Editor’s Note: This article discusses sexual assault and societal repercussions around reporting.
I first met L* as part of a women’s Facebook group in the city I live in.
Most of the discussions there involve tips on where to find a good stylist or breakfast spot, apartment hunting and the occasional gripe about the dire dating scene. Until one night a woman began a thread about a man who is a fixture in the local music scene. L had written an account detailing this man’s manipulation, coercion, and sexual abuse of her – she had posted a blog and was asking people to read it and to come forward with their own stories. This man’s pursuit of L—and their subsequent relationship—had happened several years before, beginning when she was 16 and he was 37.
[bctt tweet=”She feared the blowback that might be generated by her assailant’s social capital.” username=”wearethetempest”]
“One of my friends told me a few weeks ago that they’d heard him bragging about this stuff—what he does to women—and I just couldn’t take it anymore.” L had stayed silent because, like so many survivors, she carried a tremendous amount of guilt and shame surrounding her abuse. Reliving the experience through recounting it was traumatic for her, and she feared the blowback that might be generated by her assailant’s enormous social capital.
L’s fears about coming forward weren’t unfounded.
Though all she wanted to do was tell her story in what was supposed to be a safe space specifically for women, she found resistance and a degree of open animosity (which increased when her assailant’s supporters took to their own Facebook pages with their responses). People were able to anonymously view her story as it unfolded without commenting on it and then relay the information to her assailant. L was aware that several members of the group were probably friends with him. She knew she’d made herself incredibly vulnerable by coming forward, but she wanted support and she wanted to prevent him from continuing to prey on other young women by sharing her story and hoping for some accountability. “I didn’t have a goal, I just wanted to talk about what he had done to me and what I know he’s done to other women – and maybe to have some of the venues that host his events stop hosting them. It really was as small as that when I started writing.”
The thread quickly unraveled as even would-be supporters said incredibly damaging things.
A lot of the commentary began with “If these accusations are true…” or “Why haven’t you reported this to the authorities?” Anyone who has worked with survivors knows that support and advocacy for them doesn’t look like demanding they seek justice from the legal system. Even if it implies you believe their account, we need to understand that the survivor is already experiencing a great deal of stress, both psychological and physical, which affects their ability to undergo a legal ordeal. They already feel terrified and are legitimately traumatized, even if what happened occurred years before. It is important, as an ally, to listen to the survivor in a nonjudgmental way, to help them identify their options for moving forward and to let them know you will support them in whatever they decide to do – never to exhort them to do anything.
This compounds the guilt they already feel by shifting the responsibility from the predator and onto the survivor. It says, “Yes, I believe you, but you’re not responding to this crisis in the way I think is appropriate.” It passes the buck by telling them, “I can’t help you. Go somewhere else.”
Furthermore, the legal response to sexual assault and relational violence compounds the strain placed upon the survivor. It is the victim’s responsibility to prove someone did this to them as much as it is the accused’s responsibility to prove they did nothing wrong. In this way, the victim undergoes a trial along with their assailant. Having already lived through an assault, the process of confronting their abuser while simultaneously being scrutinized and risking a character assassination by the defense (and the community in which they speak out) can seem impossibly daunting.
[bctt tweet=”In this way, the victim undergoes a trial along with their assailant. ” username=”wearethetempest”]
The matter of pressing charges becomes murkier in activist communities like the one L is part of. Seeking the help of a legal system that one has seen time after time to work against the citizens it is supposed to protect, that one has dedicated their life to change, doesn’t seem like a viable option. In these spaces, a community accountability process is frequently relied upon, in which the abuser is “called out” and offered avenues to change their harmful behavior. If not complied with, it results in the assailant’s exile from social spaces in order to give the survivor freedom to move without fear of coming into contact with them.
L didn’t want a legal process. She wanted to be heard and hoped to protect other young women from going through what she had gone through by outing this man as a predator. She frantically attempted to control the responses – thanking people who came forward with support, trying to justify to others why she hadn’t come forward before and why she wasn’t going to the authorities now.
[bctt tweet=”The thread quickly unraveled as even would-be supporters said damaging things.” username=”wearethetempest”]
L shared with me the emails she’d received to the account she’d established for collecting stories of survivorship and messages of support. Among the positive responses and shared pain were several vitriolic missives advising her to take down the blog. The other survivors’ stories echoed L’s; while all of them were of the age of consent, they were also under legal drinking age: “He wouldn’t leave me alone,” “He just kept asking me out,” “I was scared, but it was flattering that this really cool, older guy was interested in me,” “He plied me with alcohol,” “I blacked out for our first encounter,” “I remember looking in the bathroom mirror trying to get myself together – I don’t remember what happened after that, but when I woke up, I knew we’d had sex.”
What was particularly astonishing was the number of her assailant’s friends who wrote in affirming what she said. Many offered unequivocal support; they believed her, they supported her, they said his ‘dating practices’ had always disturbed them. Even among those who supported her predator, none accused her of outright lying.
