Feminist writer and activist bell hooks once said, “For me, forgiveness and compassion are always linked: How do we hold people accountable for wrongdoing and yet at the same time remain in touch with their humanity enough to believe in their capacity to be transformed?”
We are living in an extraordinary time in American history, when the most powerful man in the country is well known for his dishonesty, misogyny and refusal to apologize for mistakes and shortcomings, and who has more than 20 allegations of sexual impropriety weighed against him.
From the election of Donald Trump to the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh to a seat on the Supreme Court, I and other assault survivors have been deeply triggered and overwhelmed by recent and ongoing national rhetoric. Kavanaugh’s angry denial of all impropriety — except the occasional overuse of beer — was perhaps the most disheartening aspect of the Senate Judiciary Committee hearings on the allegations against him, during which his accuser, Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, recalling her assault decades ago, was dignified and credible.
Kavanaugh didn’t bother to qualify his past behavior — he dismissed Ford’s story altogether, taking no responsibility, following the pattern of the man who nominated him. Survivors and others across the country are outraged; forgiveness and compassion are largely inaccessible when no accountability is acknowledged. However, even when accountability is attempted, survivors have widely different capacities and desires for forgiveness.
In September, a former Iowa City resident now living in Minnesota posted a note on Facebook admitting to rape and discussing the “accountability process” he is going through. (We will avoid naming the man, so as not to risk calling attention to the identities of those he may have assaulted). He admitted to a “sexual experience” with a woman in Iowa City seven years ago in which he practiced “bad consent” — “although it was not my intention,” he adds.
In retrospect, he may have abused other women, he admits, and went on to recount the ways he is seeking redemption: therapy, remaining sober from drugs and alcohol, seeking advice from women and “lgbtqia+ community members,” and the Facebook post itself, through which he hoped to start “a conversation.”
The responses to the post were swift and divided. A sexual assault survivor commented that she wished she had known of the man’s behavior sooner, so she could have made an informed choice about whether she associated with him personally or professionally. Another survivor praised him for taking accountability, because she believed she would be at peace if her abuser had taken ownership of what he did to her. Others critiqued the roundabout way he discussed the rape, and dismissed the post as self-serving and disrespectful to the women he violated.
A common call from both the man’s supporters and critics: He should step down from the leadership position he held in a company he co-owned. The next day, the man shared that he was in fact resigning, and relinquishing his shares in the company.
The virtual discussion around this man’s actions orbits a couple central questions, widely debated across the U.S.: How does one “properly” take accountability for sexual misconduct? And how do we respond to these types of apologies?
“If you talk to survivors of sexual violence, what they want [from their assaulters] is acknowledgment of the harm they caused,” Kathryn Duarte, assistant director for sexual assault services at the Rape Victim Advocacy Center, told me. She has worked with survivors in Iowa City for 12 years. “They want to make sure the harm doesn’t get repeated and they want to be validated for their experience. This is the responsibility component.”
Beyond accepting any potential legal consequences from their actions, past perpetrators of sexual misconduct — as well as any crime that victimizes another individual, including race-, nationality- and gender-based harassment and violence — must go beyond saying simply, “I harmed you; sorry about that.” They need to take responsibility for both their individual actions and contribution to larger systems of injustice.
Cultural service centers across Iowa practice working through these systems using transformative justice. This method of addressing conflict seeks to support collective action through restorative justice circles, letting three parties — the offender, the victim and the community — speak on an equal basis, without fear of punishment.
Of course, this model can be complicated in cases of sexual assault. Even if offenders are willing to take this step towards accountability, victims may not want to discuss what happened to them, much less sit down for a conversation with their attacker. The former Iowa City man said in a comment to his original post that the woman he raped had declined to speak with him.
But the emphasis on respectful discourse could be applied to both local and national conversations in the #MeToo era. This includes listening to and believing those who stand the least to gain from the system of sexual violence: women, specifically women of color, and others who speak out as survivors of assault.
“Sexual violence is a branch on a tree of oppression,” Duarte continued. This is exemplified in the Clarence Thomas/Anita Hill hearings of 1991, during which issues of race, gender, privilege and sexual harassment were hard to separate.
Marginalized communities are targeted by law enforcement and too often do not find justice within the criminal justice system. Many survivors are retraumatized by law enforcement when they try to report what happened to them, and by the public’s reactions.
