Being an ally is more multifaceted than simply offering verbal support. Allyship requires showing up, listening, educating yourself, and speaking up. With regards to the #MeToo Movement, one component of allyship is demonstrating that you believe the experience, story, and pain without hesitation, doubt, and disbelief. Actively affirming the truth that has been shared is vital. CAPS has chosen to focus specifically on this one component because it can be both simple and very difficult for many men. At the same time, this critical first step can be transformative for survivors, our UM community, and work towards greater allyship.
Defining "Believe First"
Who are men believing?
According to the 2015 UM Climate Survey, among students who said they had at least one unwanted sexual experience at U-M, 46% told someone else, most often, a friend or a roommate (Source). For way too long, the fear of a disbelieving response has left many survivors of sexual violence silenced. When men “believe first,” it compels a response of supportive action. For many men, believing comes naturally and seems obvious. For others, it can be difficult and some internal work is needed. Overall, when men believe, it can break our hearts in all the right ways and lead to greater mental health. Belief can motivate men to respond, show up, and be educated. Belief compels men to ask the right questions of ourselves and other men to support the #MeToo Movement. Currently, many men feel stuck in thinking about how to support the Movement. Men may want to help, but don’t know where to start and don’t want to take up too much space in the dialogue and action. This stuck feeling can be accompanied by shame, frustration, shock, doubt, and confusion. These feelings, if left unexamined, can impact mental health and get in the way of productive allyship. Through a brief discussion on the value of believing, why it can be hard for some men to believe, and what does believing look like, we hope this article serves to help University of Michigan men get “unstuck” and move towards better #MeToo allyship at UM.
- Why should men believe?
- First and foremost, when men believe they can help survivors feel heard, acknowledged, affirmed, and supported. Believing can be an act of listening, but it also can be felt. It can open a door or possibility that you can be trusted with more sharing. The survivor may not share more, which is up to them, but it can demonstrate that you have their back.
- Believing also benefits our community. When we believe, we are forced to challenge the systemic oppression of survivors by examining our own role, power, and privilege that condone the destructive narrative of sexual assault. It is a destructive narrative that perpetuates indifference, disbelief, and a general apathy towards survivors and the cycle of oppression. This narrative is sustained by ignoring facts and entitlement. Counter to this narrative, we know that 11.2 % of all undergrad and graduate students experience rape or sexual assault through physical force, violence, or incapacitation (Source). At the same time, only 20% of female student survivors, age 18-24, report to law enforcement (Source). Believing helps men name and acknowledge these facts in order to break the cycle of oppression and create a narrative that embraces truth, vulnerability, and connection with survivors.
- Believing a survivor also benefits our own mental health. It can elicit feelings of connection, solidarity, and compassion. Believing allows men to see and hear the inspirational courage and strength of survivors. Believing a survivor demonstrates an understanding that we are all connected. A survivor’s pain, story and courage can impact the ally. #MeToo calls on men to recognize that their own human potential is interconnected with the value and human potential of all other people (Source). Many men want to help, and when men demonstrate they believe, they are in position to learn more ways to help both now and in the future. It is important for allies to understand that for many survivors, the incident can be just the start of the pain, and should only be the start of the support. Thirty percent of women report symptoms of PTSD 9 months after the rape (Source). Among women who are raped, 33% contemplate suicide (Source). Extending ongoing connection and compassion to survivors can lead to feeling valued, less distressed, and experiencing a greater sense of purpose in life.
- Why is it hard for some men to believe?
- Believing disclosures of sexual assault can be difficult for men for many reasons. It’s inherently hard for some to believe that an act so violating and hurtful could take place in our own UM community or by someone we might know or trust. The dissonance between men’s own experiences and the stories of survivors can sometimes elicit feelings of confusion and discomfort. If men understand their world as being “just,” they may struggle to listen empathically and instead engage in questioning the circumstances or validity of the sexual assault. Afterall, how could something so terrible happen to so many individuals we know and love? Why would so many wait so long to come forward? Why didn’t they go to the police/authorities? Surely the person must’ve put themself in a dangerous situation or did not effectively communicate their desires in the moment, right? It can sometimes be easier to believe these lines of thinking than to simply validate the experience of a sexual assault survivor. Challenging these assumptions and acknowledging the facts around sexual assault forces men to reorganize that which we’ve been conditioned and socialized to believe about sexual assault—that the survivor is wholly or partially at fault. These myths about rape are can be learned and perpetuated through media, political rhetoric, and even the education system. Men must recognize that by not challenging these assumptions, they are complicit in a system that allows survivors’ stories to be diminished, silenced, and challenged.
