There’s a really fantastic documentary that I saw a couple years ago called The line, it was by a woman named Nancy Schwartzman and it was about her journey to confront someone who had raped her. Her experience fell into a grey area that is actually really, really common for most sexual assault cases. The lines of consent were unclear and as a result, something horrible and painful happened to her. At the same time, as you learn in the documentary, the person who assaulted her seemed to have no idea that he had done something wrong. He didn’t acknowledge that there was no consent and this created an even more uncomfortable and confusing experience, for her, in her effort to seek closure. Her documentary raises a lot of questions about dealing with sexual assault cases and the experience of being a victim. It highlights the most common problems faced in assault cases.
- Victims are always in pain, no matter how their view of an experience compares to the view of the person who hurt them.
- People accused of sexual assault often think of themselves as innocent and often don’t know they caused harm or won’t confess to it.
These two problems seem to conflict. Here in the united states, we live by a concept that is written into our laws: Innocent until proven guilty. This was never intended to speak to the reality of innocence, so much as it was intended to protect the innocent from the risk of false accusation. But, it is also based on a very real problem with humanity: We like to blame people for horrible things when horrible things happen and when we do that, we are often vindictive about it. This law was designed to help prevent vindictive actions through unjust trials and mob reactions to accusations. In case people haven’t caught on, I’m actually trying to address the very complicated issues surrounding the sexual harassment incidents that have been talked about within the skeptic and atheist community. This is actually a very difficult task, because I actually think most people are looking at it in the wrong way and I think there are very few, if any, people who have malicious intentions when they talk about it.
Quick note: I’m using cis-normative terms, from here on, because every case that I know of, within this community, involved a male hurting a female. If there are others, please feel free to let me know. If you have suggestions for avoiding the gendered language in regards to any of these incidents, your input is also welcome.
I have the unique experience of being a peer counselor and advocate for victims and I also have gotten to study the law and why the law is presented as it is. I have also studied social issues related to law, crime and ethics. This kind of education has given me the ability to look at people who have been victimized and have the ability to help them while also minimizing the risk of doing any injustices to others. I don’t want to highlight any of the specific incidents that have been talked about publicly, because I don’t feel that is my place and I don’t want to cause more suffering for anyone. However, I do think that people need to do a bit of a thought experiment. So, just imagine that there is a case where a woman has been with a man and when she leaves their interaction these two things are true:
- She has been raped.
- He is satisfied after having sex.
This is the really hard reality of a large portion of rape cases. It is the kind of thing that makes people like me want to thump rules of consent into the brains of pretty much everyone I ever encounter and it is the thing that makes me hate the way the world reacts to trauma. It confuses the victims. It confuses the public. It is what allows countless rapists to go free and it ruins the lives of countless victims. It also confuses the accuser, has the potential to ruin their life and forces them into public scrutiny that they didn’t expect (or, even more upsetting, it glorifies them). For the accused, they often can’t see the pain of the victim because they are often preoccupied with whatever is going on with them and no matter if they are or are not guilty, they almost never think of themselves as guilty.
That isn’t to say that we should take sides with the accused, nor is it to say that they are excused of any wrong doing. But, some understanding that there is absolutely no way that a public trial can be objective, that the accused may not be aware of how they did wrong and that the accused is at risk of losing more than even the victim intended, putting them on trial by public opinion is certainly not justified. Meanwhile, there is a set of people who have been absolutely horrifying in how they have approached the victims, too, if not even more so. These people really are hurting. There is no reason to accuse them of lying. There is no reason to publicly hang them, either. They need empathy, they need help and understanding. They need us to listen. Because no matter what your uninformed opinion is of what happened to them, they’re still hurt.
As we turn these discussions over in our heads, there is no side of it that is not sticky and messy. I have spent days trying to figure out the best way not to publicly hang people who I can’t prove are either guilty or innocent while still supporting the people who are suffering the most. Like many of you, I have friends on either side of this debate, and it hurts. The fracturing of the community, right now, is not without reason. I’m not the only one who is facing this problem.
