On Belief

I am tired of disbelief.

I am tired of skepticism.

I am someone who does, genuinely, believe in the value of looking at things with a critical eye, of being cautious, of acknowledging that there are two sides to every story.

But I am tired of it when it comes to people who have been, or are being, harmed or made vulnerable.

In our work here at Scarleteen, we have people who talk with us about rape, or abuse, or relationships that they haven't yet pegged as abusive but that make my shoulders go up around me ears. And I have been asked:

Why do you believe them? How do you know they aren't presenting a biased opinion to get sympathy? There's always two sides to things.

The short answer is: because it is my job to believe them.

We, any of us who work with survivors, have a serious responsibility to, at the very, very least, believe them. They don't come to us for skepticism. They don't come to us to be told that they're overreacting, that they're lying, that they should think of the feelings of the person who hurt them first and their own well-being second. They can, and often will, get that in spades from law enforcement, from school administrators, from clergy, from news anchors, from their families and even their friends. It is our job to be the people who listen to them and believe what they tell us.

But beyond that answer is another question, one that I want to ask the people who ask me: "Why don't you believe them?"

I keep puzzling over this, because it keeps happening. Even with data about how unlikely a false report is, about how frighteningly common rape and abuse are, people still are so often unwilling to believe those who come forward. True, many people want to believe the world is a just place, and thus search for some sign that a terrible thing did not happen (usually, that the person claiming harm is lying or overreacting) or that the terrible thing was somehow deserved ("she provoked him").

But I think there's another factor at play as well. There is a fear, especially in American culture, of being "taken in." We grew up hearing that there is a sucker born every moment, and we have some sort of collective fear that everyone is always trying to trick us. We point to a cultural history of hucksters and con-artists; we shout that P.T Barnum gave us a shriveled monkey when he'd promised us a mermaid. We pat ourselves on the back for being the type of flinty-eyed cynics who understand just how the world works, not a sucker who is always being fooled.

And this eagerness to never be wrong, this fear of having believed something false, spills into areas where it does far, far more harm than good. We don't believe rape survivors because what if they're lying? Putting aside how unlikely it is for survivors to do so, it costs us nothing to believe them. Unless you're on a jury or in law enforcement, believing one version of a story over another cannot put someone in jail. And much of the time, even if there is strong public opinion in favor of the survivor, the accused still faces small, or no, consequences for their actions: far more times than not, those who sexually abuse or assault others face absolutely no long-term or even short-term actions of their consequences.  Would that the same were true for those who are abused or assaulted.

The specter of the liar holds so much sway that we disregard the person in front of us in favor of some hypothetical scenario. We wring our hands over the fact that someone, somewhere, has cut contact with a loving, harmless parent when the person in front of us is describing how the parent they cut off punched holes in walls and broke furniture while screaming at them. We caution that sometimes women lie about rape, ignoring the living, breathing woman in front of us who shows no evidence of ill-intention. We are so concerned with the what ifs that we miss what is actually happening.

Too, we don't just have this reaction to survivors. Ask the average transgender person how many times they have been called upon to prove that they're "really" what they say they are, in some cases rigorously. Apparently the fabric of society will unravel if we allow people to use the pronouns or bathrooms that make them feel like themselves. People who identify as gay, or lesbian, or bisexual, or any other minority orientation, are often asked to provide a detailed account of their dating history as evidence of the validity of their identity.

The fear that we are being cheated turns many of us into mini-vigilantes, on the look out for any sign of someone earning an unfair advantage. We watch the doors of cars with disability plaques in them, and if the person emerging does not match our view of what disability looks like, we will shout about these no-good people who are faking it just to get a parking space. We scan stories with an attention to detail that would make Sherlock Holmes proud. You once enjoyed playing with trucks as child? There's no way you're a trans woman, you're just a man trying to get ahead. You once kissed this person consensually? Then how can I be sure you're not lying about them raping you. Why are you trying to trick me?

But, for all we pride ourselves on being good skeptics who can spot manipulation, culturally we're really bad at actually noticing it.

We tend to treat the versions of a story that argue that everything was a misunderstanding, that people who are decrying it are overreacting, that we can't have a reasoned debate unless people stop being so emotional as the ones that are true. We somehow miss the fact that this version tends to come from the person who is being accused of doing something awful. And it does not seem to occur to many of us that the accused has many reasons to present themselves in the best of lights. The truth of the matter is that more often than not, the person many people are choosing to believe is not only the one who actually isn't telling the truth, but who is being dishonest expressly to hoodwink you and everyone else.

Beyond that, we somehow have come to assume that being a rape survivor, or a trans person, or facing racial discrimination, or being disabled is like winning the lottery, and that anyone would fake it if they had the chance. This, again, is a failure of the logic and observation that we pride ourselves on. It emerges, in part, from the fact that survivors and their advocates (and LGBTQA activists, and feminists, and other speakers for oppressed groups) have finally gained some slice of the public platform for themselves. Their voices, simply by being present, are seen as dominating the conversation. So the perception shifts and suddenly people believe that it is the survivors who hold all the power, and suddenly we view them as having all the support they need, so won't somebody please think of the poor football player who raped an unconscious girl (to use one of many examples).

If you actually pay attention, you'll find that the majority of voices either fall on the side of the perpetrator, or into the space of neutrality. The person who spoke up, in the interim, is likely facing death threats and other harassment. But you're right, it's so totally rewarding to come forward about being sexually assaulted (she says with all the sarcasm she can muster).

I understand these impulses. I hate being wrong (oh my god do I hate being wrong). I believe in not jumping to conclusions, in weighing evidence, in being measured in my judgements.

But it is time that we, all of us, make the choice to believe and support those who are survivors. To believe those who just want to live their lives without fear of discrimination or violence.

Our fear of being wrong has, and will continue to have, consequences. I am relieved, in a horrible, bitter way, when I talk with someone who has been assaulted, whose family is abusive, whose school won't acknowledge their identity who is angry about what's happening to them. Because so many people who come to us for help are already beaten down. You ask me how come I don't question their stories, don't doubt their versions of events, and I say it is because they so often are already doing that themselves. They doubt their own pain, their own anger. They blame themselves, excuse and protect those who wrong them, because they are saturated in a culture that teaches them to do that. And those very circumstances make it very easy for those same awful things to be done to other people.


If we, collectively, want to create a culture that supports and protects those who have been hurt or those who are oppressed, we need to release our fear of being duped. I would rather believe a dozen false stories and be proven wrong than disbelieve someone who is hurting and needs my help. I am willing to have my trust taken advantage of once in awhile in exchange for a world in which we believe survivors.

Because, in spite of what our cultural instinct tells us, this is not a Nigerian prince offering us wealth in exchange for our banking information. This is not P.T Barnum promising us a mermaid. This is person after person facing interrogation, scrutiny, cruelty and cynicism when what they need is help and support, while the people who hurt them face a fraction of any of that, if they face any of it at all.

Belief costs us nothing. Disbelief costs everyone so very much.