It is Time to Believe Survivors
April 3rd is the day against victim blaming and another reminder that it is time to believe survivors.
The last 6 months have filled the news – and social media newsfeeds – with stories and conversations about sexual assault, harassment, and misconduct. The #MeToo movement rallied survivors of sexual violence to tell their stories, there have been a flood of resignations and firings of people – mostly men – accused, and we have now reached the point where people are publicly asking whether we are going too far to create a world free from sexual violence. Navigating these social and political issues is difficult but we need to keep the experience of survivors at the top of the priority list if we want a safer culture when the dust of current events settles.
We see similar patterns emerge whenever sexual assault allegations are made. The alleged perpetrator usually denies the claim, advocates for survivors of sexual violence urge action, and some people emerge to defend the person or people accused. The defenders deploy a series of arguments designed to cast doubt on – and in some cases blame – the survivor coming forward. They suggest that the survivor doesn’t have proof, that they’re being vindictive, or that accusations are an attempt to get attention.
Accepting that celebrities, artists, or someone who we admire might have let us down is challenging. When everything is fine you can be loyal to a friend, love a band’s music, or stand by a political party while also believing that sexual assault is never okay. When a friend, favourite band, or political leader is accused of sexual misconduct those beliefs clash. Our individual responses in these situations are important because they tell the people around us what we value. If we believe that sexual assault is never okay and never justified, then it is our responsibility to take all allegations seriously and believe survivors first.
Some of you read the last sentence and thought, “but people make false allegations all the time and we’re supposed to be innocent until proven guilty”. A quick look at the comments below any article about sexual assault allegations will show that this is a common response. As much as it is common, that response is founded on myths. People who haven’t experienced sexual violence often struggle to understand why a survivor wouldn’t immediately tell people or go to the police. In reality, the majority of people who experience sexual harassment or assault never officially come forward and the reasons for their silence are complex.
The most recent Statistics Canada numbers show that there are approximately 636,000 self-reported cases of sexual assault in Canada annually. Out of every 1000 cases, only 33 will be reported to the police. That is a tiny fraction and there are complex reasons that so few people come forward. Survivors often feel shame, blame themselves for the violence they experienced, worry about judgement from their friends and family, and fear reprisals from their perpetrator.
Having already been traumatized, many survivors want to avoid additional interrogations or dismissals from their community or police. Watching the court of public opinion question survivors about what they wore, whether they were drinking, and why they didn’t keep their knees together teaches other survivors that they will be blamed if they come forward. Even for those who press charges, their abusers seldom face justice. Only 12/1000 sexual assault cases will see charges laid. A mere half of those charges will lead to prosecution and only 3/1000 will lead to a conviction.
When we doubt survivors who come forward, we tell all of the silent survivors surrounding us that we won’t believe them either. In a culture that doesn’t believe survivors, it is safer for them to pursue private healing and stay silent rather than seek public justice and face the doubt, blame, or threats that will emerge to silence them.
The question of who to support is especially difficult for the friends and fans of people accused of sexual misconduct. It can be painful to reassess our relationships to people and art that is important to us. Remember though, that every time we choose not to prioritize the experiences of sexual assault survivors we tell the people around us that ‘sexual assault isn’t that serious’. Choosing to ignore sexual violence is also not a luxury available to everyone. Sexual assault is life changing for the one in three Canadian women and one in six Canadian men who will experience it in their lifetimes. Those survivors don’t get to ignore the issue and if they can’t, neither can the rest of us.
For local survivors of sexual violence, there are resources and supports in Grey Bruce who will believe and support you. You can find more information about them through www.violencepreventiongreybruce.com and through 211ontario.ca
Violence Prevention Grey Bruce