One of the hardest things a victim has to do is disclose their abuse for the first time. I’m not saying it gets easier with every telling; but some people can be easier to tell than others. It can be easier, for example, to tell your doctor – in a matter-of-fact, clinical way that you have been abused – than it is to tell a new romantic interest before you get intimate with them. (In my experience, it’s better to tell them before rather than after, but more on that later.)
As a society, the first thing we need to do us understand that we have to believe the victim. Victims and survivors need to know that they will be believed or they will not disclose. That matters, hugely, not just for the possibility of their own recovery and healing, but in order to instigate action against the person who raped or abused them, and prevent it happening to someone else. Because, here’s the thing; sexual predators do not stop abusing because they wake up some day with a eureka moment, and think ‘oh that’s not a very nice thing to do, I’ll stop now’. If a behaviour is serving someone well, they have no reason to change that behaviour. So, if a sexual predator is not stopped from abusing, they will continue to do so. They will just become more devious, more adept at finding people to groom, more sneaky about the ways they use to find and silence their victims.
This is evident from the number of high-profile sex-offenders who abused many children over many years. They were not stopped because their victims didn’t disclose for fear of what would happen to them afterwards, and for fear of not being believed. In fact, many of the women who were raped by Bill Cosby were not initially believed when they came forward.
Of course, we’ve all heard that people make up false allegations about abuse and rape in order to exact revenge on a man who has upset them. This tiresome trope is all the more tiresome because false allegations make up fewer than 1.5% of rape claims that were prosecuted in the UK. Given that, I would suggest that anyone who makes allegations of rape or sexual assault be believed until it is reasonable to think that their allegations are false.
In my case, I was ‘lucky’ in that I was always believed. Along my journey, I have always been believed by doctors, nurses, psychologists, psychiatrists, police, judges – anyone who mattered, really, found no reason not to believe me. In fact, most went out of their way to reassure me, and emphatically declared that they did not doubt me. This was probably aided by the fact that those who perpetrated the abuse never denied it. (More about that later).
I cannot imagine how difficult it would be for anyone to have to go through being assaulted and then not believed. It’s hard enough to muster the strength to report a rape or an assault in the first place – whether that reporting is official (to the police or a healthcare professional for example) or unofficial (to a friend, partner, parent etc.) – without having to go to extreme lengths to ‘prove’ that an assault has taken place.
Contributing to the culture of disbelief is a misinformed notion of what a victim ‘should’ look like, or how a victim ‘should’ behave. If a victim presents in ways that go against these ideas – which are often promulgated by media in various forms and guises – s/he has a more difficult time being believed.
Rape and sexual assault have devastating effects on those who are hurt. They damage in ways that are seen and unseen. They take so much from the victim that cannot be replaced. The very least victims deserve is to be heard and believed.