[Note:  I have published an addendum to this post.  You can read it here.]

One of the things I often tell people when I’m talking about believing survivors is that all experience is valid; that you don’t have to experience something as harmful for someone else’s experience of harm to be ‘true’.  This is a variation on impact vs. intent; just because you didn’t intend to hurt someone doesn’t mean they weren’t hurt.   And just because you didn’t experience a comment or action as harmful (or don’t imagine you would) doesn’t mean that someone else didn’t have a different experience.

This is especially relevant when someone honors you by trusting you with their story of surviving emotional or sexual violence, and you also know, and even like, the perpetrator.  That’s a more common experience than we like to believe; if you think about it, the statistic that tells us the majority of assaults against women, girls, and queer folk (and even cisgender, heterosexual men, though the margin is smaller) is at the hands of a known assailant – that implies that if someone tells you their story of assault, you’re relatively likely to also know the person who did it, social circles being what they are.  I think it’s fair to say that most of us would prefer to believe in a world of heroes and villains, where the heroes are our people – our family and friends — and the villains are out there somewhere, lurking in dark alleys and abandoned parking garages.  That’s one of the reasons we tend to focus on ‘stranger danger’ despite knowing that it’s statistically unlikely.

That message been my part of my spiel for quite some time – hopefully a more succinct version, but knowing me, probably not.  It was put to the test when a good friend of mine was accused of sexual misconduct by a mutual acquaintance.  Specifically, they had a sexual relationship when she was 17 and he was in his late 20s.  It was experienced as consensual by both at the time it happened, but as time went on, she came to understand things differently.

Hypothetical situations tend to be ‘neater’ than actual reality.  In the abstract, I place the behavior of the older man in a grey area – I know several people who have had relationships when they were in their late teens and their partners at the time were people in their late 20s or even older, and some of those once-teenagers still describe it as a positive experience.  So the behavior is not always harmful.  (For what it’s worth, Dan Savage agrees with me).

Further complicating factors are that I know him (the perpetrator) better than I knew her (the survivor).  I use the past tense only because I am no longer in touch with her; I wish her well, but we were only acquaintances and are not currently in touch.  When she came forward with her allegation, he readily admitted it.  There was never any doubt about whether she was telling the truth.  Whether he harmed her, though – that could, hypothetically, be up for debate.

Hypothetically, and if I were to disregard her assertion that she was harmed.  I have no reason to doubt her, and so I don’t.  The very act of coming forward, having no idea whether she would be believed, is proof enough for me that she has come to understand it as something that harmed her, even though she didn’t think so at the time.  And though I believe that his intent was at worst neutral, and likely positive, he knew how old she was, and he had a responsibility to not harm her.

So I’m left with the uncomfortable knowledge that my friend harmed someone I knew.  What do I do with this knowledge?  Can I hold it, while also holding the knowledge of the good things he’s done?  If he is a villain, he is also a hero – the guy’s a former Marine; he donated a kidney to a friend of his.  Can he be both?  No, but he can be neither.

This experience has reminded me a lot of #MeToo.  Through that movement,  the world learned what far too many women already knew – that there’s a lot of sexual misconduct out there, and it does real harm.   As many did, I’ve asked myself whether I could still enjoy the art made by people who I now know are deeply flawed.

When you get new information about someone you thought you knew, you have several options.  You can decide that they are not who you thought they were; that they are not someone you care to have in your life anymore.  You can reject the person.  Alternatively, you can decide that the information is somehow wrong or incorrect.  You can reject the information.

There is a third option, though, and it’s this third option that I try to embrace as much as possible:  you can accept both the information and the person.  You can accept that the person you think you know has made mistakes, has screwed up, has harmed someone.   You can live with this painful knowledge.  And you can decide not to define that person by their worst actions, nor their best actions.

This isn’t to say that we don’t hold our friends and loved ones accountable for their behavior.  We absolutely should.  But the point of holding someone accountable is to allow them to own their mistakes, to use the experience as a catalyst for growth.  My friend knows that I think he messed up.  From everything I can tell, he completely gets why his actions were reckless and ultimately cruel.   I’m convinced that it’s not something he would ever do again – that he has, in fact, grown from this experience.

When we ostracize someone who has caused harm, we give up the ability to have any influence over them.  If we instead remain connected to them, then there is the opportunity to support them as they grow.  It isn’t comfortable.  It’s hard not to feel complicit, especially if they are defiant or defensive, but even if they’re contrite, as my friend has been.

I still wrestle with this.  I want to forget that this ever happened, or re-write it in my head somehow to make him the hero of this story.  On the other hand, I consider myself a feminist.  I work in violence prevention.  Supporting survivors is incredibly important to me. From that perspective, I still sometimes feel guilty for not repudiating my friend as a villain.

Most of all, I don’t want to have to live with this complicated reality – I mean, I didn’t do anything wrong, so why should I have to pay?  Why do I have to feel uncomfortable when I think about the way she was harmed, or feel guilty for choosing to remain his friend?  I think, though, that this is a price we pay for living with integrity.  For, as Brene Brown says, choosing courage over comfort.  It’s a lot more comfortable to believe in heroes and villains.  But if I did that, I would either end up alone—having rejected from my life anyone who has ever caused another person harm—or  I would have to choose not to believe survivors.  Neither is ok with me.

[Note:  I have published an addendum to this post.  You can read it here.]

Ours is Not a World of Heroes and Villains

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