Why Are We So Bad at Addressing Sexual Misconduct?
After many years living as a female person, I have faced a number of situations where men behaved inappropriately with me or with someone I know, which for me generally triggered a process where I sought to address the issue and looked for allies and a system of accountability. In all of these situations I can say with great disappointment that I have not experienced a scenario that felt like there was true accountability. There are plenty of people that when you ask them if they believe in providing accountability in the case of sexual misconduct will say with absolute confidence “yes!” But when it comes time to put that theory into action, few people actually understand and practice true accountability. So many people say “I want to stay out of this” or “this isn’t my issue” or question the validity of the story you are telling them because it means believing someone close to them behaved in a way that makes them uncomfortable. But I continue to make attempts at creating that better system. I continue pushing forward in the hopes that one day more and more people know how to be an ally in the face of something as uncomfortable as sexual misconduct.
A recent incident that didn’t involve me directly, but instead involved someone who had been a friend for many years inspired me to put thought to paper and write this. A number of women came forward to report the behavior of this particular person, but did so anonymously because of fear of retaliation, and fear that nothing good would come from coming forward. With their consent I began talking to leaders in our organizing spaces to inform them of what I was told happened with this particular individual. The resulting months-long process left me with a bit of hope, with a lot of frustration, and a realization that most of us don’t actually have any idea how we should realistically be approaching cases of sexual misconduct, especially when the person in question is someone you otherwise hold a level of respect towards.
These are some of my thoughts that I’ve put down after this process. It reflects the frustration I have experienced, and some potential solutions that could make the process less arduous for others moving forward. It should be noted that this is a work in progress, a way to start a conversation, with the hope that collaboration and input from others with similar experiences and frustrations will result in a guideline for groups and organizations. The process of reporting sexual misconduct will always be difficult, and the process for those on the outside to not look away will undoubtedly come with some amount of pain. That cannot be undone. What we can do is be thoughtful and compassionate with one another, with a very clear understanding that if we are to improve the way we treat victims, if we are to create a situation where we have fewer victims each year, it takes all of us — all of us — making the same commitment to transparency, accountability, compassion, consent, and the destruction of the toxic aspects of masculinity.
Where do we start?
Addressing the issues of sexual harassment, misconduct, and assault should be done with a number of things in mind:
- Providing justice for the victim
- Providing a chance for reflection and redemption for the perpetrator
- Creating a system of accountability
- Creating a safe space for all involved that allows for a transparent process
Each of these elements has nuances behind it to keep in mind when mapping out the overall process in the event that any type of misconduct occurs.
We should also be asking ourselves what it means to be an ally to women and other victims of sexual harassment, misconduct, and assault. We have a sense of what that looks like and sounds like when you do not personally know either the victim or the perpetrator; you easily denounce, and usually pretty publicly, the inappropriate behavior. But what if the victim is someone you know? How do you support them, especially if it makes you uncomfortable? What does it mean to be an ally then? What does it mean to be an ally when the person being accused is the person you’re close to? Do you hold them accountable? What does that look like? Being an ally when your friend is the perpetrator in question is holding space for the accuser, and holding your friend accountable. It means walking your friend through the process of reflection and redemption. It means stepping in so your friend does not do anything like that again. And the toughest question: what does it mean to be any ally when you are the person accused of misconduct or assault? It means being open to the very real possibility that you behaved inappropriately, that you possibly traumatized someone, and that there is hard work for you to do to fix it. It means apologizing. Not one of those “I’m sorry if you felt if…” kind of apologies either. An apology that makes the victim feel seen, a first step towards healing.
