Rethinking Allyship and Responsibility to Sexual Assault Survivors and Perpetrators

Rethinking Allyship and Responsibility to Sexual Assault Survivors and Perpetrators

Writer’s note: This article discusses sexual violence.

During my senior year in college, on a night like any other, a friend and I found ourselves lost in deep discussion of sexual assault statistics and prevention on campus. But unlike on other nights, the conversation was not abstract; we were talking about the recent expulsion of a classmate of ours, and consequences for his fraternity based on repeated sexual assault charges. I attended a small school (under 3,000 undergrad), and I had known both the survivor and the perpetrator since our first year on campus. I was close to people who were close to each of them. I also held an anti-frat position in the ongoing campus debate about the relationship between fraternities and dangerous behaviors such as (but not limited to) sexual violence.

My friend, a fraternity brother himself, leaned back in his chair, looked me in the eye, and with genuine curiosity and concern in his voice, asked, “So what do you do if someone you know is accused?”

I chose my words carefully, because it was the first time I would voice a realization that I’ve struggled with since I recognized it. “It’s hard,” I told him, “but I’ve realized that at some point, someone I love may be accused. And when that time comes, I’ll have to recognize that based on everything I believe and know to be true, that person will be guilty.”

Over the course of my recently ended college experience, I immersed myself in many conversations about sexuality and sexual violence. I worked to learn about sexual violence and rape culture, effective allyship to survivors, and best practices in sexual violence prevention. I learned about and taught enthusiastic consent. I participated in bystander intervention trainings, which teach community members to recognize and diffuse situations before they escalate to the point of threatening life or safety.

But in all of these conversations and workshops about sexual health and sexual violence, though we discussed at length how to care for survivors, we rarely if ever addressed the possibility that a perpetrator might be not only close to the survivor, but close to you. We talked about how to intervene to prevent something terrible from happening; but what if you feel responsible for intervening repeatedly, constantly, to deal with something that has already happened?

In the storm of debate that resurfaced in 2014 around Woody Allen’s history of sexual abuse, Jessica Valenti wrote, “Recognizing the truth about sexual assault […] will mean rethinking institutions and families and power dynamics and the way we interact with each other every day. It will be a lot.” It is a lot, and it’s important. I do not presume to write here some treatise on allyship for those close to perpetrators. I can only share my own process of rethinking, and hope to spark some conversation with the conclusions I’ve reached.

The most important thing, as I told my curious friend, is to recognize the truth. We want to defend and protect the people we love. We want to believe they are wonderful people, and in many ways they are. We certainly want to believe them when they deny accusations. But if someone accuses them, the overwhelming odds indicate that they are guilty. Some of the most powerful words you should say to a survivor are “I believe you,” and you should say them even if the survivor is a stranger and the accused is someone close to you. You have to validate the survivor’s experience – because it is true. There is no getting around this. Your loved one did something terrible. Your loved one hurt someone. You cannot at once claim allyship and deny these truths.

This is the hardest way we learn how false the myths are: By and large, rapists are not monsters waiting in some dark corner to ambush a stranger. The only way to accept the reality of the stats is to accept that our family members, friends, even former sexual or romantic partners who were never coercive or abusive to us, could actually have done this thing – and to move forward from that point of recognition.

Even after accepting these realities, we may feel protective of our loved one – or disgusted and in need of distance – or some combination of these. We may feel something else altogether. That reaction may all depend on what consequences are on the line, or else on the perpetrator’s ability to recognize what they have done. We have no option but to accept and own our reactions, and to work with them. You are not under an obligation to this person, and if you feel you cannot be a part of their life at least in this moment, you need to take care of yourself. This is particularly relevant if you, too, are a survivor.

If you do feel drawn to maintain this relationship – whether to help the perpetrator recognize what they’ve done wrong, or if they already recognize it, to help them heal and learn not to repeat the wrong – you are not a bad person for this either. Your instinct to help may be the best thing in this moment, because our systems are broken.

This is another important thing to recognize: just as police reporting is not the right choice for all survivors, and just as colleges and courts alike fail survivors again and again, our criminal justice system does not serve true justice or healing for either survivors or perpetrators. Going back even further, our sex education, where it exists at all, fails egregiously to educate us about the value and practice of communication and enthusiastic consent. Part of the reason your loved one may not be a monster, and yet still capable of such an awful act, could go back to their severe miseducation about sex.

You cannot singlehandedly fix these systems, nor fully heal the survivors or perpetrators in your life. But if you maintain the relationship, and arguably even if you don’t, you have a responsibility to the perpetrator, the survivor/s, and your community. You can at the very least help someone own their actions. You can validate their understanding of wrongdoing and their need for meaningful help and reeducation about sex. And if you’re up to it, you can help them find resources.

When multiple women shared their stories of being abused by Canadian radio host Jian Ghomeshi last year, composer Owen Pallett wrote a powerful open letter owning that he believed and knew his friend to be guilty. This blatant ownership of the truth was shocking to many, not least because we do not expect those close to accused perpetrators to say they believe the charges. But why? If we believe that strangers are capable of these acts, then – as I once told a friend who dreaded the choice between allyship and loyalty – we must believe our nearest and dearest are capable of them too. And if we are true, committed allies to survivors, we must be prepared to accept that truth even of those we love. What we do next – whether we use our unique position of love and trust to thoughtfully intervene – is up to us.

Cover image courtesy of Shutterstock.