Sometime last year, I started hearing scary rumors. At first it was vague, little more than a general aura of badness around a certain person. Then the allegations started to come into focus. I didn't want to believe it, but I asked people in a position to know -– and when I found out it was true, it felt like my insides had been scooped out with a melon baller. A good friend of mine, a man I loved and trusted, had sexually assaulted a woman.
I'm not going into details here. The survivor's story is her own to tell when and where and if she feels like it. She is not someone I know personally, and to the best of my knowledge, no charges were pressed. I don't have any interest in convincing you that the assault took place. All I want you to know is that I am convinced it did.
If you had asked me six months earlier whether he was capable of such a thing, I would have told you no. He wasn't someone I spent a lot of time with –- we lived in different states and mostly kept in touch via Facebook -– but I thought of him as a “good guy,” someone honest and kind and caring.
We both traveled a lot, and when we passed through each other's hometowns, we always knew the other would have an open couch and a few beers to share. It’s hard to suspect someone of wrongdoing who has provided you with food and shelter and comfort when you needed it.
When I found out what my friend had done, I spent an hour crying as I wrote him an email explaining why I wasn't going to speak to him anymore. I kept crying as I sat with my mouse hovering over the “send” button, willing myself to click it, desperately wanting not to. Maybe it's not true, I thought, knowing it was. Maybe I can pretend I just don't know. I didn't know yesterday. Why should today be the day everything has to change?
It took me 15 minutes after I finished the email to work up the courage to hit send. I sat on the couch shaking, tears drying in salty streaks on my face and neck, wishing I didn't know what I know. I haven't heard from or spoken to him since.
I am one of the four in five women who has never been sexually assaulted, but that doesn't mean I haven't been affected by rape culture. I live in the same world we all do, the one that excuses men for sexually aggressive behavior on the grounds that “He was just joking” or “Come on, it's a compliment” or “She wanted it, look how she was dressed.”
I haven’t been raped, but I've been catcalled and groped and followed and insulted and threatened, and I’ve watched friends struggle through the aftermath of assault. Some stories begin with “I never thought it could happen to me, but it did.” My story is the opposite. It hasn't happened to me (yet), but I've always known that it could. I know better than to believe that rapists are cartoon monsters devoid of redeeming qualities, but I was still taken aback.
My best friend in high school was assaulted by her boyfriend. For weeks, she stayed silent about it; then she hit some internal breaking point, ended their relationship, and started telling people what he’d done. His friends rallied around him, called her a crazy bitch. Even some of her friends stayed in touch with him, refusing to “take sides.”
I will never forget how much that hurt her, how her boisterous personality became quiet and anxious, how she spoke like her voice was sore and moved like someone bruised. I sat next to her at the police station when she finally worked up the nerve to file a report, watching her fingernails dig into her palm as the officer pressed her to recount specific, painful, physical details of the attack.
Then he brushed her out of the room, saying that because she hadn't broken up with her attacker until weeks after the assault, there was no point pressing charges. Her ex went to jail a year later for assaulting another girl. Many of his friends still insisted that it just wasn't in him to hurt anybody.
My former friend made a pass at me once, when we were still speaking. Respectfully, cheerfully, from several feet away –- a very straightforward “I think you're really attractive and I'd love to sleep with you,” and when I said “Nope,” he shrugged and laughed and changed the subject. He never pressured me. I've been alone in a room with him. I've been alone in a house with him. He is much taller and stronger than me and he never once in our years of friendship made me feel at all unsafe.
But every person that a predator does not harm is just as intentional as the people they do. That I escaped being abused by my friend is not just luck, and it's certainly not because I deserve to be hurt less than the person who actually was. It's because he made the choice not to hurt me. I wonder if, consciously or subconsciously, he feared that one day his behavior would be brought to light -– if he was good to me because he wanted to make sure I would be on his side.
I think back on all the times I supported this man, all the times I called him my friend, and I can't help remembering my friend in high school, the purplish welts her long fingernails left in her palm. I remember all the times people stuck up for her rapist, every time that someone said something affectionate or even neutral about him, and I would see her fists clench. I wonder how many people I've wounded unknowingly just by speaking a certain name with kindness. This is what stops me when I think about texting my former friend, out of habit, just to see how he's been. It’s what keeps me from grieving too long over the loss of our friendship. There are people with so much more reason to grieve.
I miss my friend. He was smart and generous, and we had similar senses of humor and liked a lot of the same books. He made me laugh and cheered me on. The truth that’s still so hard to choke down is this: None of those things are in any way incompatible with his being a perpetrator of sexual violence. I still love him and care about him and want the best for him –- which includes being held accountable for his mistakes -– but I have to do it from a distance. I can't imagine a way for us to be close again.
It is much, much easier to choose not to believe someone you care about could do such a thing, but everyone is cared about by someone, even people who commit violent, unforgivable crimes.
I don't mean to say that you should be paranoid or stop trusting everyone you love. But I do think it's important to be aware that even people who seem good can do terrible things, and that redeeming qualities do not outweigh an abusive history. Dismantling rape culture means holding people responsible for their actions, even people you love, and supporting survivors, even the ones you don't know. It means refusing to condone abuse and being honest about who predators are: someone's friend, someone's brother, someone's loved one.
Abusers rely on their communities' affection, ignorance, and silence, and on the natural reluctance to take sides. I refuse to let my friendship or my neutrality be used as a shield for predators. Given the option to stand with a survivor, that's always the side I'll choose.