Of Course You Believe Me, You’re My Friend


 (author’s website)

Content Notes: There is nothing explicit, but there are mentions of topics such as survivorship, victim-blaming, abusers, sexual violence etc.

Author’s Note: I hope to go beyond the discomfort and/or investments people may have in abusers, and focus on supporting survivors and holding those who do harm accountable in authentic ways. I do not think abuse and violence will end but I wish we lived in a world where the people around us could support each other. Survivors want to tell their stories, but they also want and need so much more. So of course you believe your friends, but support and communities of care go beyond this.

Illustration by Lina Wu (@linaw_u)

SSaying “I believe you” may seem like good anti-oppressive practice but why wouldn’t you believe someone? What precedents are cemented in our world for three simple words to disrupt the ways people react to survivors of sexual violence? Before hashtag social movements like #MeToo, #TimesUp, and #IBelieveYou, “I believe you” has and continues to generate polarizing conversations around supporting survivors. Even as we chip away at rape culture — deeply embedded disbelief of survivors, lack of justice, victim blaming, and inadequate support systems — its steady choir of rape apologists continue to grow louder and construct harmful countermovements.

It might feel like a seismic shift in the world to see so many people typing and saying “I believe you” in the public sphere, but is it? How many of those who condemn sexual violence and harassment go beyond these three words of affirmation? Further, in a ‘new’ world where people believe you, what are the expectations of support beyond this? We must ensure that these three words of support never morph into an automated and sterile response.

In this broken world, statistics illustrate that sexual violence is all too familiar, either in that we have encountered such violence or know someone who has. Narratives that illuminate such instances of sexual violence, past and present, are mushrooming on our cultural, political, and social landscapes. Private whisperings of some predatory men in power have transitioned into public discourse. Webs of sexual violence have unfortunately shown how connected we are through such experiences — much closer than that of six degrees.

A decade ago, I thought no one around me had been sexually assaulted. I normalized the sexual harassment and violence I faced and witnessed from boys my age and older. Then, I never framed such encounters as violent. A decade ago, the world was very different and imagining a world where hashtags like #MeToo and #IBelieveYou exist was unfathomable to me. Yet, it was ten years ago, that I discovered within the digital sphere, there were others who were also uncomfortable with the normalization of sexual violence and rape culture.

A decade ago, I knew people who were assaulted who did not tell me or others about their experiences. And today, I continue to know people who are assaulted and do not tell me. You (probably) do too. Even if a viral hashtag assures them that their experiences are valid, or that being an empath woke feminist is now cool, or how posts of survivorship will elicit some likes and three word responses chased with an emoji or two, there are people in all of our lives who do not tell us about their experiences with sexual violence. Although verbalizing and typing affirmations of solidarity can be good, other forms of authentic care, solidarity, and accountability are needed. Work beyond one moment posts is necessary to move us towards a radically different world.

I live in a world where I am just finding out that I was exposed to men who were abusers as a child, and people who love me and were supposed to protect me knew about the men’s histories. But the fact is, they loved those men too. I still grapple with the fact that people can and do love survivors and abusers simultaneously.

I worked in a student union where it was known that a student leader’s office had a wooden post they would knick each time they slept with a female student in their office. They would proudly leave the wooden pole for their predecessors to knick too. In meetings, I often stared at the pole wondering how could I ever be respected in a world where this behaviour was condoned in university. I was on a hiring committee for welcome week representatives, and where a rapey video audition was submitted, instead of a rejection, the applicant was accepted, lauded, and told to “maybe [not] circulate that.”A decade later, we live in a world where student body vice presidents with knicks on a wooden post and student leaders who share private photos of his partner are admired and praised. In Ireland, a defense lawyer used a 17 year old girl’s thong as a signal of consent in a rape trial. A decade later, a version of these young men became a member of the United States Supreme Court.

Today, I get to be in amazing and beautifully complex spaces where being feminist is neither rare nor unique. At the same time, being feminist and believing survivors is so ubiquitous that sometimes a wading-pool depth of solidarity seems to be enough. A decade ago, I knew someone who was friends with an abuser but the blow would not gut me because they were not hashtagging #IBelieveYou, #TimesUp, and #MeToo. The blow would hit me but not break me because there were no complicated ironies between public and private. Today, I regularly interact with hashtag feminists and although a blessing, I also often feel eviscerated when I find them defend abuser friends and exchanging feminist memes and photos with known abusers.

Our friends are friends with abusers. Some of our friends might be abusers. Our families invite abusers into our lives. Our biological families may contain abusers. It is necessary to name and identify that we encounter people who do harm everyday. If we ignore this we can never reduce harm or attempt to address it. We have a responsibility to create environments and set conditions that mitigate and prevent assault. We will never transform the world if we do not recognize that perpetrators of sexual violence are embedded in our lives the same way survivors are.

Our bodies hold trauma regardless of how many ‘I believe you’s are said to us.

Avalanches occur in the lives of survivors from the actions of allies regularly. Earthquakes happen when I believe you is a one time moment and no afterthought is given. Some days people feel more like victim than survivor no matter how many positive affirmation pictures are reposted.

