CW: sexual harassment, assault, and rape
If you are unfamiliar with #yesallwomen, read this article first.
For pretty much every other crime and accusation in the American criminal justice system, we want to know the evidence before we make a call. Innocent before proven guilty. It’s how our system is organized.
Unfortunately, this has been screwing over victims of sexual violence since, well, always. There is not always hard and clear evidence of rape. Whether or not the woman wanted to be touched is not always obvious. Even if there was evidence of rape, the average rape kit (which collects evidence from the victim immediately following the attack) costs between $1,000-1,500 to process, leaving hundreds untested in police stations across the nation. And this is only for women who reported and completed a rape kit- 60% of rapes go unreported. Of all the women who do report, 92-98% are true accusations (leaving only 2-8% as false accusations) but very few rapists will face formal punishment.
But I’m not here to talk about our laws and how to change our justice system to account for the common lack of hard evidence to prove sexual violence. I want to talk about our people’s hunger for knowing the details, for being able to make our own judgment call. While often an admirable quality, this eagerness turns us into bloodhounds quick to assess situations for which our understanding is severely limited. We want to know the facts, what was said, what they were wearing, if they had been drinking, what previous flirtations there had been. And then we pronounce our judgment.
I can speak only for myself. When I hear you pronounce your judgment on a woman’s story of sexual assault or rape, I bite my tongue, hold it in until I can get somewhere private, and make a mental note to never tell you about my assault. You remind me every day why I don’t want to report it to anyone. Because it’s not enough that statistically, I am telling the truth, just like 98% of all women like me. You want to know every prurient detail, every relevant comment and message and eye contact and gut feeling, because you want to decide for yourself whether I am complicit in my oppression and thus below your notice or whether I was an absolute victim.
I can hear you- you say to yourself that you are just talking about this one assault, this one rape, this one instance of sexual harassment. Maybe you know the person who has been named as the assaulter, or maybe you have long disliked the victim who came forward, or maybe you knew there was drinking involved and feel at your core that they just shouldn’t have been drinking in the first place. You pride yourself on thinking rationally, on talking about fAcTs, on being able to dispassionately discuss something as an impartial observer and make your assessment fairly.
You are full of crap, and you are spewing it in the faces of victims of sexual assault. You are part of the reason so many of us do not speak up. Your insistence on knowing what happened pressures us for details before you will offer us the support, understanding, trust, and reassurance that we so desperately need right now. Your self-importance in thinking you could come to a totally fair and accurate judgment even if you tried makes me all the more positive that I cannot talk about my assault to you or near you- I cannot trust you to recognize your ignorance, your unfamiliarity, your cold deaf ears and open yourself up to help me. Your belief that your removal of emotion from your judgment makes you superior involves a ridiculous assumption that rationality is superior to emotion, that emotions are bad things that you should try to get rid of so that you can look back on what happened to you without feeling anything and can instead just speak about the FaCtS.
Every once in a while, I hear the question asked “Why do you think so many women don’t report?” I often hear the answers as pointing to fear of backlash from their attacker, fear of family shunning, fear of going through the legal process. What I don’t often hear is an acknowledgment that maybe the way we talk about sexual assault and violence, even in feminist circles, fails the victims in our midst.
That’s how I have felt this week. I am watching feminists talk about this issue and realizing there are no safe spaces for me to discuss my assault. It’s not even that I really doubt myself and my story that much- I know what happened to me. But I’m not willing to sacrifice myself on the altar of a justice system and culture that demands every dirty detail and will distrust my intuition and emotions when it is too complicated for YOU to make a call, as if you hold power over the situation. Because even though you don’t, it is disempowering for me to hear others’ stories picked apart, invalidated, and distrusted.
#yesallwomen has helped open many people’s eyes this week, but it’s not enough. Why is it that only when victims share with us the details, and not just that “I was sexually assaulted,” do we decide whether to trust them? Why is it that we are only beginning to be satisfied when we have at our fingertips a backlog of pain, of sexual violence, of hurting women- why is it only when they bring it up that we are careful how we speak about sexual violence?
Stop it. I know it goes against our instincts in our courts of law to assume innocence before hearing the “facts.” But sexual violence IS NOT like other crimes. And until that statistic is reversed, until 92-98% are false accusations, you should not question victim’s stories, and you should not need to hear every detail before you will trust them. We need to pay attention to how patriarchy has taught us to distrust women’s voices and experiences and have the guts to admit that we have failed them in this most egregious situation, including our trans siblings and many men. I know you want to help- so just trust those who decide to speak up, always, always, always. Those who will follow are watching.
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