- The claim that a close friend may have committed sexual assault can invoke similar feelings of shock or doubt, especially when such claims don’t align with men’s understanding of their friend. Refusing to acknowledge that a close friend or loved one could engage in sexual assault is normal and requires time to understand. The most important step in this process is being able to tolerate the distress created by these opposing understandings—that the friend is someone who they respect and that they also may have violated the sexual boundaries of another person. In believing a survivor’s account of how a close friend hurt them, we are challenged to develop a new understanding of our friend. This requires men to expend energy, integrate new information about sexual experiences, and do away with our old mental templates of who does and does not commit sexual assaults. It is far easier to simply align with close friends, blindly double down on their version of events, and turn the focus to why the survivor would put themselves in such a situation. This is not aligned with allyship.
- Another obstacle that prevents men from becoming allies involves the narrative around false reporting. Believing the claims of sexual assault from friends, family, and peers does not mean negating due process. Responsible investigation is important for all parties involved. False reports, though possible, are significantly uncommon. In an extensive review of existing research on the topic, only 2-8% of reported sexual assaults are believed to be false (Source). In fact, a recent publication examining available research on false rape allegations suggests that these accusations are not only rare but also clearly obvious (Source). The myth of widespread false rape accusations is meant to discredit the stories of survivors and further silence a problem that is otherwise difficult to comprehend.
- Making the choice to share about a sexual assault experience is often anxiety-inducing and retraumatizing for survivors. Assuming that the claimant is only sharing their experience of sexual assault in retaliation or that they are fabricating details of their experience is not only unlikely but also invalidating. Regardless of the objective facts of the situation, being an ally in this circumstance necessitates an understanding that what the survivor experienced was assault regardless of the intent of the other person(s) involved. The job of an ally isn’t to conduct a legal investigation to determine blame. The responsibility of an ally is to experience difficult emotions with the loved one, to sit in the disbelief of what occurred, and to listen without taking control of the situation.
- What does it look like when men believe?
- When men believe the experience being shared, they are able to listen differently. The survivor’s story will be absorbed in a new way and the impact is undeniable. It is the type of listening that involves tolerating sometimes uncomfortable feelings like shock and anger, while keeping the focus on the one who is telling the story without putting them in a position to take care of you. This listening is quiet, but not silent. Eventually, words from the ally are welcome and needed. It is a strong presence of support, but not rushing in with solutions or turning the focus on your own reactions. This type of support demonstrates an understanding of the power and control that was taken, which now needs to be given back.
- Next, when men believe first they will discover the simple truth that being an ally extends beyond the experience with the survivor. Being an ally includes what you do when survivors are not watching. An ally doesn’t justify a friend’s harmful actions. An ally shows other men what it looks like to treat and talk about sexual violence in the serious demeanor that it deserves. An ally sometimes loses friends because they choose to not go along with demeaning or disrespectful language. An ally values integrity and making sure their actions match their beliefs. Finally, an ally apologizes when their actions have not matched their beliefs.
- When men show up and get involved in the Movement, it is clear they believe first. Believing is not just a mindset that changes the way you think. It demands action and changes your behavior. It demonstrates the understanding that we are all connected. “The people powering the #MeToo movement have given us a tremendous gift. It is a launching platform to end violence against all women and girls while orienting ourselves to the freedom, safety, and interconnected wellbeing of ALL people (Source).” As previously stated, sexual violence happens to more than women and girls. Twenty-one percent of TGQN (transgender, genderqueer, nonconforming) college students have been sexually assaulted (Source). Pain anywhere in the UM community is pain everywhere in the UM community. Many events at UM for sexual assault awareness are comprised mostly of women. These are opportunities, and maybe first steps, for men to show up and demonstrate belief.
What are you doing with your power and privilege?
Inherent in believing a survivor is the recognition of power and privilege that men have in the #MeToo Movement. In many ways, men have enabled the system and socialization that oppresses survivors, whether it be through disbelief, inaction or both. With regards to the Movement, CAPS is asking UM Men, what are you doing with your power/privilege? What if the University of Michigan had no need for #MeToo? In addition to being self-reflective and authentically examining our emotions, men have an active role to play in supporting, encouraging, and valuing the Movement’s progression. Certainly, being an ally is a process that takes humility and effort. Like any other journey, men will make mistakes and have to be willing to apologize. At times, being an ally can feel overwhelming and men may not know where to start.
For additional support and information about how to get involved, check out SAPAC. If men want to know more about being an ally, check out this great UM resource and these websites: Guide To Allyship and Men Can Stop Rape.
And look for future CAPS posts for UM Men on “Questioning Past Behaviors” and “When There Has Been A Wrong (Bad Person vs Making A Mistake).”
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