Content Note: This post is about sexual assault.
I think about culture the way my Dad thought about farming: if your plants are diseased, look to the health of the soil.
We are plants, and the culture we inhabit is the soil in which we grow.
When it comes to sexual assault, our soil is as rotten as it gets. This means our response, as a society and as individuals, is usually rotten too. Our soil teaches us to shame, blame, deny, and silence survivors of sexual assault who speak out about what happened to them. We are diseased plants sprouting from rotten soil and the cost to survivors is almost unimaginably high.
Our cultural conditioning is strong. Our “deny and shame” muscle has been injected with steroids for centuries, and our “believe and affirm” muscle has atrophied, withered to nothing. You need only look at the backlash against Dylan Farrow to know this is true. But she is not the first, nor will she be the last, survivor of sexual violence to be told she must be lying. This process just usually takes place off-stage.
I agree with Roxane Gay and Jessica Valenti that we disbelieve survivors because we are terrified of what it would mean, what it would require of us, how much would have to change, if survivors were telling us the truth.
But they are. And we cannot end that which we deny exists.
I wrote an article about Dylan Farrow, Woody Allen, and rape culture for Bitch Magazine in which I said this:
“One of the bright, glaring, non-negotiables I have learned is to believe survivors. Believe them, even if they don’t remember everything. Believe them, even if they remember almost nothing. Believe them, even if the person they say raped them seems like the nicest person in the world to you. Believe them, even if it shatters your whole world to do so. Believe them, even if they don’t want to share details, or press charges, or ever talk about it again. Believe them, even if their story sounds implausible to you. Believe them, even if you don’t want to, even if it breaks your heart.”
There were commenters, on both the Bitch website and on Facebook, who appreciated what I wrote but essentially wanted some wiggle room. My unequivocal “believe survivors” sans caveats is, as it turns out, fairly radical in our hostile culture of disbelief and shame.
Melissa McEwan of the great blog Shakesville wrote a devastating post that spells out why I will never say “believe survivors” and then add caveats:
“Being disbelieved is a secondary trauma, for many survivors a profound exacerbation of an already devastating act. 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.”
The good news here is that plants, which will grow diseased from rotten soil, can also impact the soil in which they are planted. If you plant a crop of buckwheat in depleted soil, the plants will add nitrogen back into the soil upon decomposition – no Monsanto fertilizer necessary.
The same is true of our culture. We are powerfully shaped by it, and yet we have the collective power to change it. Our denial, our shame, our blame, our silencing – these are iron-strong dictates we’ve been conditioned to internalize but which we can also upend.
We start by believing survivors. No caveats.