So One of Your Friends Has Been Accused of Something Shitty
You’re disappointed. You’re upset. You’re also in a position to do even more harm.
Over the last three months, members of the King County Democrats, as well as concerned members of the Democratic political spectrum who were not members of the organization (like me*), have fought an uphill battle to find some semblance of justice.
A man in a position of great power was refusing to take a seat, to step aside. Bailey Stober was accused of, at best, sexual harassment and discrimination. But after speaking to survivors who would not go on the record, I’m certain that he committed much more egregious acts than that. This man also has a documented history of financial mismanagement, of intimidation, and of poor leadership.
And yet—in spite of screenshots, in spite of fines, and in spite of the numerous testimonies—a lot of people still stand by his side.
He’s their friend, they say. And now he’s running for a different office and they can’t wait to support him. They firmly believe that he was the victim of an unjust witch-hunt, that he was persecuted. That the more than 200 individuals who called for his resignation just didn’t get it.
Because, of course, if one of our friends was an abuser, we’d know it, right?
You Know An Assault Survivor And It’s Time To Start Acting Like It
Seattle’s political establishment took months to finally turn on an alleged abuser—and survivors were watching
In the era of #MeToo and social media call-outs, it seems like every day there’s a new famous person who’s charged with a disappointing, upsetting, or alarming allegation. These allegations range from groping to having a secret button to lock the door to facilitating human trafficking.
Or, you know, decades of calculated rape.
But the bad actions of a lot of non-famous people are getting flushed out as well. People of all genders feel empowered to speak their truth and are doing so. Sometimes it doesn’t go any further than a Facebook post. And other times it shakes up the political party of a major U.S. county.
It’s easy to assign blame to celebrities—we don’t know them, and expressing disappointment or shock comes with very little in the way of personal stakes. From a cognitive position, it’s not hard to decide that you like their work (ahem, everyone who still touts Woody Allen’s films) but dislike their actions.
When the person is your friend, though, or a respected colleague, it’s a lot harder to reconcile. How could someone you know, love, and trust do the things that that person said they did?
Most often, we determine that the accusers must be lying. They must be doing it for their own personal advancement.
But can you name more than a few of Cosby’s accusers? Or even one? Can you tell me all of the glorious roles bestowed upon Mia Farrow? Can you show me the millions of dollars or brilliant career opportunities that victims of Harvey Weinstein’s alleged harassment and assault have enjoyed?
The Cost of Rape | National Sexual Violence Resource Center (NSVRC)
Earlier this year, the American Journal of Preventative Medicine released research on the cost of rape. The Centers for…
The fact is that sexual harassment and abuse is costly to survivors in just about every single way. The legal fees, the time it takes to file suits, the exhaustion, the missed days at work, the medical bills.
And, when it happens in your own circle, the social ties.
Looking around me now, there are dozens of people in King County who I no longer trust. I have seen them blame survivors and side with powerful men—which, I’ve come to determine, is actually the most self-serving thing to do in these situations. The people who cozy up to abusers do so only to curry favor because, fundamentally, they believe that survivors have no clout.
To which I say: Fuck you. We do. Moving on.
Frequently, the biggest cognitive barrier for believing that someone we know and trust could abuse a person is the idea that we could love someone who could also act poorly. We assume that we would have seen it, that we would necessarily know of any unsavory urges or ideas that lurked inside someone we loved.
But that is, statistically and in practice, not the case. And the sooner we can all admit that, the better we can support our friends and family who have been harmed and who have caused harm.
A Pew poll from last year found that a little under half of women in the workplace said they’d experienced any kind of harassment at work—ostensibly by individuals who have people who know and love and trust them and would be shocked to hear that they had paid a woman less, denied her a promotion, or given her less support.
Meanwhile, a 2017 Marist poll found that one in three women (and one in five men) said they’d been sexually harassed at work—again, most likely by people whose friends and family would be shocked to hear that they’d been inappropriate or aggressive around the office. Close to 30% of those surveyed said they’d witnessed harassment themselves.
That same Marist poll also found that women are more likely to think that employers will believe someone when they come forward.
