Saturday, February 7, 2015

Be a Believer

Weeks ago, Bonny told me a story about a young woman who was raped and no one believed her.

This is what I would like you to know: when someone tells you they have been a victim of violence, you should believe it.  If you can not believe it, be polite and STFU.

Not being believed is always on the mind of people who experience sexual violence.  There is something in the enormity of the experience of rape, in the aftermath of crazy fight, flight or freeze neurotransmitters flooding you for weeks, in the vulnerability of a brain fog that presents as crystal clear, which becomes internally violent in the face of doubt.

The man who raped me had an answer for all of it.  
  • I was mentally unstable.
  • It was a misunderstanding.  
  • It was bullshit.
  • I was perpetrating a horrible accusation and stress on his life at an otherwise very stressful time.  
Each of these ideas was presented.  One, then, after I refused to change my story, the next.  As if being raped is not bad enough, I then was subject to this barrage of mental abuse.  I desperately wanted to tell everyone what had happened to me, but I did not even tell my best friend because of the fear that the rapist would accuse me of taking away friends and allies of his.

So when my hairdresser recounted a similar story, I experienced an unfortunate norepinephrine dump.

"Here's how the photographer explained it to me" said Darnell*, after mentioning an accusation from a model during Santa Fe's Fashion Week.  "He said that the model was pretty young and probably thought that if she cozied up to [the fashion developer], he would hook her up with some good deals.  And when that was clearly not gonna' happen, cuz the guy's smarmy as all get out, she decided that he raped her."

Is this possible?  Sure, it is.  Is it likely?  I can not answer that question.  If we do not have accurate numbers about how often rape occurs (and we do not), we also do not have accurate numbers about false accusations.  But whether or not an accusation of violence is true is not something that can be decided by statistics anyway.  And furthermore, it is beside the point. Deciding if someone is telling the truth, is not usually our job.
Here is why I believe the woman in this story:

  • I am not a judge.
  • I do not need to be impartial.
  • I do not need services of a fashion developer who may not be a rapist but who is smarmy and unpleasant.
  • I will probably never meet this person and if I do, neither of us will be aware of it.

How often do we think someone is lying when he tells us he was burglarized?  Not too often. We tend not to ask "did you leave your door unlocked?" Instead, we ask "What did they take?" We ask about the effect, because we believe.  And it should be the same with other forms of violence.

The effect of disbelieving people who say they have been violated, perpetuates violence because it further silences victims who already may not speak up because of the fear of more violence, or in how ineffectual the world is, or from embarrassment or shame.  It is unfair to put disbelief on top of all that.  It also informs those who inflict violence that they are safe from consequences.

I like the perspective on this that Bonny shared with me: is there any harm in believing this person that s/he was raped? If there is no harm in believing, then believe.

But what about false accusations?  Yes, those do happen.  And yes, it is terrible and people are hurt by it, both the falsely accused and unrelated people who really have been violated.  But focusing on The Truth about what happened, may mean that you are focusing too much on an event and not enough on a person's experience.

Really.  Stop and think about this.  Only if you are called upon to judge something for legal purposes would you be in a position to cull The Truth.  The Truth focuses on the event.  Being a friend focuses on someone's experience.

Sometimes people think that in order to be equally supportive to both parties in a crisis, (or equally unsupportive), that you have to be impartial, or fair.  I stand by my original point, if you can not believe the person claiming violence, do not engage about the issue at all.  If you insist on acting like Switzerland in WWII, you will do more harm than good.

Here's a fantabulous quote that sums this up.

"Like “impartiality” and “fairness” is the greatest thing we owe one another when we witness a friend being harassed and browbeaten by someone.  Like abuse doesn’t follow recognizable & predictable patterns and our perception of it must be reinvented from scratch each time we see it happen.  Like our own experiences as witnesses to those patterns somehow make us less believable, less reliable.  Like all of this mistrust of our experiences and pressure to be impartial isn’t deeply, deeply gendered." -Captain Awkward

But let us talk about when we feel we can not believe. There is a personality test called the Myers-Briggs.  In it there is a measure of how comfortable a person feels leaving things open to possibility. Some people need to know, need to decide, need a definitive.  If you are one of those people, it might well be difficult for you to believe a victim on the basis of her claim alone. But also understand that believing someone that they were violated, does not necessarily mean you believe the other party is guilty.  Offering support to someone who says he was violated, does not mean you have to believe him.  But for the sake of the people involved, do not talk about your disbelief with them!

If you are dealing with people you know and care about, and you really feel uncomfortable believing the person who claims violence, then step way back.  This is not an issue about which you can support either person.  By all means, let them know that you care about each of them and know that they are going through a difficult time.  Offer to point them to other resources for support while you seek support elsewhere.

There is a very useful model for support that applies.  Imagine that in all crises, the person most effected by the crisis is in the center of some concentric circles.  In each outer circle are the people next most effected by the crisis.

When we need support for something, we tend to look into the center of the circles.  But it actually works better and is more appropriate to look a circle or two out from where we stand because the people more affected by the crisis are the least able to give us support at the time.

For instance, let us say your mom received a letter in the mail saying that her pet ferret, Mr. Frinkles, has not been chosen to represent Tubby Pets Goulash Grains in their next commercial. It is cool for your mom to talk with you about her disappointment, right?  Right.  After all, Mr. Frinkles could have been a star and you are not as affected by his failure to achieve it.

Now let us say that the situation is actually that Mr. Frinkles died.  Despite the fact that he was your mom's pet, you loved Mr. Frinkles.  Is it cool for you to call your mom and tell her how sad you are that you will never feed Mr. Frinkles another Goulash Grain?  Not as much.  It is not that you can not reminisce or let mom know that you are sad, but to ask your mother for support when she is going through her own primary grieving process is not going to be good for either of you.  It would be better if you talked to your friend Mary, who has also had experience losing pets but did not have an emotional tie to Mr. Frinkles.

Here is the original article explaining this.  It's good; you should read it.

Silliness aside, if your mom said your dad raped her, that might put you in a difficult situation. But talking about how you do not know what The Truth is, how could this even happen, and how will you ever look at your parents the same way again, is best said to Mary, who has parents but has no emotional ties to yours.  Telling either of your parents this would be stressful for them and you will not get the support you need.

Learning of a violent and abusive situation is difficult for everyone.  Once we learn of it we are in a position of making decisions.  Who do we tell? Do we believe? What is the best response? How can we help? Why did we not figure it out before we were told? Will our world/friendship/community ever feel as good as it did before? Do not underestimate the effect that tangential situation has on you. If you need or want support, get it. Just get it from an outside circle.

And in case you ever need it, I believe you.

*Name changed

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