The three words young women don't hear enough

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The internet is a marvellous thing. Not only can it provide hours of amusement in the form of cat videos and blackhead extractions, it can also operate as a refuge for people who feel they have nowhere else to turn. Over the years, numerous projects have been built out of the basic human need for connection and understanding. From PostSecret to Humans of New York, and Project Unbreakable to Dear Holly, innovative artists and writers have been using internet platforms to great effect. And the latest one you need to bookmark is I Believe You/It’s Not Your Fault.

Co-created by writer and comedian Lindy West, I Believe You/It’s Not Your Fault grew out of a conversation between female writers discussing the lack of advice and solidarity given to young survivors of abuse and harassment. Three of the most powerful words we can say to survivors of violence are, “I believe you”. And yet, they are offered all too rarely. There are any number of reasons why people hesitate to believe people - especially girls and women - who share stories of violence, and much of that hesitation comes from the perception held of the perpetrators. As a consequence, victims stay silent and sometimes internalise blame and responsibility.

It was my fault.

I encouraged it.

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I shouldn’t have been there.

No one will believe me.

When I was 14, I spent a summer working in an ice cream shop in a small seaside town on the east coast of England. Like most 14 year olds, I was going through a confusing time. Even though I’d recently lost a lot of weight (through a perfected combination of starvation and OCD), I still didn’t think I was pretty enough or thin enough to take up any space in the world - certainly nowhere near the amount of space those things were taking up in my head. Solidarity from others was not overly forthcoming - with the exception of a handful of close friends, the people in my social sphere reinforced the idea that other girls were not to be trusted. I was plagued with anxiety and the narcissistic obsession of self loathing.

But one of the few things I found comfort and stability in was that ice cream shop job. I didn’t find it strange that the owner (a married man whose wife had just had her second baby) liked to flirt with the gaggle of 13 and 14 year old schoolgirls who worked the counters at the shop, proudly asking his visiting friends to ‘look at all the beautiful girls I have working here!’ Such things made me giggle and blush, and feel a fierce burning pride in my chest. I was one of those girls. Martin thought I was beautiful.

I had the same fluttery feeling of acceptance when he told me that I was one of only a few who could be trusted to measure out the correct amount of sanitiser for the scoop water, or when he asked me to work by myself in the mobile ice cream caravan at summer carnivals, or when he snuck up behind me at the counter to tiptoe his fingers up the back of my leg and then took me out for a pint of beer and told me about how he needed to pay for sex because his wife was so frigid. Poor Martin, I thought.

I liked Martin because he treated me like an adult. It wasn’t until years later that I realised that it’s not okay for grown men to take little girls up to their apartments so that they can see what Ouzo tastes like. It’s not okay for them to cultivate a belief in that girl’s adulthood and maturity and then, with a subtle bait and switch, challenge her to live up to it.

This isn’t my rape story. Ultimately, nothing too serious happened in that dimly lit living room at summer’s end.  But not every girl is so lucky - in living rooms all over the world, Martins are tricking young girls into colluding with their manipulation. And that’s just one narrative. Abuse and harassment occur in so many different ways, often in a culture of silence. Survivors wind up feeling responsible or worried that no one will believe them. If Martin had been less your garden variety pervert and more determined in his grooming, would I have told people afterwards? Probably not. I would have told myself it was my fault, and feared that people wouldn’t believe me. At that age, socialised by the victim-blaming that characterises so much of the conversation around sexual abuse, I wouldn’t have believed me.  

The creators of I Believe You/It’s Not Your Fault write, “Can we use our collective life experience to be a safe haven for kids who need it? Can we tell stories and answer questions and offer solidarity and resources and maybe break some cycles before they begin? Can we do it with humor and transparency, and without coming across like dorky, hand-wringing moms? After all, so many of us are still those kids. So many of us will always be those kids.”

For many reasons, some entirely unrelated to summers spent scooping ice-cream while desperately waiting to grow up, I needed that safe haven as a kid. I still need it now. From the emails I receive on a weekly basis, I know that there are far too many kids and adults out there who feel the same. I want you to know this:

I believe you.

It’s not your fault.

17 comments

  • It's always refreshing to come to this site and read articles like this. We need to move the discussion away from what she did wrong and to what they did wrong.

    I'm like most people, I was taught about 'stranger danger' when I was a kid and I knew about being careful on my own in case of assault. I was also given plenty of advice on how not send the wrong message to boys so the ingrained thoughts were if something bad happened to me then it was my fault. Fortunately, I've never been raped by a stranger but I have been assaulted by boys and men that I knew. Places where I knew people and should have been safe. But you didn't tell anyone because no-one would believed you and, of course, I was told that 'boys will be boys'. I didn't feel safe many times but it was something that was accepted. I don't want girls and women to feel what I did.

