From blaming victims to believing them: how to fight the epidemic

When I finally couldn’t take any more, I walked across The College of New Jersey’s campus to the police station on the corner of Green Lane and Pennington Road.

Inside, I told a male campus police officer that I was afraid of a young man who had been sexually assaulting me, sending me threatening messages, relentlessly asking me out on dates, making vulgar comments to me during class and joking about suicide.

Most recently, this man had shown up at the door to my townhouse. I didn’t know how he had found out where I lived.

The campus police officer’s advice? “You need to get in his face and tell him to leave you alone. Tell him you aren’t interested in him. Tell him he scares you and you don’t want to go out with him.”

I told the officer I didn’t feel safe saying that. I said so far, I had just made excuses as to why I wasn’t available to join the man for dinner or bowling or movie night.

“What do you want me to do, then?” the officer said. “Then you’re just leading him on.”

He sent me back to my dorm without filing a report.

This happened nearly two years ago, but I still think about it.

This is not a call-out post. I’m not going to name the officer with whom I spoke so many months ago. I’m not going to name the boy who scared me so badly I felt like I had no other choice but to file a formal report to protect myself.

I’m sharing my story because it still affects me. I’m 23. I’m a college graduate with full-time and part-time jobs. I’m in a loving relationship. I have a close circle of friends. I have a kitten.

But when my mind wanders, I still remember what that officer said to me. At the time, I had recently been diagnosed with major depressive disorder. I had several colliding sources of stress in my life. I was having a difficult year, and the officer’s words only intensified that.

Two years later, I still remember feeling inadequate. I still remember feeling like I didn’t handle the situation properly. I still remember feeling like it was all my fault.

I know now that isn’t true. Time, friends and other tools — most recently, Brené Brown’s book “I Thought It Was Just Me (But It Isn’t)” — have helped me make sense of the shame I feel. I’m able to look back on the situation rationally and realize the officer’s advice to me was cruel and even dangerous.

The officer’s suggestion to “get in his face” ignored the fact that I was worried for my own safety, as well as the safety of this young man.

His callous declaration that I was “just leading him on” ignored the fact that I was the victim, I was the one who needed help and I trusted him to give it to me.

When I told this story to my dad, he said, “That sounds like rape culture.” And he’s right. That’s exactly what it is.

Victim-blaming and (and victim-disbelieving) happens far too often in the era of women’s marches on D.C. and the #MeToo movement. The high-profile victories we read about in newspapers (like Bill Cosby’s conviction on three counts of sexual assault) unfortunately don’t immediately translate into victories for everyone — college students like me, women in the workplace, queer folks and people of color across the country. That’s why we need to believe victims when they share their stories with us.

Believing victims does not mean throwing all the facts out the window, although many have deemed the saying a justification of the destruction of innocent men’s lives without a shred of evidence. The best criticism I’ve read of this mindset is from one of Adam Lee’s articles on Patheos.

“The call to ‘believe women’ isn’t an assertion that women’s claims ought to be held to a less rigorous standard of evidence,” he writes. “It’s a rejoinder to the sad reality that, for most of history, women were held to a more stringent standard than men and their claims were reflexively disbelieved.”

Most victims understandably do not think to (and aren’t able to) press “record” on their phone video camera just as their sexual assault begins. If it’s evidence you want, start with the estimated backlog of hundreds of thousands of untested rape kits in the U.S.

In a world of so many injustices, it can seem impossible to find a place to begin to make a change. A simple place to start is with empathy.

If a victim confides in you that they feel threatened, afraid or harassed, believe them. Recognize the courage it took for them to share their story with you. Listen to them and sit with them in their shame and fear, no matter how uncomfortable it may be. And if you can, take action to support them, especially if you’re in a position of power.

Empowering the people around you is the first step in combatting a larger epidemic of shaming, blaming and disbelieving victims of sexual harassment and assault.

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