What is the Start by Believing campaign?

Start by Believing is a public awareness campaign launched by End Violence Against Women International (EVAWI) in April 2011. It was created to end the cycle of silence and change the way society responds to sexual assault.

Start by Believing reaches friends and family members, as well as professionals who interact with sexual assault survivors. The campaign focuses specifically on changing the response to a disclosure of sexual assault victimization by expressing belief and support, rather than doubt, shame, or blame. For more information, please read our brief history of the campaign.

What is the Start by Believing pledge?

The Start by Believing pledge is a personal commitment to Start by Believing when someone tells you they were raped or sexual assaulted.

I pledge to:

  • Start by Believing when someone tells me they were raped or sexually assaulted
  • Support survivors on the road to justice and healing
  • Help end the silence

Why do we need to Start by Believing?

Historically, sexual assault victims have often faced reactions of doubt and blame when they reported the crime or reached out for help. These reactions can increase the trauma victims experience and decrease the likelihood they will pursue justice and healing. This also means that perpetrators are not held accountable for their crimes, and they remain free to sexually assault additional victims.

For more information on the rationale for the Start by Believing campaign, please see our resources, particularly our article summarizing the relevant research.

What impact does Start by Believing have on survivors?

When someone has been sexually assaulted, they often turn first to family members or friends. If the response to their disclosure is disbelief or blame, this can increase the trauma of the assault and decrease the likelihood that the victim will report to law enforcement or seek other services, such as medical care.

On the other hand, victims who are treated with respect and whose accounts are taken seriously will often feel more comfortable reporting or seeking additional help. It can be extremely stressful for victims to participate in an investigation and subsequent court proceedings; when they have support from friends and family, as well as positive interactions with law enforcement, victim advocates, medical providers, and others, they can have fewer long-term negative effects of trauma.

The two specific behaviors that seem to have the most significant positive effect on victims are having someone to talk to and being believed, which are foundations of a Start by Believing approach. For more information and supporting research, please see our article summarizing the relevant research.

How many Start by Believing campaigns are there?

Hundreds of communities around the world have launched a Start by Believing campaign. But we only know about a campaign when someone notifies us; there are likely to be many others we are not aware of. Make sure to Submit Your Campaign so we know about it! In addition, thousands of people have made their own personal commitment to Start by Believing when someone tells them they were raped or sexually assaulted.

Is there evidence to support the impact of Start by Believing?

Start by Believing was developed on the basis of research documenting how to respond effectively to sexual assault disclosures. While evaluation of the campaign’s impact is preliminary, the initial data is encouraging. For example, after launching a city-wide campaign in Kansas City, the local rape crisis center noted a dramatic increase in the number of hospital callouts, and the police department saw an increase in reports of sexual assault. Two other communities also saw an increase in the number of sexual assault reports in the wake of their local campaigns: San Luis Obispo, California and Arizona State University. For more information please see our article with research on Start by Believing.

This is just suggestive evidence, but it is promising. EVAWI encourages any community launching a Start by Believing campaign to evaluate its possible impact. For more information, please contact an EVAWI staff member.


Who should be involved in a Start by Believing campaign?

Any individual or organization can launch a Start by Believing campaign. The first step for an individual is to take the pledge, making a personal commitment to Start by Believing when someone discloses that they were raped or sexually assaulted. Organizations can also take the pledge and become a Start by Believing Company. Beyond that, the possibilities are endless.

Most campaigns involve professionals from a variety of disciplines, including: law enforcement, victim advocates, health care providers, prosecutors, and social service agencies. Depending on your campaign focus, you may also consider local colleges or universities, military installations, local businesses, and more. For examples of local campaigns and other initiatives, please see SBB In Action.

Why is multidisciplinary collaboration important for a campaign?

When a Start by Believing campaign involves professionals across disciplines, this increases the reach of the effort and ensures that they are all “on the same page” in terms of implementing the philosophy into everyday practices. This, in turn, helps ensure that every disclosure of sexual assault is taken seriously, and every survivor receives a compassionate and professional response. It also increases the likelihood that survivors will access the services available to them. Victims who have a positive encounter with one support provider are more likely to seek additional services, thus facilitating reporting and recovery from trauma.

If some team members are not involved in the campaign, this will decrease the reach and effectiveness of the effort. In addition, responding professionals will not be able to guarantee that all survivors will receive a compassionate and supportive response from other professionals in the response system.

For more information please see our article summarizing the relevant research.

How do I prepare to launch a campaign?

