A world in which abusers are held accountable

This past weekend, the NYT ran a piece about the mothers of male university students accused of sexual violence. It’s a striking piece because the mothers seem unable to imagine a world wherein abusers (in these cases and most cases, men) are held accountable for their violent actions.

They engage in victim-blaming, of course, and try to thread the needle between “falsely accused” and “wrongly accused,” mainly predicated on their own definitions of what counts as sexual assault, definitions that have, thankfully, become more comprehensive since when those mothers attended university.

More than anything, they are surprised and distressed to learn that accountability for doing harm is hard and, for lack of a better word, punishing to those who did the harm.

It throws into relief how we accept without question the consequences of being a victim; or rather, how we have all become ok with the cost of being victimized (because being a victim is a feminized position in our society’s hierarchy and we cannot care about the feminine). As a society, we rarely discuss the physical injuries, the mental trauma, what life is like when you live in the same space and share the same friend circle as someone who physically hurt you but you are too scared to report because you know and you are right that most people won’t believe you or care in the end, or how all of this together can have longterm detrimental effects on your social and economic well-being.

But when it is time to seriously look at the cost to those who harm once that harm comes to light, all we see is the ruination of the abusers’ lives, all we focus on is how hard it is for them to be held accountable, all we want to know is how long it will take for them to be redeemed so we can wash our hands of this case and, in turn, this issue and resume moving through the world with our heads in the sand.

I understand that any time your child is hurting, it is hard. I don’t begrudge these women their desire to help their child even after their child has hurt someone. It’s simply culturally unsustainable to throw away or cast out of society every person who has harmed another — we must find ways to move forward.

But! that help without any accountability feels worthless, a piece of an endless cycle that thrusts all of the weight and all the consequences of harm back onto the victimized.

We are so far from a world of accountability that we can’t even imagine what one could look like. We have a long way to go.


Edited to add: this piece by Anne McClintock at Jacobin gets at this same idea but deals more concretely with efforts to undermine Title IX on college campuses. Here is one part:

The deans pressured Natalie to sympathize with the rapist and feel responsible for sanctioning him. Natalie was interrogated for three traumatic hours by Dean Bain, who sanctioned Chancy with “dangerous conduct” “sexual assault,” “harassment,” and “violation of criminal law,” but the University still refused to consider expelling him. Their “philosophy” was to “rehabilitate” rapists simply by letting them remain in school.

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