“Believe survivors” is inadequate for confronting the power dynamics that fuel sexual abuse
I don’t think the problem of sexual abuse has ever been a matter of survivors’ credibility.
by Hari Ziyad
Content Warning: Sexual Violence
In February, the New York Times reported on a years-long feud between fashion executive Peter Nygard and his neighbor in the Bahamas, billionaire Louis Bacon, which was prompted over an adequately ostentatious property dispute. This gilded tea kettle of drama boiled over in a recent lawsuit alleging that Nygard sexually abused teenage girls—a lawsuit which the paper uncovered was spurred, at least in part, by Bacon paying off witnesses to build the case against his wealthy nemesis.
According to documents and interviews obtained by the Times, investigators and lawyers tied to Bacon offered Nygard associates incentives including “Cartier jewelry, a regular salary or a year’s rent in a gated community.” The article’s authors also discovered that “smaller payments filtered down to some accusers, which could be used to undermine their credibility in any court case or investigation.”
The allegations against Nygard—that he used his fashion company to ply young girls with alcohol and drugs, paid Bahamian police officers to quash reports, shared these victims with local politicians and groomed them to recruit other “fresh meat”—are heinous and blood-boiling. In the aftermath of Jeffrey Epstein’s “suicide,” they are also, hopefully, outlandish to no one. Considering that these girls were primarily poor and Black, a favorite historical target of rich white men’s depravity, the ease with which someone like Nygard could do all of what he is accused of and get away with it is substantial.
At the same time, it is hardly less outlandish to think that the testimony of these particular women could have been swayed by Bacon, and it makes sense that a person might take their words with a grain of salt knowing of the billionaire’s manipulative tactics. That’s why ending sexual violence can never just be about taking these women, or any other survivors, at their word.
I’ve long been troubled by the popular demand in feminist circles to “believe survivors.” As a survivor myself, it’s not that I think there are too many people in the world who would lie about being sexually abused. It’s that I don’t think the problem of sexual abuse has ever been a matter of survivors’ credibility.
Those who repeat “believe survivors” say that no one really lies about surviving sexual violence because it is well-documented how making these accusations often harms the accuser even further due to pervasive victim-blaming. But this idea not only reinforces the harm that accusers endure as a proper deterrent (if we are working to get rid of victim-blaming, as we should be, then it would necessarily be less a curb on false accusations today than it was yesterday), it also does not account for the just as well-documented history of “survivors” with more social power lying about harm at the hands of people with less—like the many white women who have falsely accused Black men of rape.
Both of these documented realities can be true at the same time because sexual violence is a question of power dynamics, not a question of believability.
Sexual violence is never an isolated act. It is an abuse of power, and so it is always about whether the accused has the power (means) and motive to abuse other people. It’s not that we should just believe survivors; it’s that we should trust that anyone with the means and motive to abuse other people is likely to do so, and work to remove these means and motives regardless of whether they came into play in any single incident. And those means and motives can be found within all communities where power dynamics show up, including in the relationships between men of color and non-men of color. And they can certainly be found in communities of rich, white women falsely crying rape just as much as they can be found in communities of rich, white men who do the raping.
We know that rich, white and wealthy men exploit Black girls when given unfettered access to them. The question isn’t whether one specific rich, white and wealthy man exploited specific Black girls, but how do we refuse rich, white and wealthy men this access? This refusal would apply to Bacon just as much as it applies to Nygard. Without either of them having access to these girls, none of this would be in question. Nygard couldn’t have exploited them sexually, and Bacon couldn’t have exploited them financially. But by making the credibility of survivors the issue, we gloss over the power dynamics that fuel abuse throughout our society.
I understand the resistance to framing sexual abuse only as a conversation about power dynamics, rather than one about individuals and the horrible things that happen to them. We survivors and victims are real people with real names and real stories, and our individual agency in these stories matter. We should be trusted when we are telling the truth, and I’m not excusing the fact that too often we aren’t. But the strength of our stories shouldn’t determine whether or not we can act against sexual violence. Sometimes we are not strong, or entirely truthful, or full of agency, and we shouldn’t need to be for powerful people not to sell our bodies to their friends.
The court system of a carceral state revolves around the believability and credibility of individual accusations, and it has obviously been inadequate in dealing with sexual violence thus far. Most survivors do not come forward with any accusation of abuse because of this prerequisite for what the state calls justice, and less than two percent of rapists are thought to ever be convicted. Even if we are not paid off (which, for the poorest of us, could be less a reason to lie and more a desire for financial security in case telling the truth gets us in trouble), our memories are not always clear. I don’t remember my exact age when I was first assaulted, for example, and I could not name now many important details with certitude.
But we are not limited to the carceral state’s model. Rather than focusing on the credibility of survivors, whether they are believable or not, we can focus on how this power system creates harm. And then we can do whatever is in our capacity to reject it.
Don’t just believe survivors. Trust that the rich and powerful will likely abuse their power, because abusing one’s power is how you get rich and powerful in a white supremacist patriarchal world.
I don’t believe everyone just because they claim survivorship. I distrust everyone who claims access to power systems in a white supremacist patriarchal world (and my access to power in this world should be taken into account, and distrusted as well). Trust is malleable, and can be broken or won. Belief is uncompromising. We all deserve nuance, care and the ability to falter. We all deserve the wholeness of not having to always be the paragon of truth. But we also deserve to assess whose lies keep this system in place, and to regard them accordingly. We deserve to reserve our faith in other people, particularly those with access to power, whether they are survivors or not.