Why #ibelieveher is so vital

Content note: This post discusses rape, child abuse and rape apologism

It happens every time a famous man is accused of sexual violence. A torrent of rape apologism as patriarchy gets in gear to maintain itself. The steps to this dance usually the same: the tango of smearing and blaming and conspiracy theories goes on. Those of us who seek to overturn rape culture are getting better and better at advocating for an ethos wherein survivors are believed. We say “I believe her”, because we know that it’s more likely for a man to be hit by an asteroid than it is for him to have been falsely accused. We say “I believe her” loudly, proudly and publicly to oppose the status quo.

And it looks like we have made great headway in publicly expressing our support for survivors, because the backlash has begun.

Obviously, there’s the standard drivel from the standard misogynists, the well-choreographed dance of “no evidence” which misses the point entirely, but Suzanne Moore has stepped up to the plate with an attack on the very core of “I believe her”. In a confused piece surrounding Dylan Farrow’s brave public words about the child abuse she experienced at the hands of Woody Allen, Moore decides that those tweeting in support of Dylan are a “mob” and a “kangaroo court”. While Moore says she is inclined to believe Dylan, she thinks people should not be tweeting publicly that they believe her and fixates on some sort of putative superiority of the justice system. It’s already been explained why Moore is flat-out wrong in comparing mass gestures of support and solidarity for a survivor with a kangaroo court, and it’s also worth noting that Moore might have a bit of an axe to grind regarding Twitter which has blurred her judgment and stopped her from understanding the very basic ethos of “I believe her”.

First and foremost, “I believe her” is a reaction to the way rape culture is stacked. When it comes to sexual violence, too often there is no physical evidence, the smoking gun that “proves” that it has happened. Traditionally, under patriarchy and rape culture, this works in favour of the accused. It is their denial that is believed, rather than what the survivor has said. “I believe her” takes into account the balance of probabilities and turns it on its head, starting from a position of believing that what the survivor says happened is true, because statistically speaking, it is overwhelmingly likely to be the case. To speak out about an experience of sexual violence is not a thing taken lightly: we all know that when we do this, in the court of public opinion we will be, for the most part, utterly eviscerated, because rape culture is a juggernaut.

Most of us don’t want to engage with the legal system, because we know what it’s like. We know that it is these beliefs lurking in the back of people’s minds, codified. And we know how that is instrumentalised by rape apologists, that if we cannot engage with the legal system, or if we the legal system fails us, that means that we as survivors are the ones lying. It is no coincidence that so much of Moore’s piece focuses on how Dylan Farrow’s case was thrown out of court, or that we should focus on a better legal system, because the notion of starting from believing survivors and how the legal system works are diametrically opposed.

The aim of “I believe her”, then, is not to directly work within the legal system to make it better, because the legal system is but one manifestation of rape culture. The aim of “I believe her” is to throw down a challenge to a notion as old as patriarchy: that the accuser, not the accused is the liar. From a position of believing a survivor, it is easier to speak out, to intervene however the survivor wants, and to start to dismantle the millennia of social conditioning to which we have all been party.

I was silent for years about what happened to me, afraid of not being believed. Then I learned about how some people start from a position of “I believe her”. It was interesting: the woman being believed was not me. All there was to go on was her words. What had happened to her was nothing like what had happened to me. But it empowered me to speak out nonetheless, to tear through the silence.

And this is why it’s so important to make loud and public declarations. Survivors see and hear it. Survivors see that society is no longer a monolith of blame and wild accusations of lying based on no evidence whatsoever. Survivors see hope, and are more likely to come forward.

Silence is the biggest weapon patriarchy has in keeping rape culture alive, and “I believe her” starts to tear down this wall and encourage and empower survivors to speak out.

Because of this, it is crucial that we resist the attacks on this notion, the slurring it as “mobs” and “kangaroo courts”, because it isn’t. It’s solidarity in the face of patriarchy, and we should be proud that it is starting to terrify those who would rather we shut up.


13 responses to “Why #ibelieveher is so vital

  • pinkagendist

    Well, #I Believe Her. I don’t just believe her, I think this is a particularly egregious case. What in the world did that particular child have to gain from any of this? And the ensuing marriage was equally disturbing…

  • Is

    Brilliant article. Thank you for writing it. As a survivor who has never reported, it really does mean so much when I see people saying “I believe her”. The solidarity makes a huge difference. Every day is a battle but with the support it’s one I start thinking more and more I can get through. Sorry I’m not adding more, feel like I should discuss the issues but all I can say for now is thanks and how much I agree.

  • aflabfighter

    I didn’t tell because I knew I wouldn’t be believed. Not by my parents, but by others who knew them both to be good, decent men. ‘I believe her’ is important to survivors everywhere. The anonymous back-up that would couldn’t have received.
    The way people instantly spring to the defence of the person accused is sickening. I genuinely don’t understand people who assume the child/adult has made it up or that they were coached.
    Thank you.

  • anon

    Thank-you for writing this Stavvers, and to the others for their comments. I understand thearguments and am very sympathetic (‘I believe her’ is a position I subscribe to, in fact), but I just wanted to ask a few questions to try and disentange some issues that I think are important. I entirely understand if you’d prefer not to engage though, and it may be that I’m being too legalistic here.

