To be a woman who is open about sexual assault is to be well acquainted with disbelief.
I have been writing about my rape ― at the hands of a group of adolescent boys when I was 14 ― online since at least 2011. In doing so, I have made myself vulnerable to what often felt like a tidal wave of scrutiny from those inclined to disbelieve women who say they were raped.
Commenters dissected my appearance in author photos, whether my “provocative poses” and tattoos indicated that I had likely been a “willing participant to at least some degree.” People approached my essays like hard-boiled NYPD detectives, combing the narrative for clues and discrepancies that proved I was lying. Did this detail seem odd? Had I contradicted myself here? Wouldn’t a “real” rape victim have done this or that?
Some pointed to my presumed drug or alcohol use as a complicating factor, like the commenter who wrote, “This isn’t really a case of ‘man attacks random woman on the street, rapes her and leaves.’ This is more of a ‘girl is drunk with a bunch of men she KNOWS and says “no stop” but they don’t listen.’” As if that isn’t the actual definition of rape.
When I did radio and television appearances, viewers and listeners questioned the tone of my voice or my body language. “The tone of Emily’s telling of her experience just feels so ... I don’t know ... lacking in magnitude to me,” one commenter critiqued. A major sticking point in an NPR comments thread was whether the fact that I had laughed during my segment meant I hadn’t really been raped.
The game, it quickly became evident, was rigged. Being a believable victim ― sober, virginal and having comported yourself perfectly before, during and after the greatest trauma of your life ― was an unattainable goal. Ultimately, the sentiment toward my story could be boiled down to a comment left on a Daily Mail story covering one of my essays about rape that read simply: “How do you know he raped her? Just because she said so?”
To be a woman who is open about sexual assault is to be well-acquainted with disbelief.
While I knew on some level that being so public on the Internet about my rape functioned something like a Biore pore strip that sucks the worst scum to the surface, it also revealed something about society’s underlying attitudes toward women and sexual assault. It had been true when I was 14 and deciding to tell no one what had happened to me, and it was true now that I was 28 and speaking out: I could not expect to be believed about rape.
For many women who have experienced sexual assault, watching the fallout of the past few post-Weinstein weeks has been triggering, overwhelming, and anxiety-inducing. But a small piece of magic to come out of these horrifying weeks, for me, has been watching women be believed about sexual assault.
Recently, the mainstream narrative directed at the steady stream of women who have come forward about sexual assaults by powerful men has not been mockery. A critical mass of victims has partially taken the focus off the victims themselves. Fewer are being mercilessly questioned, having their characters torn apart, their outfits dissected. The default seems to be flip-flopping, and for the first time that I can remember, women’s accusations are being granted an innate credibility.
For me, this has felt like the lifting of a heavy anvil of grief, both in the relief of its weightlessness and in the slight phantom pain it leaves in its absence.
The factors behind our sudden willingness to believe are not entirely pure. There is the fact of who the women speaking out are ― wealthy, young, for the most part white, and “respectable” in the way that “good” victims are so often required to be. As Rebecca Traister, among others, points out in her powerful essay on the post-Weinstein era, “Racism and class discrimination determine whose stories get picked up and which women are readily believed.”
The institutions doing the telling also seem to play a role in our willingness to believe ― the same men who haven’t always seemed to be listening to the voices of individual women are suddenly listening to The New York Times and The Washington Post. There is something that galls about that, like the feeling when a man in a meeting repeats your idea and everyone pays more attention to his voice.
But. Still. For those of us girls who have been shouting ourselves hoarse about rape for decades, for those of us whose characters were dragged through the mud at the same time we were accused of having something to gain by lying, for those of us who heard the same sick, tired narratives so long we started to internalize them, wondering why didn’t we fight harder and why did we lead him on like that ― for us, experiencing a cultural moment in which women are believed about rape feels like some kind of goddamn magic trick.
One of those pieces that I did in my years of writing about my sexual assault involved speaking with one of the men who assaulted me. I actually called him up on the phone and talked to him about the details of my assault, those same details that had been subject to so much scrutiny. It was a crazy thing to do, and he could have denied everything, but luckily for my mental health, he didn’t.
Instead, he said something to me that turned out to be an absolute gift: “You’re not crazy. I was there. I remember. It happened.” In verifying my memories, he restored something in me that had been eroded by doubt. He reminded me that I was telling the truth, that I was to be believed.
My hope is that this moment is more than just a moment, that once the truth has been revealed it cannot be unseen. And that just as the “me too” movement grew to encompass nearly every woman in this world in its scope, a movement to trust and believe women will spread. To her. And her too. And her, too.
Because we can’t all be lying, can we?