Content note: This post discusses rape, transphobia, apologism and the effect of not being believed when reporting one’s experiences.
We are seeing a slow shift how we think about survivors, guided by the phrase “I believe her*”. It inverts the status quo; politically siding with survivors, a statement of undoing the way things are by believing the story of a person who we are socialised into not believing. Disbelief in the accounts of survivors of rape, of domestic violence, of child abuse creates the conditions of silence necessary for such abuse to continue. Fear of not being believed is a weapon, wielded by our culture to keep our lips sealed and prevent anything being done about it. It is an attempt to create a safer space.
It is gaining momentum, this culture of believing survivors, and has been broadly adopted by many groups striving for social change. Sadly, while the ethos of believing survivors is perhaps becoming increasingly accepted, the practice itself is often not. We have seen this, for example, too often amid left-wing groups who will happily say they believe survivors until it turns out one of their mates might be a perpetrator, and cognitive somersaults begin in order to justify what is going on.
We see it too when people talk about their experiences of microaggressions. While it’s easy to believe when women talk about gendered microaggressions, those times when we are made to feel less than human by something which is often dismissed as trivial by patriarchal society, this is not extended to women experiencing intersecting oppressions. We see, for example, trans women talking of feeling invalidated and attacked by high-profile cis women to a reboant chorus of dismissal. Far from being believed in these scenarios, trans women end up being on the receiving end of the same old apologist tropes: the victim blaming, the trivialisation, the gaslighting and the flat-out denials. We see similar things happening to women of colour, to disabled women, to sex workers and queer women. Suddenly, it’s not “I believe her”. It’s a demand for a case laid out, meticulous documentation of “evidence”. If evidence is produced, it is thrown as an overreaction or not really evidence at all. Or perhaps everything is explained at the survivor having somehow “brought it on herself” by not behaving exactly according to some unwritten, unknowable, ever-shifting code.
It’s the same tune played on a different instrument. Whatever happened to “I believe her” in these situations?
As a cis white woman, sometimes I find it difficult to recognise where exactly the problem lies. I am not sensitive to some microaggressions, because I am not subjected to them day after day after fucking day. I am never on the receiving end of cissexism or racism, and, as such, sometimes I fail to recognise very veiled abuse. Which is precisely why, when a woman of colour or a trans woman says it is happening, I believe her.
As a cis white woman, it’s not my place to explain that something isn’t racist or cissexist, because I don’t get to define what these things are, and what is crossing a line and what is not. So, when I listen to a survivor, I believe her.
I feel like this is the least I can do. I’ve had experience with not being believed, I’ve had experience of being on the wrong end of victim blaming, I’ve been gaslit and dismissed when I talk about horrible things which have happened to me. I know how awful it can be, that sense that either the world will end or you will, that you’re mad and you’re wrong and you’re twisted and disgusting. I also know that feeling of the light coming in as you hear the magic words “I believe you”. Not being believed hurts like fuck, and being believed makes the pain more bearable, like you might just be able to get through it. It’s helpful when someone else sees the gas go down, too, even if they don’t quite understand it as well as you do.
And so these are the principles I use. I believe those who talk about microaggressive abuse. I believe those who talk about rape. I believe survivors. I believe her.
*This is not to say abuse does not happen to people who use male and non-binary pronouns. Of course it does, and the sense of belief ought to be extended to anyone reporting such experiences. However, this short phrase also encapsulates the gendered nature of such abuse.