Providing Justice for the Victim
We have to ask ourselves what does justice look like from the outside, and feel like from the inside in the situation where someone experiences sexual harassment, misconduct or assault. I honestly recommend asking the victim what justice means to them in that particular scenario. Do they want to see the perpetrator punished? Do they want a chance to simply confront them in a safe way? Do they want assurances that the perpetrator will go through a process of rehabilitation? What would that process of rehabilitation include, and look like to them? I suggest engaging the victim in this process, and allowing them the ability to determine what the system of accountability should look like. Justice also includes providing them multiple options for reporting, multiple options to bring their case forward, and multiple levels of anonymity. I would also suggest building a preliminary guidebook with different levels of sexual misconduct and the group’s or organization’s recommended recourse, while allowing the recommended recourse to be edited with the input of victims as cases come forward. Because every case is different, and the circumstances surrounding them will vary, it is not necessarily important to have one set way of dealing with cases, and regimented ways of providing justice, but rather the thing that should remain constant is the ability to provide justice for the victim, a chance at redemption for the perpetrator, and a system that provides accountability and transparency in a way that makes all parties involved feel safe during the process.
Providing justice for the victim also means checking in with their comfort levels, and getting consent each step of the way. It means checking in with their mental health and providing them additional resources and support should they need it. It means providing them space, and going at a pace that feels comfortable to the victim. Justice should never be defined by someone on the outside of the experience. We should never speak about the incident without the consent of the person it happened to. We should not seek retribution in a way that makes the victim feel uncomfortable. Creating accountability that forsakes the comfort of the victim is not true accountability.
Providing a Chance for Reflection and Redemption for the Perpetrator
Sexual misconduct does not happen in a vacuum. Men do not decide out of nowhere to inappropriately touch others. And I say men very deliberately. Men are by and large the perpetrators of sexual harassment, misconduct, and assault. But I also want to add that the same level of accountability should exist regardless of the gender of the perpetrator. The point is, this behavior is not innate in people, but is conditioned into them through a combination of poor depictions of sexual relationships, a sentiment that “boys will be boys”, a reluctance to have real conversations around consent, a general feeling of helplessness imbued into the victim, a certain amount of victim-blaming, and an overall absence of a system of accountability.
If we know that if these circumstances were different, if we know that if we change certain parts of the elements that drove someone to behave in a sexually inappropriate way, then we are acknowledging that if we change those circumstances we can change the prevalence of sexual misconduct. So that is what we should seek to do.
We have seen time and time again that simply enacting punitive measures do little to correct behavior. Therefore we shouldn’t seek to simply punish, but to create a situation where we can allow space for self-reflection and redemption from the perpetrator. That means bringing them into the conversation and outlining their behavior and why it was inappropriate. That means putting them in a situation, either through group support, or individual therapy, to analyze and address what lead them to behave that way and what they could do to behave in a constructive and compassionate manner, rather than behaving in a destructive manner that perpetuates trauma. Allowing that space for redemption requires privacy, unless it is determined that informing others publicly about this person’s behavior is the only way to prevent others from being subjected to the same trauma. But that is absolutely a question that must be asked: how likely is this person to continue this bad behavior if it is dealt with behind-the-scenes? Acknowledging that not every person who engages in a sexually inappropriate way is a predator is so necessary. Some absolutely are, but making the distinction, and inserting as much nuance as possible, is a necessary component to providing true justice for the victim, and other people who have experienced versions of sexual harassment, misconduct, and assault. Conflating all bad behavior with one another is not constructive or productive.
So what happens when you approach the perpetrator and they deny it? Or they attempt to gaslight? Or they act particularly aggressive at the allegation that they behaved in a way that was inappropriate and traumatizing to someone? Well, I don’t really know the “what now?” that follows these questions. It’s the situation I find myself in presently. I confronted the aforementioned individual and he showed no signs of remorse or desire to address his toxic behavior. I don’t know what next. What do you all think should be next?
Creating a System of Accountability
We are all responsible here. If someone confides in you about sexually inappropriate behavior do not turn a blind eye to it. Do not justify turning away by saying someone else will take care of it. You can say you don’t have the emotional capacity, but please make attempts at bringing others in who could provide that support.
