Author’s Note: This essay was originally published on Hamilton and Griffin on Rights, a site run by Professor Marci Hamilton and Professor Leslie Griffin, which is dedicated to the healthy separation of church and state and the rights of women and children (specifically surrounding childhood sexual abuse). I encourage you to check out the site and the amazing work these women are doing. It is currently the only legal blog that has the majority of content authored by women, and you can find my writing there on the last Tuesday of each month. This post has been republished with permission.
I distinctly remember the moment I knew I had to come out publicly as a rape survivor. I was appalled over the Steubenville rape case, and the subsequent fallout from CNN reporter Poppy Harlow’s reaction to the verdict. I wrote a tearful open letter at 2 A.M., and just two days later, after discussing it with my family, my words were out in the world on Hypervocal. It was one of the scariest things I’ve ever done in my life. I was worried about being shouted down, accused of lying, insulted and harassed. Yet I felt overwhelmingly compelled to publish anyway, with my full name and picture attached.
At that time, it seemed like survivor voices were few and far in between; that the majority of our words were hidden in the depths of the Internet on anonymous message boards, rather than where they should be: front and center in the discussion of sexual assault and rape culture. It felt like nobody was listening.
I was sick of seeing women’s stories called into question — “well, if she was really raped, she’d come forward, wouldn’t she?!” As if these things are so simple. As if there aren’t a million reasons victims stay silent and anonymous. As if publicly coming forward guarantees that people will believe you. As if we don’t all harbor the fear that we will be dismissed as false accusers; our lives torn apart all over again.
I was tired of being silent and seething every time a new case came into the public discourse; of comments sections labeling women as money-grabbing, manipulative, system-playing hussies who don’t seem to understand that they obviously only get what’s coming to them.
I clearly wasn’t alone in these sentiments. In the last few years, I’ve watched as a veritable avalanche of survivors has come forward to bravely share their stories. Each time, a little bit of the narrative around sexual assault is reclaimed. Our whispers are turning into soapbox screams and we refuse to let our stories be defined by our attackers and retractors.
I’ve also noticed a tide turning in the way our stories are received. Back in 2006, when the public was first learning that Bill Cosby was accused of sexual assault, his actions were swept under the rug; his accusers scorned. How could somebody so powerful, and who built his reputation on being America’s good guy, do such awful things? It was unfathomable. So the survivors were pushed back into silence and labeled opportunistic, ruinous liars. It took a re-airing of the rape accusations, extensive media coverage and an excruciatingly long list of survivors coming forward before the public opinion finally started to shift. A powerful man, who was once protected by so many with the all-too-common refrains “we don’t know what really happened” and “innocent until proven guilty,” had finally fallen from grace.
Since Cosby’s downslide, I’ve noticed that more people seem to be believing survivors at the outset, which is further empowering even more women to come forward. When adult film star James Deen was accused of sexually assaulting his co-star and former girlfriend, Stoya, the reaction was swift. Several other women in the industry immediately shouted out their support for Stoya, and eight more accusers have come forward to share their stories of assault at Deen’s hands. Rather than responding with doubt, the adult film industry has taken decisive action: Deen has lost profitable deals with production company Kink.com and sex toy manufacturer Doc Johnson. Further, websites such as Oh Joy Sex Toy are pulling advertisements and links to Deen’s website. Most importantly, the victims have been overwhelmingly believed and supported.
There is still an undoubtedly long road to walk before victims are treated with the empathy, respect and trust that we deserve, but it’s deeply gratifying to see that small, incremental change is happening. With 2015 coming to a close, it feels like people are finally listening.
We survivors will continue speaking out, both for ourselves and for those who can’t or aren’t ready. We will not be relegated to the shadows. We will find strength in each other, and keep pushing towards truth, justice and progress.