Caution: Construction of Rape Culture in Progress

Our default of doubting survivors is a huge part of the problem

Content warning: sexual assault, suicide, and self-harm

Note: Sexual assault affects people of all genders. I am speaking from my own experience as a woman, so I have chosen to focus on how rape culture affects women. That does not lessen the impact it has on non-binary individuals and men.

I will begin with a refusal: I refuse to apologize for my anger. I was sexually assaulted by someone I trusted immensely. Then, I was told by “friend” after “friend” that they had to remain neutral and impartial, that their friendship with him was too valuable. Finally, I found out that he was telling people that I was lying. If you could resist anger after these experiences, then you must be a saint. I, unfortunately, am not. And I, like most survivors of sexual assault, have never and will never receive an apology or admission of guilt from the person who assaulted me. If sexual assault does not warrant an apology, then anger most definitely does not. So yes, I refuse to apologize for my anger.

I often hear people talk about sexual assault and say things like, “It’s just her word against his.” “How can you believe what one person says?” “I can’t stop being friends with him just because he allegedly raped her.” It is in these times that I desperately wish I had a giant sign that said “Caution: Construction of rape culture in progress.” Because rape culture is not just the big flashy moments where Trump says “Grab ‘em by the pussy” or Representative Lawrence Lockman asks “Why shouldn’t a man be free to use his superior strength to force himself on a woman?” Rape culture is made of normalized, everyday moments, including when we doubt someone who says they were sexually assaulted. Rape culture is the expectation that the survivor should produce evidence, and if they can’t, it probably didn’t happen.

Since evidence is what you want, evidence is what I will give you. The National Center for the Prosecution of Violence Against Women wrote a report that found that only two to eight percent of sexual assault reports are false. That means that 92 to 98 percent of sexual assault reports are true.

Nobody is “too nice” to be capable of sexual assault.

Let’s imagine that you are on a gameshow where you are standing in front of two doors. The host tells you that there is a 92 to 98 percent chance that you will receive $1 million if you open the door on the right and a two to eight percent chance that you will receive $1 million if you open the door on the left. Which door would you open? The logical answer is that you would open the door on the right. When you refuse to believe someone who says they have been sexually assaulted, you are choosing the door on the left, despite the overwhelming statistical chance against it. If you truly value evidence, then shouldn’t you act according to it?

And maybe the problem is that, oh, you know him, he’s too nice of a guy to be capable of sexual assault. I have friends who were assaulted by leaders of student organizations, by people who called themselves feminists, and even by a Commons RA who went through hours of Green Dot Training. Nobody is “too nice” to be capable of sexual assault.

And now you’ll ask, why does it matter whether or not I believe her? What effect does that really have? It matters because when survivors grow up in a world where the default is to doubt, then they internalize that default. I spend most days trying to believe myself. Someone once told me that when you’re sexually assaulted, it’s as if your brain splits into two pieces: your rational brain and your trauma brain. My rational brain tells me over and over again that yes, this happened. I wouldn’t have nightmares every night if this hadn’t happened. I wouldn’t have anxiety attacks when I see his face if this hadn’t happened. Why would I make up a story that causes my mother to be unable to sleep at night? Why would I willingly go through an EAD investigation that required me to relive the worst night of my life, minute-by-minute, if this hadn’t really happened? Why would I take a bus one hour each way to the Nashville Sexual Assault Center to see a therapist every week if I were making this up? But my trauma brain repeats what it has heard from people over the years, asking me if it was really sexual assault.

You can make such a positive difference in choosing to believe a survivor

I cannot explain how stressful it is to have to convince myself that what I am going through is real. And it becomes even harder when I hear people say “It’s just her word against his.” If you “can’t believe what one person says,” then how many people should someone be allowed to sexually assault before you believe that those survivors are telling the truth – six, seven? Are people’s lives so expendable?

This devaluation of women’s lives, of my life, is reinforced when people choose to remain neutral. When you stay impartial or choose to maintain your friendship with him despite knowing what he has done to me, you are essentially saying that his acquaintance or friendship is more valuable to you than my basic human right to my own body and dignity. And this can be more damaging than you might imagine. As I watched some of my “friends” distance themselves from me in order to preserve their friendship with him, I understood the subtext: my life was worth less than his friendship. I began harming myself and becoming suicidal. It is my other friends, the ones who tell me every day that they unconditionally believe me – those are the people who brought me back from the brink. You can make such a positive difference in choosing to believe a survivor and do so much harm in perpetuating disbelief of survivors.

This article is my plea to you to start changing the default of disbelief. Refuse to be neutral. Take a stand and support a survivor. The next time you hear someone say “It’s just her word against his,” speak up and tell them that it is far more likely that she is telling the truth than lying. Because when he sexually assaulted me, he ripped away a piece of me. But when so many refused to believe me, the rest of me shattered.


  1. I don’t attend Vanderbilt, but I found this very, very powerful. Thank you for sharing your story. I wish you the best, and that one day you find the justice you are looking for.