Believe her: A raw reflection on assault and abuse

Princeton’s Rhianfa Riel shares with courage, honesty

  • Oct. 25, 2017 10:40 a.m.
Believe her: A raw reflection on assault and abuse

“We should not require the testimony of thousands of survivors before we accept that this is real, ubiquitous and horrifying” – Byron Smith

Why is it so easy to disbelieve or downplay accounts of sexual assault, rape and harassment? Why would we rather believe that it was a misunderstanding, a joke, or even a lie? When I have talked about the instances of assault and harassment I have endured at the hands of more than 20 men and boys since I was a child, I’ve been met with a chorus of “you must be exaggerating”, “it wasn’t violent so it isn’t really bad”, “I’m sure you misunderstood” and even “So what?”. These responses came from both men and women, peers and authorities, helpers and friends – yet the loudest and most troubling voice has been my own.

When I was 8 and a babysitter put my hand down his pants, I told myself “he just wants to be my boyfriend”. When I was 10 and John Horace Oughton tried to lure my friend and I into the woods, (we escaped), I told myself “That wasn’t really Canada’s worst serial child rapist, I am overreacting to a coincidence” When I was 15 and waiting for friends at the beach and two guys held me down and filled by bathing suit with so much sand and pebbles that I could barely keep myself covered as I walked in utter humiliation to the ocean to clean off, I told myself “they’re just being boys”. When I was 18 at a friend’s house overnight and another guest whispered to me that he was going to sneak into my room and rape me, I told myself “He is only joking” before I locked the door. When I was 22 and being sexually harassed daily by a manager at work I told myself “It is my fault because even though I hate this and am not interested, I can’t say no because part of me is flattered by the attention”.

Why did I excuse or explain away these experiences as not serious, not their fault, not a big deal? Was it because the movies and television I grew up on promised that the guy always got the girl no matter how he treated her, or that deep down we girls all wanted to be pursued until we gave in? Was it something more defensive – that I just didn’t want to believe that anyone really wanted to hurt me, that confronting someone for bad behavior would put me a risk for worse behavior or that no one would ever believe that I was really telling the truth and not just wanting attention?

As we hear more and more about the abuse and harassment that is just about everywhere these days, I am in conflict about my own experiences. On the one hand, I was strong and stopped or stepped out of every situation I found myself in. I was never the victim of out and out violence and I do not feel that my experiences had life-long consequences for me so I felt they didn’t count. But at the same time I realize now that I was targeted by no less than 20 men and boys before I was 25. That’s a number that is both disturbing and unsurprising. They were policemen, coworkers, classmates, business men, strangers and friends who spied on me, touched me, threatened me, stalked me, humiliated me and harassed me. I am sure most of them, particularly the ones who thought they were my friends, never gave a second thought about how their actions or words affected me. I am sure that those who were not strangers to me could even casually joke about these memories with me today as if I was complicit in the “fun”. I am certain that not one of them would believe me if I told them their actions were assault or harassment, that they made me ashamed of my body, they scarred me and made me fear them.

Even now, I find it hard to call out the men in my life for their words and actions, I still write most of it off as “they’re just joking”, “they’re old and their filter is gone”, or “it’s not like they would act on their words”. Sometimes, I don’t want to hurt their feelings of all things. I don’t want to make them feel bad or believe that I think of them in the same way I might think about Harvey Weinstein or an actual violent offender; as if their feelings were more important than my safety and comfort as a woman.

And that perhaps is the crux of the problem. I still somehow buy into the lie that boys will be boys and therefore their words and behaviors are not really a problem and don’t need to be confronted and changed. And how can I expect anyone else to defend me or confront these men, to believe me and others when we report these experiences, if I don’t even believe myself?