Posted inColumns

Who Protects Us: Why Peer Accountability Is Vital to Recovery

Illustration by Elysia Stent

CW: sexual assault, rape

Our colleges and our nation at large have failed time and time again to hold the perpetrators of sexual assault accountable. They have failed to take our claims seriously, investigate our claims thoroughly, and protect us as a whole. A regulatory system that exhibits such miscarriages of justice, even if not exhaustively defective for each individual case, is still a failed system of accountability. 

Why does this concern our peer groups? 

Given the current state of these administrative bodies, accountability amongst peer groups is the only form of protection and justice a survivor may ever receive.

And yet, instead of feeling heard and validated, talking to peers or even friends often ends up feeling like you’ve spoken to a brick wall. 

‘I don’t want to cause a rift in the group’

‘They didn’t mean it, it was just a mistake’ 

‘They’ve always been nice to me’ 

‘I know them, they wouldn’t do something like that’ 

‘Why are you trying to ruin their reputation?’ 

‘Why are you trying to ruin their life?’

You may think some of these responses are valid. You may think some of them are well-meaning. You may even think some of them are constructive. 

But they are not. 

They are devastating to the survivor.

Why don’t we reframe these?

‘I don’t want to cause a rift in the group’

The survivor also does not want to cause a rift in the group, they are not looking for attention. This is why it typically takes survivors months, years, and sometimes even decades before they are ready to speak out. 

Statements like these minimise and belittle the survivor’s experience. They make the survivor feel responsible, insinuating that they are the root of the issue, and they will be the source of any cracks which subsequently develop among friends.

But our peers need to realise. We did not create the problem. In the same vein, you, as a friend, would not be the author of any subsequent friendship fallout. Neither survivors nor their allies are responsible for causing a rift by choosing to stand together, by choosing protection over acceptance. 

The only person responsible for causing a rift is the perpetrator.

‘They didn’t mean it, it was just a mistake’ 

‘Maybe they didn’t mean to make me feel like this.’ 

‘Maybe they didn’t realise I didn’t want to?’ 

This incessant almost intrusive thought pattern has sent me into a downward spiral more times than I can count, especially when initially coming to terms with what has happened. The only conviction which I maintain has consistently stood by me when dealing with these thoughts is: ‘So What?’

So What if they didn’t plan for me to react this way, So What if this wasn’t what they meant, and So What if they didn’t realise I didn’t want to. So What if they simply see it as ‘a mistake’?

They still did it. 

They still chose to put me in a situation where my consent did not matter to them, where my boundaries weren’t listened to, and where I was not allowed to act freely. I was held captive by their actions, regardless of whether they actively intended to assault me or not. 

‘They’ve always been nice to me’ 

The following line might be a shocking statement, but stick with me I promise.

Most rapists are, on the surface, ‘nice’ people.

Most rapists are ‘nice’ people in the sense that, usually, they will have friends, they will fit comfortably within their peer group, and they don’t stick out like a sore thumb.

And that is precisely why they are so insidious.

Perpetrators of assault don’t typically go around with the word ‘Rapist’ plastered on their forehead, regardless of how much easier this would make it for everyone else. 

There’s a reason why 80-90% of survivors knew their assaulter before the attack, and that’s because identifying a rapist is not simply a tick box exercise. There is not a one-step flow chart asking: ‘Are they nice? Yes/No’. The reality is unthinkably more complicated.

Painting a rapist only as a monster, as an outcast, or as a pariah is also massively detrimental in other ways. It lulls us into the false sense of security that we should be able to tell which people to interact with and which to avoid. Further, it places the blame on the victim for not being aware enough to recognise the red flags apparently radiating off their assaulter. 

In all, most rapists are, on the surface, ‘nice’ people. Just because you haven’t actively accepted them as what a rapist can look like doesn’t mean they should be automatically absolved. 

‘Why are you trying to ruin their reputation?’ 

We’re not.

We’re just making their reputation more accurate.

Why are you trying to ruin their life?

Why couldn’t someone have said this to them before they assaulted me? 

All we are doing is talking about an experience: stating what happened, what another person did to us. We are simply telling the truth.

If you think people would actively change how they interact with them based on things they have done, if you think people would hence be more aware, more cautious, warier, is this not information people deserve to know?

Given the minute percentage of individuals who have reported their experiences of assault, we will follow suit in this example. If the perpetrator has not been held accountable for their actions by a court, or a lower disciplinary body, they have not been made to take responsibility for what they did. They think there are no consequences for their actions because that is what our society and our educational bodies have taught them. They think they could do this again, and get away with it. 

They probably could.

Our society has taught them no different.

If we, as peers, don’t hold perpetrators accountable, who will? Who will protect us?

Why does this matter?

If survivors do not have a strong enough support system to reinforce these responses, no matter what the outside world may say, they may accept what has happened to them as normal.

The survivor may accept the criminal and abusive behaviour of their perpetrator as ‘a mistake’, as ‘a misunderstanding’, as an occasion where ‘two irresponsible people wanted to have some fun and just got things a little bit wrong’…

This not only sets the survivor up for a series of potentially abusive long-term relationships as they see coercive and forceful behaviour as normal, but will continue to pounce on their insecurities and bombard them with a slew of beliefs that this cruel treatment is all they are worth. They believe they are obligated to accept that their feelings and full consent do not ultimately matter, as no one has told them otherwise.

No one has told them that what their perpetrator did was wrong.

And if no one will protect them, who protects all of us?

How should I react?

The reactions of our peers should be individualised in every case, depending on what the survivor wants, needs, and feels comfortable with. 

You may want different things, have different needs, or feel comfortable with different reactions. But, honestly?

It’s not about you.

It’s not about whether you feel uncomfortable.

You, as an outside peer, are not a party in this story.

It is the survivor who dictates their healing process, who dictates what their recovery entails. Even if you have gone through a similar experience, it is never your place to tell a survivor what they should and should not feel comfortable with. You have no idea what they have gone through, how they may have reacted, or how this experience may have impacted them. 

When does it end?

It is a privilege to care about these issues for a mere week, and then move on when people have stopped actively discussing them.

But the experience never fully goes away for the survivor. Even though their needs may fluctuate – becoming less prevalent, less noticeable, less perceptible – the experience is still there. 

The responsibility should not be on the survivor to constantly ask you to believe them.