You should hold your friends accountable for sexual misconduct

It’s not too hard to make a moral judgment when a celebrity or politician is accused of sexual misconduct. The allegations are always upsetting, but, at this point, they’re not too surprising. We know how to respond immediately: by believing the accusers and condemning the actions of the accused. We support survivors, and call for consequences that will discourage the offender — and others — from committing the same inexcusable acts.

But what about when the person who stands accused is your friend? As much as it disappoints us when famous people we admire are accused of sexual misconduct, it’s even more painful and difficult to navigate when the offender is someone you care about.

The pervasiveness of sexual violence means that you very likely know someone who has been a perpetrator, just as the #MeToo movement proved you know many survivors. It’s important to really internalize that abusers are people from all backgrounds. They’re parents, neighbors, coworkers, family members, and friends. They’re “great dad[s].” They’re people who have “filled [your] world with love.”  They’re people you’d describe as a “good guy” or “wonderful person.” And, at the same time, they’ve hurt someone, and they have to be held accountable for that.

So what can you do?

1Believe survivors.

Even though we all know abuse is rampant, it’s still incredibly hard to believe that someone you trusted could do something so awful. When you hear the allegations against your friend, your natural responses will probably include shock and disbelief. Wait for those feelings to subside before you publicly react. Remember that false reports of sexual misconduct are very rare, and victim-blaming can silence others from coming forward. For these reasons and more, when someone speaks out about their abuse, it’s important to believe them.

2Remember it’s the person you are supporting, not their behaviors.

Extreme offenders aside, most people don’t want to be abusive. If you’re choosing to stick by your friend,  you obviously believe they possess the capacity to change for the better. Your goal is not to shield your friend from criticism or validate their excuses. Instead, create a safe, supportive space for them to move past defensiveness into honest self-reflection and, eventually, growth and healing. Affirm that they are loved despite their mistakes. Then help them identify their abusive behaviors, accept the consequences, and make a concrete plan to change.

3Don’t play detective.

Trying to determine whose version of the story is the objective “truth” isn’t a productive avenue toward healing and change. Really try to hear the survivor(s) out without making excuses or nitpicking over details. You’re not in this to determine who’s “good” and who’s “bad” — leave that to superhero movies and fairy tales. Anytime someone feels that their boundaries were violated, regardless of whether their claims are provable in a court of law, everyone involved should hold themselves accountable for their failures of communication and respect. All offending parties should commit to ensuring that it never happens again.

4Set boundaries or step away if and when you need to.

The accountability process requires a gargantuan store of empathy, patience, and strength. At times, it will make you feel angry, guilty, impotent, and confused. As you’re taking care of your friend, be sure to take care of yourself, too. Do whatever you need to do to ensure that you remain emotionally stable and healthy. If you need to, walk away from the process.

This guide is only a jumping off point, not a replacement for the consultation of trained support specialists. For survivors of sexual violence who are struggling, we recommend seeking confidential, free services from a sexual assault services agency or rape crisis center. Friends who are helping perpetrators through an accountability process can reach out to a trained support specialist anytime by calling 1-800-656-4673 or visiting RAINN’s online chat (available in English and Spanish).

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