The Costs of Disbelief

[Content Note: Sexual violence; rape apologia.]

I believe survivors, because I have listened to countless survivors' stories; because I am a survivor who was disbelieved; because I have spent incalculable amounts of time and energy studying and writing about the rape culture; because I know how there is usually precious little to gain and everything to lose even from making a truthful report; because of the facts about the rarity of false reporting.

I also believe survivors because there is a steep cost to disbelieving them.

I don't just mean the personal cost to individual survivors—although that, too. Being disbelieved is a secondary trauma, for many survivors a profound exacerbation of an already devastating act. To survive that sort of physical harm, only to be disbelieved by people who you trust(ed), by people who are tasked with protecting you, to have your lived experience be audited and denied, to be victim-blamed and suspected of lying, to have reporting the harm done to you grotesquely twisted into an accusation of attempting to hurt the person who abused you, can create lasting psychological turmoil from which it is harder to recover, sometimes, than the original act of violence.

The depth of that betrayal in such a vulnerable moment is difficult to convey, to someone who has never experienced it.

I also mean the costs beyond what is taken from individual survivors, when they are disbelieved.

I mean the cost of communicating to other survivors, when we publicly disbelieve one person, that they will be disbelieved. That there is no point to reporting the crimes done to them, because they will not find justice. And may instead find in its place an aggressive avalanche of hostility and suspicion and contempt.

I mean the cost of empowering predators, who are grateful indeed to everyone who participates in the systemic disbelief of survivors. Even if their victims report the abuse they perpetuate, their chances of being charged and convicted are vanishingly small, because of our cultural investment in disbelief.

I mean the cost of failing to stop predators, a majority of whom attack again and again. I mean the cost of creating more victims.

That is a real cost of disbelief. Disbelieving one survivor means almost certainly that hir attacker will create more. And then we'll disbelieve them, too.

And on and on we go.

After he raped me, my rapist started dating another girl, who was a year younger than I and was a friend of a friend. I called her to warn her, with our mutual friend on the phone. She didn't believe her new boyfriend would do anything like that to her, and she wasn't sure she believed he had done something like that to me. So she told me, in a voice that quivered with doubt, before she thanked me for warning her.

It was totally understandable that she didn't believe me. No one else had. Every level of disbelief—the police, the school administration, mutual friends and classmates—communicated to her that she had no reason to believe me.

The next time I spoke to her, she told me he had raped her, too.

All of the people who failed to believe me failed her. The cost of disbelieving me was another victim. And I hardly imagine he stopped there.

She didn't bother reporting him. After all, no one had believed me.

I believed her.

We are told that false reports are rampant, and that legions of men's lives are ruined by false allegations of sexual violence. Neither of these things are true.

I am aware that there have been cases in this vast world of ours in which a person's life has been upended by a legitimately false charge. That is terrible. Full-stop.

I am also aware that some of the people whose lives have been upended by a charge of sexual assault are free to claim that charge was false, simply by virtue of having not been convicted. It's something that rape apologists who constantly invoke the men whose lives have been ruined never concede: Some of those men actually did the things of which they weren't convicted.

And here is another thing that they aren't willing to speak about: There really are legions of men who have raped someone and been accused and not been charged or convicted, and their lives were not ruined, and those men are doing just fucking fine.

There are a lot of survivors, myself among them, who know our rapists are doing just fucking fine.

That is the gift, to rapists, of disbelief—bought with the cost to survivors.

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