I say we are all responsible because there has not been a single situation I’ve gone through that involved abuse from a man where I didn’t have someone (actually, almost everyone) turn away and say “this isn’t for me to handle.” And that’s where we all end up stuck. A woman who wants to come forward does not because she feels like she will not have the support necessary to forge on. She fears others will blame her for the incident, which is another thing that I have experienced when I have come forward. She fears retaliation and a lack of protection from that retaliation. These are all fears based in real life experience. These fears did not come out of nowhere. You cannot say to people “be brave, come forward with your experience” and then be silent when it’s your turn to be someone’s support.
So I ask if you are reading this that you take this vow right now: if someone confides in me I will not turn away. I will not turn away even if it means holding someone I respect accountable. I will not turn away even if it means that we go up against powerful forces. And if I feel like my livelihood is in jeopardy by not turning away, I will find a way to build a strong support group to prevent that type of retaliation, or will at the very least find a way to bring others to the support group who don’t fear retaliation.
But even then, what good is keeping your job if it means perpetuating an unsafe environment for others?
Accountability also means that if you hear about an incident you ask the person at the center of it, “what would you like me to do?” I have seen situations where folks launch vigilante campaigns when they hear of the bad behavior of someone. And while it is well-meaning, it is still not constructive. Do not launch into a vigilante campaign without getting consent from the victim, without talking through the situation and carefully considering what justice looks like in that particular situation.
Accountability requires respect and compassion, not just for the victim but for the perpetrator as well. Providing respect and compassion to the victim feels like a common sense act, but I fear some might scoff at this idea that there also needs to be respect and compassion for the perpetrator. The whole purpose of all of this is to stop the cycles of trauma. We are not completing our mission if we continue with this narrative that anyone who perpetuates sexual harassment, misconduct, or assault is inherently evil. That does not mean that we create excuses for the perpetrator. It does not mean that we let them off the hook. It means that when deciding on a course of action that we make those judgements with a sense of compassion. And it must be said that I am not referring to cases like Weinstein, or other serial perpetrators who use their immense power and privilege to create victims and perpetuate trauma, to silence and prevent accountability. What I am saying is that for true accountability to occur we need to insert nuance and acknowledge that there are degrees here.
Accountability is also a pledge to believe women. To believe women even if they are saying something about someone close to you. Coming forward is difficult and carries with it a huge weight. Coming forward opens someone up to re-traumatizing themselves. If they are willing to do that anyway, at least be willing to believe them.
Accountability is having a conversation with the women in your life (in a safe environment) and asking them in all earnestness if you have ever behaved in a way that made them uncomfortable.
Accountability feels like a release. A release from the trauma. A release from the pain. A release from the fear that it will happen again, either to you or to others.
I have never experienced this release. Have you?
Creating a Safe Space
First, it’s important that we provide a safe space for the person to come forward and report the event. Regardless of the assurances against retaliation that you provide, there will always be people who will still not feel safe to report publicly. Providing a mechanism to report anonymously is necessary in these cases. This could be that there is somewhere for them to submit a report without putting a name to it. I also recommend creating a system that allows for proxy reporting, meaning that if a person wants to talk to someone either within the group or outside the group with the caveat that their name remain anonymous, that the person that was confided in can act as the proxy for the victim, but only if they have consent to talk about the event. It would also be good to have a designated person in the group who is trained in mediation in the event of sexual misconduct, and make it known to all members that if they experience some type of encounter this is the person who they can go to to report the event. The person should ask those who come forward if they would like to speak publicly about it, if they would like to present the information anonymously, or if they don’t want to move forward at all. Ask the person their reason why they do not want to move forward, not as some sort of accusation, but instead with the intention to understand if they are afraid of retaliation, or if they find it futile because they believe there won’t be accountability. This is merely to get a sense of the system you have in place and the flaws it might have, and how we can better provide assurances to victims that there will not be retaliation, that in the event of retaliation the group or organization will have their back, and that there is a system of accountability in place.
Creating a safe space also requires consent. Constant consent. Constant check-ins. Constantly asking, “would it be ok if…?” Constantly making sure they are ok with you talking to other people about what happened, and honoring whatever request they make, whether it’s to forge on or to remain quiet.