[bctt tweet=”Not a single person said these behaviors sounded uncharacteristic or manufactured.” username=”wearethetempest”]
Not a single person said that these behaviors sounded uncharacteristic or manufactured. Instead, they accused her of having regrettable sex, blamed her for not enjoying herself. The general tone was, “Yeah, this sounds like something he would do, but what’s the big deal?” They wanted her to think of how she was making him “look bad,” called it a “witch hunt.” They towed a line of “There are no guilty parties because there was no crime.” But they also wanted her, and the other women who were coming forward, to stop talking about it.
One telling post on Facebook asked when it becomes appropriate to “defame” someone through social media and had anything been done to address this situation in a “quieter” fashion before?
The answers are several.
For one thing, the accusations have to be untrue for them to be defamation. But no one denied, not even her assailant, that these acts sounded outside the realm of possibility. Furthermore, his good reputation and popularity had long facilitated the abuse and enabled him to continue operating. L’s course of action was appropriate because all she wanted was to talk about what he’d done. She’d already self-isolated and stopped participating in the music scene – in the past several years, she’s kept herself to a small, close circle of friends and their homes, her movements restricted by the fear of seeing her assailant.
It becomes appropriate to publicly talk about what someone has done when it is time to hold them to account, when the victims have had enough of being intimidated into silence and inability to share their truth, of not feeling safe in their community and living in shame. To answer the other part of the question, yes, he had been part of at least one other accountability process in the past. Moreover, it seems to me that these are decidedly inappropriate questions to ask.
These are questions we should be asking:
Why is the focus on tone-policing (in this case I’d maybe call it venue-policing) towards the survivors? Why is it more important to fixate on what they’re saying, and where they’re saying it, rather than on the actions of someone who hurt them? Why was the solution proffered for these women to silence themselves, or be silenced? Why was it their fault that he “look[ed] bad” because they were publicly talking about it, rather than his fault because he did awful things?
L received a Cease and Desist notification from her assailant’s attorney.
Because she did not have the financial or emotional resources to deal with a legal battle, she handed care of the blog over to friends. They moved the blog and made note that she was no longer involved with the process, but shortly afterward, the blog was removed by the host site. When I spoke to L last she said, “I just wanted to say what I needed to say and get it over with, I want to move on with my life – but now [it’s been off the internet] for two weeks. Everyone’s going to forget and he’s just going to do this again.”
[bctt tweet=”Why is the focus on tone-policing towards the survivors? ” username=”wearethetempest”]
It’s a failure of our justice system that it is so difficult for survivors to come forward and to get the justice they so sorely deserve (according to RAINN up to 68% of attacks go unreported and 98% of rapists don’t serve time). It’s a failure that it’s easier for assailants to get protection from “libel” than it is to protect survivors and potential victims. If it is indeed the only appropriate course of action to report one’s assault, then we need to do a better job as a society of making it easier for survivors to come forward and get justice.
If, because of the obstacles presented by legal proceedings, the accountability process seems optimal for survivors, then the community needs to be ready to respond to the survivors’ needs. However, it seemed no one was willing to confront L’s assailant with the consequences of his actions and the purpose of the accountability process is just that; the community rallies to help the survivor regain their sense of safety so the survivor doesn’t have to fight alone. But nothing, beyond the messages of support she received, was done to censure L’s assailant. His associates, whichever side of the issue they fell on, didn’t help L in the process of calling him out.
[bctt tweet=”No one wants their Saturday night scene to feel different, awkward, to be changed. ” username=”wearethetempest”]
It’s a failure of our culture that, while almost no one would say, “Rape and abuse are okay,” when people are confronted with it as the actions of a friend, they find every excuse to make it go away. It’s a failure of our culture that it’s a knee-jerk reaction to blame the victim – that they made bad decisions, that they took it the wrong way, that they should have gone to the police instead. Why was it more important to these people to perform mental and linguistic gymnastics around what this man had done than to say to him, “What you did and do to women is wrong, and we won’t associate with you until it’s been rectified”? Why is that worse? Why is it harder?
The only thing I could think of is that people really, really would like to not have to be uncomfortable.
They are perhaps prepared to vocalize a zero tolerance policy for relational abuse and sexual assault, but they aren’t prepared to enact it. They aren’t prepared to sacrifice a friendship with someone who would behave so egregiously toward others – they’d rather tell those who’ve been harmed to let it go or go away. While L and other survivors are forced to build their lives around dealing with their trauma and avoiding further trauma caused by seeing their assailants, for the assailants and their friends, it’s business as usual.
No one wants their Saturday night scene to feel different, awkward, to be changed. And that’s where it is. L and the other survivors have been silenced, not even permitted to speak their truth. They fade into the background, the rest of their lives altered and informed by what’s been done to them and the failure of their community to respond.
Yet their assailant continues dominating the dance floor at the same venues and dozens of young women keep flooding in to hear the same old songs.
* L had their name hidden to protect their privacy.