The past few weeks have seen an avalanche of sexual harassment accusations against a list of influential men from different industries. But the systematic abuse isn't limited to echelons of Hollywood, business, or media — sometimes we're personally familiar with the accused. And as this watershed moment goes on, it's important to know what to do if you know a sexual harasser.
The most persuasive way of learning what to do seems to come from looking at the opposite of an ideal response. After actress Aurora Perrineau accused HBO Girls series writer Murray Miller of sexually assaulting her in 2012, the show's creator Lena Dunham weighed in on the allegation. After Miller had "categorically and vehemently" denied Perrineau's accusation, Dunham took to Twitter and tweeted, "I believe in a lot of things but the first tenet of my politics is to hold up the people who have held me up, who have filled my world with love."
Dunham was strongly criticized by social media users as well as by writers who characterized her response to the accusations as a case of white feminism. After mounting disapproval on Twitter, Dunham tweeted a two-note response and apologized for her statement. But the Girls creator is not alone in the category of less-than-ideal responses.
So, what can be considered a nuanced and compassionate response? Tamar Davis, program and administrative assistant at anti-sexual harassment group Hollaback!, has some useful tips. Here are some steps to take if someone you hold close has been accused of sexual harassment or assault.
1. Listen To The Accuser
"Assume the accuser is telling the truth," Davis says. "This may be a hard pill to swallow — but it's very rare that people lie about being harassed or assaulted."
According to a study compiled by The National Center for The Prosecution of Violence Against Women, only 2 to 8 percent assaults are falsely reported.
2. Laud A Survivor's Bravery For Coming Forward
One of the best things you can do was exemplified by CBS This Morning hosts, Gayle King and Norah O'Donnell. King and O'Donnell's co-anchor Charlie Rose was accused of sexually harassing eight women in a report filed by The Washington Post. In a statement, Rose responded to the accusations saying, "It is essential that these women know I hear them and that I deeply apologize for my inappropriate behavior."
In stark contrast with Dunham, King and O'Donnell spoke about Rose's alleged behavior in remarkably thoughtful terms. While extolling the "courage" of the women who came forward with their accusations, King said, "We hope that they will continue to speak up." O'Donnell added:
This is a moment that demands a frank and honest assessment about where we stand, and more generally about the safety of women. Let me be very clear. There is no excuse for this alleged behavior. It is systematic and pervasive. And I've been doing a lot of listening and I'm going to continue to do that.
3. Don't Center Your Response On Your Relationship With The Harasser
It's tempting to shed light on one's own uplifting memories and rapport with an accused person, but it ends up becoming a selfish response to another person's presumably harrowing experience with sexual abuse. Focus on what the survivor is saying and how you can be of help.
"When providing support to your friend on what to do, remember to center the experience of the victim first," Davis says. "Then ask your friend to offer suggestions on solutions that they would be open to. For example: a mediation process, a restorative justice process, a donation to an organization in their honor."
4. Talk To The Harasser
Davis says, to "talk to the person who was accused. We have a tendency to back off, blacklist them, or just assume 'it's not our problem' or 'we can't do anything to help.' Instead, remember that you have an opportunity to create a learning moment for your friend, and provide healing for the victim. Ask your friend what happened."
Furthermore, she says, "Encourage your friend to apologize. A real apology, not a 'sorry you're upset' apology."
5. Offer Actionable Advice To The Harasser To Better Their Conduct
"Try and figure out what they need right now," Davis says.
Consider questions, she says, like these: "Is it therapy? Support on how to reach out to the person and apologize? Guidance on where to take it from here?"
6. Critically Evaluate Your Relationship
Sometimes when we are close to someone, it's hard to honestly assess the relationship given such close proximity. In the wake of an allegation against a friend or family member or beloved, take a step back and constructively look at your dynamic with them. Don't let your emotions overtake your judgment.
7. Receiving Versus Reacting
When a survivor tells you that someone you hold dear is an abuser, take a moment to receive the information as opposed to instantly reacting. By prioritizing receiving over reacting, you are more likely to make a fair and objective evaluation of the situation.
Even during an ongoing investigation, when details concerning alleged sexual harassment are still murky, friends and family of the alleged harasser should focus on the victim and their experience, regardless of one's own positive experiences with the accused. With these tips, it's more than possible to create a kind and rational response.