It was approximately seven years ago when I first told my partner I was sexually assaulted by my best friend eight years prior to entering college. Despite the length of time since it happened and the memories being recovered only recently, my partner believed me. Although I was upfront in saying I have several mental health disabilities and don’t always trust my own memory, they still believed me. And every person I have told since then has reacted in the same way: with sympathy, love, and complete belief in my story.
I have been thinking about my assault recently as a result of the constant news cycles about sexual assault and abuse. Take the Kavanaugh hearings, for example. Every new detail that emerged about his alleged behavior during his youth and the unrelenting criticism the public gave Dr. Christine Blasey Ford led me to reflect on how rare my friends’ belief in my story had been.
Why did so many people pick apart Dr. Blasey Ford’s recollections whenever a single detail seemed slightly out of place?
Why did Kavanaugh receive such ample amounts of good faith regardless of the severity of the allegations made against him?
I would say these hearings inspired such fervent reactions because they touch on an unspoken practice our culture encourages: actively denying a survivor’s story unless it fits standards of objectivity put in place by non-survivors, often white able-bodied men in power. These standards, which leave no room for survivors who can’t remember events in a clear, straightforward manner, discourages those of us who can’t recount details coherently from sharing our stories. In doing so, these standards uphold the presumed innocence of white men and secure their claim to second chances, regardless of how unlikely it is that innocence will be granted to others who can’t recount stories deemed coherent by normative (i.e. ableist) society.
Why do I believe this?
Since my time in college, I’ve lost track of how often people (typically men but women as well) responded to assault accusations with denial and anger. Of course, no one wants to believe someone could do such a terrible thing. But I’ve never encountered another topic where people are so willing to toss aside the difficult, messy testimonies of friends and fellow community members. I’ve seen people across several communities try so hard to cut down the character of survivors that I’ve wondered how long I would last under scrutiny if my mental health issues were viewed as too crazy or my background considered too “untrustworthy” as a result.
And to be clear, this is not a desire to withhold due process for anyone. I care about facts. But this is the only subject I’ve ever encountered where people advocate stubbornly for objectivity while ignoring structural reasons why survivors (often women and non-binary folk) may delay reporting their assaults. Instead of recognizing that survivors may hesitate to come forward for fear of violent repercussions, critics of survivors will see this hesitation as evidence of guilt and deception. In other words, people who allegedly desire to evaluate sexual assault cases objectively conveniently disregard the impact reporting sexual assault in our culture has on how and when survivors report facts about their case in the first place.
Worse than that, survivor critics use these claims of objectivity as an excuse to invalidate survivors entirely. As often as these same people will claim to support survivors, they just as easily downplay the toll taken by survivors coming forward in ways not unlike Kavanaugh’s supporters. So many friends who I’ve known over the years will suddenly appeal to the good nature of those accused of assault, completely ignoring how most instances of domestic violence, spousal abuse, and intimate partner violence come from people who care about us. Never in my life have I seen people disregard compassion for survivors in the name of dubious standards for how a “real” survivor should act or remember what happened to them.
It is as if people are suggesting only certain people can ever be assaulted “correctly.” According to this logic, the only people with any right to be believed (besides white men) are likable women, women who fit the kind of articulate, educated background Dr. Christine Ford has, which still did not guarantee her freedom from public scrutiny and derision. The women of color survivors assaulted at my alma mater don’t matter. Nor do disabled folk who face sexual violence in general or specifically from people they rely on for everyday care needs. These people don’t matter. Not when they can’t report their stories in a coherent, timely fashion in a society that promises them violence for speaking out.
The saddest thing is I and many other survivors understand why people do this. We recognize something about our culture the Kavanaugh hearings and the #MeToo movement have only just brought to light. That truth is simple: our society goes to great lengths to protect men who do terrible things, all so people can live comfortably denying just how close they are to everyday monsters.
If nothing else, I hope we can look back on these times and see just how little good faith we give so many kinds of survivors. That we realize how little our culture of disbelief has done to support survivors and that we are spurred to turn our backs on it. Or at least enough so that one day, if someone has their assault story validated, it won’t feel like as much of a surprise when they believe a crazy person like me.