Most Start by Believing campaigns use a variety of strategies, including public outreach, social media, and traditional media. Campaigns generally launch in April, as part of Sexual Assault Awareness Month (SAAM), with a particular focus on Start by Believing Day, which is the first Wednesday in April. It’s incredible to see the impact across the country, and around the world, all in a single day.

We have developed several Action Kits to give you ideas for specific steps you can take to implement the principles of Start by Believing. Each kit also contains examples of actions that may inspire you to develop your own creative ideas:

Are there resources to help with our campaign?

The idea behind Start by Believing is that communities can develop their own local initiatives, based on time-tested messages and materials. EVAWI offers a number of print materials such as brochures, posters, and postcards, as well as promotional items (e.g., mugs, scarves, candles, and bracelets). We also offer educational resources such as community presentations and training bulletins on our resources page. Communities can adapt these materials, or develop their own, based on their own needs. To order print materials, please visit our online store. Best of all, the materials are free! You pay only for the cost of shipping.

Can we adapt Start by Believing materials for our own campaign?

Yes, you can adapt Start by Believing materials for use in your own community. For example, you may want to revise the text to describe local services or add agency logos to show community support. There are only a few restrictions.

First, you may not alter the Start by Believing logo in any way. This is because the message is more powerful when the imagery is consistent in local, regional, and statewide campaigns. This also fuels recognition that the campaign has spread across the country and around the world. You can find graphic files for the logo on our resources page, and you can contact staff for more information.

Also, please credit End Violence Against Women International (EVAWI) for the campaign, and link to the international website: startbybelieving.org. This can be in addition to any local web pages or social media sites you link with your materials. Again, this helps ensure that the message is consistent, but it also connects people with the information and resources available internationally.


How can a sexual assault survivor get immediate help or support?

For anyone who is in immediate danger, try to find a safe place and call 911. Or get someone to call for you. If you are looking for information and support, please contact the 24-hour national hotline operated by RAINN, either via telephone at 1 (800) 656-HOPE or online at hotline.rainn.org

Do I need to say the exact words, “I believe you?”

Depending on your role and the circumstances, you may not feel comfortable saying “I believe you.” There are many other things you can say to help a victim feel supported and comfortable in talking to you. For example, you could use phrases like, “I’m sorry this happened to you,” or “What can I do to help?”

The Start by Believing website offers specific examples of what to say to victims. The important issue is not the exact words that are used, but the fact that victims are treated with compassion and respect, instead of hearing the message that they are not believed, and their disclosure is not being taken seriously. For criminal justice professionals, this message is also communicated by conducting a thorough, evidence-based investigation with compassion and professionalism. Please see Start by Believing: Participation of Criminal Justice Professionals.


Is Start by Believing appropriate for criminal justice professionals?

Start by Believing is appropriate for criminal justice agencies because case outcomes will only change when police and prosecutors start from the presumption that a sexual assault report has merit, and then follow the evidence through the course of a fair, impartial, and thorough investigation.

This does not mean that criminal justice professionals believe everything victims say, or that they pursue corroborative evidence more vigorously than exculpatory evidence. It does not mean, “Always Believe Victims.” It simply reflects the basic logic of why we refer it as a “crime report” and why we collect information and evidence from “victims” and “witnesses.” If there was no starting presumption that a crime report had merit, no investigation would be conducted at all.

For more information, please see our online resources and Training Bulletins Start by Believing: Participation of Criminal Justice Professionals and Interviews with Victims vs. Suspects: Start by Believing and the Question of Bias.

Does Start by Believing mean “Always Believe” victims?

No. That’s why the word Start is in Start by Believing. Unfortunately, the Start by Believing philosophy is sometimes mischaracterized in this way. For criminal justice professionals, participation in Start by Believing does not mean that they cast aside their responsibility to conduct a full and thorough investigation, or to ignore evidence that contradicts a victim’s report or statements made by witnesses and suspects. It does not require believing everything a victim says. It simply offers a starting place for a thorough, evidence-based investigation.

Start by Believing is designed to encourage professionals to start from an orientation of believing when someone discloses sexual assault victimization, as opposed to starting with the assumption that the victim is lying. This does not mean that professionals always believe victims, regardless of the information available. Clearly, law enforcement professionals must conduct a thorough investigation, and make all case determinations based on the evidence. After beginning from the orientation of Start by Believing, criminal justice professionals then follow the evidence through the course of a fair and impartial investigation.

Should investigators also Start by Believing suspects?

When someone reports a sexual assault, it is typically a “cold contact,” meaning the responding officer has little or no background about the victim, the suspect, or the circumstances of the crime. In fact, often the only information at this point is the victim’s own words. This is the basis for writing a crime report and starting an investigation.

