At Berkeley High School, the ways in which sexual assault accusations are shared vary. In some cases, it’s directly from the survivor, like during the 2020 walkouts. In other cases, the source is murkier, with the allegation written on the bathroom wall or posted anonymously on social media. More harmfully, sexual assault accusations can be brought up casually in conversation from someone who was not involved in the incident.
It’s important to note that the best policy is always to believe the survivor of sexual assault. It is their story and their perspective.
However, the situation becomes complicated when the accusation isn’t told by the accuser. Instead, the accusation is spread throughout multiple sources. It becomes part of the gossip mill. A name will come up in conversation, and someone will mention that they’re a sexual assaulter. Just like in a game of telephone, the details become hazier and the information less reliable with each new source that the information is passed through.
The experiences of survivors are just that: their own. It’s problematic when these experiences become publicized, especially in a manner that’s not respectful. It takes the narrative out of the hands of the survivor, leaving them with less control over it. Suddenly their story becomes warped, because when it’s not just the survivor telling their story, details change. Their story is out there, although it’s not quite theirs. The account of their experience should be accurate to their perspective, both to give them control over their narrative, and so that the accusation has a clear source. If there isn’t a clear source, it’s harder for people to trust the allegation, and if people start questioning the allegation, that’s incredibly invalidating to the survivor and their experience. Additionally, the BHS community should have the right to be able to believe and trust all allegations, both to support the survivors and for our own awareness and safety.
When discussing sexual assault, the key is respect. When an incident of sexual assault or the identity of a sexual assaulter is treated as a juicy piece of gossip, the situation is treated less seriously. There’s a difference between spreading awareness regarding members of a community to watch out for, and treating someone’s trauma as a conversation piece. Simply rehashing the details of an incident of assault, with little intention behind the conversation, minimizes the trauma of the survivor’s experience. When we treat incidents of sexual assault as gossip, we subconsciously equate them with more trivial matters, like crushes. In reality, sexual assault is a crime, and a traumatic experience that sticks with both the survivor and perpetrator for their entire lives.
And what do we do when we want to always believe the survivor, but it’s not the survivor telling us the allegation? Our instinct is to automatically trust the allegation. When we start to second guess allegations of sexual assault, problems arise. Which allegations do we choose to believe? Which do we choose not to believe? Suddenly personal bias enters the equation when we start to make those choices. At the same time, asking for details about who was involved or what exactly happened isn’t always respectful of the survivor’s privacy. And asking these questions can come off as not believing the allegation.