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What do you do when someone you know is accused of sexual assault or rape?

Worse – what do you do if the accused is someone you care for?

Until recently I couldn’t speak from experience. However, three weeks ago someone I know was accused of sexual harassment, someone I respected and cared for. And I’m here to tell you that despite this experience, I still can’t answer such questions definitively. Every situation is as different as the individuals involved. There are no “hard and fast” rules for coping with this, no “right” way to navigate the emotions, legalities, loyalties, and behaviors involved.

My initial advice is to refrain from witch-hunting – in either direction. Being sexually assaulted can ruin someone’s life, as can being falsely accused. Do not assume the accused is guilty until proven innocent. Do not assume the potential survivor is lying until proven honest. It’s unfair and can cause lasting psychological damage. Don’t gossip about the situation, don’t discuss it on social media, don’t harass the parties involved, and don’t make any snap judgments. That said, it’s well-documented that society tends to disbelieve victims more often than the accused. To quote my friend and fellow volunteer Jacqui, it seems people would rather call someone a liar than believe someone could do something so horrible to another person. It’s too uncomfortable, too terrible, to realize human beings can (and do) violate each other this way. This discomfort increases exponentially when the accused is someone we care about.

How could ANYONE do such a thing, let alone someone we know and love? Acknowledging the possibility can – understandably – unsettle us. If true, we’d have to question not just our friend, but our personal judgment and thus ourselves. I can’t tell you how to personally handle that. I can tell you false accusations for sex crimes are no higher than those for any other crime. In fact, many studies report they’re lower. I can tell you you’re statistically more likely to be drafted into the NFL than be falsely accused. I can tell you how agonizing it is to come forward, and how much that agony is compounded when people accuse you of lying. I can tell you our justice system is so good at weeding out false claims, they often weed out the real ones too. If we find out the accused is guilty – as is, sadly, most often the case – we must hold them accountable. I recognize that’s easier said than done, but there are concise ways to do this. Acknowledge what they did and that it was not okay. Don’t let it get brushed under the rug; don’t let them walk off as though nothing happened. Don’t make excuses for their actions (“Oh, but they were drunk! They’re usually such a good person!”). There is no excuse for sexual assault. It is a decision someone makes that reflects back on how they view others and their bodily autonomy, and should not be taken lightly.

As for the survivor? Please don’t question them. If and when they’re ready to talk about it, they will. Unless you’re (literally) their attorney, don’t ask them what happened, don’t ask what they were drinking, what they were wearing, or where it occurred. They’ve just been through one of the most violating experiences possible. Their control was ripped away. The most important thing now is that they get to control their story – they get to control who hears it, and when, and how. Offer support instead. Tell them you’re willing to listen. If you’re not – and it’s okay if you’re not – direct them towards a support group (like A Voice for the Innocent). If you believe them, say so. If you don’t, keep it to yourself. At the end of the day the situation isn’t about you, as personal as it may feel.

I hope none of this ever applies to you. I hope nobody you care for is ever accused of sexual assault or rape. If they are, keep in mind how tenuous and damaging the situation is and treat it accordingly. Educate and remind yourself about the realities of sexual assault. Work to hold perpetrators accountable and support survivors. You can learn more about this issue at RAINN.org, and you can sign up to volunteer with A Voice for the Innocent here.

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