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 sending me threatening messages, relentlessly asking me out on dates, making vulgar comments to me during class and joking about suicide.
Most recently, this boy 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 couldn’t say that. I said that so far, I had just made excuses as to why I wasn’t available to join the boy for dinner or bowling or movie night.
“What do you want me to do, then?” the officer said. “You’re just leading him on.”
This happened nearly two years ago, but I still think about it all the time.
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 that 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 with the best man I’ve ever met. I have a close circle of good 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 an incredibly 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 felt. 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 boy.
His callous decision that I was “just leading him on” ignored the fact that I was the victim, I was the one who needed help and I was the one who 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. High-profile victories that we read about in the newspapers (like Bill Cosby’s conviction on three counts of sexual assault) unfortunately don’t immediately translate into victories for everyone who is still being put down every day — people on college campuses, women in the workplace, queer folks and women of color across the country. That’s why we need to believe women and all non-men when they share their stories with us.
Believing women 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.”
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 woman confides in you that she feels threatened, afraid or harassed, believe her. Recognize the courage it took for her to share her story with you. Listen to her and sit with her in her shame and fear, no matter how uncomfortable it may be. Most importantly, do something to help her, especially if you’re in a position of power.
Empowering the people around you is the easiest and perhaps most effective way to combat a larger epidemic of shaming, blaming and disbelieving victims of sexual harassment and assault.