What Will It Take For Us To Believe Survivors?


Last night, like many of us, I found myself watching the press conference with Jim Harbaugh, coach of the Baltimore Ravens, as he discussed the decision to cut Ray Rice from the team and the NFL’s decision to suspend him indefinitely. While Rice had originally been suspended for two games following the release of a partial video that showed the aftermath of a physical attack on his partner, the release of an extended version of the video that showed the attack itself sparked the decision to release him from the team. This video has been shown, again and again, during all of the coverage of this story. A grainy picture of Rice knocking his partner to the ground was the cover photo on the front page of several different publications. I found myself asking, “Is this what it takes for us to believe survivors?”

I first got involved in violence prevention work because of my own experience with intimate partner violence. For the first several years of my career, I spoke both as a preventionist and as a survivor. Being a survivor was and is my truth, it is why I do this work, and I have shared this part of myself because I knew how much it would have meant to me had someone identified themselves that way during my experience. My message has always been much more than my own personal experience, and so while I would introduce myself as a survivor, it was not the focus of my presentations. And then, about six years ago, I noticed a trend that made me stop sharing my personal experience in most public spaces. I would introduce myself as I always had- as a survivor of sexual assault by a former dating partner – and be ready to move on, when the questions would begin.  My audiences, which at that time were mostly high school students, started to ask for details; details that I never felt were necessary to give- details about exactly how I was assaulted, wanting to know just what my rape looked like. I remember once posing the question back to the student who asked (and asked and asked again) why it was so important to her to know the details of my experience. Her response was, “How do you expect us to believe you if we don’t know exactly how it happened?”

I see the increase of questions and sentiments like these as a product of something much larger. With the increase of information (visual, auditory, sensory) that is now widely accessible through the internet and other media, we now expect to have all of the details. When there has been a high profile murder, for instance, we expect to know the exact details of death, we expect to hear the 911 phone calls, and perhaps we will even see a cell phone video that captured the death itself. The scene is, in essence, recreated for us and we are given the opportunity to relive it. In the absence of detail, we feel disappointed; we shrug it off as not very important, perhaps not even believable.

This has many implications for us as individuals and as communities, but in the case of intimate partner violence, the implications are especially troubling. In abusive relationships, much of the abusive acts (and some of the most damaging) are not physical but rather the emotional and psychological tactics abusers use. We at REACH often hear the sentiment that one survivor recently shared, “the worst part was not the broken bones or the bruises- it was being told time and time again that I was worthless. The bones can mend and the bruises will fade, but those messages are much harder to forget and unlearn.”

When we focus on sensationalizing violence and all the ‘gory details’, we both impact the ability of friends and family to take seriously forms of abuse that don’t leave physical marks, as well as  the ability of the survivors themselves to take their own experience seriously. Survivors may see and hear about a very violent incident and think, “Oh well, I guess what happened to me wasn’t so bad.” Survivors are put in the position of feeling that we need to prove our pain to others, as well as to ourselves. The message becomes: the more explicit and grotesque the abuse, the more real it is, the more believable we are. The value is placed on the method, rather than with the meaning.

I am grateful that my assault was not recorded, that no one but me has to know what it looked like and felt like. Today, many survivors don’t have a choice if they want to share details with others. A survivor may learn after the fact that a security camera, a cell phone, or another recording device has captured this traumatic event. Like Janay Rice, some survivors are forced to see their assault shown again and again publicly. Others may learn that friends and co-workers have witnessed the abuse on social media or email. A survivor may receive support, but often they are subjected to judgment and blame. They lose control all over again: this event they did not choose, this pain they did not ask for, is now available for others to see, watch and “experience.”

It takes courage to believe something you cannot see, hear or touch. It takes courage to believe something before others are “convinced” – to take a stand and speak up about something terrible even if you have not experienced it yourself. And it takes enormous courage for survivors to speak up when they have been told over and over again that no one will believe them. At REACH, our first work is to believe. Advocates stand with survivors, validating their experience, listening without judgment and offering support. Our hotline is available 24 hours 7 days a week. And as family, friends and neighbors, you have a role as well. You can believe, you can listen, you can support. If you want to learn more about domestic and dating violence and what you can do to prevent and end it, visit our website, www.reachma.org.

Together we will reach beyond domestic violence.