PSA: How You Talk About Sexual Assault Accusations You Don't Believe Matters, Too
We've come a long way very fast in the last few years when it comes to our understanding of sexual assault — how common it is, that victim behavior after the fact can vary wildly from person to person, what consent entails and even what a sexual assault is. I can tell you that until a few years ago I truly did not consider a thing that happened to me in college to actually be a full-on sexual assault, because it just did not comport with what my idea of a sexual assault was at that time — and shit, I'm a person who is really supposed to be at the forefront of this kind of thing.
We have, many of us, been through a wave of hearing from survivors we believed, and fighting on their behalf against those who have called them liars. We knew then what the wrong things to say were.
Probably, at some point, in all of our lives, there will come a time when — for whatever reason — we truly do not believe an accusation of sexual assault, abuse, or something similar. For some of you, that time has come this week. I'm not going to get into the specifics of that or even talk about what I believe here. What I believe in this instance is not actually the point. The point is that the way we talk about things matters.
For some people, this is a test. It's a test of what they do when they're on the other side. When they do not believe the accuser and want to stand up for the accused. Do they behave the same way they admonished others for behaving? Do they repeat the same patterns? Does everything they've learned or stood for get thrown out the window? Or is a new paradigm created — a way to behave in this kind of situation that is not harmful to victims writ large?
The first thing I'd like to note is that there is always the option to just not say anything. I, myself, have chosen this option before and highly recommend it. With social media, we all often feel pressure to comment on every single thing ever, to always have a take — but I assure you, this is not true. You can always just not say anything. You can always say "I don't know" or "I feel like I need more information." It is okay to be unsure, especially regarding something like this. In fact, "unsure" should really be the default position at this point in any case like this.
It's also okay for something like this to just be a thing you discuss at the dinner table with your family or friends.
If that is not an option, if you feel you are sure and that you must say something publicly and on social media — be aware of what's not helpful. Comments like "Oh, a real victim would have done things in this particular way" or "But he's a good guy" or "We would have heard about it before if it were true" or "She changed her story!" are the exact kind of things we have been arguing are bad things to say in this kind of scenario.
We know better.
We know that sometimes people don't say anything for years. We know that victims often change their story or tell an abridged version of it to certain people. We know that sometimes, victims work with, talk to and say nice things about their assailants after the fact. We know that sometimes, the guy everyone thinks is a good guy is not, in fact, a good guy.
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The reason these are bad things to say isn't just because they hurt one alleged victim in one circumstance, but because they hurt all victims. Because there are other people out there who are going to read that shit and think "Oh man, I had better keep my mouth shut about what happened to me." And we're supposed to know and understand that. It's one thing for the Right to pull that shit when defending someone on their side, it's another when people who are supposed to know better do it. It is, frankly, more disappointing. And I've seen way, way too much of it this week.
I'm not here to tell anyone what to believe. What I will say is this — think about a time when you believed someone and others didn't, and behave the way you wish they had. Be the change you want to see, etc. etc.
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Robyn Pennacchia is a brilliant, fabulously talented and visually stunning angel of a human being, who shrugged off what she is pretty sure would have been a Tony Award-winning career in musical theater in order to write about stuff on the internet. Follow her on Twitter at @RobynElyse