What It Truly Means to ‘Believe Survivors’ 1

Two years ago, the voices of survivors of sexual harassment and assault launched an unprecedented movement the world over, using Tarana Burke’s MeToo framework. That one moment was a spark into the unknown, but the movement itself was no happy accident. It was built to fuel a reclamation of power for those who had been silenced for too long, a laborious undertaking by activists, advocates, and organizations including mine—the National Women’s Law Center, which also houses and administers the TIME’S UP Legal Defense Fund.

Since then, the #MeToo movement has enabled considerable progress, including making space for more and more people who have claims of sexual misconduct to come forward. People like Tara Reade.

But despite this dramatic cultural awakening, our institutions and systems are just beginning to stir. The lack of necessary legal and policy changes both in our government and in our workplaces, schools, houses of worship, and otherwise have created a world that very imperfectly serves the needs of survivors. Every domestic worker who is entirely unprotected by our federal and most state civil rights statutes, and every person who is classified as an independent contractor and left out of civil rights protections, have proven that our work must take on the reform and re-envisioning of the very systems that excluded them in the first place. 

That couldn’t be more true in the world of politics. Recently, the Fund helped Reade with connections to lawyers, resources, and information, but declined to provide funding assistance on the cusp of an election—due to our 501(c)(3) restrictions—for her public relations efforts. Yet the scrutiny of our decision doesn’t tackle the larger question that remains: what formal process, separate from going to the media, should have been in place for Reade to have come forward during an election? 

Perhaps a new process entirely must be established that gives the public confidence that serious claims will have serious, nonpolitical consideration. At the very least, shouldn’t there be a mechanism in place to fairly, transparently, and neutrally assess allegations such as these within both political parties? For it is a disservice to all of us to solely focus on one presidential candidate when the other still faces serious, unanswered allegations of sexual misconduct. Just as Reade’s claims are rightly being heard, discussed, and examined, so should those of the dozens of women who have come forward against President Trump.

We all deserve for this to be a search for truth rather than a search for hypocrisy and starting there is an example of what it means to focus on a survivor’s agenda rather than a partisan one. Reade’s allegation was immediately weaponized to serve political gain, with pundits and others blaming the media and tearing down feminist organizations, demanding that we either believe all women or believe none. Yet that false choice is one that never came from our movement. 

Instead we have implored the public to understand that the call to “believe survivors” is a necessary corrective to how, for generations, individuals—specifically women—have been disbelieved and distrusted when they spoke out about sexual violence. It is a call to action that demands that sexual assault and its life-altering harms be taken seriously. And it is a rallying cry for those who have been silenced as they demand to at last be heard. “Believe survivors” has never meant that there should be no process, no investigation, no systems to receive and weigh a serious complaint of harm. In fact, it is a call for precisely those things. 

In this most recent firestorm fueled by the absence of understanding of what “believe survivors” truly means, a dangerous narrative has emerged that pit survivors against each other, fabricated movement disarray, asked women to answer for a man’s alleged actions, and ignored the simple truth that in this work, two things can be true at the same time: we can demand that allegations of harassment and assault be taken seriously and ensure that the right processes are in place to assess claims thoroughly. 

In this critical turning point though, what’s next? At a minimum, what survivors and the public deserve are candidates and institutional leaders modeling what it means to respond to allegations, and to commit to systemic change. Without this, survivors will continue to be exploited by irresponsible narratives and subjected to value determinations on the basis of rape myths and stereotypes about who merits our empathy and belief—a position that harms all of us and puts further distance between survivors and justice.