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What It Means To Believe The Victim, and How To Do It

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[Trigger warning: discussions and descriptions of rape, sexual assault, and victim-blaming. Also, there will be no GIFs in this post. Sorry, friends.]

I have a difficult relationship with music. Because sensory overload is one of the things that exacerbates my bipolar, I have a really hard time finding artists whose work doesn’t hurt my brain. Anyone who knows me will tell you that my only sure bet is Sufjan Stevens.

And then came PWR BTTM.

I listened to PWR BTTM compulsively throughout the breakup described in my last post, a little over five months ago (eventually, I will updated you on that, as well). There was something so, so comforting about a queer artist singing truthful depictions of queer heartbreak. I didn’t love all of their songs, but the ones I loved, I truly fell in love with. It seemed like I had finally found someone to join Sufjan in the “this doesn’t hurt my brain” club.

Look, a picture of me dressed up as a douchebag, wearing PWR BTTM merch:

[Picture: A man with aviator sung-glasses and a bright pink PWR BTTM tank top, taking a picture in a bathroom mirror]

This tank top has been cropped to remove the band name.

And… then came PWR BTTM’s sexual assault allegations. Oh, and some pictures of one of them next to a swastika. (I’m Jewish and my grandparents are Holocaust survivors).

And then came PWR BTTM’s two (2!!) weak-ass responses to the allegations, in which they managed to simultaneously “take these allegations very seriously” and not do anything substantive about them. As one astute Facebook commenter noted, Ben and Liv’s statements essentially amounted to: “I believe victims, but not when they’re my own.”

Ouch.

I have been thinking a lot — before these events, even — about what it means to believe victims of sexual assault and rape. I’ve been thinking things that make me uncomfortable, because that’s how we learn, and because I needed to understand my own discomfort around believing an account of events that I didn’t bear witness to, and of which there is no corroborating proof.

Because that’s the truth about sexual assault and rape: they tend to happen behind closed doors with no physical struggle. There’s not a whole lot of forensic evidence available to those who wish to investigate allegations of sexual assault, which is one reason why people who commit sexual violence so rarely face any consequences. We’ve all seen crime procedurals on TV: in a court of law, a crime must be proved beyond the shadow of a doubt. Sexual assault and rape happen in the shadows.

But here’s what I’ve realized: while it’s quite hard to prove a crime, it’s pretty easy to prove that harm was done. And isn’t that what matters?

When we stop looking for evidence of criminality and start looking for evidence of harm, a whole lot of things start to make sense. The first thing that clicks into place is the victim’s behavior. Many sexual assault investigations go nowhere because the victims’ statements fall apart, the victims drop charges, or the victims refuse to testify. In a criminal investigation, this makes the victim look suspicious, uncommitted to the charges, or manipulative.

Viewed through the lens of trauma, however, this makes perfect sense: trauma messes with our memory and causes us to act erratically. Any mental health professional worth their salt will tell you that trauma can disguise itself as insubordination, lethargy, poor recall, and many other behavioral and cognitive impairments. In other words, the behaviors used to discredit victims is almost always evidence that harm was done.

Speaking of which: I keep using the phrase “harm was done.” Why? Why not say that they were sexually assaulted or raped? If I truly believe the victim, why am I focusing on harm and not the specific nature of it?

To answer that question, I need to tell you another story, and this one is about me.

During the summer of 2013, while I was doing an internship in Nicaragua, I met a man through some travel buddies of mine. He was a gay man who worked for a feminist NGO. It was exciting to meet a queer Nicaraguense, someone who I could look to for advice about this country that I was fumbling my way around. We met for dinner, and then he asked if I wanted to go back to his place and chat.

You probably see where I’m going with this.

After I was assaulted, my boyfriend-at-the-time was insistent that I pursue criminal charges. I resisted, knowing instinctively that the Nicaraguan criminal justice system was not going to investigate, charge, and convict a man-on-man sexual assault case with zero witnesses. But I also resisted because it didn’t matter. I didn’t want to go over the details with a thousand bureaucrats. The details, frankly, didn’t matter to me. I was hurt. Harm was done. Justice wasn’t about punishing the man who assaulted me; it was about getting my fucking life back.

That wasn’t the only time I’ve been assaulted. But it was an instructive one, because I got to go home, far away from the man who hurt me, far away from the country where it happened. Back in the United States, I sought therapy and my life returned to me, slowly but surely.

Most people don’t get that opportunity. Most people do not get to escape the circumstances of their assault. Most people have to see the person who assaulted them on campus, around town, at the office, in the park. And, once it becomes clear that nobody is going to jail or punish the accused, it seems like there’s nothing left to do. This is life now: you are hurt, and the world has said, “Sorry, there’s not enough evidence that you were hurt in exactly the way you said you were hurt, so we don’t care.”

This is wrong. This is so wrong. Because if you believe the victim — if you believe that harm was done — you don’t need a criminal conviction or damning evidence to move forward. If you believe that harm was done, you don’t need to know the specifics. But you do have a responsibility to support the person to whom the harm was done. Regardless of whether or not the “facts line up.” Regardless of whether or not it is logistically or financially convenient. Regardless of who the victim or the perpetrator are, and regardless of how they live their lives.

Which brings me back to PWR BTTM. What could PWR BTTM have done to make this right? For that matter, what can anyone do when they find out that they have caused harm?

The first thing is to believe that harm was done. Maybe you don’t agree on the details; maybe your memories conflict with the memories of the person who is hurt. That doesn’t matter. Someone is hurt, and it involves you. Don’t you care about that?

The second thing is to figure out if the person who is hurt wants to engage in some sort of therapeutic, restorative justice process involving you, or if they simply need to not see you or be reminded of you for a while. It’s their choice, and you have to honor it. It doesn’t matter if you were planning a big tour or if it’s the middle of the semester or if you were planning on living near the person you hurt. Cancel those plans. Disappear for a while.

The third thing is to go to therapy. Find someone who is used to working with perpetrators of sexual violence. It doesn’t matter if you don’t think you committed sexual violence. Actually, scratch that. The fact that you don’t think you committed sexual violence is what allowed you to commit sexual violence. Stay in therapy, and stay in self-examination mode, until you understand exactly how you caused harm and until you know how to move through the world without causing harm. This might take a while. You’ll get there.

If the person you hurt is willing to engage in some sort of restorative justice process… you are lucky that the person you hurt has anything but rage to give you. Enter that process believing that you have a lot to learn. Leave facts, figures, and timelines at the door. Enter that process believing that you caused harm. Enter that process believing the victim.