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Let’s Hold People Accountable For Sexual Assault (Yes, Even Our Friends)

If you are an Instagram user, you have probably seen Instagram stories with graphics saying, “If I am friends with your abuser, DM me and that will change” and “If I am following your abuser, DM me and I will unfollow them.” While great in theory, these posts often fall under the category of performative activism, where someone wants to appear in solidarity with a social cause but doesn't actively help the cause. Over the past year, many people have shared stories about responding to these posts and having the person react and say something like, “but he’s my friend.” 

In the United States, 1 in 6 women have been the victim of attempted or completed rape in her lifetime. This troublesome statistic means that most people know a victim of rape, and in many cases know a rapist. The statistic is concerning, and yet does not include other forms of sexual violence and assault and rape of men. TLDR; you probably know a victim of sexual assault. 

The number of survivors of rape is distressing, but perhaps even more alarming is the number of people who either don’t believe survivors or overlook the accusations because the accused is a friend. Speaking about one’s trauma can be extremely difficult and often takes a large amount of emotional energy. To swipe up on someone’s Instagram story and then be invalidated can be gut-wrenching. Sharing stories of sexual trauma is brave and yet, even when asked to share them, women are often not taken seriously. 

Often when people post graphics on Instagram, they are doing so to cater to their followers. They want to appear socially engaged and ‘woke’. In this case, people want to appear as if they care about survivors of sexual assault, but in reality, some people post to maintain an image as someone who cares. It quickly becomes clear that many people posting these graphics do not take them seriously as they often remain friends with and continue following the abuser. These cases make the issue of selective accountability clear.

Those in progressive circles are often quick to believe survivors of assault when the person accused is a public figure. People are so quick to believe survivors and are also quick to defend their friends instead of holding them accountable. It's much easier to think that someone you do not know has been a perpetrator of sexual assault rather than someone you know well. Since most people likely know someone who has been a perpetrator of sexual assault, it remains important to understand how protecting your friend can complicit the system of sexual violence.  

If a survivor of assault chooses to confide in you, your first response should not be, "but he’s a good guy" or "he would never do that." These phrases automatically dismiss the survivor’s claim. It can make them feel as if their voices and experiences don’t matter and that you would instead ignore the harm your friend caused rather than hold them accountable. 

Protecting your friends who have been perpetrators of assault not only dismisses survivors’ experiences but makes you a part of the cycle of sexual violence. When people choose not to hold their friends accountable, they send a message to survivors (and frankly everyone else) that they are either unwilling to recognize their friends’ faults or are afraid to ruin a friendship by standing up for the victim. When someone holds an unknown person accountable for sexual assault and not their friends, they are saying they are willing to ignore the pain and trauma one has faced and the fact they are friends with an abuser.

If we keep making excuses for the predators running across our social circles, survivors will stop speaking up for themselves. Then the problem only gets worse. While there isn’t a solution to this problem, there are some steps you can take to make sure survivors feel heard and valid. Call out people defending their accused friends. Ask them if they would have the same response if reports told the same story about a celebrity and how they think it feels to ignore someone’s pain. 

Listen, actively listen to survivors. Uplift their stories and remind them that they are valid. 

Hold everyone accused of sexual assault accountable, regardless of your relationship with them. Your friendship with one person is not worth the pain to make the survivor go through invalidation. Make sure you aren’t continuing the cycle of sexual violence. 

Finally, don’t question women’s stories. You aren’t an attorney or a detective. If a friend confides in you, they want you to listen. It can be invalidating and, in some cases, gaslighting to question someone’s story constantly. Just listen and be there for them. And please, do not say "but he’s a good guy."

Hello! I’m Rachel Fadem (she/her) and I’m an NYU student studying journalism and gender and sexuality studies. I am also a freelance journalist covering gender, sexuality, social justice, mental health, and sex. I am especially interested in covering rape culture and sex work through a feminist lens. When I’m not busy with school or work, you can find me listening to the You’re Wrong About podcast and making earrings. Follow me on Twitter and Instagram (@rachelfadem)! I would love to connect! Rachelfadem.com
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