Survivors of Sexual Violence, We Believe You.

Kristine Seitz, MEd, MSW, LSW is a staff therapist at Council for Relationships Voorhees. She is a sexuality educator and is currently pursuing her Ph.D. in Human Sexuality Studies at Widener University. 

CW: descriptions of sexual violence

I believe survivors.  Period. End of Sentence.  End of paragraph. This should be the end of the story.  Unfortunately, however, this is not the end of the story.

I’ve never felt the need to defend that statement until the past few weeks.  “Where is the evidence?” “Why wasn’t it reported?” “Maybe it was a misunderstanding.“  “What about the other side?” “What happened to innocent until proven guilty?” “What about false accusations?”

As a therapist, sex educator, and empathetic person, I believe survivors of sexual violence.  Because I want them to know that they matter.  Because I may be the first person they’ve told.  Because the first (second, third, fourth, etc.) person they told did not believe them.  Because sexual violence has lasting effects.  Because it takes courage to voice their experience. Because sexual violence is misunderstood. Because experiences of sexual violence are silenced.  Because it is the right thing to do.

RAINN (Rape Abuse Incest National Network) reports 1 out of 6 women and 1 out of 33 men have been a victim of an attempted or completed rape in their lifetime.  RAINN further notes that 70% of rapes are committed by someone known to the survivor.  That rate skyrockets to 93% for victims under the age of 18.  News reports of violent, stranger rape cause headlines because it taps into our fear of uncertainty and our fear that it could happen to us, but there is a greater risk of being assaulted by someone known to the survivor; that is newsworthy too.

We rationalize all of the ways we try to minimize our risk, but risk reduction does not prevent sexual violence.  What reduces risks of sexual violence is educating about sexual violence and even more fundamental, educating about human sexuality.  Sexual violence is not about wanting/needing sex, it is about control, but having knowledge of human sexuality helps us understand how sex is used as a weapon to control.  Having knowledge of sexual violence helps us understand the dynamics of trauma and will help us to better respond to survivors and their needs.  What also reduces sexual violence is holding perpetrators accountable.

For many reasons, believing survivors is scary.  That became evident in all of the reasons I heard the past few weeks discrediting anyone who believes survivors without proof, judge, jury, and conviction.  Believing survivors means knowing that there are people in this world that commit such acts.  Believing survivors means knowing it might be someone known to you.  Believing survivors makes us feel vulnerable.

Sexual violence is not always loud and violent.  It is often invisible and it is often silent.  It is silent when the automatic nervous system responds to trauma by freezing.  It is silent when the body is trying to figure out the best way to protect itself. It is silent when the scars and wounds are not visible to the eye. Sexual violence is silenced by shame, judgement, family secrets, and denial.   Sexual violence is silenced when survivors are not believed and the systems in place are designed to not believe survivors.  It is silenced because the reporting and court process is re-traumatizing.  And it is silenced when cases are discounted if there is not a conviction.

To all survivors of sexual violence:  If and when you are ready, tell someone you trust and who will believe you.  If and when you are ready, find a therapist to address your trauma.  If and when you are ready, report the trauma to the authorities.  If and when you are ready, begin the restorative justice process.  If you are not ready, that is okay too.  You did not have control over what happened to you.  You do have control now.  You choose what is right for you.

Believing survivors is not about hating men (abusers come in all genders) and it is not even about taking sides.  Survivors giving voice to truth is difficult and is to no advantage to themselves.  Rather, it often comes at great cost of relationships, reputation, and public disapproval.   Believing survivors is being a caring human and saying ugh, that sounds like a scary/awful/painful thing.  I am here for you. I care about you.  I believe you.  And I will always believe survivors.