Regardless of how much we fight other cyphers of discourse, ones that feel so large and diametrically-opposed to feminist values, ones that feel like hurricanes, I have also heard that hurricanes do not collide. Rather, they can change trajectories, and larger hurricanes can absorb smaller ones. In supporting survivors, we should center them, and not lose sight of our purpose by expending energy in fighting internet trolls, or gimmicky one-moment feminisms. We can alter the paths of other hurricanes of rape-apologists, counter their spins, and absorb their harm in the world. We can absorb the hurricanes in the world that perpetuate rape culture and enable sexual assault and violence, with our hurricanes of advocacy, support, and solidarity. Perhaps one day, our hurricanes can mitigate the rest.

So, of course you believe me, you’re my friend. The question is what do we do next to interact in ways that best support us all, among the multiple multiple worlds in which we all dwell. How do we get to the Next?

Honestly, this part is tough and hard. It is contextual and situational. It is also relational. Below are some ideas that go beyond “I believe you.” It is sometimes difficult to know what to say or do in these situations even if you come in with the best of intentions. The way you react can shape how others carry their trauma and story. We live in a world where it can be awkward and uncomfortable to go beyond ‘I believe you’ because we may not be equipped or ready to nurture vulnerable moments. Nevertheless, we can do our utmost to equip ourselves to better care for survivors.

Actions that go beyond “I believe you”

This list is by no means conclusive, but I hope it helps. Do adapt as you see fit:

— When someone discloses their experience(s) of sexual violence, your response matters deeply. Your perceived reaction can shape how someone proceeds with future disclosure, how they feel about themselves, their situation, and so much more.

— Anyone who is disclosing to you is sharing something big, heavy, and hard. Thank them for trusting you, try not to be robotic with the thank you. Be vulnerable and let them know how you acknowledge what they have just shared is courageous and ensure confidentiality. Many do the former and not the latter. Ensuring confidentiality is just as important and can ease anxiety.

— You can say you are sorry the incident(s) occurred but this can land in so many ways. Another way to frame an apology is letting the person know that although this happened to them they did not deserve it and it should not have happened. You know the person best; some people find apologies in this circumstance generic and not authentic. It also hurts more if you say sorry this happened but were complicit in some way or are also in a relationship with the person (friend, family, or colleague). Follow it with active listening — ask what they need in that moment.

  • If you know the abuser, BE ACCOUNTABLE. Most people know their abusers. If someone you know discloses sexual violence there is a high chance you know the abuser too or might encounter them in the future. Now that you have been trusted with this knowledge you might have more context on what the survivor’s relationship to the person is now. Have they cut them off? Do they avoid them? Do they still engage with them as if nothing has happened? Take those cues to ensure that you practice what you preach and follow their lead.
  • Do not ask for details. You might be curious, especially if it is someone you also know. It doesn’t matter.
  • Being related to, friends, or acquaintances with an abuser is inevitable when you think about rates of sexual violence. If you find out someone you know (and might love) is an abuser, resist the urge to defend the person. We all experience people differently, it does not matter if they were respectful and non-violent to you, they were not to someone else.
  • If you are shocked or offended that the person is telling you after years, try not to show it. Process this later when you are alone and reflect on the environment you might have contributed to that stopped them from telling you earlier. Telling you years after sexual violence occured does not necessarily mean something you did is wrong or that they do not trust you. It could mean that now is the right time. In other situations it should be something you reflect on, especially if they mention that they have tried to tell you in the past. Many survivors report that the reactions from the first people they disclose to impacts how they move forward. Reactions that may seem judgemental, imply blame, or pry for details can result in more harm and deter a survivor from seeking supports or telling others. It may feel like gaslighting, which can cause them to question their own experiences. It is important to actively listen, validate their experiences, and not interrupt them if they take the time to tell you their story.

— Being sincere in your commitment to support survivors requires going beyond this moment. You might feel uncomfortable, again that is normal in a world where we do not nurture understanding on how to navigate these situations in meaningful ways. Regardless, you should check in and follow up after. This is not and will never be a one-time event.

  • When checking in do not just ask how someone is. We live in a culture where we are so often asked how we are and robotically answer “good,” “tired,” “fine,” amongst other cliche answers. When you check in ask how someone is taking care of themselves. This questions allows people to pause and genuinely reflect on what actions they do to self-care. If you feel that their response alludes to a lack of self-care maybe suggest some activities they can do or offer to do a self-care day together. Going beyond “I believe you” entails caring for each other. Sexual violence is never a one-time event, and supporting survivors entails more than one-time check-ins.

— Be present and ask what the survivor needs from you. In this moment and in future moments.

  • You can offer accompaniment, listening, sitting with the person, food, doing laundry, connecting them with resources, etc. You know what you are able to give and what you are not, only commit what you can and know that even sitting with someone in silent solidarity is doing a lot.

— Try your best to be trauma-informed in your approach and not judge. People react and process sexual violence in so many ways. There is no one way or perfect way to do this.

— People are multidimensional. They are so much more than their trauma. Healing centered care can help survivors prioritize themselves, their worth, and suspend further damage. A healing centered approach can focus on goals and assets. It celebrates small victories and allows survivors to be more than a single story, support survivors by reminding them of other aspects of their life.

