As a clinician for survivors of sexual assault, I should be in favor of this trending slogan. After all, it was popularized as a result of the #MeToo movement and, more recently, in response to Dr. Blasey Ford’s testimony against Brett Kavanaugh. Both of these events have galvanized large sections of the American population into supporting survivors of sexual violence in unprecedented numbers, a development about which I, along with many in my field, am thrilled to see taking place.
Yet the phrase “believe women” actually bothers me, and not for the same reason that it seems to disturb Bari Weiss (who thinks the slogan “fetishizes women”) or angers Michelle Malkin (who professes that believing women means ignoring evidence); to me, the phrase is simply far too limiting. In fact, we should not believe women. We should believe men, too. We should believe children. We should believe those who live outside the gender binary, and those who identify with genders other than male and female. We should, in short, believe survivors.
Lately, the phenomena of sexual abuse have been garnering more attention in the media than ever before—and this is a good thing. Sexual violence is incredibly widespread, much more so than many recognized until recently. Nevertheless, the focus of all this press has by and large been limited to the plight of female survivors of sexual violence. Understandable as this is – women deal with sexual violence in all forms on a day-to-day basis, and in overwhelming numbers – it does unintentionally silence survivors who are not female.
Current statistics by the CDC reflect that 1 in 3 American women experiences contact sexual violence in their lifetime; 1 in 6 American men do as well. While this is a smaller number, it does mean that over 19 million American men will experience sexual violence at some point in their lives. And those are just within the gender binary. According to a survey done in 2015, transgender individuals experience sexual assault at a lifetime rate of nearly 1 in 2.
The numbers are staggering. At the end of the day, however, trauma is not a numbers game. It should also not be a gender game. #MeToo should not be about men versus women, because sexual abuse is not about men versus women. Sexual violence is perpetrated by every gender, and every gender can be a victim.
If we want to support those who need our support, to give compassion where it is so desperately needed, let’s make sure we don’t just believe women: Instead, let us Believe Survivors.
If you believe that you have been sexually abused or assaulted, call YWCA Bergen County healingSPACE’s 24/7 hotline at 201-487-2227 or RAINN’s national 24/7 hotline at 800-656-4673.
Bergen County’s sexual violence resource center, YWCA Bergen County healingSPACE, provides free individual and group counseling to all survivors ages 12 and older. Visit ywcabergencounty.org to learn more about our services, all of which are provided free-of-charge.