Over 30 years ago, I was held up at gunpoint in New York City while working as an ice cream vendor. Once the thief was 20 feet away from me, I pointed at him and shouted, That man has a gun and he just stole my money! as I had been trained to do. Despite being the only one who saw the gun, no one doubted my story. The vendor next to me and a few strangers ran after the thief, risking their lives to recoup the couple hundred dollars he’d stolen. The automatic response to that robbery was not just belief, but also an urgency for justice.
If I were to post on social media that someone robbed me and people replied,I believe you, I would feel more confused and irritated than supported. There will never be a #MeToo movement for victims of robbery, though, because belief is not an issue — even if there are no eyewitnesses. People don’t feel pressure to keep it secret; they don’t expect to be shamed and blamed when someone robs them. Meanwhile the knee-jerk reaction to accounts of sexual assault is doubt. Perhaps people don’t want to believe stories of sexual assault because often it’s unbearable to imagine. Or maybe they don’t want to believe it because they don’t know what to do if it’s true. There may be a need to maintain the status quo or to protect the perpetrator. They might feel torn because the perpetrator is a friend or relative or a respected member or leader in their community.
As a sexual assault survivor, I’m familiar with the experience of being disbelieved. We’re conditioned to be grateful when someone believes us, as though they’re doing us a favor. Unfortunately, and contrary to its original intention, hashtags like #IBelieveYou keep people stuck in a discussion of whether to believe or not. A situation has been created where victims are supposed to be satisfied with being believed, feel that it’s the most we can expect, and that no further action is required. Telling a victim “I believe you” has come to be viewed as advocacy or social activism, even as a solution. Indeed, of the millions of #MeToo posts on social media, many had previously spoken up after an assault and were not believed, or they stayed silent because they knew they wouldn’t be. But — and this is important — for many survivors, even when we are believed, we are further harmed by the responses that follow: victim blaming and shaming.
The prestigious yoga teacher Pattabhi Jois sexually abused me. There are photos of him assaulting me, plus video and photographic evidence of him assaulting other students. There are numerous victim and witness testimonies to Pattabhi Jois sexually assaulting students, spanning over three decades. Some, who acknowledge it happened, still overtly or subtly blame me and other victims. “That’s what happens when we put someone on a pedestal. That’s what happens when you give away your power,” they say. In other words, it was not his fault that he abused us; it was just something that was bound to happen, and it was my fault for trusting him. People say this without realizing that they’re victim-blaming and that they themselves haven’t taken him down from the pedestal. They say this without realizing they’ve circumvented holding him accountable for his actions.
No one consciously decides to be deceived, abused, or betrayed; that’s the responsibility of the one who abuses.
I remember sitting on a curb one autumn night when I was 15, drunk and throwing up. An older boy from my high school, a football player, sat next to me. He said that if I told him where I lived, he would walk me home. I was unable to answer him. He said, “Karen, I’m not going to make a pass at you. You’re sick and you need to get home.” He flagged down a police officer and together they figured out where I lived and brought me home. I was so drunk I could hardly speak. No doubt my judgment was impaired and I would not have been able to defend myself if either man had tried to hurt me rather than help me. At that moment, I had no power to “give away.” The football player had the power to sexually assault me, but he didn’t.
No matter how naive or gullible, no matter how impaired my judgment was, Pattabhi Jois is responsible for what he did to me, the same way the high school football player was responsible for helping me. The abuser is always responsible for abusing. People don’t give up their power. Our hopes and dreams and our personhood can be manipulated through deceit, abuse, and betrayal. No one consciously decides to be deceived, abused, or betrayed; that’s the responsibility of the one who abuses.
It could be that this camouflaged, often unintentional victim-shaming and blaming stems, at least in part, from not wanting or knowing how to hold perpetrators accountable. In my case, some people say they believe me, but they don’t want to reevaluate everything that implies. If my friends at the time and other people who studied with Pattabhi Jois, who behold him as a “yoga master,” admit that he abused and deceived me, they can’t deny that he deceived them too. Whatever his intentions were or however he framed the abuse in his mind, it was abuse. It was not teaching yoga. During his career, teachers under his “tutelage” fed off and into the vertical power structure that established him as the authority, boosting not just his prestige and status, but theirs as well. To doubt his authority would be to doubt their own, thus generating impunity and enabling the abuse. They don’t want to face the cognitive dissonance of the deceit and their own complicity.
This resistance to acknowledging one’s own accountability and complicity is understandable — but it’s tragic and all too common with sexual abuse. Large-scale sexual abuse scandals, like what happened in the Catholic Church, are bolstered by these defense mechanisms. Another classic example is Larry Nassar. He had a reputation as a very generous person and “the best doctor” in his field, yet he sexually molested and digitally raped hundreds of girls, often while a parent or other gymnasts were present in the room.
It was too hard to believe that such a highly esteemed “doctor,” such a “nice guy,” could have done those things. They thought they knew him. Perhaps they could not bare to fathom their instrumental role in what happened. Trinea Gonzcar and her mother knew Nassar for over 30 years. It’s estimated that Nassar assaulted Trinea over 800 times. Yet, she and her mother defended him repeatedly over the years. They didn’t even realize that what he did to Trinea was abuse until shortly before she spoke at his sentencing trial. Almost all of the victims and their parents were manipulated and deceived. They stifled any doubts, because of Nassar’s reputation, cunning, and charm. Fortunately, Rachael Denhollander and her mother found a way to see what was really happening.
In the early 2000s, Denhollander and her mother knew that if they came forward about Nassar sexually abusing Rachael, no one would take them seriously. The complaint would have been buried and nothing would have been done to protect other children — like all the other complaints made about Nassar prior to 2016. The earlier survivors who spoke up were criticized, condemned, and further traumatized. With the support of her mother, Rachael cared for herself and waited for an opportunity to speak out and make a difference. It took 16 years before Rachael saw the possibility that a public statement about the abuse might be respected and bring some justice.
An effective, far-reaching solution would create a culture of belief, as opposed to one of disbelief.
I waited 20 years to speak up about Pattabhi Jois sexually assaulting me and I did it through social media. I knew I would be able to find more support there than from people who studied with Pattabhi Jois, many of whom witnessed or heard about the abuse. #MeToo became a social media phenomenon precisely because those we trusted to support us and keep us safe — friends, family, places of worship, schools, law enforcement, spiritual communities — had let us down.
But the response to victims — both online and off — must go further than just belief. It needs to turn into action. To all those with good intentions, including myself, who have used “I believe you” to support victims, know that survivors need more than just being believed. #MeToo has exposed this huge and controversial problem, which requires a comprehensive solution. An effective, far-reaching solution would create a culture of belief, as opposed to one of disbelief; it would offer victims encouragement and dignity and include education and prevention. Victims and survivors of sexual assault and abuse have nothing to be ashamed of. We are not tainted or ruined by something someone else did.
Teaching kids (and adults) healthy relationship and communication skills based on explicit consent and bodily autonomy is an important component of prevention. The subjects of history and other social sciences, taught at an age appropriate level, need to include stories of sex offenders and sexual abuse scandals with candid analysis of how those crimes were enabled. Holding perpetrators accountable could change the trajectories of people’s lives, limiting the harm and number of victims. Such accountability can take a variety of forms, depending on the offense, but if the abuser faces no repercussions, the cycle of assault will continue.
With a real possibility of justice, victims would speak up more readily. Survivors of sexual assault deserve more than just for people to believe us. People need to stand up for us, to advocate for accountability and justice, to speak truth to power — even when it’s uncomfortable or risky. That should be the automatic response. #IwillStandUpForYou