when #metoo allies struggle with #whyididntreport
I want to tell the story of the actual incident as quickly and briefly as possible, because it’s not the point of this piece:
TW, brief description of sexual violence, no gory details, not the main point of the piece
I had just moved to a new city. I was living in a community house with a bunch of roommates who were mostly men. I was trying to make friends and meet people. I met a guy my age online. He invited me to hang out in a park near me. Said he would bring his roommate’s dog. I like dogs.
We met up. He brought beer; I didn’t have any. I don’t like beer. The dog was cute. But the weather changed abruptly and it got really cold. I was enjoying the conversation and didn’t want to stop hanging out. But the dog was visibly shivering. Not fair to keep the dog out in the cold. We tried going to a coffee shop, but they would not allow the dog inside.
He invited me to his house. Within walking distance. I didn’t want to go back to his house, but I didn’t want to cut the hangout short, and the dog was so uncomfortable. We walked to his house. I remember as I walked in, setting my purse down right inside the front door just in case.
I wanted to sit on the sofa in the living room; he wanted to go into his bedroom. We started out in the living room, but he kept saying it was awkward with his roommate, and he wanted to show me something in his bedroom, all that nonsense. Ended up in his bedroom. Got scary. Details similar to every story being told right now.
TW over; actual thesis development begins here
Raced out of his room. Grabbed my bag as I ran out the door. Walked home. Shaken. Upset. Scared. In the living room, a bunch of my new housemates. Sat down on the couch and told them what happened.
They were absolutely LIVID. They flipped OUT. It was a good response in that they believed me. They were angry on my behalf. They wanted to march down to the guy’s house and kick his ass. They wanted to call the police. They wanted to DO something.
And while their rage was comforting in one way, in another, it became just one more thing for me to Manage and Handle. I didn’t have the energy for that kind of rage. I was mostly annoyed, frustrated, embarrassed, and exhausted. I don’t have time for that kind of fury — if I responded to every instance of harassment and assault that way, I would burn myself out to a crisp. Their anger in that moment was, while supportive to me, also an expression of their privilege and the myopia of self that comes with such privilege.
They really wanted me to call the police. I absolutely did not want to. I knew that wouldn’t really solve any problems. Technically, “nothing had happened” — while attempted assault is a crime, I’m not stupid and I know how reporting this kind of incident usually goes. I only had the guy’s first name, and could not reliably provide his address. I had, consensually, met up with a guy from the internet and gone back to his house. I knew how the cards were stacked. I did not feel that trying to run through all this with the police and spend the entire rest of the day dealing with that would do anything but make my situation worse.
They really wanted to go back to his house and back me up, call him out, threaten him, whatever. This revenge fantasy of rolling back up on him with five male friends was momentarily satisfying, but moreso it was scary and unrealistic. What was the actual plan? Did they expect to get arrested for attacking someone in his own home? Did they really think that adding more violence to the situation would resolve anything?
These guys could not understand why I did not feel that my situation was not actionable. They live in a world where crimes against them are punished; where the police will come and take a statement; where it’s inconceivable that I would not expect revenge and justice after what happened to me. I talked them down and then went to my room to block him, report him via the website where we met, and then take a nap.
I lived a real-time “why didn’t you report?” moment. These guys were my friends. They believed me! They wanted me to report because they wanted my attacker to see consequences. They were frustrated and confused when I didn’t! And that’s not their fault; it doesn’t make them bad guys. But it does demonstrate that #IBelieveHer-style good intentions mean little if you don’t have the whole story. They couldn’t see this from my perspective — that it was a horrible and scary thing, but also something I had to write off as “no big deal” because that was really my best option.
I learned a lot that afternoon about the reality of male privilege. I learned that those particular men were safe and supportive, but also that they simply did not understand my perspective and experience. And I think that’s where a lot of this “why didn’t you report?” nonsense is coming from. Because if you believe a survivor’s story, and find it horrible, but you don’t understand the rest of her context, it will be hard for you to understand why she didn’t report. And that’s going to make it harder for you to believe that it really was so horrible, if you believe that people always report horrible things. If you assume that “if that happened to me, I’d be screaming to the authorities” and you assume that “everyone is like me,” then other people’s choices not to report are going to seem suspicious.
We ask men to have empathy, to imagine themselves as the victims and survivors in these instances — but we forget that they might not have all the tools to do that correctly. We end up with a bunch of confused, frustrated people working at cross-purposes when we say “listen to us describe our fear and rage,” then reject the conclusions they draw from that exercise. It’s not enough for men to hear our snapshot vignettes of scary moments— they have to be willing and able to understand the entire context of what it is to exist as a woman. And that’s a lot more difficult than simply agreeing that the depiction of an act of violence is horrifying, and being appropriately horrified.
Men: please hear the whole story. It is important to believe survivors, and it is important to encourage survivors to report, to advocate for better policing and healthcare standards, to make it safe and productive within your communities for people to report. But that’s not your entire job. You also need to make space for the things you just don’t understand and haven’t experienced. You need to listen to #whyididntreport with perhaps even more empathy than was required to process #metoo. You need to hear us, ask questions rather than challenge narratives, and recognize that you can accept realities that you yourself can’t picture internally. That not understanding something and not believing something are different. As counterintuitive as this may sound in a conversation about empathy and humanizing, try to avoid “putting yourself in our shoes,” and instead think about why your models for how people respond to certain situations might not be as universal as you think.