I Don’t Need Your Belief, I Need Your Solidarity
A Story About Sexual Assault, Public Accusations, and The Limits of #BelieveWomen
Ever since the #MeToo movement gained steam, multiple men (mostly cisgendered, heterosexual, and white) have taken it upon themselves to tell me that they “believe women.”
Bizarrely, it’s been happening a lot on first dates, which probably says something about my Tinder profile (though the jury’s still out on that one).
I’m never sure what these men want from me after such a declaration — a cookie? An “atta boy”? That ever-elusive feminist gold star?
It’s never been made clear.
Recently, I’ve taken to responding: “Yes, I know. You believe women. That and $7 will cover the cost of my tampons this month.”
I kid. The cost is closer to $7.44 since most of the country insists on taxing people for having a uterus.
Either way, none of these “women-believing” men have actually given me $7, leading me to assume that they are all staunch environmentalists and are sending me an eco-friendly tampon alternative in the mail…any day now…probably.
More to the point, the concept of “believe women” is as tone deaf as it is damaging.
Moreover, “believe women” reinforces the heterosexist assumption that men cannot experience sexual violence, further marginalizing the one in six men who are victims of sexual assault and abuse.
Finally, there is the uncomfortable reality that “believe women” ignores: women can lie because people can lie and people are women and women are people.
There is a long history of white women fabricating rape at the hands of Black men in order to uphold white supremacy and its violent power-hoarding. Black communities carry the trauma of this past and present — the lynch mobs, the reign of extrajudicial terror, the mass incarcerations.
“Believe women” trivializes this history, uplifting a singular (white) understanding of how to stop sexual violence in the form of an easy-to-digest hashtag.
It’s not that false reports of sexual assault happen all the time or even the majority of the time. Experts agree the rate of false reports lies between 2% and 10%, and it is comparable to the rates of false reports for most other crimes.
As a society, we tend to make a “big deal” out of unfounded sexual assault allegations because it fits into sexist assumption that women’s experiences are not to be trusted.
But the answer to dismantling that assumption is not to put women on a pedestal, presenting them as inerrant goddesses of all things belief-worthy.
Personal experience would come to show me that that kind of “benevolent” dehumanization is just as sexist and just as harmful.
The Personal Is Political
Four months ago, my boyfriend at the time told me we needed to talk. I remember thinking he was going to tell me that he wanted to see other people and guarded myself for the inevitable breakup.
Instead, he told me that he had been banned from a comedy theater because of several “disturbing allegations” regarding his “behavior towards women.”
Immediately, I felt like the the air had been sucked out of the room.
“What does that even mean your ‘behavior towards women’? Who’s accusing you of this? What did you do?”
I asked, but he didn’t have answers because the theater in question had not disclosed the particulars of the allegations to him.
This was the person who asked to kiss me before doing so on our first date. The person who worked to make enthusiastic, spoken consent part and parcel of our relationship.
My mind raced. Memories of past traumas began crawling out of the dark corners of my brain, bubbling to the surface like boiling water.
I felt defensive. I felt protective. I questioned my safety. I questioned my sanity.
Very few familiar with the situation would speak in details. Euphemisms for sexual assault abounded, and everyone seemed to be talking in redacted sentences: “one accuser.” “did not choose to move forward with an investigation.” “cannot disclose.”
In the weeks that followed, I did end up reading the accusations, chronicled on social media by an ex-partner of his.
I didn’t eat. I didn’t sleep. I lost five pounds over the course of five days. I could not make sense of the contradictory thoughts running through my head.
“He has never violated your boundaries.” “But she says he violated hers.”
“He says this wasn’t how this happened.” “But she says that it was.”
The echoes of “believe women” reverberated in my brain like an incantation.
I felt haunted.
So, unable to do anything else, I fell back on what I know: Act like a journalist. Lay out the facts. Double and triple source your evidence. Check the receipts.
Then came the text messages exchanged between the two of them evidently contradicting her account of what had transpired — the past written words seemingly at odds with her present recollection.
I was at a loss.
But that’s the problem with “belief”: it doesn’t leave room for nuance. For contradiction. For the complexity of memory during flashbulb moments. For the messiness of the human condition.
Instead, I was left with impossible binaries — to believe or not believe, total fact or total fiction.
One month later, a stranger allegedly raped me outside my apartment while that same boyfriend was out of town. The irony had not been lost on me.
I say “allegedly” because I was unconscious at the time, and I only know about the “sexual contact” because while in police custody, my (alleged) rapist admitted to having what he termed “consensual sex” with me. I do not remember this version of events, nor do I remember having “sex” with him at all.
I remember telling him to stop kissing me. I remember pushing him away. I remember waking up on the ground outside my apartment door — my bra off, my cell phone and my credit cards missing.
