This month, Feministing published an article called “Don’t Be Friends with Rapists,” which was rapidly passed around my friends through social media. I was disappointed by this simplistic and damaging way of handling a major social problem. You shouldn’t defriend rapists (and abusers).
(Throughout this post, I will be using gender neutral pronouns for both the assailant and the victim.1 While rapists are often men and victims are often women (both cis and trans), men can be and are sexually assaulted, and women and trans people can and do assault others.)
Being friends with a rapist doesn’t have to mean that you are siding with the rapist over the victim. You can (and must) believe the victim while supporting your friend, the rapist. Support isn’t absolving the rapist of responsibility, but a promise that you will be there to hold them accountable and help them be a better person.
Alexandra Brodsky, the author of “Don’t Be Friends with Rapists,” rightly directed readers to stop inviting rapists to parties and events where you expect the victim will want to be. But I want to go further. Tell them they’re not invited, AND tell them why. If you’re at a party together and the victim shows up, tell your rapist friend they need to leave. If you see your friend acting inappropriately, not respecting personal bubbles, not picking up on signals, hitting on someone that is drunk, identify the problem behavior and get them to knock it off! Is drinking a factor in their behavior? Help them set up a limit and keep an eye on their alcohol consumption. Invite them to alcohol-free recreation. This is you being active. This is you teaching and enforcing boundaries.
If the victim has a list of accountability demands for the rapist, make sure your friend follows through with those actions! When is their mediation scheduled? Check in the day before. Do they need to enter a drug/alcohol treatment program? Are they going to their therapy appointments? Know the plan and make sure your friend sticks to it. Don’t enable their defensive behavior, and put a stop to any conversations about them that seek to defend, deflect, or negate their responsibility for their actions. Listen, but be critical. Being a good and compassionate friend means calling them out when they do wrong with the belief that they can do better.
That said, you should absolutely not put yourself in danger, and you should take care of yourself first. If you feel that this person could harm you or if being involved would be triggering, the responsibility of being the friendly enforcer is not your responsibility.
Every sexually active person has crossed a boundary with someone’s body. I have. You have. Yes, even you. If you think you are incapable of it, maybe especially you. You may not have gone as far as what someone would consider rape, but there has been some point when you didn’t pick up on someone’s signals, forgot or ignored someone’s overt or subtle wishes, or engaged in drunk sexual activities. You shouldn’t give up because you screwed up, and you shouldn’t be abandoned. You should strive for better communication and sensitivity. Develop a better Theory of Mind. You need to do this even if you aren’t labeled a rapist.
That we ostracize people who have done wrong is a cultural construct and feeds into the racist capitalist prison industry.2 Ostracization is not the only option and it is not a holistic option.
When I taught English in Japanese public schools, I was amazed by the difference with which the teachers and students handled discipline. In the United States, when one student does something hurtful to a student or teacher, the teachers or principal dole out the detentions and suspensions (exclusionary discipline). In Japan, when a student performed an act that was socially harmful, the other students held that person accountable as a group. They pressured the student into issuing a formal apology and making amends. The result was that students were more likely to internalize that they had caused damage to their social fabric.
Fabric is a fitting analogy. Rape and abuse are holes in the social fabric. You could put in the time and work to mend the hole, or you could cut the fabric in half and cast the imperfect part aside. Ta-da! No more hole. By ostracizing perpetrators, you aren’t fixing a problem so much as throwing it away to fray and fester elsewhere, and leaving your social fabric incomplete.
People with broken social behavior do better when their friends, family, and community are engaged in their recovery and treatment. Around the time Feministing published “Don’t Be Friends with Rapists,” CNN published the far better researched and nuanced “The Rapist Next Door” spotlighting an indigenous community in Alaska experiencing staggering rates of rape, sexual abuse, and partner abuse. Instead of throwing away and imprisoning members of their community (actually legal intervention isn’t an option in most of these cases), specialists, volunteers, families, and even the victims embrace the perpetrators and participate in prevention. It’s a culturally different way of handling problems and not one that is incorrect because it makes us squeamish.
I am not comfortable asking that a rape victim associate with the person that hurt them, but I am calling on the friends of the rapist to assist in recovery and accountability.
1. As a person who has experience sexual assault, I prefer the word “victim” to “survivor” but that’s a topic for another post.↩
2. I believe that victims of sexual assault and violence should seek legal punishment of perpetrators if they want to and will use any specialized skills I have to support and encourage any friend who wishes to do so. The reality is that society as a whole does not hold rapists and abusers accountable and so victims should use whatever tools are available.↩