Believing Survivors

Dylan Farrow’s open letter about the sexual assault she endured from her adoptive father, Woody Allen, has provoked a sensational discussion around the issue of who to listen to, and who to believe. I believe that narratives of sexual assault must always be taken seriously, not only because they are most likely true, but also because our response to these narratives reveals something about ourselves. Moreover, our responses then reveal this information to the people around us who make decisions based on it.

Ann Friedman’s blog post I Believe Dylan Farrow makes this point based on the network of people in her life. Quite simply, she writes: “While all the caveats about not knowing the family personally apply, I do know several women who have experienced sexual violence that is not dissimilar from what Dylan describes. I don’t know a single woman who has made up lies about such violence in order to gain something. And, probably just as important, I don’t know any men who have been falsely accused of committing such crimes.”

This should inspire all of us to examine our lives: do we know more people who have survived sexual assault, or more people who have been falsely accused of it? If you’re living in a world where the latter far outnumber the former, it’s possible that you have not made yourself known to be a safe person to trust with that kind of information (not that anyone is ever obligated to disclose that they are a survivor; simply being trustworthy and non-victim-blamey doesn’t mean you’ve “earned” the right to know). And if your friends and family members don’t feel safe telling you that they’ve been assaulted, well, you should look at the kinds of things you say and do (because, statistically speaking [CDC], you know someone or multiple someones who have been assaulted). Do you give the impression that you will be supportive in such an instance, or that you will parrot back the false tropes of rape culture such as victim-shaming and abuser-excusing rhetoric?

If you want to be having these kinds of conversations at all (about public figures and whether they were or were not complicit in sexual assault), I highly recommend feminist hulk’s blog post on the topic. She makes the point that talking about doubting Farrow’s (or any survivor’s) testimony is potentially triggering for anyone who has also survived sexual assault – and that number is probably larger than you know.

Further, “we live in a culture whose social (not to mention legal) structures make dismissing a survivor incredibly easy, and confronting a predator nearly impossible.” Thanks to rape culture, we’ve all been trained to dismiss survivor stories as flawed, or essentially unknowable, maybe it happened and maybe it didn’t. To assert that you’re taking on a neutral position by doubting a survivor’s narrative is in fact anything but neutral. As feminist hulk states: “As uncomfortable as it is, it is not possible to be impartial in the context of a rape culture. So, rather than pretending that you can practice a detached objectivity, be explicit about the cultural location from which you are speaking. Admitting bias is part of our ethical obligation to our discursive community.”

These are uncomfortable topics, yes, but that doesn’t mean we should shy away from them. If anything, we should approach them with honesty about who stands to harm or be harmed by taking certain positions. We should also be honest with ourselves about what we stand to lose or gain by believing certain narratives. When I hear (or read) a survivor’s story, I try to respond with empathy. After all, I’ve learned over the years that many of my friends and acquaintances – both male and  female – have been survivors of sexual assault. I would like to continue to be a “safe” person to disclose that status to… and I don’t get why not everyone feels that way. Cult of personality in the case of Allen and Farrow? Indoctrination by rape culture? Who knows… but maybe these kinds of discussions will help.

About Jeana

Jeana

Jeana Jorgensen, PhD recently completed her doctoral degree in folklore and gender studies at Indiana University. She studies fairy tales and other narratives, dance, body art, feminist theory, digital humanities, and gender identity.