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On Believing Victims

Updated: May 4, 2020

Historically, victims and survivors of sexual assault have been met with disbelief when they tell their stories. This can be especially challenging when the accused is well-respected in the community or in a position of power. Unfortunately, that pattern continues to this day — as demonstrated by how people are responding to Tara Reade, who recently came forward to report that then-Senator Joe Biden sexually assaulted her when she worked for him in 1993.

When a person comes forward with a report of being sexually assaulted, the response is often to pick apart their credibility, and question their motivations. This incredulity adds another layer of trauma to what victims and survivors have already experienced — and makes it that much harder for others to come forward. It also undermines the work to end sexual violence. If we truly want to stop the epidemic of sexual violence in our country, we must start with a simple premise: believe victims.

We know that false reports of sexual assault are rare. Research shows that between 2.1 and 7.1 percent of sexual assault allegations are false. At the same time, most — 63% — sexual assaults are never reported to the police. For every 1,000 sexual assaults, just 4.6 perpetrators will ever be convicted and sentenced to jail. If anything, the problem in our country isn’t people making up claims of sexual assault; it is that too few assaults are reported and prosecuted, and too few abusers are punished for their crimes.

While these facts are important, they are not the only reasons we should believe victims, and that we should believe that this kind of abuse happens on a regular basis. We must take this stance because it is fundamental to making true change in our culture. It is also critical to providing the support that all victims and survivors need and deserve.

For too long, the cultural norm in our country has been to doubt victims of sexual violence. From law enforcement to loved ones, people often treat victims with skepticism — which can quickly shift into victim-blaming (i.e., why did you go there with them? What were you wearing? Did you tell them no?). By starting with a premise that we believe victims, we can upend that norm. We can give victims the benefit of the doubt — something that has historically only been granted to the accused.

Believing victims does not mean that allegations of sexual violence should not be investigated. Instead, it asks you to avoid the default response that people who speak up about sexual violence are lying. This is particularly important given that victims of sexual violence are most often women and other marginalized people in our society.

The concept of believing victims also asks us, as individuals, to set aside our desire to act as judge and jury and to demand proof. In many cases, there will be no hard evidence that sexual violence occurred. As millions of victims and survivors can attest, a lack of hard evidence does not mean that the assault did not happen. When we automatically side with the accused and pick apart a victim’s story due to lack of hard evidence, we are upholding the very culture that makes sexual violence all too prevalent in our culture. We also place a tremendous burden on victims.

Talking about sexual violence is challenging. This is particularly true when the person who has been accused is someone that we like or respect. The ambiguity of these situations can be particularly hard, because in most cases, we have no way of ever truly knowing what happened. When we ask you to believe victims, we are requesting you to sit with that ambiguity — instead of finding reasons to pull apart their story and decide that they lack credibility. By doing this, you can be part of the movement to end sexual violence.

Believing victims is the cornerstone of our work at Blackburn Center. If you are a victim or survivor of sexual violence, we are here for you. Reach out anytime at 1-888-832-2272 to speak to a trained crisis counselor. All services for victims are offered free of charge, and are confidential.

Learn More: Sexual Assault


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