Editors note: the author of this article asked to remain anonymous to protect the identity of the woman who was sexually assaulted in this incident.
I haven’t thought of her in years.
No, that’s a lie. We’re actually Facebook friends (because when you grow up in a small town, you somehow end up connected online more than you ever were in person decades ago). So I guess it’s more accurate to say I haven’t thought about that day in years.
But with everything that’s been in the news lately, it’s brought up a lot of memories I’d buried deep. It’s reminded me of the time a teacher crossed the line, and the time I wasn’t sure I could stop the boy I’d just met from doing something I didn’t want him to do. But what’s weighed most heavily on my mind over the past couple of weeks is the time a classmate told me she was raped – and I didn’t believe her.
I can still see us – the room we were sitting in, her face as she tried to make me understand. I can feel the remnants of the panic that raced through my body at her words. The disbelief. The fear. The need to control the situation and protect my friend – the one she was accusing of this horrific act. I can see it and feel it all now, for the first time in the decades since it happened.
At 16 years old, I didn’t understand all the ways a woman can be hurt by a man. I didn’t know about date rape; I didn’t know that it’s called rape when a man doesn’t stop when a woman says yes but then changes her mind. I didn’t know.
I was a baby feminist being raised by a feminist. I was – and still am – all about girl power and smashing the patriarchy. Today you’ll see me retweeting and sharing posts full of hashtags like #ibelieveher, #metoo, #timesup, and even #imwithher. If hashtags had been a thing in the 90s, I would have been doing it then, too.
But I didn’t know. What I knew is that one of my closest friends, one of my most favorite people on earth, had hooked up with a girl I didn’t really know. And now she was telling me she hadn’t wanted it, that he’d forced her. Now she was using the “r” word.
I didn’t believe her. I didn’t help her. I was relieved when she dropped it, desperately clinging to the immature belief that if she stopped saying it, it wasn’t true.
I’ve never been more ashamed of anything in my life. I regret so deeply the pain I caused my classmate, the damage I inflicted on a fellow female.
Now I will teach my daughters to do better. To believe women.
And this is why I will make sure my girls know. I will make sure my girls know that we believe women when they say they are victims of sexual assault. As hard as it is to tell them these things, as difficult as it is to shatter their innocence and break their soft hearts, I’m going to make sure they know that not only should they always tell me if they are hurt or abused or assaulted or harassed or raped by any definition of the word, but if someone tells them it happened to them, well…I need to tell them what to do in that situation as well.
I need them to understand that if they are underage, and a friend comes to them with this sort of burden, that it is not their responsibility to solve this problem, but that they should believe their friend. I need them to know that it is not their responsibility to make their friend OK, but that they can believe women who say that they were raped or sexually assaulted. I will make sure that they understand that these women are credible, that their word is enough. The burden of proof may fall on law-enforcement to prosecute this as a crime, but when a friend comes to you and says she is a victim, her word needs to be all the proof that you as a friend will require.
However, I also need my girls to know that they can’t keep a secret of this magnitude. I was 16 years old and I did not know what to do with the information that my classmate gave me. I need my daughters to know what to do, to know that they must reach out to me, their mother, for help. I will tell them that if they don’t feel like they can tell me, then they need to find another safe person to trust with this burden: an aunt, a guidance counselor or teacher, or a mentor from church. I will prepare them for this situation before it happens. I know now that I have too.
And I will tell them to believe her. I will tell them to believe a female classmate if she comes to them and says that she was sexually assaulted, even if it’s by someone that they cannot believe would do such a thing. I will tell them that even men we believe to be good are capable of bad things, especially when it comes to sex.
I will tell them that we believe women.
I will tell my daughters to help another woman who comes to them with the story of sexual assault. I will tell them that no means no, and it’s never OK to have sex with someone against their will. Yes, even if they wanted to at first and changed their mind.
I will do it for this classmate of mine who shared her burdens with me, the burden I then made worse. I would give anything to go back in time to that moment and tell her “I believe you.”
I was young, and I didn’t know better. But now I do. And my girls will know better right from the start.