    Commenter
    Ripley
    Location
    Hunting Aliens
    Date and time
    July 22, 2014, 8:45AM
    • +1

      I was assaulted by a boy I knew in high school. Foolishly, I told my "friends", one of whom decided to tell absolutely everybody that I had "cheated on" my boyfriend. Practical upshot: I was shunned as a cheat and a slut, none of the boys would speak to me (or even tell me why - it took me months to find out), it irreparably ruined the relationship I was in, plus several friendships, and I spiralled into depression and damned near killed myself.

      I wonder what the effect of even a single "It wasn't your fault", or "I believe you" might have been.

      Commenter
      Red Pony
      Date and time
      July 22, 2014, 10:31AM
    • Hi Ripley

      Both yourself and the author describe an all too common occurance amongst women. I wonder if things will ever get any better?

      Commenter
      Donna Joy
      Date and time
      July 22, 2014, 10:49AM
    • My parents refused to allow me participation in male bonding clubs for fear of engrained abuse - such as football, scouts, etc. It would be good to believe that this threat is on the way out or at least there are safeguards to combat the challenge...

      Commenter
      confused
      Date and time
      July 22, 2014, 11:39AM
    • Stories like this make me so sad and I just don't really know if it's getting better. I just wish that I could have just said no instead of just thinking that this is how it is and putting up with a lot of harrassment to be a good sport. I have noticed that some of our regulars haven't commented, at least not yet, with the standard 'it's all about risk management ladies' as though that is all it is. Is it too hard to admit that maybe you know men that have gone too far? That good mate of yours is a creep to women? Here's a tip: I'm a person not a policy manual.

      Commenter
      Ripley
      Location
      Hunting Aliens
      Date and time
      July 22, 2014, 12:29PM
    • Ripley I'm assuming the reason why the usual commentors (I'm assuming I'm one of them?) aren't talking about risk management is because there is nothing in this article that risk management would have helped with. To be honest given that most rapes apparently take place with people that the victims knows risk management won't actually help in a lot of cases. But there are times that it will save someone, and in almost all of those cases the person who would have been a victim won't know that they weren't assaulted because they took steps to reduce their risk. We can't know how many assaults or rapes are prevented because people didn't walk home late at night by themselves, they got a cab or went with friends or whatever, because they didn't happen. Risk management won't save everyone because there are always some people who will break the law. But it will save some people so it is still worth doing.

      Commenter
      Hurrow
      Date and time
      July 22, 2014, 2:03PM
  • Thank you Clementine for another great article... if anyone bothers to reads my comments they probably realise I have an unhealthy opinion of men (yes... I do see someone for my issue). These came about from what happened to me in my youth and to my best friend at the time... and unfortunately my current partner and soul mate (hope for ever).

    As a result of this we never leave our daughter with a male from either side of our family.

    The thing that amazed me as a teenager was the perpetrator was believed before me... that hurt me then... and it still hurts me now.

    It would have be nice if someone all those years back said.. 'I believe you'.

    I know its not my fault... but it should have been someone's... as more often than not in families nothing happens... worse still for me... that person is still around!

    Commenter
    cuteclaudia
    Date and time
    July 22, 2014, 9:05AM
    • Great article. It's the "Martins" of this world who prey on our most innocent at a very vulnerable stage of their life.

      Commenter
      Catherine
      Date and time
      July 22, 2014, 9:14AM
      • Lovely article Clem. For too long, people who have suffered abuses at the hands of adults have had their experiences steeped in shame and self-loathing. For my own experience, I felt that I was responsible for a long time. I knew it was wrong, so why didn't I remove myself when I did? Now, as an adult, and knowing personally at least six other girls who suffered also, I realise that I was the only one who spoke up. The only one who told anyone what had happened. And that shame still stops the others from talking about it. I hope that we can talk about it long and loud because it is definitely not us who should feel shame.

        Commenter
        Liv
        Date and time
        July 22, 2014, 9:38AM
        • I think one of the most damaging aspects is that when these kinds of things happen to you as a child you have no vocabulary to use to describe what has happened to you, no conceptual framework within which to place the experience, no idea of "normal", and so you are completely on your own if you don't have an adult to turn to. Just having experiences similar to your own described and discussed through adult eyes would be so valuable.

          Commenter
          Nick
          Date and time
          July 22, 2014, 11:18AM

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