The three words young women don't hear enough
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.
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 humour 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.