Content warning: this article contains mentions of rape and discusses sexual violence.
Last Tuesday, Harvey Weinstein was convicted after a prolonged trial, which was momentous for the #MeToo movement. After deliberation, the jury found the Hollywood film mogul guilty of two felony sex crimes. Right after his conviction, Bill Cosby’s official Instagram, run and curated by his spokesperson Andrew Wyatt, posted a statement of support for Weinstein, attesting to his alleged innocence.
Cosby, formerly a famous comedian and presently a convicted sex offender, was sentenced to 10 years in prison in September 2018. There’s a trail of sexual violence behind this man, from drugging and raping then-aspiring singer Sunni Welles in the 60s to forcibly kissing a tennis player Linda Kirkpatrick in 1981. In fact, there are more than 30 people Cosby allegedly harassed, assaulted or raped, all of whom came forward with public testimonies.
“There’s no way you would have anyone believe that Mr. Weinstein was going to receive a fair and impartial trial,” the post on @billcosby’s Instagram read. “Here’s the question that should haunt all Americans, especially wealthy and famous men…Where do we go in this country to find fairness and impartiality in the judicial system; and where do we go in this country to find Due Process? [sic]”
This shows we live in a society of predators believing in each other’s innocence, be it genuinely or in an attempt to clear their own name. If perpetrators, even after conviction, can believe one another, then why can’t we believe survivors — mainly cis female survivors, for the sake of this argument — in their experience of being violated by those perpetrators?
Almost every sex crime trial bases itself around “he said, she said, they said” structure unless there’s concrete proof, like CCTV video-footage. Yet, in such cases as Dr. Ford v. Justice Brett Kavanaugh, Justice Kavanaugh’s — a cis man’s — absence of physical evidence was chosen over Dr. Ford’s, a cis woman’s. Why?
Historically, religiously, societally and legally, there’s a narrative of rape being rare and, often, prompted or provoked by the victim instead of initiated by the perpetrator. Historically, using U.S. history as an example, rape used to be a weapon used by cis male settlers against indigenous natives in the areas they craved to conquer.
Religiously, taking Christian fundamentalism for example, many argue for the cis women’s submission to their husbands, including sexually, regardless of their want to engage in sex. One of the many modern preachers, Lori Alexander, or The Transformed Wife, argued for the impossibility of marital rape being a sex crime because in her opinion, wives owe sex to their husbands.
Societally and legally, victims are usually interrogated way before the perpetrator is asked for their testimony. Such questions as “what were you wearing?” or “how long did the physical contact last?” are often asked of those who file Title IX complaints after they report an instance of sexual violence. Their answers will determine, in the eyes of those questioning, whether violence took place, regardless of the mental or physical pain it might’ve inflicted upon the victim.
With this considered, the statistics paint a saddening picture of sexual violence instances being reported to the police or other authorities. According to a survey by Stop Street Harassment, 81% of women have experienced sexual harassment. Nine out of 10 victims of rape will be female or assigned-female-at-birth, and one out of six women in the U.S. will be assaulted in their life as reported by the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network. According to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, rape is the most underreported crime in the U.S. with 63% of assaults not reported to the police. Even at NYU, with a student body of over 50,000 at the New York campus alone, only 173 have reported a form of sexual harassment to Title IX, which indicates a low reporting rate.
Here, we ought to ask ourselves: why? Why don’t victims of sexual violence report it? What’s stopping them?
Of course, there isn’t a single answer to such a complicated question we’ve been asking for decades. However, disbelief in the victim’s credibility constitutes part of the problem. Many sexual assault victims, who report or have publicly called out the perpetrator long after the assault, end up being asked the same dreaded question: why didn’t you say something sooner? From Dr. Ford to Timothy Heller, who accused Melanie Martinez of raping her, the question almost always gets thrown into the mix.
I was asked this one too many times, and here’s my answer: the only person I confided in at the time didn’t believe me, defended the abuser and I felt embarrassed to tell anybody else. I thought, “Well, if she didn’t believe me, who would?”
I’m not alone. Many people feel like they couldn’t report due to others’ disbelief. Instagram account @whyididntreport collects stories of survivors, and too many read along the lines of “I was 16 and tried to tell my friends, but they didn’t believe me” and “My own family didn’t believe me.” Many survivors of sexual abuse don’t report what’s happened to them, as they don’t think they’ll be believed. If people know stories of other victims who weren’t believed, why should they assume it’ll be any different for them?
In a society of perpetrators believing in each other’s presumed innocence, why can’t we believe survivors, many of whom risk everything by coming forward with their story? Victims of sexual violence, of all genders and sexualities, deserve better than agonizing over whether they’ll be trusted with their own narrative if they choose to speak out about the abuse they’ve endured.
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A version of this article appears in the Monday, Mar. 9, 2020, print edition. Email Anna-Dmitry Muratova at [email protected]