The Reflexive “She’s Lying”

Instead of slamming their credibility, if we support and validate victims for speaking up, we will draw out more voices, making our communities safer and bringing closure to those who have already suffered.

Reading Time: 4 minutes

In an Instagram livestream recounting her experience during the Capitol riots, Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez opened up about another trauma she had experienced: sexual assault. “I’m a survivor of sexual assault. I haven’t told many people that in my life. But when we go through trauma, trauma compounds on each other,” she said. After sharing it with the world, critics immediately pushed back and discredited her experiences. They claimed that she was not even in the Capitol at the time of the riots—though she made it very clear that she was in one of the Capitol building offices—and that she was only talking about her sexual assault for publicity.

People pounced on her for speaking up and were determined to tear down the credibility of her traumas. Journalist Michael Tracy responded to her coming out as a victim of assault by tweeting, “This is a masterclass in emotional manipulation—a genuine political/rhetorical skill.” The hashtag #AlexandriaOcasioSmollett started trending as people claimed that her story was less believable than that of Jussie Smollett, an actor who paid two brothers to beat him up as a publicity stunt.

Unfortunately, this response of discrediting survivors and their experiences is not new. It is heavily perpetuated by rape culture, the normalization and excuse of rape. Over one in five women and one out of 38 men are survivors of sexual assault, yet only 23 percent of survivors come forward to the police due to shame, self-blame, and an attempt to suppress the experience. The most common reason, however, is the fear of not being believed.

In a study by the National Institute of Justice, police officers were asked what percentage of rape victims they believed were lying. The study found that one-third of the officers thought 40 to 80 percent of the accusations were false, while the actual rate of false rape reports is between two to eight percent. Though almost every rape victim is telling the truth, the police, our supposed protectors, refuse to believe them.

Most sexual predators are serial offenders. If a predator commits the crime once and is not punished, there is nothing to stop a repeat incident. Rapists also know that people of marginalized communities are less likely to be believed and often choose their victims accordingly. Native American women are sexually assaulted twice as often as white women, people with disabilities are sexually assaulted three times as often as people without disabilities, and 50 percent of transgender people are sexually assaulted at some point in their lives.

Moreover, sexual offenders are master manipulators. Gaslighting and facades of being “nice guys” are common tactics to avoid imprisonment. Dr. Larry Nassar, a USA Gymnastics doctor at Michigan State University, used his profession as an excuse to inappropriately touch over 150 women. Michigan State overlooked countless accusations and told victims that they did not understand the difference between sexual assault and a medical procedure, because they refused to acknowledge that a well-respected doctor could commit such heinous acts. Victims are often manipulated into silence either by authorities, like Michigan State or the police, or by the perpetrator themselves.

Brock Turner, a swimmer at Stanford University with Olympic-level aspirations, used the “nice guy” excuse. He was caught sexually assaulting Chanel Miller, who was blackout drunk, by two witnesses. During his trial, Turner declared himself a victim of party culture, which fueled his despicable actions and ultimately cost him his career and life. To some, it was a tragedy that 20 years of hard work were shattered by “20 minutes of action.” Miller was unable to sleep at night out of fear of waking up to being touched and was deeply traumatized. Victims of rape often experience insomnia, anxiety, depression, and self-isolation after the assault. To Turner and his family, friends, and supporters, however, an Olympic career was more important. Without those two witnesses, Turner’s case would have been dismissed. Unfortunately, for every Brock Turner who gets convicted, there are 200 who get away.

Of the cases that are reported, only 19 percent lead to an arrest, and even fewer result in a conviction. Therefore, it is understandable why victims are frightened to come forward and recount their traumas to police officers who often ask skeptical questions, such as “What were you wearing?”; “Do you have a boyfriend and feel bad that you cheated?”; “Are you sexually active?”; and the occasional, “So why are you trying to ruin his life?” The trauma of a victim who steps forward is torn apart in pursuit of a sign of consent never given in order to excuse the acts of a perpetrator.

Rape is not the victims’ fault and should not go unpunished. To combat rape culture, movements like #MeToo and #TimesUp are providing a platform for victims to share their stories and are slowly giving power back to victims by exposing offenders. These movements have broken the silence, and if enough people start listening to and believing victims, we can reasonably aspire toward attaining justice. Speaking up is frightening for most victims, but they do so in an attempt to prevent assault from happening to others. When Ocasio-Cortez told the world about her sexual assault trauma, our society responded by trying to poke holes in her story and discrediting her pain. If we support and validate victims for speaking up instead of slamming their credibility, we will draw out more voices, making our communities safer and bringing closure to those who have already suffered.