Believing the unbelievable
This is a formal statement from the Trouble & Strife collective on believing women, men and children who report sexual abuse. We fully support this statement and encourage everyone to read the full statement here.
Believing the unbelievable.
Feminists who campaign on the issue of sexual violence against women and children, and those who work with survivors, are well aware that we live in a culture of disbelief, where accounts of rape, assault and child sexual abuse are routinely met with scepticism if not dismissed outright as lies, fantasies, exaggerations or misunderstandings. Believing survivors is an important feminist principle; combatting the culture of disbelief is an important political task. But there are some accounts of violence and abuse that even feminists may struggle to come to terms with.
In the early 1990s, Trouble & Strife was one of the few feminist publications that addressed the issue of ritual abuse. The discussions we had in the editorial collective were instructive, with those not involved in support work finding the issues raised difficult to contemplate. Our conversations were informed by the feminist principle of believing survivors, but much of what was being said seemed unbelievable: even some rape crisis groups struggled with the accounts that were emerging, despite their extensive knowledge about sexual violence. This is still an area of work that stretches our humanity – why would one want to believe that adults can abuse and torture children in such vile ways?
In the last few years, other kinds of accounts have emerged that seem to many people scarcely credible. It is alleged that senior politicians and other members of the British establishment attended sex parties where children were not only abused but in some cases actually killed. Following the posthumous unmasking of Jimmy Savile as, in the words of the police, a ‘serial sexual predator’, and the conviction of several other media figures on multiple counts of rape and sexual assault, there has been a steady stream of fresh reports of so-called ‘historical abuse’ (a term which is contested by survivors, for whom the effects are ongoing, and also because some perpetrators of ‘historical’ abuse may still be abusing in the present). Believing these accounts means accepting that a seemingly extraordinary number of prominent men have committed serious sexual offences. It is one thing to believe that one man, Savile, was able to do this unchallenged for many years, and another to suggest that he was not an isolated case.
We do believe the accounts given by survivors. But we also think it is important to talk about the particular difficulty posed by accounts which are ‘extreme’, either because they report very extreme practices (such as ritual abuse and murder) or because they point to a problem whose sheer scale makes it difficult to take in (as with the current reports of ‘historical’ abuse). That difficulty is easily exploited by those with a vested interest in maintaining the culture of disbelief. But if we look back to the way this was done in the past, there may be lessons we can learn for the present and the future. .....
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Excellent piece. When I tried to disclose my experience of sexual abuse in a state children’s home to a counseller at a sexual assault counselling service I was not believed. She just didn’t think such a thing could possibly have been allowed to happen.
We are now in the middle of a Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual abuse and it has sadly become clear that my experience was not at all unusual or uncommon. Some children’s homes in Australia could be better described as non-wartime rape camps.
Yes we need to talk about these things that those who were not there find so hard to believe.
I still need to be vigilant in educating every person I seek healthcare or counselling from: I bring government reports, newspaper articles and commission papers about what happened at the institution with me to appointments to ensure that I am believed. Because not being believed can be very dangerous: I was nearly put in a mental hospital because I told the wrong doctor and she thought I was completely delusional.
The reason people find it hard to believe us is because we live in a split society, much like a split- or dissociated- personality. Some parts of the social organism have been completely protected from what happened to other parts. Some parts know, but pretend not to.
Meanwhile, the parts that experienced the trauma, the people like me, are silenced, isolated, and unheard. We can’t be integrated into the whole unless the entire social organism is willing to change its identity.
This means facing the child abuse that has been allowed to happen.