We all have work to do

Wednesday, March 6, 2019

As I have gotten older, I have slowly realized that many people I once idolized were imperfect, flawed people. This knowledge required that I sometimes let go of these idols and let them be flawed while still taking some of their lessons and inspirations. By becoming my own person with my own imperfections, I saw how complex people were.

"It seems almost inevitable that someone I once admired has sexual assault allegations against them."

Through the same process, I began to explore what was a flaw. Should I swear off a person because they did this thing? Is it a quirk or personality difference? Does it matter? All of these questions are relevant to how I perceive and interact with people. As people, we are constantly making judgements about ourselves and others in order to make our way through the world. Finding out people’s flaws and accepting or rejecting those issues is part of life.

It seems almost inevitable that someone I once admired has sexual assault allegations against them.

Every day, it appears that new allegations come out against someone. The issue of sexual assault is so pervasive and widespread that it permeates every industry and group. We as a society and individuals are constantly reevaluating people based on the information that comes out. Then the process and questions of holding them accountable begin.

People can seem very resistant to reevaluation. They don’t want someone they idolize or interact with to have faults, especially serious ones. Therefore, they reject the accountability in some way. They say that the accusations are false, an attack on the allegations that is unfounded, given that only 2 to 10 percent of allegations are false. People throw in victim-blaming, bystander-blaming and every possible excuse they can think of to preserve the person accused.

Assume that we know for sure that someone committed sexual assault. Perhaps they admitted on video or on a radio show. Perhaps there are multiple accusers with similar stories or witnesses to back up those stories. The legitimacy of the allegations is not in debate. Society and individuals must then decide whether or not to hold that person accountable.

The first thing people do is center the narrative. Who is the focus? Some people like to talk about the effects on the perpetrator. Their lives will be ruined because of one mistake, or they didn’t know any better, or the assault happened so long ago and they are now changed. However, this centering of the perpetrator as the main concern ignores the very real harm done to the survivor and to society as a whole.

The second place people go is to focus on the effect accountability will have on their own lives. When I was 16, a favorite singer of mine was accused of rape. I can’t listen to her music now, and I couldn’t wear her merchandise. Following her on social media felt like I was approving of her actions. The accusations surrounded everything related to her. To someone who felt connected to the music and message she sent, this was hurtful and disappointing.

People don’t want to give up the things they enjoy when they are not directly harmed by a person. People engage several arguments. They say that they can separate the art from the artist, even though they understand that paying for their products will continue to support the artist monetarily. Many reject the idea of their own responsibility, arguing that the only harm done is the assault itself. The individuals outside of that original interaction cannot be responsible for it. However, this again ignores the harm done to the survivor.

A graphic that reads "Above all else, believe.

So, we come to the third place. What would the process be if we were to center the survivor in this conversation? Then the harm done is central to the conversation. To continue to support someone when I know they have committed sexual assault is to tell the survivor that their experience does not matter and their trauma is irrelevant. It also discourages other survivors from coming forward, as they do not see themselves being welcomed.

One incident of sexual assault can have lifelong implications for the survivor. They could be irreparably changed by that event, even when the perpetrator moves on. Understanding that trauma does not end is necessary. When the survivor is centered, building a relationship with them is often important. The relationship already exists with the perpetrator; it is simply damaged. By keeping the focus on the survivor, we can see their humanity and trauma and understand what it will take for them to possibly move forward.

People don’t want to do this. It is not enjoyable to throw out t-shirts or change perspectives because someone has done something terrible that you have no control over. So people want to know what it means to hold someone accountable. If a YouTuber I like has sexually assaulted someone, what are my obligations? Do I have any? Again, remember the harm caused.

For many people, the betrayal and horror they feel when the allegations come out is so great that they instantly stop watching the YouTube videos and cut the influencer from their life. For others, that is difficult. After all, that person might have helped them through a difficult time or given them joy. This means we must consider impact. If we monetarily or culturally support this person after they have sexually assaulted someone, we are upholding their power, which could put more people in danger. We are sending the message to the survivor that their difficulty coming forward was not worth a change in our behavior. We are accepting this person knowing they have committed serious harm.

But what does it do if we hold people accountable?

If I am not committing assault or directly harming someone, I cannot have a significant effect on the situation. Am I therefore absolved of holding people accountable? As a society, we still hold power over individuals in some fashion. If a survivor accuses a perpetrator, they are relying on society to protect them where it had previously failed. When I refuse to hold someone accountable, I send a message to survivors that I don’t care about their stories. This includes those survivors I know personally, who might now fear that I will not support them if they come forward.

In terms of workplace harassment, continuing to support someone who has sexually assaulted a person could keep the perpetrator in power. If they feel that their position is not in danger when they are accused of sexual assault, they have less of an incentive to not assault people. As a society, we continue to give power and prestige to those who have harmed individuals and harmed us all by making the places they exist in unsafe.

Who are we mad at when these accusations come out? It can feel upsetting that someone is accusing someone we admire of a terrible thing. This is especially true when we have idolized that person to a point that they are more of an image than a person in our minds. I might wish that I never knew about the accusations or that the survivor had never come forward. The accusations make it impossible for me to enjoy something without thinking of what the creator did. However, it is the perpetrator who must take responsibility. If you are mad or disappointed, they and those who enabled them are the people who must take the blame.

A graphic highlighting issues in "Rape Culture"

This is hard for a society to do, as people who commit assault are often embedded in our culture and mindset.

Often how you interact with a perpetrator is determined by how they benefit from that interaction. In the 19th century, author Charles Dickens treated his wife terribly, yet choosing not to perform "A Christmas Carol" will not have an effect on him as he has been dead for more than a century. What is important is to not idolize Dickens, as we now know he was abusive. There is a difference between embracing literary elements of culture and embracing rape culture. Often when someone is still alive when accused, they are far more protected by people who are not holding them accountable.

Everyone must make their own individual choices about what standards they will hold for the people they admire. However, trying to make excuses for those people can have very real consequences.

When allegations come out, don’t ignore them. Keep questioning. Keep searching. Hold the expectation that no one should be assaulted and perpetrators are in the wrong. Don’t be afraid to share your disappointment, anger, etc., when perpetrators are revealed.

We have to move forward as a society in our understanding of sexual assault and accountability. I have work to do. We all do.