Why Skeptics Should Believe Survivors of Sexual Assault

Why Skeptics Should Believe Survivors of Sexual Assault June 22, 2016


Would you believe someone who told you they were raped? I would and I think we always should believe survivors of sexual assault. Unfortunately, there are too many people who automatically doubt survivors so I’d like to debunk some of their most common arguments here.

1) If they do not or cannot give consent, it is always rape

I wish I could take this as a given, but too many people still do not understand consent. No means no. Period. Full stop. What she was wearing doesn’t matter. If they were having sex and one of them wanted to stop, that’s perfectly okay. If someone was drunk, then they are not able to give consent. I do like the tea analogy for as a simple explanation for consent. If you wouldn’t poor hot tea down an unconscious person’s mouth then why would you have sex with them?

2) They are not lying for attention

I will sometimes see people argue that a person lied about being raped for the attention. I find this perplexing because rape survivors that come forward often deal with a great deal of social backlash from coming forward. Kesha’s experience with coming forward is a recent depressing example of this process. Emma Gray explains why women often don’t report sexual assault:

The truth is that there are few incentives to coming forward with an allegation of sexual assault. It means having to recount a trauma over and over again, to people who may not even believe that what you say happened actually happened. It means facing the judgments of those closest to you, and in Kesha’s case, the judgments of the public who determine the success of her career. It means being picked apart, as people try to find just how “perfect” a victim you are. It may mean dealing with law enforcement officials and members of a jury who have been socialized to believe myths about rape.

Why would anyone sign on for this?

3) False reports of sexual assault happen no more often than any other crime

If we are a skeptical person, then we should care about evidence. The evidence is overwhelming that false reports with sexual assault are extremely rare. A variety of studies have concluded that about 2-8% of rapes are “unfounded.” However, going into this “unfounded” number are times when the survivor changed their story (and from what we know how trauma affects the brain this can be pretty typical), the police cannot find identify the assailant, or the victim later withdrew their case (which can often happen if they are threatened with more violence).

So while actual false reports do happen, they are extremely unlikely and it would be illogical to automatically assume someone is lying about rape.

4) Believing survivors could remove some of the barriers they face

As noted above, rape survivors deal with a lot of backlash from coming forward about rape. But beyond the social backlash, there are institutional barriers that protect rapists and punish survivors. It has been well-documented how the criminal justice system routinely fails survivors of sexual assault. This is evidenced by how the vast majority of perpetrators will never spend a day in jail (or have extremely lenient sentences).

Sexual assault is also an epidemic on college campuses, but it has been illustrated how colleges have a financial incentive to cover up sexual assaults that happen on their campus. Donors may not want to donate if their college has a “rape problem,” but what if they became outraged when they found out the college was protecting rapists? What if people demanded the criminal justice system treated survivors of sexual violence better? These barriers could only be removed if we start believing survivors and changing the systemic problems they face.

5) Believing survivors offers support when they are still recovering from their trauma

Sexual assault can have extremely negative effects on a person’s mental health. The last thing we should want to do is dump extra stress on them while they are in recovery and most vulnerable. Believing them provides them with support during their difficult time. If someone discloses their sexual assault to us, we should tell them we believe them, that they have our support, and we can ask what we can do to help.


I’m a very skeptical person who values evidence and facts. That alone is enough for me to believe sexual assault survivors as false reports occur no more often than any other crime. However, I also argue that it is the right thing to do. By believing survivors, we can support them during their difficult time and ultimately remove some of the systemic barriers they face. Thus, believing survivors is not only logical, but the morally correct thing to do.

[Featured image from Charlotte Cooper under Creative Commons 2.0]

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