By contrast, a suspect is typically interviewed later in the investigative process. At that point, the investigator has usually gathered evidence and information, interviewed any available witnesses, and formulated a preliminary assessment – all before formally interviewing the suspect. In other words, investigators typically have some reason to believe the suspect committed the crime by the time this person is formally interviewed.

The investigator’s job is then to attempt to interview the person, to see how the statements that are provided by the suspect align with the evidence and statements provided by the victim, any other suspects, and additional witnesses. But investigators are still encouraged to approach suspects with an open mind, listening carefully and documenting any statements made. This is because the next step is to investigate every aspect of the suspect’s statements, just as it is with statements made by the victim and any witnesses.

For more information, please see our online resources and Training Bulletins Start by Believing: Participation of Criminal Justice Professionals and Interviews with Victims vs. Suspects: Start by Believing and the Question of Bias.

How does Start by Believing help ensure a thorough investigation?

A victim’s disclosure is usually the first step in a sexual assault investigation, and the more information a victim can provide, the more avenues for investigation are opened up. When victims are met with respect and compassion, they are more likely to develop rapport with the investigator and share detailed information.

When victims feel dismissed or disregarded, they may not believe it is safe to provide information, or their level of anxiety may be increased to the point where it impairs their ability to communicate what happened. Even a “neutral” stance will often be insufficient to establish the trust and rapport victims need to share memories that are confusing, painful, or humiliating.

Victim interviews are more likely to be successful when they are conducted with an expression of genuine empathy and an awareness that memories may not “make sense” at first. The process of piecing together a coherent recollection of sexual assault takes a great deal of time, patience, compassion, and support.

Is it appropriate for health care providers to Start by Believing?

Not only is Start by Believing appropriate for health care providers, it is the way they do business in every patient encounter. When a patient tells her doctor that her stomach hurts, the doctor will begin from that assumption – while remaining open to alternative possibilities. Similarly, when a patient says he was sexually assaulted, treatment and services will begin from that starting presumption.

In fact, it is not the role of a health care provider to make a determination regarding whether or not a patient has been sexually assaulted. That is a legal question. The health care provider’s role is simply to provide testing, treatment and services, which can include forensic evidence collection when requested. If the health care provider is later called to testify in court, their conclusion will simply be to determine whether that evidence is or is not “consistent” or “congruent” with the history given by the patient.

How can Start by Believing prevent gender bias?

In 2015, the Department of Justice (DOJ) issued new guidance regarding gender bias in cases of sexual assault and domestic violence. Eliminating gender bias is central to increasing reporting rates, holding more offenders accountable, and preventing additional crimes. The DOJ guidance explicitly states that an initial response of disbelief may come from faulty perceptions about the nature of sexual assault or domestic violence, or because the investigation focuses exclusively on the victim’s behaviors and responses, rather than the facts of the case and the suspect’s behaviors. A supportive, respectful response to victim disclosures can help to counteract gender bias, whether explicit or implicit.

For more information, please see our Training Bulletins on Gender Bias in Sexual Assault Response and Investigation and Start by Believing to Improve Responses to Sexual Assault and Prevent Gender Bias.

How should law enforcement respond to claims of bias?

It is not sufficient to simply claim that someone is biased because they participated in a Start by Believing campaign. Can the claim be supported with any actual evidence of concrete steps that were taken – or not taken – as a result? Were there specific leads that an officer failed to pursue? Was a potential witness not interviewed? Was an evidence sample not collected? Was a particular piece of information or evidence ignored by the investigator, or withheld from the defense by a prosecutor? The response to any such claim of bias will involve demonstrating that the investigation or prosecution was conducted following best practices. Police and prosecutors should stand their ground, explaining the procedures followed during the investigation and prosecution, and showing how these reflect their professional obligations and ethics.

For a thorough discussion of this topic and concrete guidance on how to respond to this type of challenge, see our Training Bulletin Start by Believing to Improve Responses to Sexual Assault and Prevent Gender Bias.

Have there been attacks on Start by Believing?

Yes, unfortunately some groups have sent confrontational letters to police departments, prosecutor’s offices, and college campuses for enacting victim-centered and trauma-informed responses to sexual assault, including Start by Believing. These attacks are based on a number of false claims and false representations. EVAWI has issued a detailed response to these false claims, to help agencies receiving such a letter prepare a response and avoid wasting time on this threatening tactic. We also offer a brief history of the Start by Believing campaign, within the context of other victim-centered, trauma-informed approaches.