In the midst of the #MeToo movement, there have been countless stories of people sharing their experiences with sexual violence. One of the hardest parts of hearing story after story is realizing the person accused is a friend, loved one, or just an acquaintance. In other words, it is difficult to grapple with the fact someone you thought you knew could commit such a crime.
When this happens, it is interesting to watch how people react. It is encouraging to see some believe survivors, and on the other end, disheartening to see others side with the accused and claim their friendship as justification. We shouldn’t believe survivors on a case by case basis even if we know the perpetrator—and it is likely we will.
A large, and dangerous misconception, is that rapists are monsters hiding in dark alleys. In reality, 7 out of 10 rapes are committed by someone known to the victim. As such, we need to come to terms with the fact that perpetrators will often be people we love and care about. It is easy to hate an image of a faceless monster hurting someone in a dark alley. It gets harder for people to hate a friend, a brother, an aunt, their own child, or a neighbor, and the list could go on. While potentially difficult, it is crucial to acknowledge perpetrators outside of their crime, if we fail to do so, we are only hiding behind our own denial and allowing them to escape accountability.
It can be a painful reality to learn that someone you knew could act or even think in such ways so, sometimes denial is just the easier way out. The first step should be believing survivors, regardless of personal feelings. We need to listen and learn what accountability and justice looks like for them. Accountability and justice don’t solely have to happen within the confines of the formal legal system. Survivors who do not report their assaults are just as valid in their experiences as those who do. Folks decide not to report for many reasons, in fact the majority don’t. Some fear being shamed and invalidated and have lost faith in the criminal justice system, especially those from communities that face large amounts of police brutality. When we hold our communities accountable, we help create space for survivors to seek justice in the ways they want and heal in whatever ways they need.
The language used in conversations surrounding sexual violence can often further enforce the reasons survivors stay silent. For example, survivors are often described as being an “alleged victim”, or they “claimed to be assaulted”. Using these phrases invalidate survivors and their stories. Journalists’ jobs are to be factual and unbiased in their work, but time and time again, we see further perpetuation of rape culture by telling us, through linguistic choices, to not believe survivors. However, research shows that false allegations of sexual assault to law enforcement are between 2-10%. Even with that low number, it has been found that law enforcement often mischaracterizes unfound claims as false claims, making the actual number of false reports much lower. If we can start holding people accountable on an individual level and believing survivors, then we can start to dismantle rape culture.
Brock Turner’s case illustrated how media coverage targets survivors and how easy it is for family and friends to live in denial. News articles failed to immediately identify him as someone who had committed sexual assault. Instead, headlines focused on his accomplishments by describing him as “All-American Swimmer”. (I want to point out there are also glaring racial differences between how news outlets cover assault cases when they involve people of color. Just take a look at the differences of photos and words that are used to describe the perpetrator—and this is only one of countless examples.) Turner’s family and community conflated achievement with being a “good kid” and continued to deny his guilt. This is not to take away from the pain his family was feeling, but rather to recognize the power of denial and the damage it has on survivors.
It is complicated to navigate how to support survivors and process the fact someone you knew was accused. Our culture tells us that predators are only strangers lurking in the dark and our institutions tell survivors to stay quiet. So when the assailant turns out to be a friend or loved one, people stop listening. We must find a way to hold our friends and loved ones accountable for their actions in order to create space for our institutions to change and for survivors to be heard, believed, and validated.