The memory came back to me today while I was washing dishes and privately fuming over a Facebook thread. A Facebook thread! Such a trivial thing to get worked up over. But this online interaction resurrected a real-life conversation I had years ago. I was twenty years old, and I’d just mustered up the courage to tell one man about the harassment I’d experienced at the hands of another. I’d barely finished speaking before this person looked me in the eye and said, “That never happened.”
That never happened. Three words spoken with utter confidence by someone who wasn’t present when the harassment occurred and who had no real stake in the aftermath. And yet it only took him a split second to make a decision: I was not to be believed.
Of all the personal things I’ve shared in my writing or on this blog, the details surrounding this experience are not something I’m willing to disclose. Not now, and not here. As a writer, I know when to settle in for the long haul, to save something that can best be explored with greater time and distance. That time has not yet come.
But if you’ll forgive me for being vague, I can tell you that the man I confided in—we’ll call him John—was a mutual acquaintance of the harasser. At the time, I was not filing a formal complaint, pressing charges, seeking a settlement, or planning to ever make a public accusation. My only stakes in this interaction were to be heard by John as I expressed myself to him in private and in confidence.
What I got in return was an instant, unflappable, That never happened.
That memory surfaced today because I’d just engaged in a heated Facebook discussion covering the same ground. That is: When and why should we believe the women who raise complaints of sexual harassment, assault, or rape?
On the Facebook thread, I watched as a few men suggested that multiple accusers are more credible than a single woman making a stand; that no one could or should be believed without hard evidence; that men had to worry about women destroying lives or even entire companies with false accusations; that this emerging awareness surrounding abuse of power risks putting men everywhere at the mercy of rumor mills instead of receiving due legal process; and more, all under the guise of trying to better understand the issue and why women are so upset about it in the first place.
I would like to think I know better than to engage in a conversation like this. When has anyone’s mind been changed by a social media interaction? (That never happened.) But watching these men opine on when women deserve the benefit of belief prompted me to add a comment on my own—a single comment that was then bolstered and supported by additional women who chimed in, too.
You can imagine how the discussion derailed from there. We’ve all seen toxic or futile debates unspool on Facebook, and the lesser among us have participated in or escalated them. (Ahem.) What mattered to me, in the end, is that a group of women who were left stunned and enraged by this interaction came together to support one another.
A few of us launched private messages to discuss our sorrow and frustration with how some men still don’t get it. How they are still—even as they consider themselves progressive—operating under the age-old mindset of protecting the man first, at all costs. How they are still, whether consciously or not, looking for reasons to not believe women.
Because why should we be believed? After all, it probably never happened.
I’m not interested in painting John as an irredeemable person just because his kneejerk reaction was to not believe me. If anything, I fear this makes him ordinary—that his surface-level instinct was to recast an uncomfortable situation in a better light. I never had the sense that he thought I was lying or out for vengeance. Instead, he seemed to assume I was confused, or perhaps too naïve to understand my own lived experiences.
He didn’t believe me because it would have been inconvenient to do so. He didn’t want to face the damning information about the person who’d harassed me, so it was simpler to assume I was mistaken. We can even go so far as to say that because John cared about me, it was less painful for him to believe that the trauma I’d experienced was fictional.
How better off we’d all be if what I’d shared had simply never happened.
After John uttered those three fateful words, I immediately peppered him with questions—“Why would you say that? Were you there? Why is your instinct not to believe me? Why do you feel entitled to tell me what I experienced?”—and, to John’s credit, he looked a bit chastened. While I don’t know that he ever actually believed me, he at least seemed to recognize that his initial reaction was unacceptable. And yes, that this is the most generous thing I can say about our discussion makes me deeply sad.
In the years that have passed since my conversation with John, discussions about rape culture, abuses of power, and sexual harassment have come to the forefront. We have #MeToo and the Time’s Up movements. We have Oprah’s speech at the Golden Globes, which I watched while writing this post just to see the audience members rising to their feet in solidarity and defiance. We have, I hope, a greater cultural awareness in which men and women alike are taking a hard look at the abuse women (and men, too) have endured for ages at the hands of more powerful men.
I would like to believe things are better now. In my darker moments, however, I admit I consider our progress something that never happened. I mean, look who’s President of the United States—not that we have to go that far to prove a point. You can see it everywhere, from the Twitter feed revealing how some male readers took offense to a viral New Yorker story to what happened when a man and woman switched email addresses at work for a week.
“The micro makes the macro,” a friend wrote to me today in the wake of the Facebook dustup. “I am not shocked that a thread about women not being believed has disintegrated into . . . women not being believed.”
I’m not shocked, either. For so many women, this has long been our reality. We shoulder the burden of proof, we must corroborate each other’s stories, and we face questions surrounding our responsibility in our own assaults and our motives for bringing those assaults to light. And we don’t have the luxury of putting any of it out of our minds.
“You and I are the ones who have to walk to the parking lot tonight with our keys between our fingers,” another woman wrote to me in a private message regarding the Facebook thread. “They can just forget about it. We never can.”
She’s right. I can never forget the day-to-day vulnerabilities of being a woman in our world just as I can’t forget what I originally shared with John years ago. What I told him was true, and damaging, and a part of me still.
What I told him happened—even if I’m the only one who believes it.