Maisha’s Z. Johnson’s post at everydayfeminism.com is a great read for both those who want to stop sexual abuse and those trying to end our 20-year experiment with heaping ever more exacting public humiliations on those who have committed sex crimes, with its attendant hydra of consequences.
Several misconceptions lie at the root of the system we’re now using to convince ourselves that we’re serious about sexual violence. The idea that those who have done wrong are completely evil. That they can’t change. And that vengeance is the best way to help their victims.
None of that is true. Here are extracts from the post, but I encourage people to read it in full.
Bill Cosby: Responsible for creating iconic television, or raping dozens of women?
Sean Penn: Exceptional actor and philanthropist, or domestic abuser?
The leaders you admire in your community: People who have a positive influence on those around them, or people capable of causing harm?
If you answered these questions with another question–“Why can’t they be both?”–then you’re on the right track toward understanding the true nature of sexual and intimate partner violence….
The truth is that people can be both well-loved and capable of perpetuating violence. Humans are complex beings, and we’re all capable of both wonderful and terrible things.
But too many of us think in absolutes when it comes to who we believe is capable of perpetrating rape or abusing a partner.
Which means that if someone you know and love has caused harm, you might feel like you have to take one side or the other. Either they’re the wonderful person you thought they were, or they’re a complete monster.
This approach really doesn’t leave much room for recognizing people’s humanity–and that’s a big problem. Because the people responsible for violence in our communities aren’t all monstrous strangers–they’re people we know, people we love, and even people we idolize.
True accountability–the kind that can foster positive change and healing–doesn’t look like violent vengeance. Holding your relative accountable doesn’t have to mean you stop loving them, never speak to them again, or wish for horrible things to happen to them….
You can be angry, horrified, and disgusted about what someone’s done–and still treat them with the dignity that all people (even those who have done wrong) deserve.
Being close to someone who’s caused harm means you can understand their fully human complexity. They’ve done an awful thing, but you know that they’re also capable of doing good.
So holding them accountable can look like supporting them to be their best self, guiding them to recognize what they’ve done wrong, and helping make sure they respect what the survivor needs to heal.
This doesn’t mean you’re excusing their abusive behavior. In fact, you’re holding them to a higher standard, letting them know that you, as someone who loves them, expect them to do better.
Responding to violence with violence can actually cause more trauma and rip communities apart, rather than providing healing.
It’s possible to center a survivor’s need for healing and justice and still have love for the person who has abused them….
If we stop thinking in the absolute binaries of “good” people and “abusers,” we can actually begin to free ourselves and our communities from cycles of violence. We can support survivors and stand up for accountability, knowing that healing and change are possible.
I’ve worked closely with many survivors, and as I mentioned, I’m a survivor myself. So I’ve experienced and witnessed the damage that comes with denying people’s humanity by seeing them as all good or all bad.
And I also know that it doesn’t have to be this way. And if we stop thinking in narrow absolutes, we can all get some healing.
So what does all of that look like in practice? Well this, for starters.