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Commentary: Ending sexual violence starts with believing survivors. And it needs to start now.

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Sara Barber

Sara Barber

April marks the thirteenth month of the COVID-19 pandemic, and there’s a weariness we can feel in our every action and interaction, even as the beginnings of hope emerge. It’s been a frustrating and unsettling year for every one of us, but for survivors of sexual and domestic violence, the increased sense of isolation and added hurdles to accessing help have magnified their trauma.

While most of us remain fixated on the immediate health crisis, the ongoing crisis of intimate partner violence continues to flourish — in broad daylight and behind closed doors.

Violence does not stop during a crisis.

April is also Sexual Assault Awareness Month — a month dedicated to raising awareness and pushing for change. A time we remind South Carolinians that experiencing sexual violence is common, that it extends beyond the physical violence of rape to encompass any type of unwanted sexual contact, and that it can happen to anyone regardless of race, gender, age, sexual orientation, ability or socioeconomic status. In person or online, sexual harassment and violence are intimate traumatic experiences that can be inflicted up close or from miles away.

Over the past few months, a number of high-profile women have come forward with personal stories of survival, including state Sen. Mia McLeod. And at every instance, these women have been met with skepticism, disbelief or dismissal — leading me to ask:

  • Why is it that people are still surprised by these stories when they are so common?
  • Why is it that the first reaction to stories of sexual violence is disbelief?
  • Why do people keep asking questions that place blame on the victim and excuse the offender?
  • Why is it so hard to believe survivors?

Perhaps it’s because we’ve grown comfortable with the notion that sexual assault and rape happen like we see on "Law & Order": a beautiful girl, a stranger, a quick route to justice. This is not reality. The most recent S.C. statistics reveal 92% of sexual assault victims had a relationship with the offender; 47% of offenders were a relative, parent, parent’s partner or sibling; and 15% were a current or former spouse or boyfriend. Of victims who sought assistance, only 16% reported incidents to law enforcement.

Maybe it’s because we’ve all just accepted the pervasive historical and cultural messaging that women lie about being raped. That if something truly did happen, we must have “asked for it” by dressing a certain way, by drinking too much or walking at night, by not fighting back, or any of the hundreds of other comfortable excuses used to diminish and silence our trauma.

With these stories and beliefs so ingrained in our society, how can we bring about real change?

First, we must educate our young people — especially our young men — that respect and consent are vital in any relationship, no matter how casual. We must teach our next generation that objectification and hyper-sexualization of women and girls is demeaning and creates violence. We must stop condoning misogyny and rape culture by dismissing it as “locker-room talk.” We must all take responsibility for perpetuating a culture that celebrates “boys will be boys” at the expense of girls.

Next, we must expand the options for victims as they seek healing, justice and accountability for the person who harmed them. Without access to adequate options and choices for all survivors, reporting will go down, opportunities for healing will be shattered and survivors will find themselves alone — in dire situations that will undoubtedly lead to desperate measures.

And finally, we must believe survivors.

Rather than being surprised by or dismissive of the awful harm they’ve experienced, rather than seeking justification for the violent actions of offenders, rather than rationalizing or diminishing the victims' painful and personal stories to make ourselves more comfortable, let’s just believe them.

I can assure you our temporary discomfort is worth the promise of a South Carolina free from sexual violence.

Sara Barber is the executive director of the S.C. Coalition Against Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault.

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