It’s easy to say you believe survivors. It’s harder to actually believe them.
My grandmother called me this week to talk about a million things, as she is wont to do. She lives in a trailer down a panhandle lot in Oregon and has never used a computer and sometimes she just wants to chat. Most of the time, we talk about the same handful of things. She compliments me profusely, in spite of having exactly zero idea of what my life — 300 miles and several worlds away — is like, and encourages me.
She will also, almost without fail, remind me that I come from a legacy of strong women — bitchy, usually, is the word she actually prefers — and that because of that, I can do anything. Her mother didn’t take any shit from a man. Her grandmother didn’t take any shit from a man. And I too, as a result, will not take any shit from a man, she assures me.
“There has never been an abused woman in this family,” she’ll say, “because all of the women are just too strong. We’d never let that happen!”
Oh, Abuelita, I think, if only it were that simple.
In truth, there is almost nothing but survivors of some form or abuse or another in our family. Most of the women I’m related to have been through some kind of hell at the hands of a man. And most of us have kept that to ourselves. Because we are, of course, strong women. Who would never let that happen.
It goes without saying — at least I hope that it does — that no amount of strength or bitchiness can somehow ward off abuse or assault. No one lets abuse happen to them; it is perpetrated by the perpetrator, who bears the sole responsibility. It should also go without saying that there are a litany of reasons why survivors may never disclose — not to their families, not to their partners, not to anyone.
This can, unfortunately, result in the belief that there are fewer survivors than there are, or that abuse and assault and gender-based violence are less prevalent than they are, but if the last two years of #MeToo and #BelieveSurvivors have taught us anything, it is that coming forward is rarely a cathartic event; instead coming forward opens the door to being re-traumatized.
The question of “why didn’t she report it?” can often be answered not with a scholarly response, but instead, with a vague gesture toward Twitter.
Bill Cosby got a sentence of three to 10 years. His victims got a life sentence and nothing to show for it. Brett Kavanaugh is angling for a lifetime appointment; his survivors are buckling up for a lifetime of watching his face on the news, remembering the pain and the shame that they’ve endured all this time while he was rising through the judiciary ranks.
But the hardest part — for me, anyway — in these endless, churning news cycles about abuse and assault and, as Lindy West wrote, the need for women to “ rip our pasts open & show you everything & let you ogle our pain for you to believe us,” has been the fact that I don’t actually think very many of the Good Guys on the Left do, in fact, believe us.
At least, not when they know us. Or know the person we’re saying hurt us.
In the last week I have watched so many generally decent men post about how they believe survivors. They wore black and they took selfies with handwritten signs and they stood in social media solidarity. These are also men, though, that I have watched defend abusers in their own circles. These are men who have told me that “I don’t think he’d do something like that.” These are men who have described other men as “creepy but harmless.”
Like they’d know harm if it bit them on the ass. Like “creepy” isn’t just a milder version of harm.
It’s not their fault. Not initially, anyway. They were raised to think that there are only two types of guys: The good ones (them) and the bad ones who rape people. And as long as they have never put on a balaclava and attacked a stranger in an alley or surreptitiously used GHB, they are a good guy.
What they have not been taught — because no one has been taught this and women just learn it as they go and often through experience — is that abuse and violence exist on a continuum. In much the same way that there are varying degrees of racism and the ways it presents itself, gender-based violence exists in shades. At the far end, there are the horrific abuses we all know and hear about. At the closer end, it’s a bit more familiar.
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Those shades, the nearest points of the spectrum, are often erased. The survivors erase them because they have been taught to and the perpetrators erase them because they believe that there are only good guys and bad guys and they are not a bad guy.
The behaviors of good guys — behaviors that aren’t actual rape, that aren’t actually hitting or choking their partner — sort of fade away. Or, more precisely, they are rubbed out by an undercurrent of subtle-but-strong disbelief.
In “Not That Bad: Dispatches From Rape Culture,” an anthology compiled by Roxane Gay, essayist Elissa Bassist describes how it happens, explaining the fear that “I might be overreacting, overemotional, oversensitive, weak, playing victim, crying wolf, blowing things out of proportion, making things up. Because generations of women have heard that they’re irrational, melodramatic, neurotic, hysterical, hormonal, psycho, fragile and bossy.”
