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Rethinking our response to sexual assault allegations

By Andrea Panaligan Published Feb 11, 2021 4:00 pm

If I’m being generous, there are around a thousand people who know about my sexual assault. In 2017, I posted a review of a rape-revenge film on Letterboxd, a social media platform for movies, where I spared no gory detail of my trauma in an attempt to prove myself credible.

“I wanted to pretend it never happened. I didn’t want to be ‘the girl who was raped,’ because where I live, rape is almost a myth,” I wrote. “People believe it only happens when you walk alone at night, done in dark skimpy hallways by dark brooding strangers. It doesn’t happen within the walls of your own home, on the couch you sit on years later, by someone you continue to see after it happened.”

It was the year #MeToo broke into the mainstream, and I was emboldened not only by the women coming forward but the swarm of people welcoming their stories with open arms. “You’re not alone. You know the truth, and everyone reading your review knows the truth,” one user commented on my post. This inspired me to speak more on my experience, albeit in smaller moments: casually dropping phrases like “my abuser” and “as a victim” in articles; opening up about it to a friend while in line at Burger King.

My pain is something I will never be thankful for, even if it made me ‘stronger.’ I didn’t want to be stronger. I was a child. I just wanted to be okay

And although I’ve managed to do it once, talking about my experience extensively, especially to strangers online, was something I found too heavy to bear. That review and the response it got urged me to treat my assault as a commodity, as this product I could embellish my stories with or something I could raise to leverage myself in heated Twitter arguments.

The transparency I thought would set me free actually shackled me to the one thing in my life I would rather not revisit. After so many revised first drafts and unsent tweets, I realized it’s such a disservice to myself to reopen wounds for the sake of public discourse. I need not provide a play-by-play of my trauma to make my advocacy against sexual assault more valid.

My healing is self-centered, and rightfully so. I decided long ago that I will never forgive my abuser. My pain is something I will never be thankful for, even if it made me “stronger.” I didn’t want to be stronger. I was a child. I just wanted to be okay.

I log off every time a rape case stirs up headlines, which is unsurprisingly often. It’s even more prevalent in social media, where the incompetence of the justice system leaves survivors no choice but to resort to ad hoc vigilante defamation. Recent cultural shifts appear to reward those who come forward with instant pitchfork-wielding mobs coming to their defense.

Obviously, it is ideal to cultivate a culture of care so survivors can safely share their experiences, should they choose to, and in their own time. After all, it was through witnessing a glimpse of this safe space that I managed to disclose mine.

But the current climate that coaxes survivors to testify to their trauma is not fueled by concern but by scandal, by “I told you so”s. In conversations about sexual assault — an inherently gendered crime — discourse disproportionately focuses on the (often male) perpetrator. The (often female) survivor is merely an unwilling pawn in the grand scheme of taking these men down.

This is dangerous at a time when posting allegations online is increasingly common. Cancel culture — a deeply flawed system — being the punishment that awaits perpetrators, teaches them that it is not wrong to assault, it is only wrong to get caught. Sexist frat men are only ever repentant when the group chats get leaked. 

Cancel culture being the punishment that awaits perpetrators teaches them that it is not wrong to assault, it is only wrong to get caught. Sexist frat men are only ever repentant when the group chats get leaked. 

Christine Dacera is the latest in a long line of unsuspecting women canonized as symbols for the ills of misogyny. Her death and alleged rape reignited a collective disillusionment with the patriarchy. Intersected with the inherently heightened emotional landscape of the internet, the resulting rage was so instantaneous and intense that the men with her the night she passed away had targets on their backs the second their names were publicized.

The death and life of Dacera were sensationalized and dissected. In an attempt to strengthen the argument against rape culture, some survivors were pushed into the frontlines of one of the most grueling back-and-forths on the subject of their trauma.

Similar to how the #MeToo movement is being distilled and co-opted the more it permeates the Western mainstream, our current conversations on sexual assault are almost never about solidarity with survivors. In fact, the contrary — there is strength in numbers, so we hunt down anyone willing to divulge an admission of victimhood, luring them in to feed an insatiable hunger for evidence of the brokenness of patriarchy. The support given to those who come forward almost feels predatory, the survivor never able to unshackle themselves from being prey. 

  Christine Dacera's death reignited a collective disillusionment with the patriarchy. Photo from Instagram/xtinedacera

Dacera stayed in the headlines and timelines for days. When investigators could not present any substantial evidence to back up the alleged assault, pitchforks started pointing at each other. “We told you: exercise caution. Instead, you became a lynch mob,” one tweet read. Another user replied that everyone who posted pictures of the accused must be charged with cyber libel.

In the more insidious corners of the discourse, many were beginning to blame the ease of falsely accusing others, and how the “street justice” of online cancel culture further exacerbates the “guilty until proven innocent” mindset that can wrongfully besmirch otherwise innocent people. Survivors went from being plucked out and pushed to the center to not being believed at all.

That said, the raging wildfire elicited by the news of Dacera’s death is not the enemy. In a way, I was comforted to see that the first instinct of many was to side with the victim. But arguments on the validity of accusations or condemnations of the internet’s knee-jerk reaction ultimately stir our attention away from the fact that, in Dacera’s case, the accusations were made by the police. Sexual assault allegations were weaponized by men in power, the complete antithesis of the people who often have to live with its consequences. 

While it’s true that cancel culture has a tendency to commodify trauma, the only reason it has power in the first place is because it's the only accessible way to hold perpetrators accountable. This is especially true for victims in the margins, even in such a high-profile case like Dacera’s.

Bureaucratic, anti-poor legal procedures make it virtually impossible to convict rapists, and the public is often hostile and excessively critical of those who come forward. They feel entitled to the survivor’s body and behavior in what feels like history repeating itself.

In the unlikely event of our justice system serving interests other than those of men in the upper class, carceral justice can still only take us so far. Of course I’m angry at my abuser, but the deliverance I want cannot be found in his incarceration. What would be the point of putting him behind bars when the primary drivers of rape culture, those whose very system is a breeding ground for macho-feudal beliefs, are sitting unscathed with the keys to all the locks?

What I want is for my trauma to be among the last of its kind. We won’t need protection from male entitlement and gender-based violence if the forces that enable it simply cease to exist.