“I am Latina,” Duarte explained. “In my community, if another Latino harms you, I am criticized for incarcerating another brown male. I’m seen as a traitor to my community. I need the support and so does he. There has to be different ways of navigating, so survivors can heal and stay in the community, because that is their support system.”
“We tend to silo things when we are working with the issue of sexual violence, but we should be looking at anti-racism work along with sexual violence prevention,” Duarte continued. “The intent is to interrupt a system of oppression. We need to pull our resources together and not look at them as separate. We can then question how are we going to interrupt the system within ourselves.”
“In order to address this tree of oppression we need to do things every day to balance power and control,” Duarte said. “We can first start by being more aware and mindful of what we are doing in our lives and how our behaviors are impacting others. We can listen instead of talk. We can observe who is dominating a conversation and ask for other voices to be heard.”
Dan Harmon, creator of the TV shows Community and Rick and Morty, spoke to this mindfulness in his own accountability-taking. After being called out for sexual harassment last year by Megan Ganz, a writer who used to work on his staff, Harmon’s swift apology rang as genuine, thorough and the result of deep self-reflection.
On the Jan. 10 episode of his podcast, Harmon confessed to dehumanizing and traumatizing Ganz, for whom he harbored unreciprocated feelings for years while in a position of power over her. He offered no excuses or qualifications for his “creeping” behavior, and discussed how hypocritically he acted as a self-proclaimed feminist. Finally, he called on men to “think about” their behavior more and expressed gratitude for the fact the #MeToo movement lets fewer men, including him, get away with hurting others. Responding on Twitter, Ganz praised the speech, calling it “a masterclass in How to Apologize.”
Though likely not perfect, the transcript of Harmon’s confession is certainly worth studying, especially if you’re another high-profile man yet to take responsibility for past sexual misconduct.
Though the value of Facebook and other social media as forums for sensitive discourse is debatable, and some of the language the man used to describe his assault(s) reads as evasive, the former Iowa Citian did do some things right, from a social justice perspective. He prefaced his post with a trigger warning, and he welcomed input and conversation. He said he would listen, and it appears he did, as he left his position of power at his company.
Unlike Harmon, the woman this man victimized did not take part in his accountability process. Of course, every survivor must determine their own self-care needs, but without her input, who is qualified to sign off on the apology or dictate the man’s next step? Does social justice include shunning, total redemption or something in between? How does the public practice both compassion for survivors and compassion for a contrite former abuser?
The abuser lives in the tension they created, a fog that won’t suddenly clear with enough time, apologies or therapy appointments. But tension is always preferable to silence, and a problematic presentation of the truth still healthier than lies and victim-blaming. And if contributors to the conversation listen and respect the humanity of all those involved, they can work to dissipate the fog without starting a storm.
The conversation is uncomfortable, but perhaps this discomfort can be a teacher, a motivator for change. It begins with accountability.
Resources for those affected by sexual assault
National Sexual Assault Hotline: 800-656-HOPE (4673)
Online chat: www.hotline.rainn.org/online
Rape Victim Advocacy Program
24-hour local crisis line: 319-335-6000 or 800-228-1625
Domestic Violence Intervention Program
24-hour hotline: 800-373-1043
Culture-specific resource centers
Amani Community Services
Services for African-American survivors
Crisis line: 888-983-2533
Deaf Iowans Against Abuse (DIAA)
Services for deaf, hard of hearing and deaf-blind survivors
Crisis line – V/VP: 319-531-7719
Crisis line – text only: 515-661-4015
Latinas Unidas por un Nuevo Amanecer (LUNA)
Services for Latinx survivors
LUNA Crisis Line (Spanish and English): 866-256-7668
Iowa Hotline: 800-770-1650
or text “IOWAHELP” to 20121
Meskwaki Victim Services
Services for Native women, children and families
Crisis line – toll free: 855-840-7362
Crisis line – call or text: 641-481-0334
Monsoon United Asian Women of Iowa
Services for Asian and Pacific Islander survivors
Crisis line: 866-881-4641
Nisaa African Women’s Project
Services for African immigrants and refugee communities
Crisis line: 866-881-4641
Services for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and questioning, intersex and asexual (LGBTQIA) survivors
Office line: 319-389-8430
Natalie Benway LISW is a psychotherapist in private practice in Coralville. She has a certification in sexuality studies from the University of Iowa and is currently pursuing additional licensure with the American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors and Therapists. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 252.