When I realized what had happened, I thought my only options were to go to the police or to forget the entire thing. I chose the former. He was arrested, and a court date was set.
I thought this would make me feel vindicated. It didn’t.
More than the pain and anger I felt over what had happened, I felt disdain for the dearth of choices afterwards: stay silent and excuse what occurred or choose the oppression of the criminal “justice” system (for him) over the oppression of sexual violence (for me).
It was all very dichotomous — no room for gray areas, let alone room for accountability and futurity.
At this point, the last thing I wanted was to be held up as some kind of icon of strength and believability.
When well-meaning people (mostly men) heard my story and (unprompted) said, “I believe you,” I thought I would feel relieved. That was how the “believe women” formula was supposed to work, right? Speak your truth. Be believed. Feel validated. Dismantle rape culture.
Instead, I couldn’t help but think about the axis of privilege underpinning their “belief.”
I was a white woman with a white boyfriend. I was monogamous. I was well-educated and had a job in a “respectable” profession. The accused was a man of color. He was a stranger, so the assault fit into the dominant societal understanding of what rape looks like (despite the fact that most rapes are committed by someone known to the victim).
I was not a sex worker. I was not using illegal substances. I was not living with the diagnosis of a psychotic disorder or a cognitive disability. No one told me I was too fat or too ugly to be considered “rape-able.”
In many ways, belief was bestowed on me not because what I said was true but because of how my story and my identity lined up with dominant notions of respectability and belief-worthiness.
I didn’t ask for that type of unquestioning endorsement and quite frankly, I didn’t need it.
Ronan Farrow, the journalist who first broke the Harvey Weinstein story, once said:
“The best way to do justice to any person coming forward with a difficult story is to interrogate it as thoroughly as possible and to lend credence where it’s due.”
To lend credence where it’s due. That’s what I wanted — the acknowledgement that I was a person, deserving of having my story taken seriously and capable of having my story (and the evidence) speak for itself.
I didn’t need belief. I needed solidarity.
After I testified in court about my alleged assault, the district attorney handling my case approached me to say that several “supporters of the defendant” were in the hallway and that I could wait in another room if they “made me feel uncomfortable.”
I chose to walk out into the hallway. Loud enough for me to hear, a woman said, “I’ll never understand why she would choose to ruin his life like that.” It was clear that I was the “she” to whom the woman was referring.
I recognized the anger, the sadness, the protectiveness, the feeling of being deceived. Those emotions had been mine when my loved one had been accused of sexual assault.
Then, the rhetorical guillotine dropped, and I heard the following four words: “I don’t believe her.”
I thought this kind of invalidation would be devastating. That was the flip side of “believe women,” wasn’t it? Caring when someone didn’t believe women?
Instead, I felt utter apathy. I didn’t need this woman’s belief or anyone else’s for that matter. I had been believed and the patriarchy persisted just like any other day.
I got quiet.
And then, in a voice louder than my usual tone, I started talking about what I did need: accountability outside the incarceration system. Justice beyond bars.
For my alleged rapist to be integrated back into society. For him to be fully present with his infant son. For him to be able to teach that child about undoing the toxic masculinity that brought us here in the first place.
I didn’t need it for him per say, but rather, for my own humanity. For my own future. For my own healing.
Rape culture has never been about individual men or about believing and disbelieving. It’s been about the patriarchal insistence that cisgendered heterosexual able-bodied white men are deserving of full personhood while the rest of humanity is somehow “less than.”
“Believe women” reinforces this limiting dichotomy, uplifting “belief” for one (cis)gender identity at the expense of all others.
It upholds the two-sided logic of domination (belief/disbelief, men/women, victim/perpetrator) when the reality of sexual assault defies such superficial categorizations.
It fails to recognize that women (and men and nonbinary folks) are people — fraught with contradiction, defiant of facile binaries, and capable of experiencing the full spectrum of what it means to be human.
The “believe women” dogma hurts. The orthodoxy excludes. It trivializes. It shuns.
And yet, I understand its appeal. After decades of silencing, stifling un-belief, it seems like the ultimate form of retributive justice — for once, just believe us. For once, be on “our side.”
But sexual assault and rape culture do not lend themselves to “sides” that fall along a tidy — albeit socially constructed — gender binary.
It isn’t a matter of “believing” women (and disbelieving men) but rather, taking people and their experiences seriously. Working to dismantle the violent systems that enable violent outcomes. Making mistakes. Trying to move forward.
Undoing sexism is gritty, and it’s complicated by the fact that rape culture doesn’t disappear with a two-word hashtag.
The work is messy because the work is human.
Come experience it for yourself. You don’t have to believe me.