“He said, she said” is the lens through which society looks at sexual violence. But there’s an extra special emphasis on what “he said,” and a shameful cri- tique on what “she said.” We pick apart every piece of a survivor until they are left with nothing but unprecedented shame. In the words of Tarana Burke, founder of the #MeToo movement, “Survivors all at once are being heard, then vilified.”
I read an analogy not long ago that encapsulates how survivors of sexual vio- lence are treated in our systems of justice. It went something like this:
Woman: I’d like to report a mugging. Officer: A mugging? Where did it take place? Woman: I was walking down Main Street when a man approached me, pulled out a gun, and said, “Give me all your money.” Officer: And did you? Woman: Yes, I cooperated. Officer: So you willingly gave the man your money without trying to fight back in the slightest bit? Woman: Well yes, I was scared he was going to shoot me. Officer: Mhmm. But you did indeed cooperate with him. And from what I’ve heard, you’re quite the philanthropist too. Woman: I give to charity, yes. Officer: So you make a habit of giving money to people? You like to do it? Woman: What does that have to do with this situation? Officer: You knowingly walked down Main Street dressed nice, when everyone knows you like to give money away, and then you didn’t fight back. It sounds like right now you just regret giving the money to that person. Tell me, do you really want to ruin his life with this one mistake?
I think to myself, ah, the irony.
Why does society view crimes of sexual violence differently than they do other crimes, such as mugging, robbery, or fraud? Why is the societal response to sexual violence rooted in the dehumanization of the survivor and gatekeeping of that survivor’s justice and healing?
The answer is because our society is built on platforms of oppression, alienat- ing the survivor, and confining them to “bad guy” status. In no other crimes are the victims asked what they were wearing, if they had something to drink that night, what their sexual history is, or why their memory was so foggy. By doing this, society upholds and reinforces the patriarchal stereotypes that emerge from gendered inequalities—the idea that “men will be men” and “women are made to please men.”
Here it is again, ah, the fucking irony. Because society cannot fathom the idea of women being independent human beings with complete autonomy over their being and decisions.
Sexual violence in the 21st century is so often trivialized, leaving survivors feeling helpless and lost. According to RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network), only 230 out of every 1,000 sexual assaults are reported to police. Reasons for not reporting range from fear of repercussion, self-blaming, fear of lack of evidence, or fear they will not be believed.
Our justice system is inaccessible to survivors of sexual violence. It is an invasive system that halts healing, breaks open wounds, and reveals suppressed, painful memories. The judicial system forces survivors to recant every single moment of their assault, minute by minute, step by step, and puts them on a pedestal for public discourse:
She drank a lot; she’s probably just embarrassed that it happened. She was asking for it; her clothes were scandalous and she was being flirty. I mean, she was at a bar, knowingly drinking and flirting; what did she expect was going to happen? Her memory was foggy so she clearly doesn’t remember enough to say she didn’t say no.
Survivors of sexual violence have been socialized to believe that somehow, what happened to them was their fault. Let’s get this straight: this is never the case. No person asks to carry the weight of identifying as a survivor. There is an urgent need to discuss and alter these responses to sexual violence. Society cannot continue to paint survivors in this light. Real change needs to be made.
Sexual violence is not an isolated incident. It is happening every- where in the world, in front of our eyes. Society continues to meet survivors with negligence. A world free of barriers when reporting sexual violence needs empathy as its structure. When a survivor discloses their experience, the response requires recepti- bility and belief. To give a per- petrator a pass after intentionally inflicting harm on a survivor is a direct attack on the survivor and the opposite of what our justice system was built to do. In the simplest of terms, always believe survivors.