I Don’t Need ‘I Believe You.’ I Need ‘I’ll Stand Up For You.’
When it comes to supporting victims of sexual assault, belief is only the beginning
Over 30 years ago, I was held up at gunpoint in New York City while working as an ice cream vendor. Once the thief was 20 feet away from me, I pointed at him and shouted, “That man has a gun and he just stole my money!” as I had been trained to do. Despite being the only one who saw the gun, no one doubted my story. The vendor next to me and a few strangers ran after the thief, risking their lives to recoup the couple hundred dollars he’d stolen. The automatic response to that robbery was not just belief, but also an urgency for justice.
If I were to post on social media that someone robbed me and people replied, “I believe you,” I would feel more confused and irritated than supported. There will never be a #MeToo movement for victims of robbery, though, because “belief” is not an issue — even if there are no eyewitnesses. People don’t feel pressure to keep it secret; they don’t expect to be shamed and blamed when someone robs them. Meanwhile the knee-jerk reaction to accounts of sexual assault is doubt. Perhaps people don’t want to believe stories of sexual assault because often it’s unbearable to imagine. Or maybe they don’t want to believe it because they don’t know what to do if it’s true. There may be a need to maintain the status quo or to protect the perpetrator. They might feel torn because the perpetrator is a friend or relative or a respected member or leader in their community.
As a sexual assault survivor, I’m familiar with the experience of being disbelieved. We’re conditioned to be grateful when someone believes us, as though they’re doing us a favor. Unfortunately, and contrary to its original intention, hashtags like #IBelieveYou keep people stuck in a discussion of whether to believe or not. A situation has been created where victims are supposed to be satisfied with being believed, feel that it’s the most we can expect, and that no further action is required. Telling a victim “I believe you” has come to be viewed as advocacy or social activism, even as a solution. Indeed, of the millions of #MeToo posts on social media, many had previously spoken up after an assault and were not believed, or they stayed silent…