As with any public revelation about sexual abuse, many of the same misunderstandings have come up. The same accusations that we’ve seen tossed out in the midst of the Catholic scandals and other famous sexual abuse scandals have come out, this time. Added to the pain of seeing fellow community members suffering as well as the pain of seeing the in-fighting, we also have to experience the pain of learning that our own community is not immune to the same kinds of flaws that harm other communities. I’m going to address some of those bad arguments, now.
- There is a common argument that people who accuse others of sexual assault are somehow crazy, damaged or otherwise worthy of dismissal. A few people have even implied that the group of people online who have been discussing things like sexual assault are, themselves, somehow victims and that because they were once victims, they must see rape EVERYWHERE. There are no facts to back up that kind of claim and the claim is used to minimize the need to examine a person’s experience, much less examining that experience within the context of a greater social construct. But, it also creates a kind of bizarre paradox. If all of those who talk about sexual harassment and rape are doing so because they’ve all been raped and, as has been described in some places as being an experience that leads to them accusing everyone of rape, wouldn’t that imply that anyone who was raped had previously been raped? Not only is the argument not backed by science, it makes no sense. It’s turtles all the way down. It is also an argument that distracts us from larger issues, such as the fact that there are people who are suffering because they were violated.
- Accusations of needing restraint may seem useful, but are really useless after the fact. Most people will agree that there is no context in which rape is acceptable. However, that doesn’t seem to keep people from commenting on the influence of alcohol when someone has been raped. When someone reports a rape, it doesn’t matter if she was drunk. Talking about how she might have gotten that way or even offering suggestions about drinking is likely to do more harm than good. Coming from a background of well-meaning, protect-your-sexual-parts education, I know that most people who offer this kind of advice are not trying to actually do harm. But, I think it is important that they know that it does hurt, because the harm is already done and they can’t walk back through time and utilize your helpful advice. As a result, the advice that you think is being helpful ends up just making them feel worse because it implies they didn’t do the right thing and that not doing the right thing played some role in them getting raped.
- People need to stop throwing tantrums when people within the community take breaks because of this. People are in pain and it is 100% reasonable to step away from something that hurts.
- While talking about this, we need to avoid becoming a justice mob. I know, it is absolutely tempting to take the people that we have heard about harming others and have them quartered and drawn in the public square. I have felt similar urges with pretty much every rape case I have ever counseled. I think most peer counselors, counselors and advocates have felt the same. I wish that I could banish people who do harm to places where they can no longer, ever do any harm again. But, I don’t have that kind of power, and I acknowledge that is probably a good thing. I’m not omnipotent. I am not capable of making the best decisions for everyone’s well being, all of the time. I can’t have all of the facts, when I am trying to help people. Neither can any of you. It is painful to know that because of this, horrible people might walk free, and horrible people may end up having decent lives. In order to have the safest community as possible, it is important to encourage investigations, but to also understand that most people don’t get to be the jury, judge and executioner.
- With that being said, there’s also a need to accept that people are going to react strongly. No matter where you stand, there’s a sense of betrayal by those who you trusted as members of your community and if that betrayal leads to people you care about having an opposing view, it is likely to make it hurt even worse. That is when it might be important to accept this divide. For many people, seeing the damage done by sexual assault happen within your community is, itself, likely to lead to thoughts about horrible things that might have happened to them. For others, they might see some very real fears coming to life. Then, there are going to simply be those who have a strong opinion based only on what they’ve supported before. Extreme emotions are OK, but it is how you react to those emotions that is going to matter the most.
- Don’t blame the discussion on sexual harassment for these sexual assaults. That makes no sense. Just talking about how to deal with the problem of sexual assault is not likely to retroactively have caused a sexual assault to have happened in the past. As far as we know, spacetime doesn’t work that way.
- Don’t treat every report of sexual assault as being the same. Right now, there are multiple people coming out with stories and every single story is different. There’s no greater agenda or conspiracy to come out with them. To assume as much without evidence is really absurd.
Those are my thoughts, for now. I tried to be as careful as I can be to not call out individual people and to try to address things in general terms. I have no interest in humiliating any victims or in putting anyone in a position where they might be vulnerable simply because of something I wrote.