Abbie Berringer: Believe survivors?

Monday, October 1, 2018 - 3:45pm

Abbie Berringer

Abbie Berringer Buy this photo
The Michigan Daily

CW: sexual assault

I am a woman. I am a survivor of sexual assault, but I don’t want you to simply “believe me” because I wrote this. Why? Because I believe in due process. I believe in “innocent until proven guilty.” I believe the principles of the American judicial system are ones rooted in justice.

I know that the system has flaws and corruption has overtaken parts of it. It is hard to come out about sexual assault for many reasons. Corruption within the system often ends up protecting the powerful. However, just because we know this is true, it does not give us the right to label someone “corrupt” or “guilty” without the evidence to support it.

It is brave to come forward. I didn’t come forward. In fact, what nearly held me back from writing this piece at all was the fact that I would have to tell my parents what happened to me all those years ago. The knowledge of how much it would hurt them was almost too much to bear. Up until now, only a handful of people knew what happened to me five years ago when I was just a junior in high school. In the days, weeks, months and even years after the incident, what kept me from talking to most people was a mix of complicated emotions: embarrassment, fear and an overwhelming desire to put the whole thing behind me. If I had gone to my parents, they would have wanted me to go to the police. If I had gone to the police, they would have opened an investigation. If an investigation was opened, one thing would have become abundantly clear: There was no evidence. It was just me and him in a dark room, with one other person who happened to be asleep. I woke up and he was touching me, but he didn’t rape me, so I would have no DNA evidence. He didn’t bruise me, so there would be no marks on my body. There were no witnesses, just my word against his, and I know that for good reason the justice system does not allow people to be convicted on hearsay.

It is sad. It is sad that I discovered that this person committed almost exactly the same crime against another friend of mine some time before this incident had happened to me. I wasn’t his first victim, and the sickening truth is that I will more than likely also not be his last. Yet the truth is that my word alone is not, and should not, be enough to convict him. It doesn’t matter what the statistics are on accusations of sexual assault. Studies quoted in Vox, the BBC and Vogue have already reported that most people who come forth with sexual assault accusations are not lying. Whether these studies are accurate or not, I do not know. However, I do know that it truly doesn’t matter.

As Voltaire once said, Sir William Blackstone echoed and Benjamin Franklin later co-opted: “it is better 100 guilty Persons should escape than that one innocent Person should suffer,” is a maxim that has been long and generally approved. I still believe in this maxim and I think that, as Americans, we all should. This maxim is a protection. It guarantees that someone who would seek to destroy your life on baseless accusations, due to some personal vendetta, or a desire to harm you for one reason or another cannot do that without creating some sort of elaborate plot that frames you as “guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.”

The truth is that tomorrow I could come out with a baseless claim against anybody, an old enemy, a bad professor or a former bully, but I am deterred from doing so by the fact that my baseless claim can do no more than hurt their reputation. What I fear is that, in this new world, where the push by the left is to unequivocally believe the accuser, this deterrence will exist no more. If we start punishing the potentially innocent based on nothing but accusations alone, then it encourages those who may seek to destroy someone else’s life to take that avenue. In the world of politics, the corrupt work by trying to ruin the lives of their opponents. If we don’t want the corrupt to win, then we can’t give them the chance to turn allegations into guilty verdicts, because that is exactly what they want.

Due to what I have gone through, it is not lost on me that this does and will continue to lead to some of the guilty going free. It is also not lost on me that there is still a culture of mistrust and blatant sexism toward women, one that has enabled sexual abuse to continue running rampant in our society for far too long. Because of my own circumstances, I am very likely to believe the accuser in a sexual violence case, and more than anything I want our justice system to punish rape crimes more harshly. It is a disgusting injustice that someone like Brock Turner, the guilty party in the infamous rape case at Stanford University, only spent three months in prison for his heinous crime because the judge actually cared that his life had been forever changed, as his parents and lawyers argued in court. His life should have been ruined. He didn’t and, in my opinion, still doesn’t deserve to walk free.

It physically pains me to think that my abuser walks free and that there is nothing even the justice system is able to do about it, but I know if my word alone could have convicted him that would have been a very dangerous power. I don’t want that power in my hands or in the hands of anyone else. I would rather see my accuser go free, even as tears come to my eyes as I write this, than to know that the power to ruin someone’s life based on an accusation alone has become a reality in the American justice system.

So, I ask us all to think about what we should truly believe in. I believe in justice. I believe in due process. I believe in evidence and “guilty beyond a reasonable doubt,” but I don’t simply “believe survivors.” It hurts to say that because I am one, and most people who say they are a survivor are telling the truth, but regardless, you shouldn’t believe me based on my word alone.

Abbie Berringer can be reached at abbierbe@umich.edu.