I’m tired of watching people accused of sexual assault socially impale themselves on sticks in the struggle to escape their accuser. So, as a survivor of sexual assault, I’d like to make a road map for what to do as the assailant. This path is not necessarily the easiest or most pleasant, however there’s purpose behind that. The purpose of this path is de-escalate the situation. As a survivor, I can tell you that had my assailant done this (or ever did this) it would take a lot of wind out of my sails. Sure, there would still have been overwhelming feelings of rage and betrayal and lack of trust, however I wouldn’t have needed to involve the broader community in order to try and regain my feeling of safety. It would not have caused rifts in the community the way that it did. It would have remained a serious and significant life event for me, but would have been a far less arduous journey for my assailant. (And far less arduous for me as well!) So keep your eye on the prize: this blowing over relatively smoothly.
This path requires a certain level of emotional maturity. If you do not have this level of emotional maturity, I recommend not engaging in sexual activity until you obtain this level of maturity. Like choosing between protected and unprotected sex, you need to consider the possible consequences, and not just babies but also emotional ramifications. If you can’t practice emotionally safe sex, then please don’t have sex.
Now that the PSA is out of the way, here are the 4 steps you need to take to help this blow over smoothly:
Step 1: understand that what your accuser says is true
Yeah, I know what just ran through your head: “but I didn’t do it!” While your experience is true, your accuser’s experience is also true. Part of the truth of your experience is that you didn’t know the whole of your partner’s experience. In order to gain awareness of your partner’s experience you’d need to ask for clear, verbal, enthusiastic consent during every encounter, at multiple times during every encounter. You’d also need to ensure your partner was reasonably sober, had all their usual faculties about them, and that they were definitely over the age of consent (i.e. over 18 years old in the US.) You’d also need to be aware of any power dynamics that were at play in the relationship between you. If you held a position of prestige, e.g. a teacher, boss, leader of a community, then it’s possible your partner consented for not wholly their own reasons.
I get that you were probably not taught to practice clear, verbal, enthusiastic consent when you went through sex-ed in high school. Heck, if your sex-ed teacher specified that your partner must be conscious for sex, then your teacher was probably well above par. But I digress… The important first step is to realize that your accuser’s perspective is valid, and is real. You did something that hurt them. The fact you were unaware of it and that it was unintentional doesn’t change that they are hurt. Having hurt them doesn’t make you a bad person, but it does mean you did a bad thing. The silver lining here is that it is possible to apologize for bad things you did.
Step 2: understand what you did wrong and have a plan for how not to do it again
You did something that hurt your accuser. You may be clear on what it was, you may not. Do not ask your accuser to clarify; they will be forthcoming with the information or you have to do with out that information because it would further hurt them to provide it. This step does not require any more information than the awareness that your accuser has provided by accusing you.
Here’s the crux of it: you did at least *something* at least *one time* that was without your accuser’s consent. Knowing which precise action was the time that you violated consent is relatively immaterial. It should never be a question. In order to ensure it’s not a question, you need to ask the questions and listen for clear enthusiastic answers. Here are the three areas where consent is most often unclear, and what questions need to be asked:
- Develop a practice of asking before activities that are sexual in nature. Ask not just for consent, but for enthusiastic and verbal consent; there should be no doubt in your mind. And ask every time, and multiple times during the same encounter. Sometimes things change internally and you may not be aware unless you ask. Need help on how to phrase this and when to ask it? Here are some resources:
- Ask young-looking folks for their age, and seek confirmation from peers or official ID. Teenagers want to be more mature than they are, so don’t trust an age you’re given; verify it. And don’t assume based on their presence in a +21 establishment. Either verify using a friend who you trust (not their friends), or ask to see ID. Come up with a fun, casual, comfortable way of asking to see their ID. Here’s how I’d go about it: “I really dig what we’re doing here. You are so attractive and youthful that I really want it to continue, and I’d dig it even more if I was confident I wasn’t doing this with someone under age. Can I see your ID real quick, and then we’ll get right back to it?” Find a way to ask it that works for you. Not asking does not work; not for you, not for them, not for anyone.
- If there is any chance of a power dynamic at play, ask a million times more questions and regardless of their answers, proceed with caution. This is by far the trickiest because it requires that you notice when a power differential exists and that your communication is so top-notch that you can get your partner to be honest about their true motivations, which they may or may not be honest with themselves about in the moment. This is why most HR Departments forbid managers dating their subordinates; it’s just too difficult. If you are a teacher, a boss, a leader of a community, and your partner is a student, an employee, a member (or prospective member) of the community then there is certifiably a power differential present which means there are power dynamics whether you like it or not. In cases where you are more skilled or have been doing an activity longer, it’s possible there’s a power differential there. If you are purposefully using power-play with this partner (i.e. dominant/submissive roles) then you are creating power dynamics and hence they exist. If you think or know that a power dynamic exists:
- play the long game – do not proceed with a casual hook-up, and round the proverbial “bases” at a snail’s pace. This gives time for asking the right questions to happen and to notice if your partner is dishonest about their motivations.
