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  • Lucy Naughton

Why Believing Survivors Matters

The Hamilton community suffered the heartbreaking loss of a former classmate and friend this past week, Basil Brown. Basil enrolled at the University of Louisiana, Lafayette after leaving Hamilton due to its lack of accessibility and allegations that it is not ADA compliant. The online response to Basil’s death has been truly sickening. I refuse to dignify these posts and comments by repeating them, but suffice it to say that I have never personally witnessed such an influx of violent, transphobic, and victim-blaming rhetoric in my life, including from influential public figures. Many of these posts were replies to comments by Basil’s friends, some of them Hamilton students, who now must contend with strangers’ hateful, politicized internet harassment on top of their all-consuming grief. 

In the wake of the our community’s devastation, I aim to dispel the harmful stereotypes and misinformation circulating online from my perspective as a budding sexual assault prevention and advocacy researcher. I have over a year of experience studying sexual assault while abroad in Ireland, as well as here at Hamilton for my honors thesis in psychology. Upon my graduation, I will continue to pursue this passion as a clinical research assistant working with college-aged survivors. 

In his last Instagram post, Basil alleges several sexual assaults perpetrated by at least two members of the UL Lafayette community, leading many of those he left behind to question the extent to which these assaults contributed to his decision to take his own life. Unfortunately, much of the bigoted online response to Basil’s death has focused on discrediting his story and blaming him for his own victimization. 

It’s pretty clear that internet trolls don’t know what they’re talking about when it comes to sexual assault. My purpose in writing this article is to set the record straight.

Victim-blaming is associated with rape myth acceptance, or the extent to which someone subscribes to societal attitudes toward sexual assault. Therefore, disrupting the perpetuation of rape myths and instead circulating accurate information about sexual assault is key to ending victim-blaming. 

Sometimes, people blame victims because they mistakenly believe that sexual assault is rare. According to a study published in 2018, 27% of women and 7% of men have experienced sexual assault in their lifetime. These rates are even higher for the transgender community, such that almost half (47%) of trans people have experienced sexual assault. Trans people who experience additional marginalization are more likely than not to be sexually assaulted: 72% of trans sex workers, 65% of trans people experiencing homelessness, and 61% of trans people with disabilities are sexually assaulted at some point. Basil’s story is thus, tragically, far from an anomaly for someone who was both trans and disabled – statistically speaking, it’s the norm. 

Sexual assault survivors often endure lasting psychological consequences. A study published in 2000 that surveyed a nationally representative sample of American women indicated that 31% of women who have been raped go on to develop PTSD; 30% develop major depressive disorder, 33% seriously consider committing suicide, and 13% actually attempt suicide. These numbers are astounding, particularly compared to the notably lower rates – 5%, 10%, 8%, and 1%, respectively – for women who have never been the victim of a crime. 

For survivors who have experienced victim-blaming, studies suggest these numbers are even higher. In fact, victim-blaming may be even more psychologically detrimental than the assault itself. A 2023 study found that survivors who have experienced victim-blaming report higher levels of PTSD and depression than those who have not. Although there has yet to be a study investigating the effect of victim-blame on suicidality, based on the above statistics, I would go so far as to argue that the consequences of victim-blaming can be fatal.

We can never know to what extent Basil experienced victim-blaming or to what extent victim-blaming may have contributed to his mental health struggles. What we do know is the sheer amount and severity of the victim-blaming taking place online in the days following his death. The sudden loss of someone as young and full of life as Basil should be a stark reminder to all of us that the way we treat each other, especially in times of pain and crisis, has dire repercussions.

As a college community, we have a moral responsibility to protect and care for each other. We must always keep in mind that the way we respond to a survivor’s disclosure may have significant consequences. This may sound nihilistic, but I actually find it quite hopeful. The power to ease survivors’ pain is in our hands. It is our obligation to believe and support them.

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