“…64% of workers say their place of employment is more likely to believe the accuser while nearly one in five (18%) say the person who is accused of committing the harassment or abuse gets the benefit of the doubt. Three percent say neither, and 3% report both sides are given credence. 12% are unsure.
Women, 69%, are more likely than men, 60%, to assert that the person who comes forth with the complaint is more likely to be believed.”
Of course, that means that people think other people will believe someone—it doesn’t address whether or not they would believe someone, or whether or not we all share the same idea about what constitutes a bad action.
One survey from 2017 found that nearly a quarter of men don’t think that exposing themselves counts as sexual harassment, while 30% don’t think making a sexual comment about a woman’s body counts.
This introduces a critical way in which people of all genders downplay the reality of harassment and the harm it does; if the thing your friend is accused of doing isn’t that bad, maybe they’re not that bad. Maybe you’re not that bad. Maybe you don’t have to feel uncomfortable after all.
So, let’s say you have just seen that someone you know has been called out, accused, or named as an abuser. A person that you don’t know, or don’t know well, has stated that someone you love or trust did something to harm them.
What’s your next move?
First, your brain is going to take steps to protect you from feeling the physical and emotional discomfort that comes with cognitive inconsistency. Most likely, you’ll have an immediate reaction of rejection. That can’t be true. She’s lying. Nope. No.
It’s at this moment that you have your first big opportunity. If you can, even momentarily, set aside this almost reflexive reaction, you will be able to proceed through the next days and weeks and months with a much greater amount of empathy.
Try to entertain, just for a moment, ask why you don’t believe the accuser. Is it because…
⚬ You don’t know them, and thus, are less likely to trust them?
⚬ The accusation is something you don’t think the accused would ever do
⚬ The accusation isn’t really that bad and the accuser is making too big a deal out of it?
Whatever the answer is — very, very honestly — ask yourself a follow-up question to probe that a little further. These questions are things like:
⚬ Why do I assume that someone I don’t know is untrustworthy?
⚬ Is it possible that the accused is capable of compartmentalizing their life, or that our relationship is different than that of the relationship they have with the accuser? Is it possible that I haven’t seen every single side to this person, or have willfully overlooked something?
⚬ Am I trying to downplay the accusations to make myself feel less uncomfortable right now? Do I fully understand what they are saying occurred and how it could be traumatic? How would I feel if a close friend or relative told me the same thing had happened to them?
By taking a minute — literally one minute — to confront the reality that a person that you know might be capable of harming someone else, it’s possible to tease apart the uncomfortable bits and, in theory, move forward in a way that reduces, rather than exacerbates, harm.
It also leaves space for the critical next steps, which include:
Acknowledging the way that the processes of accountability can be more traumatic to survivors. One of the most brutal elements of the King County Democrats’ standoff was the fact that many of the supporters of the man in question used “the process” to avoid parsing out their own feelings.
We frequently conflate the tenets of our justice system— trotting out “innocent until proven guilty” at times when that is absolutely not the most humane or logical way to handle a situation—with the realities of interpersonal relationships. We give the benefit of the doubt only to the accused, while dragging survivors through a traumatic telling and retelling until we are convinced.
As Christine Emba wrote for the Washington Post:
“We aren’t seeing an epidemic of men being railroaded for flirting. There is no wave of false accusations washing defenseless men from their rightful careers. The cases taking over the news weren’t sparked by untouchable accusers whose pointed fingers have the power to ruin careers. Instead, we’ve uncovered systemic, ongoing patterns of abuse perpetrated by men with power against women with much less of it. The evidence isn’t scanty, and the accusations aren’t random. There is never just one victim. And due process, invoked indulgently, often allows the guilty to linger in power for far longer than they deserve.”
We also hail the justice system as the ultimate source of truth with regard to sexual harassment and assault, in spite of copious evidence that the justice system is actually extremely terrible at holding abusers accountable.
Though it is understandable that a lot of people want to wait until the jury or other ruling body has made a final decision—to demand due process before convicting, even in the court of public opinion—that patently ignores damage which that process does to survivors.
Due Process Is Needed For Sexual Harassment Accusations — But For Whom?
How often are we being suckered into a side of a debate that we shouldn’t even be having?