“Girls are coached out of the womb to be non-confrontational, agreeable, solicitous, deferential, demure, nurturing, to be tuned in to others, and to shrink and shut up,” she writes.
This is, itself, an act of continued violence. It is, in itself, abusive behavior. Because not only does this conditioning downplay the exhaustion of a life spent dodging potential danger, it also downplays the danger itself. It makes people — men, specifically — believe that their own behavior is not a part of the problem. It allows them believe that.
Which is why now, we see so many men who are afraid. They are afraid that they will be next. They are afraid that there’s something lurking behind the corner in their own lives — they are racking their brains for the potential liabilities. Because all of this time, the things they thought were ok — the things they were taught were just part of a life! A fun adventure! — are perhaps not.
As well they should be. Welcome to the feeling of constant fear. Welcome to the feeling that you are prey.
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It is, I think, this feeling that is driving good guys — the ones who #BelieveSurvivors and are proud of it — to experience a kind of schism or cognitive dissonance in their own lives. They know the right thing to do is to support these causes and retweet these messages and post their black shirt selfies. They know that that is what good guys do, especially when the bad guy — a Brett Kavanaugh type, say — is someone they don’t like.
But in practice? When the person being accused is someone they like?
Well, a lot of men still love Woody Allen movies. A lot of men still think Louie CK could and should make a comeback. A lot of men are still silent on the allegations against Keith Ellison.
More closely, we’ve seen the way that men in lefty circles downplay the concerns of the women around them. We’ve seen the way that the “dirtbag left” has ignored the discomfort of women who, you know, don’t think rape is especially funny. And we have seen people in local politics — hello, Seattle — stand tall next to accused abusers for far too long, praising them for their work, expressing disbelief.
Is that what believing survivors looks like?
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If you think that you believe survivors, consider these questions in your own life:
- If someone you really, really admired was accused, what would you do? Do you believe that it’s possible that someone you really admire is also an abuser?
- If a friend or partner disclosed to you that someone you knew had harmed them, what would you do?
- If you learned that someone inside of your organization had a reputation — maybe he’s “handsy,” maybe he’s “creepy” — have you taken steps to either address it or ensure that the others in your organization are safe? Have you asked if you can use your privilege to help? Or have you ignored it and hoped it would go away?
- Have you taken time and space in your organizations to talk about rape culture? Have you taken concrete steps to help eliminate gender gaps in your organization? Have you created actionable ways for people to report abuse or assault or even discomfort?
- If you know that a friend or partner is a survivor, have you checked in on them this week?
- If you know that a friend or partner is a survivor, have you educated yourself on how to care for them and take their needs into account? Have you read any material or looked for ways to help them in their healing process? Have you called a hotline to ask questions?
- Do you assume that when a woman says a man wasn’t listening to her because she is female, she is telling the truth? Or do you think she is being dramatic and/or making excuses?
- Do you assume that when a woman tells you that a guy you like or know or support did something shitty, she is telling the truth? Do you take action, i.e. don’t work for them, use your financial or other privileges for good instead of evil?
- Do you believe women when they describe their physical pain, or do you tend to think they are overreaction?
- Do you echo women when they say things about their own experiences? Do you make an effort to elevate the voices of women? Do you share the work that women do?
- If you feel like you just kinda don’t like a woman, have you ever asked yourself why that is ?
- If you find yourself trusting men more?
These are simple steps . They take little time — a Google search, a company meeting, a point of personal privilege — but create a more welcoming and inclusive space. They’re steps that benefit people of all genders (see: my grandmother’s internalized misogyny).
And yet, sharing #BelieveSurvivors selfies seems to be the only step most people are taking.
Because they believe (and again, not entirely through any fault of their own) that just saying they believe survivors is enough. That posting about it on Facebook is enough. That thinking it is enough.
Believing someone — and thus, supporting them because you believe that their experiences are real — is an action. It is a decision and it should, in theory, set in place a series of further steps. Believing survivors is not a way you feel; it is a way you act.
Similarly, being an ally is not a static state; it’s a constant series of actions. And in the last week, there has been a substantial disconnect between the actions and the assertions of many, many men. Many men have said strongly and surely that they believe survivors. Many of those same men have demonstrated to the survivors in their life that they do not.