  • Do they have strong ties to their community? Are they a kind intuitive person? Do they have a hobby or have wanted to try a skill? Gently encourage and support them to do things that heal them beyond re-telling their story (unless of course that is healing for them). You know the people in your lives and their strengths. Remind them of their assets. Collectively self-care, create self-care packages, go for walks, do whatever is needed or wanted. Healing is also not one dimensional nor is it linear.

— You are only human! Some of this might be a trigger for you. Some of it might require more bandwidth than you can manage. That is fair too. Equip yourself with potential referrals. If you feel yourself needing support be sure to look in the community for support as well.

Survivors are everywhere. We all know someone who has been assaulted and someone who has caused harm. Remaining silent and not calling in/out perpetuates harm. Survivor-and healing-centric support is a way forward. It requires bravery, energy and commitment to the words we say and type. It requires going beyond hashtag activism and saying ‘I believe you.’ I do not believe that sexual violence and gender-based violence will ever cease to exist. However, I do believe that we can create a world where survivors do not feel as isolated or hurt when they see people hold others accountable, and center their healing and belonging in this world.

Now that we have some foundational ways to demonstrate solidarity, here is a list with some other important resources:

You Can’t Own the Fucking Stars by Clementine Morrigan

  • Why You Should Read It: Everything Clementine Morrigan writes is amazingly complex and beautiful. You Can’t Own the Fucking Stars is no exception. Morrigan writes in an accessible way and evokes a multitude of writing styles including vignettes, poetry, and creative non-fiction. Most importantly, this book illustrates survivor-centered healing and recovery from trauma, in a radical way. As stated on Amazon, “You Can’t Own the Fucking Stars celebrate[s] the magic and power of trauma survivors.”

Why Don’t ‘Good Men’ Believe Women? by Soraya Chemaly

  • Why You Should Read It: Soraya Chemaly is someone you should know! She is constantly writing about compelling feminist topics with wit and an intersectional approach. Chemaly situates the current state of the #metoo movement and explores jarring statistics about the stark contrast in believing women’s experiences of sexual violence between genders. Chemaly is provoking us to think of the ways masculinity limits our ability to support women who have been sexually harassed or assaulted. She eloquently writes, “#MeToo is offering men a way forward, but it requires that men question their doubt, interrogate their place, and not only believe women, but believe that what happens to women matters.”

Learning Good Consent by Philly’s Pissed

  • Why You Should Read It: This zine is *chef’s kiss* amazing. Oh, how I wish I had discovered this so many moons ago. This zine is queer positive and complicates consent in ways that will teach you every time you read it. It also speaks to accountability, provides a menu of ways you can ask and think about consent, and embeds practical advice with first-person narratives. Another amazing tool this zine provides is ways for anyone to learn how they want to frame their own consent through prompts and reflective exercises. Just wow.

Create Consent Zine is an initiative that was led & supported by OCAD University’s Sexual Violence Prevention & Awareness Working Group with contributions from students Amrita, Spencer, Adria, Courtney, Khadija, Quentin, Nicole, Lizz and Olya

  • Why You Should Read It: This zine was created over the summer of 2015 by a group of OCAD University students envisioning consent culture on campus. Although campus-based consent is what spurred the creation of this zine it covers so much more and is beneficial to everyone. The zine opens with scenarios and situations in which consent can come up everyday. It pushes readers to think about consent during interactions and in situations we may not realize consent should be attained. For instance, “taking photos or posting online, […] bringing friends and visitors into studio/ study spaces, engaging in physical interactions like hugs and handshakes” are included in a list.
  • The zine also highlights scenarios where consent can be jeopardized for individuals including “… obligated to work in group projects where well-being or safety might be at risk, peer pressure to go out with people you might not want to socialize with…” This is an innovative and simple way to understand how we may be put in situations or put others in situations they do not consent to nor want to be in. There are also sections on classroom consent as well as visible and invisible consent. All are applicable and adaptable to individuals from any walk of life.

Supporting Survivors of Sexual Assault Tips and Resource Sheet is a resource created by the Anti -Oppression Resources and Training Alliance also known as AORTA

  • Why You Should Read It: This three page educational document is an important primer to get a comprehensive summary of ways to support survivors, especially for those who may be supporting someone for the first time. The accessible document begins with language and definitions that are important, followed by nine tips and tools. Lastly, AORTA has curated a list of further resources.
Dr Rohit Bhaskar, Physio
Dr Rohit Bhaskar, Physio Dr. Rohit Bhaskar, Physio is Founder of Bhaskar Health and Physiotherapy and is also a consulting physiotherapist. He completed his Graduation in Physiotherapy from Uttar Pradesh University of Medical Sciences. His clinical interests are in Chest Physiotherapy, stroke rehab, parkinson’s and head injury rehab. Bhaskar Health is dedicated to readers, doctors, physiotherapists, nurses, paramedics, pharmacists and other healthcare professionals. Bhaskar Health audience is the reason I feel so passionate about this project, so thanks for reading and sharing Bhaskar Health.

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