You cannot, I believe, call for “due process!” over and over again while also holding that you support and understand the plight of survivors of sexual assault, because due process is often a process that is designed to exhaust and demoralize them.
Holding the person you care about accountable. Humans have a powerful instinct to outright ignore things they don’t like—studies have found that we’re less likely to take corrective actions toward an esteemed other in instances of cognitive dissonance if we think there may be negative outcomes, like feeling awkward or losing face.
But something as simple as confronting the matter by saying “I am very disappointed and upset with this person’s actions” can have a huge impact on reducing harm. It helps assuage some of the discord while also acknowledging the upset that the survivor and their esteemed others are feeling.
Admitting that people you like can sometimes do things that you do not like. You can like a person and not like the things that they do—but if you continue to ignore those things, or downplay them, or attempt to make them go away, that person will continue to do them. If you really care for a person, help them, but don’t enable them.
If someone you know has been accused, you don’t need to take immediate action. You don’t need to unfriend them immediately (though there are some important implications to “keeping tabs” on people on Facebook). You don’t need to put on a hair shirt and whip yourself for not knowing better. You also don’t need to immediately, publicly leap to their defense—because doing so will make it a lot harder for you be nuanced about it in the future.
You can pick up the phone and text them about it. You can talk to your other friends about it. You can deliberately create a status about it. You can wait until more information comes out to make a firm decision about it.
And, hopefully, you can be kind and empathetic about it.
During this slog with the King County Democrats, people of all genders sided with Stober. They couched their support behind a demand for due process, or denied the allegations altogether, despite copious receipts. They joined Stober in his cries that it was “all dirty politics” and they he needed to “clear his name.” They decided that everyone involved was out for blood, that they had no respect for the process, that they should wait to judge.
That due process, in this case, worked, to some degree—after a 13-hour jury trial by the Dems, Stober was found to be guilty of multiple counts of mismanagement and creating a hostile work environment. His survivors were vindicated in writing. He finally resigned.
But close to 800 people still follow his political page on Facebook. He has the support of elected officials for his new political run. And he stands to earn close to $90k in taxpayer dollars this year even if he never works a single day until 2019, while many of the survivors, including the King County Democrats as an organization, are currently scrambling to pay their bills.
Weeks later, members of the local Democratic party establishment are still taking to Twitter and Facebook to rail against the ways they think the process has been altered or tampered with — and yes, that’s me in one of those photos wearing a “Misogyny Kills” t-shirt — because, of course, if it doesn’t work the way you like it, someone must be up to no good.
So sure, you could say “the process” worked. But it also didn’t work, because Stober made out like a bandit in the end and dozens of survivors had their hearts broken and their wounds reopened because people in their ranks refused to believe them.
And this is the sad truth with so many of these instances when we’re chided for not waiting for a statement or a settlement or a verdict. “Innocent until proven guilty” doesn’t work when the innocent party is the one that’s left financially ruined, socially isolated, and completely fragmented. A lot of innocent people were deeply harmed by this process.
Why? Because a handful of people couldn’t believe that someone they’d called a friend could also be hurtful? Because it’s easier to assume everyone is lying than it is to admit your own role in something?
Accusations are often viewed as the first step—but, since accusations are also usually true (this is statistical, not anecdotal), they’re actually much further down the path. Accusations typically come after someone has already done a great deal of damage, has already hurt someone.
Which is, perhaps, the most critical thing to remember. When you see that one of your friends or colleagues as been accused, it is your first contact with the situation—but it’s not the beginning.
According to every credible source available on the subject, the most likely scenario is that you are friends with someone who did a harmful thing to someone else. That is the statistical truth.
This doesn’t make you a bad person. It doesn’t make them a bad person. But it does put you in an uncomfortable and difficult and powerful position. Your next steps are extremely important. I humbly request you take them with purpose and an eye toward harm reduction.
*Disclosure: I was contacted by a small group of the King County Democrats to lend my expertise as a communications professional. I was retained to help in fact-finding, media relations, etc. I sat in on many meetings, as well as talked to survivors and filed public disclosure requests on behalf of the group. I worked on a volunteer basis and was never compensated financially or in any other way.