I want you to know that I know how you feel. I, too, have cared deeply about men and women who have been perpetrators. I have loved their poems - I have been supported by them in times of distress - I have had them over to my house for tea - I have talked politics and sex and TV with them. And then, one day someone tells you something that seems to turn your whole relationship with that person on its head.
The idea that a person we love has sexually assaulted someone - it is foreign. It feels wrong. It feels like a lie. It feels impossible. This can't be so, you think to yourself. There must be some mistake. Maybe she made it up. Maybe she wasn't clear. Maybe she was a slut, maybe she was asking for it, maybe she just regretted it the next day. (If this is your reaction, please spend some time learning about victim blaming.)
I want you to do me a favour: pretend, just for a moment, that it's true. If it's true, what could you do to support accountability and healing for perpetrator and survivor alike?
As it turns out, unconditional love doesn't mean believing everything your loved one says. It means being on their side even when they are not yet on their own side. It means supporting them before they have even admitted they need help.
If your loved one has done this, they are going to need your help. Sometimes, the dissonance between who they believe themselves to be and how they actually behave does not allow them to take responsibility for their actions. Our society shames, shuns, and blames perpetrators. We make them into monsters. We draw thick, dark, impenetrable lines between us and them. We affirm our goodness by declaring their badness.
If you had sexually assaulted someone, or a few someones, how could you ever bear to admit it? How could you own it, knowing that the truth would likely mean permanent exile from the places and people that you care about the most? How could you tell your best friend, your mother, your partner, your sister, or anyone else? How could you admit it to yourself? The answer is, you probably couldn't.
I asked you earlier to pretend for a moment that someone has named your loved one as a perpetrator and it's true. If it's true, your loved one is probably paralyzed with shame, guilt, fear or denial. No matter what they look like on the outside, inside they are freaking out. Of course they are - look at what's at stake. Their self-concept. Their relationships with friends, families and communities. Maybe their jobs. Depending on whether or not the police are involved, their liberty and future opportunities in their lives. No matter who you are or what you've done, that is terrifying.
I believe that people behave in fucked up ways for a lot of reasons. I also believe that, in certain cases, extending a perpetrator the support that they need in order to heal and stop hurting people can be revolutionary. Part of that support might mean unconditional love - real unconditional love - love that says that you will support them to get better and heal. That their behaviour is wrong, but they are not monsters.
Your support could mean that they could take that terrifying step forward, and admit what they've done. It could mean that they get counselling. It could mean that they join a fellowship that will help them be accountable. As Tara Hardy said, "It could mean that they step through a door into a whole new life." It could mean so much healing, and a better quality of life.
I hope that we are all enlightened and compassionate enough to want that for him.
NB: In this post, I have used female pronouns for the survivor and male pronouns for the perpetrator for clarity. Men get assaulted too, and their experiences are often sidelined in these conversations.