LOUISE O'NEILL: I often wonder why people find it so difficult to believe how prevalent sexual violence is

This week, I watched Leaving Neverland, the documentary about James Safechuck and Wade Robson, who allege that when they were children they were sexually molested by Michael Jackson.

The film is four hours long and contains deeply disturbing and specific details of sexual abuse; the similarities of the men’s stories, of how they and their families were groomed, are chilling.

When my boyfriend and I finished watching the documentary, I said to him that surely no-one would be able to watch Leaving Neverland and doubt that Robson and Safechuck were telling the truth. In response, he held up his phone and showed me some of the comments under the #LeavingNeverland on Twitter.

These ranged from sceptical to sadistic. I assumed these were all hardcore Jackson fanatics (side note: I can’t imagine ever loving someone’s music or books or movies so much that I would ignore allegations of child rape in order to continue enjoying their work), but the next day, when I mentioned to an acquaintance that I had watched the documentary and found it harrowing, they shrugged and said they thought it seemed “a little far-fetched”.

And, in that moment, I realised that this documentary goes far beyond Michael Jackson, that he is, in fact, almost irrelevant. What is far more important is what Leaving Neverland is showing us about our cultural attitudes to sexual violence and how we treat survivors. Post ‘Me Too’, we have progressed enough as a society that this film got made, but it’s not enough when people’s first response to hearing plausible claims is to look for reasons not to believe survivors.

The attempts to discredit Wade Robson will be familiar to many of us. He testified in Michael Jackson’s defence when Jordan Chandler accused Jackson of molestation in 1993, and again in 2005, when Gavin Arvizo made strikingly similar claims of abuse.

In the film, Robson outlines his reasons for doing so: he loved Michael, he wanted to protect Michael, and Michael conditioned him, from a very young age, to believe that if they were ‘caught’, both Michael and Wade would go to jail for a very long time, a pattern that child psychologists in this sector say is extremely common.

As Oprah Winfrey, a survivor of abuse herself, said in an interview with Robson and Safechuck, after the documentary aired in the States, “if the abuser is any good, you won’t even know it’s happened… if the abuser is any good, he or she is going to make you feel like you’re a part of it.”

But this scepticism is part of a larger problem: we expect victims of sexual abuse to be ‘perfect’ and if they fail to conform to what we think a victim should look like, or how a victim should behave, then we dismiss their story as false. If there are small inconsistencies in their story, we take this as proof of lying, rather than understanding that there are often inconsistencies in memory, especially when the abuse took place in childhood.

If the victim has continued to be in a relationship with their abuser, past the time they claim the abuse began, we again use this as evidence of their deception.

We show, time and time again, a complete lack of understanding of how people process trauma, and how wildly that can differ from one person to the next. If it hasn’t happened to you, then you don’t know how you would react. Even if it has happened to you, you don’t know how someone else would react.

WE’RE also very quick to question if the victim is seeking financial compensation from the person they are accusing of abuse.

This is often used to discredit victims, particularly if the abuser is rich and powerful. But think about it: if you sustained injuries in a car accident and the other driver was to blame, wouldn’t you expect that they assume responsibility for your medical bills?

We never consider the financial cost of sexual violence; the loss of earnings, if you are unable to work, not to mention the significant cost of therapy. Shouldn’t the abuser bear those costs, the same as they would if the injuries were physical?

I often wonder why people find it so difficult to believe how prevalent sexual violence is in our society, why their eyes glaze over when you mention the statistics. One in six men will have experienced sexual abuse as children. One in three women are the victims of abuse, whether physical or sexual.

You know men who have been molested as children, whether you are aware of that or not. You know women who have been raped. Some of your friends and family members are living in violent homes.

These are the facts, yet we don’t want to accept them. Is it because we want to believe that the world is benevolent and that people are inherently decent?

Is it somehow easier for us to believe that women lie and that children make up stories about being sexually abused, rather than accept that we are surrounded by such atrocities in our homes, our communities, our churches?

In Operation Lighthouse, the book Luke and Ryan Hart wrote after their father murdered their mother and sister, the brothers say that, “We do not believe the true severity of suffering unless we experience it or unless we are able to connect with it somehow.”

We must connect with the realities of the world in which we live. We must listen to victims. We have to ignore our own discomfort, as we sit with their pain, and the messy, non-liner narrative of their trauma. We have a collective responsibility to stand still and bear witness to survivors’ stories, to reach out our hands and say: ‘You are not alone. You are safe. I believe you’.

I often wonder why people find it so difficult to believe how prevalent sexual violence is, why their eyes glaze over when you mention the stats