Holding Abusers Accountable Is Hard. It’s Also Necessary. Here’s How to Start.
With Chanel Miller coming out about being raped by Brock Turner, Aaron Carter coming out as a survivor, the Kavanaugh hearings, #MeToo, Bill Cosby’s conviction, cops being called out for sending sexual abuse victims lewd messages, and on, and on, and on… there’s been an overwhelming amount of talk about consent, particularly sexual consent, over the last couple of years. More often than not, the people accused of rape and abuse end up seeing little or no consequences, so every success, however minor, feels huge. There’s a lot of calls to action, protests, people speaking up online and in their communities about flushing out rapists and having some actual consequences. Which is great! Sorely needed, and long overdue.
However, while it’s easy to weigh in when it comes to situations on a national scale, all of these same issues have existed in our social circles, and many of us don’t really know how best to handle them. Do we banish people? Do we attack them? Do we report them to the police? Do we share our stories amongst ourselves?
Any of these responses can be useful, or could make the trauma worse. Unfortunately, there’s no one-size-fits-all for dealing with abusers in our community. But there are some things we can keep in mind when engaging with all this information to help guide us on how best to handle things in our own lives. None of the information I’m offering here is a fix — it’s also not the best or only way, just the way I’ve learned to work with people in my activism as the editor of the anthology “Ask: Building Consent Culture”.
Anyone Can Be An Abuser
One thing I hear a lot of is “but they seemed so nice!” Often abusers do seem really nice. Some even go out of their way to seem like a good ally to marginalized people. They also surround themselves with people who believe wholeheartedly in their “niceness”, as a way to camouflage themselves. They can then use these people to support them and harass the survivor speaking up into silence. Many times these people have repeatedly done the shitty behavior, and they get away with it because so many people are willing to defend them as being “a good person”.
Whenever I do a workshop on consent culture, I like to ask who has ever violated someone’s consent. Often people are very hesitant to raise their hands, because we like to think of ourselves as good people who would never cross a boundary. I strongly believe, however, that being in a white supremacist, capitalist patriarchy means that we are consciously and subconsciously crossing each other’s boundaries all the time, not necessarily with bad intentions, but because we’re taught that assertively pushing for what we want is ok, praised, even. If we accept that anyone is capable of abusive behavior, we can be better situated to not only be less defensive when a friend is held accountable, but also when we ourselves need to be held accountable.
What Does Restorative Justice Look Like?
The prison industrial complex often fails rape victims (see Brock Turner, though he’s not the only example in recent years) and focuses more on accountability through punishment rather than reformation. In fact, it actively works against taking ownership for behavior, as that would be an admission of guilt. Therefore, many activists and survivors have turned to community-driven alternatives like restorative justice, wherein the focus is on creating a container for tough love and growth instead of isolation. Groups like the Bay Area Transformative Justice Collective are pulling together resources to try and consolidate work on making a template for this process. The hope is that community engagement will help the survivor not feel alone while also creating an expectation that the abuser will reflect, create an action plan for accountability, and be held to not doing it again. Since many rapists are repeat offenders, the hope is that this will transparently warn the community of their behavior as well as demand that behavior changes. Additionally, rapists who feel remorse tend to be less likely to assault again, while those who blame the victim are more likely to reoffend — restorative justice can be a way for the survivor to affirm their personhood to their abuser, helping them heal.
That said, restorative justice has also been under a lot of fire recently. There aren’t many public examples of how a community can create this process for themselves, so a lot can go wrong, especially when it comes to community follow through. Social capital can warp a restorative justice process and make it more damaging to the survivor than it is healing. Many times the survivor doesn’t want to participate in the process due to trauma, which is understandable, and they may feel anger at restorative justice being the path chosen, as some see it as “cheap justice” instead of a real punishment. In my experience, how much of an impact restorative justice can have depends a lot on the situation, the community involved, and if that community does walk the walk when it comes to being accountable to each other. If the community isn’t interesting in holding an abuser to their plan of action and rehabilitation, then the whole thing falls apart.
Center the Survivor’s Needs
If someone comes to you and discloses that they’re the survivor of abuse, it can be really intense. It’s important to remember that you’re not a trained professional! You can ask what you can do to help them feel safe right now, and you can refer them to resources with professionals more capable of offering specialized help. It isn’t your responsibility to figure out guilt. Believe the survivor’s experience. Statistically, it’s more likely that their consent was violated than that the survivor is making a false accusation.
But maybe the person coming to you says it’s a friend of yours who caused them harm. What then? It’s useful to remember that part of being in a community is helping each other, and part of helping each other includes mutual accountability. You might be asked to be part of a mediation process, helping to hold your friend to an agreed on plan of action to prevent that harm being done again. Most importantly, don’t discuss what the survivor tells you with your friend unless they specifically consent. Respect their agency.
How To Help Someone Reflect and Grow
I’ve found that the best way to help someone else reflect and grow is to model the behavior I want to see from them. Be pensive instead of defensive, center the survivor instead of your own feelings, and recognize that being called out is a signal of trust that you will work on your behavior. It’s a work in progress, of course, but it’s valuable to remember that our relationship to and understanding of consent is a living thing.
That said, when people around you say something reflective of rape culture or misogyny — push back against it. I’ve found that when my friends tell a joke that leans on punching down at more marginalized people, asking them why the joke is funny often gets them reflecting on the stereotypes involved. This is especially vital when you’re in community with someone accused of rape or abuse, because it demonstrates that these attitudes aren’t going to be brushed under the rug, no matter how innocuous the person with the attitude is claiming to be.
Also… suggest sober hang outs. Studies have suggested that if men are drunk or high, they don’t tend to view sexual assault as such (men were specifically used for this study, but it is not absurd to believe this would be true across the board--men are not the only ones who rape, after all). They also often use being intoxicated as an excuse for their entitled behavior. One of the most supportive things you can do is not give them the opportunity to use that excuse. Added benefit? It’ll give your sober friends more things to do, as many social activities revolve around alcohol… and don’t need to.
Holding People Accountable VS Emotional Labor
All of this, of course, is a lot of work. No one said community was easy! While it’s vital to hold your friends and yourself accountable (and to see that as a form of self care) it’s also important to give yourself some space to see where you’re at. How are you feeling? Are you eating enough, drinking enough water, remembering to take your meds?
Sometimes doing this sort of work can feel never ending, and a lot of people burn out, thus not only feeling terrible but also leaving the community at large one person short for helping build something better. Taking care of yourself is important for you to help take care of others. Be honest with yourself, though — avoidance isn’t self care, after all.
Sometimes, It’s Not Enough
You might do everything in your power to hold your friend accountable for their actions past and present, and they don’t take the steps to learn and grow. It’s unfortunate when that happens, but it’s also not uncommon. You may find yourself reconsidering if this person is someone you want to continue to be close to — being close to them can imply to outside observers that you condone their behavior, and you may feel unable to give them any more of your energy.
It’s worth remembering that sometimes the friends of an abuser can provide the best tough love when it comes to getting someone they’re close with to reflect. Still, you can’t make someone change, either. You may need to distance yourself if you feel like your attempts to help this person take ownership aren’t going anywhere, and that’s ok. They may not be ready to change. But hopefully, with this guide, you’ve been able to change and grow yourself.