The #believesurvivors problem

Most allegations of  sexual assault and abuse are true.  Some aren’t.

Sometimes the allegations are untrue because while the assault or abuse occurred, there is mistaken identity. Sometimes the accused is not telling the truth – or not the entire truth.

But-let me reiterate this- most allegations are accurate or relatively accurate.

When the allegations have been proven, or we know the assault occurred, or the assailant admits the assault or abuse, it’s fair to call the victim a survivor.  But what about when the alleged perpetrator denies the allegations and the main (or only) evidence is the allegation?  What if there are few objective facts to test the allegation?  In those cases I more often hear the argument that we need to #believesurvivors. I find that problematic, and I think a lot of people who believe in due process agree.

As a criminal defense attorney, I’ve asked Judges to instruct the Prosecuting Attorney to not refer to the complainant as “the victim” in front of a jury. Not always,  in some cases there clearly is a victim and my defense isn’t that there wasn’t  a crime, just that my client wasn’t the perpetrator.  For instance if the complainant was clearly robbed and the perpetrator was wearing a mask and my clients defense was mistaken identity.  On the other hand in an assault case where my client is arguing self defense, calling the complaining witness “the victim” for two days in front of a jury is highly prejudicial. It presupposes guilt because the complainant is only a victim if my client was not acting in self defense.  That has a big effect on a 12 human beings. Words and labels have a lot of power, particularly when coming from a person of authority.

Similarly when you label a person a survivor based on an as yet unproven or un-admitted to allegation of sexual assault or abuse you are presupposing the allegations are true and that the alleged assailant is guilty, is a criminal and not to be believed. In that case not only is there little reason to question the allegation, but doing so means you’re just re-victimizing the victim. And you’re a pretty bad person to question survivors of abuse by the way.

I get the sentiment of #believesurvivors. It should be common knowledge that most allegations of abuse and assault are in essence true. But make no mistake it’s a poor policy statement of universal truth.

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