out into this world. I look on my social media feed and I see women repeatedly sticking their necks out, claiming their stories, standing up for other women. From men I mostly see silence. Or victim-blaming.
If you know anyone who is not a man, odds are good that person is highly triggered right now, or knows someone who is. They’re grappling with their own history of abuse, or with the possibility that if they ever are abused, no one will care. So to anyone who is lucky enough not to feel perpetually victimized by rape culture, please keep the following in mind:
- Know that everything you post on social media is being read by at least one person—and probably many—who have been sexually abused or raped.
- Know that the women you love are watching you. Your response to Trump, to Cosby, to Kavanaugh, and to other men who abuse women will determine whether they tell you their own stories.
- If you don’t know anyone who has been raped or abused, it’s not because the women in your life are lucky. It’s because they don’t trust you enough to tell you.
- Know that the way you talk about sexual abuse can be a form of secondary abuse. Survivors are listening and reading, and what you say is affecting them.
- Consider that you know at least one rapist. Twenty percent of American men admit to having sexually assaulted someone.
If someone in your life shares a story of abuse or says they are triggered:
- Resist the urge to offer advice. Abuse survivors are not stupid. We know that self-defense classes exist and that doors have locks. When you tell a survivor what she can do or should have done, you imply that the abuse was her fault. You position yourself as an authority on a topic with which the survivor has plenty of experience and you have none.
- Don’t tell a survivor what you would have done. You don’t know. You weren’t there.
- Assume the survivor is not only telling the truth, but that they are leaving out some of the worst details. Rather than assuming exaggeration and hysteria so you don’t have to face reality, sit with the reality of the abuse we force people to live with.
- Ask what you can do. Ask what she needs.
- Speak out. Tell men who silence abuse survivors or defend rape to shut the fuck up. Cut them out of your workplace, your social circle, your social media. Make them pay a social toll for their refusal to acknowledge women as human beings.
Doctor Ford, my hero, will begin testifying in an hour. She’s doing this for me, and for everyone like me. It’s one of the bravest things I’ve ever seen, and I wish we lived in a society that acknowledged her heroic act. I hope I would do the same.
Maybe one of the men who sexually assaulted me will one day be nominated for a position of power. Perhaps I’ll have the chance to bring what happened in the shadows to light, and force everyone to see them for what they really are. I’ll get death threats, but I’ll also get support.
Or maybe that will never happen. I’ll just continue getting headaches from the weight of the long history of abuse that we have collectively decided is the acceptable reality for women. I, like millions of others, will continue spending my life expending massive emotional energy dealing with all of this trauma. I’ll cultivate coping skills most men never have to consider. And when the next public sex abuse story bubbles up, men will yet again tell me to stop being so hysterical, so emotional.
After all, it’s not like a person was abused. Just a woman.