#BelieveSurvivors: Dismantling Emotional and Verbal Violence Against Survivors 101
Trigger Warning: Sexual violence, Rape culture
- In the following, the word ‘survivor’ has been used for victims of sexual trauma since it is the most generally accepted term. However, there will be people who do not identify with the word and they have it in their right to identify however they want.
- If you’re someone dissing the #metoo movement or in doubt about the authenticity of survivor stories, the writer would appreciate an open mind, patience and empathy from you before you read any further.
The #metoo movement has gained momentum in India, the past two weeks have seen men being outed on social media for their predatory behaviour. People are being held accountable for their actions. Facing accountability for misconduct has not been the general norm, and so this movement has gained its share of dissenters. The arguments for disbelieving survivors have a wide range; the points below will break down these arguments and make an attempt to show why they have little or no basis.
- Why aren’t survivors following the due process of law?
The due process is not free from influence and privilege. Survivors outing their assaulters on social media, instead of following the procedure laid down under the law, is proof that the procedure does not work. There are countless testimonies of survivors who have been mentally harassed at every step while following the due process. Bhanwari Devi, whose determination and resolve to do her job gave us the Vishakha guidelines, was gang-raped by upper caste men in her village for doing her job. After 25 years, she still awaits justice.
Fundamental Rights are enforceable against the State and not private individuals. It is faulty to argue that survivors, by outing their assaulter publicly, are taking away the assaulter’s fundamental right under Article 21, the Article states that no person shall be deprived of his life or personal liberty except according to a procedure established by law. Men’s rights activists have also been harping about the criminal law principle of innocent until proven guilty. It needs to be noted that this is a criminal law principle and therefore not applicable to the civil community which is free to form its opinions on the basis of information and facts available.
Let’s remember that survivors do not have a duty to report their sexual assault to make the world a better place. The accountability is always of the perpetrator to not sexually assault, and on the community to aid the healing process for the survivor.
There are multiple reasons why a survivor might choose to stay silent about their sexual assault-
- The assaulter is known
According to the 2014 annual report of the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), 86% of rapes had been committed by family members, co-workers, friends, and neighbours. In the situation where an assailant is a person close to you, reporting or even telling someone about the crime can be a harrowing experience as there is fear of retaliation from family and friends. For a younger victim, it is a task next to impossible because firstly, more often than not they might not understand what is happening and secondly, they would have to come out about a person who has cordial relations with their family or friends. Even when the survivor gathers the strength to come out it is highly possible that the family will choose to suppress the grievance rather than act on it.
- Victim blaming
The first few questions to survivors once they speak up about their assault are riddled with victim blaming. Victim blaming is so prevalent that it has made its way into the speeches of the leaders of our country and to the judgements of our judiciary. In a recent Punjab and Haryana High Court judgement, the two-judge bench overturned the judgement of a lower court that convicted the accused men for blackmailing and gang raping a fellow student. The woman’s claim was questioned for drinking beer, smoking and keeping condoms. The practice is not limited to one odd case and hence a survivor may choose to keep the assault hidden than face a backlash from the community.
The practice of victim blaming leads to self-doubt and survivors may punish themselves for the assault. In plenty of cases, survivors may not consider what they have been subjected to as sexual assault leading to an absence of action of seeking help or reporting.
- The perfect victim
It is no news that the community is run by those with privilege and power, and the opinion of others is not held in the same regard. Similarly, some victim stories hold more influence than others; the testimonies of sexual assault of, say, a sex worker will not be given equal value as those of someone who comes from a position of privilege.
The #metoo movement which was started by Tarana Burke, an African American civil rights activist in 2006, did not gain momentum then but gained support when Alyssa Milano, a white American actress endorsed it.
- Victimisation of assaulter
Our conversations focus around the career, families, and reputation of the assailant. This, more often than not, portrays the assailant as the victim of ruthlessness on part of the survivor.
- #metoo and #notallmen should be complementary
The #metoo movement is a movement against sexual assault and harassment, whereas #notallmen is an excuse to divert conversations about the same. It is used as a shield to deflect accountability. The movement is rooted in the assumption that behaving like a socially responsible human being is not a duty, but an option which, if chosen, should be a source of pride for the individual.
It is not the duty of survivors and their allies to entice men into supporting them by embracing #notallmen. The #metoo movement does not paint all men with the same colour, it is a movement of survivors and focuses on holding sexual predators accountable for their actions and acts as an eye opener for the community to create a safe environment.
- Why should we trust a survivor?
Sexual harassment is a cause for trauma. Psychological trauma is caused due to extremely distressing events which may induce the mind to enter a critical state of involuntary action of the fight, flight, or freeze. In cases of sexual assault, the victim usually freezes. Fight and flight result in a release of cortisol and adrenaline but when the body freezes these hormones stay in the body. The trauma is incomplete without the expulsion of these hormones and until healing occurs the trauma is still happening. Trauma impacts the brain. Therefore, before deciding whether to believe a survivor, we need to understand the neurobiology of trauma.
- Left prefrontal cortex
At the time of trauma, this part of the brain shrinks, resulting in a diminished capacity for language. When a survivor struggles to recount details of their assault it is due to this part of the brain that controls the ability to communicate.
This part of the brain organises memory and encodes new information. The hippocampus is affected during trauma and might lead to the survivor having altered information of the time and space and fragmented memory of the assault.
This part regulates emotional functioning. When gone through trauma it may create behaviour that seems irrational but is justified when seen through a neurobiological lens.
Hearing and trusting a survivor’s story can aid in the cure for trauma.
- What about all the false allegations?
False allegations against a person can be made for any crime. Their existence cannot be denied but the concern over them at the cost of blaming survivors for coming out and is therefore wrong.
Men’s rights activists complain about the false cases of sexual assault and dowry against them but various studies have disproved any rising concern. Studies carried out in the US and UK have indicated the percentage of false cases to be between 4-6% (this rate includes cases that couldn’t go through due to the inability to prove the assault).
- There is no difference left between sexual harassment and flirting
The difference between harassment and flirting is fairly clear; flirting should involve both parties being interested out of their own free will. It is sexual harassment if it is abuse of authority for sexual favours, physically intrusive behaviour, creating a hostile or offensive work environment to elicit sexual favours, inappropriate remarks or questions about a person’s sex life, making advances despite being turned down, stalking, sexually suggestive remarks or hints, offensive or sexist messages, pictures or posters, blackmailing or threatening for sexual favours and rape.
We are an extremely sex-negative society. The majority still does not understand that consent can be withdrawn at any time. Once consent is withdrawn, no matter what the relation between the parties may have been, it would amount to sexual harassment.
The #metoo movement is not perfect and it lacks inclusiveness of survivors from all spheres such as LGBTQIA+, Dalits, and many more, this necessitates the importance for us to be allies to survivors. Believing a survivor’s story may not bring a change in our life but it will act as a positive experience of trust in the life of a survivor and create a community that holds people accountable for their actions.
About the Author:
Riya Kothari is currently pursuing law from the Army Institute of Law, Mohali. She identifies as a sex-positive intersectional feminist. Her interest lies in human rights and criminal reform systems.