Believing Neverland: A commentary on Leaving Neverland and a Dialogue about Sexual Assault

It seems like every day there is another celebrity #MeToo scandal. In the past couple of years, we’ve seen the downfalls of beloved pop culture icons Harvey Weinstein, R Kelly, Kevin Spacey, and Bill Cosby (just to skim the top of the list). Now, the name in question is Michael Jackson. One of the most famous men ever to walk the planet, the King of Pop, MJ, John Jay Smith, Michael freaking Jackson is in the hot seat, accused of sexually abusing a number of young boys.

The newly released two-part, four-hour documentary Leaving Neverland isn’t the first time we’ve heard of this though. Michael Jackson was put on trial for sexual abuse in 1993 and again in 2004, walking away from both court dates decidedly innocent and unscathed.

The documentary walks through the stories of two men, James Safechuck and Wade Robson, who spent many years of their respective childhoods in the company of Michael Jackson. Both married with kids now, the men decided to step forward and share their sides of the relationship they had with the pop legend. And according to them, it was just that: a relationship. It wasn’t one-off rape in a back ally or forced and violent action towards the boys, but coercion and manipulation. Jackson convinced these boys that his actions were an expression of love and a signifier of their relationships, which is why, as explained by Robson, it took so long for him to realize the harmful and immoral nature of the actions. When Robson first came forward about the abuse on the Today Show in 2013, it inspired Safechuck to do the same; finally confiding in his wife about his painful childhood trauma.

The men choosing to wait to partake in this tell-all documentary until a decade after the death of Michael Jackson caused a lot of skepticism amongst audiences. Jackson’s family will not acknowledge the success of the film, calling it slander and an attack on the pop legend. Many of MJs fans also refuse to believe the men speaking out, getting #MJinnocent trending on twitter. Wade Robson had previously gone on the stand as a witness at one of Jackson’s previous court hearings, stating that he was never abused by Michael Jackson, and Safechuck refused to speak on the matter until the production of the documentary. The two of them are now suing the Michael Jackson estate for compensation of the abuse they suffered for many years, which is what has raised a lot of eyebrows in terms of how genuine the men really are.

While people can think and say what they want, the damage to Michael Jackson’s legacy has already been done. The men are finally finding peace in what they went through, and the story is out in the open. It is not the sincerity of the story we should be focused on here, but rather the hesitation of so many people to believe what happened.

The #MeToo movement going viral in 2017 caused a whirlwind in the way we as a society look at and talk about sexual assault, and a main component of that is believing survivors and supporting them. While it is true that false rape allegations do exist, only around 2-10% of all allegations prove that no crime was attempted or committed. When you put this next to the 1 in 5 women overall statistic, and even more shockingly the 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 6 boys before the age of 18 statistic, it makes it a lot more difficult to challenge someone’s word.

For the first time pretty much ever, there is an open dialogue regarding sexual assault. Unprecedented progress has been made in moving towards a world where abominable statistics aren’t part of our daily lives. The goal of the #MeToo movement is to reframe and expand the conversation around sexual violence, and a key element to this is believing and supporting survivors. Survivors can be so strong and courageous, but they don’t get there on their own. So much bravery comes from people and communities who offer solace and validate them through love, kindness, and most importantly belief.

Our work has started, but it is certainly not done.

COVER PHOTO: The Independent

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