- call it to the carpet – acknowledge the difference in status. Ask your partner what they think about it. Ask it in different ways at different times. Ask yourself the same questions. Have recurring conversations about it. If this causes the relationship to end before you score, then you just saved yourself from potentially being accused of sexual assault. You’re welcome.
- check in often – even after you’re comfortable with your partner, ask them again, ask yourself again, have more conversations about it. You will probably never not talk about it. That’s the nature of a power dynamic.
Once you have an idea of what behaviors need to change in order to ensure you’re never accused again, make a plan for how you’re going to implement the change. What exactly are you going to say? When in a courtship are you going to say it? Play out scenarios in your mind until it’s comfortable. Practice asking the questions out loud when you’re alone. Role play with a close friend. Then follow through and do it. Whether you “man up” or “ovary up” it’s imperative that this change happen. You’re allowed to make mistakes, but this needs to move towards being your standard practice, no matter the circumstances. The best way to prevent a sexual assault accusation is to ensure you have consent every time, all the time.
Step 3: Apologize, and apologize completely
This step is super important because your accuser needs to know they’ve been understood, and that their issue is being addressed. Regardless of if you’re initially being accused, or if it’s been months or years, an apology clears the air and lets the accuser know that they are being taken seriously.
Level up from the apologies parents would force out of you as a child and really make this a solid, meaningful apology. Here are some resources on how to make a really good apology: 5 Steps to an Effective Apology, 5 Rules for Apologizing Like a Grown Up, and A Better Way to Say Sorry. Integrating what I’ve taken from these resources, here’s a basic formula for a script for this precise circumstance:
- “I am sorry that I [repeat accusation in your own words].” Or “I am sorry that I did something that clearly hurt you very deeply.”
- “I understand this might have made you feel [empathize with your accuser and think about how they likely feel.]”
- explain how you won’t do it again:
- option a: “I am sorry that this happened, and while I don’t understand exactly what went wrong, I plan to figure it out and ensure it won’t happen again.”
- option b: “I am sorry that I did that, and I plan to ensure it won’t happen again by [insert plan from Step 2.]”
- explain how you’ll provide space for them to heal:
- option a: “Because of how you must feel after this I plan to [insert practice from Step 4] until I hear otherwise from you.”
- option b: “What can I do to give you the space you need to heal?” (please note, that you should agree to and do whatever they ask, provided it does not include causing physical harm to yourself or others.)
- understand that forgiveness is not required, nor is it necessary. It also does not absolve you of Step #4 – giving space. Forgiveness is your accuser’s choice. The apology will have the same clearing-the-air effect regardless of if it comes with forgiveness or not.
While this formula is relatively simple, make sure you take the time to do the work to make it a good one. If you’re on the spot, take a breath, listen, think and feel before talking. If you miss a piece of the apology, or bumble it, follow up. If it’s after initial contact, write it out; have close friends or a therapist read it and offer feedback. If you’d previously been asked to not contact your accuser (or if you’re at all hesitant), ask a mutual friend to relay it and confirm that it was relayed. (Note that it’s not required that they “accept” your apology nor are they required to forgive you. The point of the apology is to clear the air, not to give you a pat on the back for having done it; your accuser will not do that for you.)
Step 4: Give your accuser space, a lot of space
As in, imagine the last time a girlfriend/boyfriend broke your heart and you never wanted to see them again, now multiply that by 10 and switch roles. That much space.
In more concrete terms this means: avoid social outings where you’re likely to cross paths with them. If you do end up at the same event: keep a sizable distance from them, avoid their line of sight, and leave the event. Maintain this practice until you hear otherwise.
Does this feel like too much of an imposition? A possible alternative is that you don’t do this, your accuser feels unsafe and pursues a restraining order. While intent plays into the degree of a crime, it does not (to my knowledge; I’m not a lawyer) play into whether a restraining order is warranted. After a restraining order is issued you risk going to jail for having crossed paths with your accuser. So really, your choice is to proactively avoid your accuser or avoid them out of fear of jail time. It’s your choice.
How do you know when it’s been long enough that you can stop giving them space? Because they told you, either directly or via a mutual friend. If you’re getting antsy ask a mutual friend how your accuser is doing. If their response is positive, ask them their opinion on your practice and if it continues to be helpful. If their answer is in your favor then ask the friend to relay the question of how much space would be helpful to your accuser. Do not change your practice until you get the go-ahead relayed back from your accuser and do not ask more than once every three months. Yes, it may seem like I’m erring on the side of the overly cautious, and it is for a reason. This is demonstrating a great level of respect through action. Sexual assault functions on the level of lack of respect and violation of trust. By giving space, ample and without it being required, you’re demonstrating your respect for their healing process. This lays the foundation for trust to be rebuilt. It may take a very long time for enough trust to build up such that being in the same room is an option. This is a piece that you can do in order to help it be an option.
In closing, I hope this serves as a resource to not only help accusers manage a difficult situation, but that it also helps survivors heal less arduously. I also see this as an integral piece of a community healing from an assault among its members, but I’ll have to write more on that another time.