Kaitlyn Kylus (She/Her)
Kaitlyn is a senior Social Work major and is a student staff member at the Women’s Center
Content Warning: Sexual Assault
A note on the word survivor: I will be using the words “survivor”, “victim”, and “accuser” interchangeably in this post. It is always up to the person affected to decide how they feel most comfortable identifying themselves, and the words they chose to describe themselves should always be respected.
So, your fave has been accused of sexual assault.
You know the drill by now. Your favorite celebrity’s name is trending on Twitter. You hold your breath as you click on the topic. Did they say something racist? Transphobic? Is it just their birthday? Yet again, you are greeted with the all too familiar tweet,
“[insert celebrities name here] accused of sexual assault.”
So, let’s talk about it. What’s the right thing to do when your favorite celebrity is accused? Let’s examine what I personally have seen as the three most common reactions.
While this is upsetting for anyone to hear about, it can be especially heartbreaking for survivors of sexual violence. Many survivors already have trouble trusting anyone, so knowing that even the actors/musicians/comedians we like are actually perpetrators makes even just enjoying different forms of media feel unsafe. What if we’re unknowingly supporting someone heinous? And, seeing the world respond to the accusations can often reflect what happened in a survivor’s own life.
1) You don’t believe the accuser.
As the vice-president of We Believe You (a student org that supports survivors and advocates for an end to rape culture), it isn’t surprising that my view of this position is a negative one. I know that it is painful to acknowledge that someone you loved has done something awful. The truth is, you can never truly know a public figure. What you see is what they want you to see, a carefully curated version of themselves. It’s impossible to know what they do behind closed doors. So, the argument that they would never do something like this is a flawed one.
If you think that people falsely accuse celebrities for selfish motives, to get ahead in their careers, or get social media attention, think a little harder. Can you name the women who accused Louis C.K? How many of Bill Cosby’s victims can you name? Think about what happened to Dr. Christine Blasey Ford when she testified against Brett Kavanaugh in a senate hearing. She had to move away and hire a security team because of the threats against her. On a smaller scale, you can just read the comments under any news article. There is no shortage of vitriol towards the survivor. There is nothing to gain from a false accusation, which is why they are so rare.
Poet Rhiannon McGavin, in response to a reckoning in 2014 of multiple sexual abuse allegations against famous youtubers, said this:
“You can never do wrong by believing the victim. Even if, against all odds, their accusations are false, all YOU did as the bystander was believe a vulnerable person.”
The Women’s Center has a supporting survivors workshop that explains best practices for supporting a survivor in your own life. One of the most important takeaways is the value in believing survivors.
“Sexual violence is severely underreported because survivors feel that they will be disbelieved or doubted. Believe them unconditionally and tell them so; people rarely make up stories of sexual assault, rape, or abuse. It is not necessary for you to decide if they were “really hurt” or if it “really happened that way.” Don’t try to excuse the abuser’s behavior, don’t play devil’s advocate, and don’t try to minimize or explain away the survivor’s experience. It’s invaluable for survivors to hear “I believe you and I’m here for you.”
Remember that you are not an investigator. It is not your job to prove in a court of law that the accuser is telling the truth. The most important role you can play is to believe the survivor, which then empowers others to come forward and be believed. The devil doesn’t need an advocate, and there will already be a shocking amount of harsh words and threats against a survivor who accuses a celebrity. Don’t be a part of the reason that more victims are silenced.
2) You believe the accuser, but think that you can separate the art from the artist.
Maybe you think the survivor is telling the truth, but you just really love SWMRS music. Can’t you listen to it anyway? Why stop wearing their merch, it’s so comfy! Sure, you can try to separate the art from the artist, but all creators put a piece of themselves into their art. Do you really feel okay listening to someone sing about their thoughts and feelings knowing that they are an abuser? Their willingness to assault or abuse someone factors into what they say and what they feel. Not to mention that when you’re giving them money, they don’t care that you’re separating their art from them. There is no material difference when that money goes into their pocket.
It’s also important to consider the impact that your support has on others. Even if you do believe the victim, that’s not what you are portraying to the world. When they see you wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with the name of a known abuser, what are you saying? Whether you mean to or not, you’re saying that abuse is not a deal breaker. When you financially support an abuser by buying their merch or music or seeing their new movie, what impact does that have on their victim? Practice some empathy here. Imagine how you would feel if someone assaulted you and a friend said “I believe you, but I’m still going to give them money and publicly show my support for their art anyway. But don’t worry, I’m separating the art from the artist.”
While this may be a thought provoking exercise for you, it is the reality of many survivors who see their abusers continue to thrive. I am asking that you care about other people. Giving up a band or a comedy special is worth it to protect a vulnerable person. If you truly support and believe them, your actions should reflect that.
3) You believe the accuser, and no longer support the accused.
I believe this is the best option. Yes, it sucks. But it sucks way more to be a victim and see the world continue to celebrate your abuser.
However, I do recognize that this isn’t as cut and dry as I sometimes wish. Where do we draw the line? Is anyone redeemable? Is it our place to decide? These are questions that I ask myself whenever I see a new accusation, and it’s something that I still grapple with. In the end, I think what matters most is how the survivor feels, and offering them your belief and your support. I care less about whether the accused still has fans, and more that the accuser is being supported however they most need it. I think for a lot of survivors, deplatforming their abuser is a large part of feeling supported.
I can’t speak for everyone, but these things hold true in my own life. Watching abusers be praised is painful to me. Seeing abusers be supported reminds me of the ways that I was not. Of course, we are all capable of harming others, we are all going to do the wrong thing, and we all should face some consequences and learn from our mistakes. I just believe that there is some harm for which the appropriate consequence is to lose your public platform, especially if that platform is what facilitated the abuse in the first place.
In a world where both of the top presidential candidates have been accused of sexual assault, it is clear that rape culture is pervasive. My heart is heavy for all the people who have not shared their story, for everyone who has to watch their abuser win an award or star in a movie or come up in the music industry. And of course, there is the more common occurrence: survivors everywhere have to watch their abuser graduate, get married, and have kids. Many of us will never get justice. Many of us still don’t quite know what justice would even look like.
This is messy, and there are no easy answers. But no matter what answer you arrive at, it is vital that we show all survivors the support that they deserve.
For information on sexual violence resources and support, click here.