Freud’s first hypothesis about hysteria was that it was caused by childhood sexual abuse at the hands of men. Eventually, he changed that hypothesis because he realized that if it were true, a shockingly high percentage of women had been sexually abused. The charges would have destroyed him professionally and were too horrifying to contemplate so he changed his hypothesis to one in which his female patients harbored inappropriate sexual fantasies.
Fast forward to the present day, and the revelations of 10 women and counting who say that they were sexually assaulted by Donald Trump, and an audio tape of him bragging about his ability to sexually assault women without consequences because of his wealth and power. Under the hashtag #NotOkay tens of thousands of women have come forward with stories of sexual assault.
Collectively, these events are both healing and hurtful to many survivors of sexual assault. On the one hand, they are getting the opportunity to speak out about what happened to them and to see how very, very much they are not alone. On the other hand, suddenly people—from close friends and family members whom they’ve known all their lives to politicians to editorial writers are shocked—shocked! I tell you!—to learn that sexual abuse is so prevalent. And the shock leads to the desire to want to deny and disbelieve. After all, if so much sexual assault is happening, all of us are somewhat complicit in not seeing it and doing something to end it. The truth can be profoundly uncomfortable.
20 years ago, Judith Herman wrote one of the primary texts on the subject of trauma. In the introduction, she says:
“In order to escape accountability for his crimes, the perpetrator does everything in his power to promote forgetting. Secrecy and silence are the perpetrator’s first line of defense. If secrecy fails, the perpetrator attacks the credibility of his victim. If he cannot silence her absolutely, he tries to make sure no one listens. To this end, he marshals an impressive array of arguments, from the most blatant denial to the most sophisticated and elegant rationalization After every atrocity one can expect to hear the same predictable apologies: it never happened; the victim lies; the victim exaggerates; the victim brought it upon herself; and in any case it is time to forget the past and move on. The more powerful the perpetrator, the greater is his prerogative to name and define reality, and the more completely his arguments prevail.” –Judith Herman, Trauma and Recovery
If you are a survivor who is telling your story, I believe you and I applaud your courage. If you are not a survivor and are stunned and overwhelmed to hear so many stories of abuse all at once, I hope that you will stay with your discomfort and not try to make it go away by disbelieving those who are speaking their truth. One of the most important and difficult things we can do to begin to change rape culture is to listen to survivors and believe them.