We’ve lost track of the number of times recently that we’ve heard someone end a conversation about sexual harassment or abuse with a shrug and “It’s a he-said-she-said situation.” What they mean, invariably, is there is reason to doubt reports of sexual misconduct or assault if the woman reporting the abuse is unable to produce any clear proof of what happened. This is exactly what people who act abusively want you to think.
“He said, she said” could be considered one of the defining elements of sexual assault. People who act abusively do so on purpose, and they take many steps to avoid being caught or reported. There is rarely conclusive evidence such as video or photographic documentation or eyewitnesses — they make sure of it.
First, people who harass or abuse others are people we know. They are our relatives, neighbors, co-workers, people we stand next to in line at the grocery store. People we like and respect, who have never been abusive to us or in our presence, can behave badly in private.
How many times have you watched the obligatory interview with a neighbor who claimed, “He seemed quiet, nice. I had no idea.” These sentiments may seem surprising in each individual case, but they are echoed in news coverage about sexual misconduct and assault from across the nation for a reason. It describes a key element of “grooming.” People who behave abusively in private often deliberately behave kindly, cooperatively and friendly in public. It is intentional deception to gain the trust of the people they target for abuse, and the rest of us.
Second, abuse is planned. Abusers decide who, when, where and how they will abuse. They strategically ensure there are no witnesses — unless they are also participants. The abuser, by design, is ensuring it is a “he said, she said” scenario. Often, people who are selected by the abuser are targeted because they would be unlikely to be taken seriously if the abuse ever came to light. Perhaps the abuser has more power, is better known, or is viewed as an authority.
And third, people who harass or abuse others lie about what they did. They lie to the victim, saying things like: You were into it; you drank a lot, and probably remembered it wrong; and who do you think people will believe — me or you? And, of course, they deny having done it: it wasn’t me; or I didn’t mean it; or she liked it.
In a recent survey, more than half of men in Southwestern Pennsylvania say that when sexual assault is reported it’s best to be skeptical and wait for hard evidence to emerge. This widely held sentiment ignores the very nature of the crime. In most cases, there is no evidence — by design. “He said, she said” sounds like a practical, neutral, fair stance to take, but it’s not. Far from being neutral, it erases the reality of how sexual assault is perpetrated, and instead is used to cast doubt when a person reports.
It’s time we stop using this phrase in a way that casts suspicion on the person who is reporting abuse and recognize it for what it is — the very definition of sexual abuse and assault.
Help, hope and healing is available for anyone impacted by sexual misconduct or assault. To find help in Pennsylvania call 888-772-7227 or visit www.pcar.org/help-in-pa.