But All My Friends Are Feminists: On Navigating Assault in a Community
Coming Face-to- Face with the Shocking Realization That in Fact, Not All My Friends Are Actually Feminists.
It was late at night in late October, and I was furiously tapping into my iPhone, talking a mile a minute, while my boyfriend sat numb and silent next to me.
“Ok, the internet always knows what to do about this shit, let me just look,” I remember saying.
I typed in various iterations of the same sentence over and over again, expecting results that were not populating. My boyfriend, John*, wasn’t talking.
A few hours before, I’d come home from a girls’ night out to find John sitting alone, quietly in our apartment. He asked me to sit. He told me that Caleb, an old friend of ours, had been accused by his ex-girlfriend of rape.
I’d known Caleb as long as I’d known any of the men in our small group of friends, including John, my long-term partner. I couldn’t believe it: Caleb? He was nice. Weird, sure, but not dangerous. Caleb had made some less-than-stellar choices in the past, but rape? We sat, trying to talk it out, trying to figure out how to feel, what steps to take. We tried consulting the internet. The only article I could find was for men, distinctly bro-y, about how to support your friend when they were accused of rape. We were frustrated and taken aback by the lack of material on how to proceed as a community when assault happens. We had to figure this out without an article to guide us through.
Our Changing Moment.
There are more conversations than ever happening about consent, assault, and violence, and we had no trouble finding articles from every imaginable source on those topics. But the more articles I read, from large news organizations or small personal blogs, the more I kept noticing trends: the discussion around assault was that it was something done by “bad” people. Harvey Weinstein? Total creep. Donald Trump?I mean, come on. Brock Turner? Heinous. There were limited readings on assault committed by our community members – people we know, people we trust, people we’ve been alone in rooms with or drunk with a thousand times before. And yet, almost everyone I know has survived a sexual encounter with nebulous or limited consent, and it was with people they knew and trusted. Where were the articles for these situations?
According to the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network (RAINN) there are, on average, 321,500 victims of rape and sexual assault each year in the United States. 7 out of 10 times, according to the RAINN website, sexual assault is perpetrated by someone the survivor knows. Statistical data regarding reported victims of rape and sexual assault is often believed to be a much lower number than actuality, however. Women historically have not come forward to accuse their abusers. The reasons are evidentevery time I look at the debate raging over Weinstein, Trump, Cosby, and the dozens of other famous men accused of sexual assault: women fear being ostracized, retaliated against, and shut out.
I know what it feels like to weigh my options and decide the best thing to do is keep quiet. I know how much that destroyed my sense of self-worth, made me angry and untrusting. I am still, almost a decade later, trying to overcome the fallout from the cycles of abuse I was a part of. I know what it is like to come forward and be met with a community’s condemning silence. I’ve sat in on countless conversations that circled around “but he’s a good guy. He wouldn’t do something like that.” Even as weare so quick to judge and condemn famous men, we shy away from the same condemnation when it will fall on our friends or family.
Consent is Sexy, Healing is Slow, and Solidarity is Vital
So what do we do, as a member of a friend group, church group, school, or neighbourhood community? Specifically, what can those of us who are still hurting from our own past traumas do? Chances are, we are going to have to face re-triggering events long before we are healed enough to. Someone we know may be accused of sexual assault. We’ll have to sit and make a decision: which side are we on?
I’ll be honest, my mind jumped to “it couldn’t be!” the first time I heard about Caleb. I was following in the all-to- familiar pattern of knee-jerk victim blaming, thinking to myself that this must have been a mistake, a misunderstanding. I recognized my thoughts for what they were, but didn’t know how to stop them.
In my mind, perpetrators of sexual assault were villains. They were the guys you knew were no good, the creeps on TV, the guy who’d wait for me to get of my shift at the bar at 2am so he could follow me home, telling me what he’d do to me if he could come up to my house until I was so petrified to leave work that I used to literally run home with a pocket knife in my hand. This is a problematic narrative, and not even true to my own life. My experiences around sexual assault and trauma have been exclusively relationship-based, with men trusted in my community.
Sexual assault is not about evil people doing evil deeds. Sexual assault and rape is about power. In the case of Harvey Weinstein and Donald Trump, the power is easy to see. These men had access to the futures of the women they assaulted. They could ensure these women didn’t get work at best, and totally destroy the credibility of the women at worst, dragging their names through the mud. It’s easy to point to that situation and say, “Yeah, that right there, that’s a fucked up power balance.
”Things get murky on a personal basis. Power in relationships can be a lot harder to understand. Power can, and often does, shift. We might not recognize where the power and privilege lies in a relationship. But here’s the thing, as a survivor: it’s not the evil people doing evil deeds. It’s somebody’s relative, or the friend we’ve had forever. When they’re accused there is this knee-jerk reaction because we pick our friends so carefully, because they’re “good feminist men,” (ugh) they listen to women, they use gender neutral pronouns. We don’t want to think we picked wrong, or acknowledge that the people we trust aren’t actually that trustworthy.
In Caleb’s case, I cut ties with him. My own trauma mirrored this story too closely. I had, and have, no desire to ever see Caleb again. My boyfriend eventually came to the same decision, but for him it took time, and listening, and reading, and thinking. (For anyone who is interested, the collected works called Learning Good Consent: On Healthy Relationships and Survivor Support by Cindy Crabb is a wonderful resource).
I think it is vitally important to reach out to the survivor of the assault and let them know you’re with them. Being a support person to someone who has recently experienced trauma can be scary. Talking about trauma can bring up your own triggers. Sometimes, it’s just uncomfortable. It took me a few days of processing to figure out what and how to feel, but nevertheless, I reached out to the survivor as quickly as I could. She wanted to go to dinner, so we got dressed up and went out. I kept wondering what to saywhen we broached the topic. I was nervous I’d say the wrong thing, or trigger her or myself.
Here’s the thing: she didn’t want to talk about it. She wanted to drink fancy cocktails, eat good food, and talk about how impractical and downright ugly she found cold-shoulder sweaters. She wanted to get out of town and go dancing, so we planned a weekend in the next state. Eventually, we did talk about it. I tried my best to listen without judgement, to ask her what she needed from her friends, and to let her guide the conversation. It felt imperfect and tense, but she knew without a doubt which side her community was on and that she was fully supported and safe.
Something truly important I learned through this whole experience was the importance of a good support person. You can’t solve anyone’s trauma for them, especially when you’re still working on you every day. But you can make sure they have a safe person to come to. You can be there to make sure they are surviving day to day: eating, sleeping, showering. You can be the vessel, the friend, the confidant. You can actively listen, empathize, and ask them what they need. Sometimes, they need to talk. You can listen without passing judgement. Sometimes, they need to do something. Sometimes, they need to curl up and watch Issa Rae for hours on end. Sometimes, they don’t want anything from you, and your work begins elsewhere.
I think being a “good feminist” means constantly learning how to be a “good feminist”. I mess up constantly, including through this process. One thing I did learn, however, is there is no clear-cut answer for what to do when a friend is accused of rape. Each relationship you have with an individual person is its own entity. Will you be the person to get the accused help? Will you act publicly, or support privately as you heal your own shit? I’m still not sure. I think the best course of action we took was to side with the survivor and let her know we were there to support her in any way she needed. If you’ve had a different experience, or have good advice or reading, we’d love to hear from you.