[Content Note: Rape culture; sexual violence.]
Another thing that happens when I meet new people—although this tends to happen one-on-one, rather than in groups—when I am asked about my job and talk about what kind of advocacy I do, is that people tell me about surviving abuse.
Usually, it is women, and sometimes men.
They tell me about having survived childhood sex abuse, or adult sexual assault, or the abusive relationships they've managed to safely leave.
They tell me about reporting the crimes against them, and their fight for justice. They tell me about being in the papers, if their case was notable enough, and what that felt like; what that did to them.
They tell me about how it broke apart their families, or how it made them realize who their true friends are.
Or they tell me about how they kept silent, because they were scared to report it, or didn't know how, or tried but were denied help.
Often, it is the same people telling me about times they reported, and times they kept silent. Because lots of people tell me about being assaulted multiple times.
They tell me about their friends who were raped, or their partners—by other people. They tell me about times they narrowly escaped assault.
They tell me about what triggers them, about their nightmares, about how having been assaulted or survived an attempted assault has changed their lives, or how it hasn't.
They tell me about their therapists, their support networks, the things that have helped, and the things that haven't.
They tell me about friends or family members currently in abusive relationships, and ask me what they should do. They ask for resources, to help or to heal.
Sometimes, they tell me about a time they weren't raped because they gave in to "sex" to protect themselves, and they are really telling me about being sexually coerced, about being raped.
Sometimes, they tell me about a time they were coerced, or gave in out of fear, and they ask me if it was rape.
Sometimes, women tell me that they have never been raped. They tell me with a voice and an expression that does not convey relief, but fear. It is difficult to know so many other women who have survived sexual assault, and not feel like the only thing you can safely say is, "I haven't been raped...yet."
They tell me their stories, and I listen.
What I don't do is tell survivors that they are to blame. I don't ask them questions that suggest they could have done something differently. I don't scrutinize or audit their stories. I am not a court of law. I listen, and I believe them.
I offer what support I can. I am angry, when they need me to be angry. (To be precise: I express anger when it is appropriate. Like the Hulk, I'm always angry.) And I remember them.
I almost can't recall a time in my life where I didn't intimately understand the costs of disbelief, but, even if I didn't know myself what being disbelieved feels like, even if I were inclined to imagine that there was reason to disbelieve most people who report having been assaulted, I couldn't. I wouldn't. Not after all this listening.
Every time there is a rape case in the news, the chorus of apologists emerge to sing the same refrain. What if s/he's lying? How do we know? Where is the proof? La la la.
This is an argument no person could make who has listened, really listened, to so many survivors' stories. No one who has looked into the eyes of a person who shares the betrayal done to them as though they're the ones who are confessing to a crime; no one who has heard the hurt and the anger and the regret; no one who has seen every emotion, from hatred to indifference, on the faces and in the voices of survivors, could make this argument.
They would know too clearly, too unavoidably, that there is no upside to the invention of such tales. Not for most people. Not for anyone to whom I've ever listened.
We need to listen to this. To survivors. To their stories. And we're not really listening when we're talking, when we're auditing, when we're investigating their stories for cracks in the edifice to prove our presumption of dishonesty.
We need to not pretend that scrutiny is listening. That we are courts of law. That a survivor who shares hir story is testifying.
We need to know when to pushback, and when to listen—and when to call out the people who are getting it precisely backwards, and deliberately so.