    1. To what standard of proof does ‘I believe her’ measure up to? ‘I believe her’ on the balance of probability; or ‘I believer her’ beyond reasonable doubt? There are, of course, important legal ramifications here. My inclination would be to prefer the former, but given the rarity of false allegations I’m wondering if the latter would be acceptable.

    2. If the latter, does this mean that in instances of sexual abuse the principle of ‘innocent until proven guilty’ should be reversed? I know you’re not focussing on legal reform here as much as general attitudes, but I guess my focus here is on the possibility of someone who subscribes to ‘I believe her’ serving on a jury. To be clear, I am not openly hostile to the idea of assumed guilt in these cases (as I see it the principle of innocent-until-proven-guilty is designed to protect the weak [the suspect] from the strong [the law]. It is particularly important where the suspect is black and/or poor because then systematic racism/classism have to be taken into account; but where rape or sexual abuse is in question I think the suspect often benefits from certain privileges and still enjoys a position of strength). The problem is, however, that it’s very hard to prove a negative. So I guess I’m asking what a juror who subscribes to ‘I believe her’ should do. If this is diversionary please accept my apologies.

    3. There is perhaps a racialized element here. I suspect strongly (though I’ve not seen figures) that the public are more prepared to say ‘I believe her’ when the suspect is black or Asian, simply because of myths about black and Asian men as sexually predatory. This isn’t an inherent flaw with the argument, but it’s perhaps something that needs to be considered.

    • stavvers

      OK, I can see why you wanted to be anon on this, but at least two of these questions are utter bollocks.

      So let’s recap: abandon the language of the court. Abandon your attachment to this violent institution. Stop thinking about “proof”, stop thinking about “innocence and guilt”. Just let it go.

      And yes, at least in part this is because people only care about sexual violence when they can use the legal system to perpetrate systemic racism. So just abandon their terms

      • anon

        Thanks for this (honestly). It is, I think, my privilege in being a man who has not been abused that reflexively channels my thinking into the legalistic framework, rather than one of solidarity. And in that, all I can do is leave you with my solidarity. x

  • JC

    ‘Statistically speaking, if is overwhelmingly likely to be the case’. No, it isn’t. You haven’t proven that. At all. Can you see why?

  • Richard Gadsden

    Thank you for writing this.

    Why can people not understand that there’s a huge difference between “everyone who is accused of rape should be imprisoned without trial” and “we should default to believing victims”?

    If you say “I was burgled”, then people don’t start saying “innocent until proven guilty” about the burglar, do they?

    I mean, yes, the court does (and should) but that doesn’t mean that we, generally, don’t believe you. Even though there are plenty of people who lie about being victims of non-violent theft in order to claim from their insurance.

  • Michael Amherst (@michaelamherst)

    As a male victim of a male perpetrator and another who never reported it because I didn’t think I’d be believed (often wasn’t) and knew that there wouldn’t be enough for any criminal conviction, I love this post and agree with it. I read Ally’s post on #Team and agree with that too. I recognise that your stance is very different and belief of survivors is paramount. It’s one of the things I find so offensive about the Rennard case…and all the others. The default position should be #Ibelieve. Thanks as always Stavvers.

  • thisgirl85

    Thank you for this! I started my blog because I am taking a “Women and Violence” class and for my first project we had to create a creative piece to heal ourselves or someone we love so I shared my story….my Mother didn’t believe me when I told her 10 years ago…we are still working out our relationship, but the importance of believing when someone tells you something like this is vital! I would appreciate it if you could swing by and read my story…I look forward to more of your postings!

  • surreptitious57

    anon – you are doing that thing of looking at it logically rather than emotionally. When I say I believe someone who has been the victim of sexual abuse I may know next to nothing about the details. But that is not necessary because it is providing a degree of emotional support to a victim. Demanding proof of everyone who references abuse is only something that should take place within a court. One does not use that method outside of it however. It sends the wrong message to the victim and just adds another layer to the actual abuse itself. I would never say to anyone that I want proof before I believe them. The only thing that will make me not believe them is if that proof exists but even if it does one does not ask for it. That is just so wrong. If you cannot understand that then there is something seriously wrong. The overwhelming majority of victims are not liars so demanding proof is not even justified on statistical grounds. If someone tells you they are a victim of abuse the natural default position is to believe them because they are almost certainly telling you the truth. Please try to understand this now

    Carrying on from that it is high time juries were not instructed to convict only beyond reasonable doubt and particularly in rape cases because the probability of that occurring is as close to zero as can be. Instead they should convict on emotional rather than logical grounds. Victims should be believed unless it is overwhelmingly obvious they are lying. Beyond that always convict the guilty. It means more perpetrators get sentenced and more victims see justice and society is safer and better for it. There is also the added effect that other victims may have confidence to come forward too. But refusing to believe victims like anon means nothing is going to change and that is just not acceptable. Always believe anyone who tells you they are the victim of sexual abuse. It really is not that hard now

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