What would you do if someone you know is accused of sexual assault? This is a question we may all face, possibly more than once, in our lives. We know that sexual assault happens a lot, and we know that most assaults are not reported. That means all of us know both victims and perpetrators, although, most of the time, we don’t know that we know them.
Perpetrators of sexual assault are among us. Sometimes they are our friends or family members or famous people we admire. It is painful to accept and difficult to know what to do when faced with that situation. Each of us will react differently, but coming to terms with how we hold perpetrators accountable for their actions is an unavoidable task for all of us.
The friends and family of former NFL player Darren Sharper are being asked this question by reporters right now because he is a well-known athlete and in the news for multiple charges of drugging and raping many women. Sharper’s high school football coach, Gus Allen, has a photo of Sharper hanging on his wall. Allen and his wife, Jeri, said they will not be taking the photo down.
“I don’t plan to take it down because that’s not the Darren we knew,” Jeri said. Darrell Jenkins, Sharper’s high school basketball coach, said, “But when (the allegations) first broke, I was just completely shocked. At first you want to say it can’t be true.”
This is how most of us would react. We don’t want it to be true, and, most of the time, the person we know is not someone we would suspect of hurting others. One of the most persistent misunderstandings about sexual assault is that it is committed by someone abnormal, someone not like us. When it’s a friend, this misunderstanding contributes to the belief that the accusation must be a mistake, or malicious, and we grasp for other explanations—maybe the survivor didn’t say no clearly enough, or is confused, or lying. This misunderstanding about sexual predators is among a set of beliefs and assumptions that allows us to sidestep the pain of holding someone accountable for not asking for sex, not respecting the answer, and not caring what another person wants.
There are very few false reports of sexual assault, so when someone discloses an assault, it’s important to believe them. Many people are working hard to change the world so that survivors will feel supported, feel able to speak out and tell someone, or report what happened. Our success will mean there will be more reports, more survivors talking about what happened, and therefore more of us will know perpetrators. If the accused person is a friend, it’s a natural first reaction to want to believe and support them. Just remember, you don’t know what happened but you do know that the vast majority of victims are telling the truth.
If you decide to remain a friend, you can still confront your friend about behavior and attitudes that contribute to sexual violence. You can listen, and be sympathetic to the situation without being sympathetic to perpetrators. Consider your own safety if you continue to spend time with your friend, and be aware of what you say publicly about the accusation and the people involved. For instance, publicly declaring the accusation a lie reinforces the myth that survivors lie about rape and might prevent someone from reporting in the future. It might be damaging to those who are survivors, confirming what they feared about not being believed.
So what do you say publicly? Here are some ideas:
• I don’t know what happened in this case but I know that sexual assaults do happen a lot.
• Nobody but the two people involved know exactly what happened, but I learned that there are very few false reports of rape.
• I’m just sorry that there’s even a possibility that something like this happened.
• This is upsetting for everybody, me included, and I guess it’s an opportunity to think about sexual assault and why it happens.
You may decide that you cannot remain friends. Our societal search for ways to hold sexual predators accountable must include methods beyond the criminal justice system. They must receive a clear message from everyone around them that their behavior is not acceptable, not excusable. Ending the friendship and telling them why is a clear message.
Sexual violence and abuse will end when enough of us learn what it really looks like and acknowledge that perpetrators are sometimes people we know. Predators are surrounded by the rest of us; even when we don’t know them, we can make it clear that disrespectful and violent language, attitudes and behavior are not acceptable and will not be supported.
Carol Mosely, Director
We End Violence