In recent years we’ve been rocked by stories about nice guys behaving like monsters. Woody Allen. Bill Cosby. Jerry Sandusky. The reactions to allegations of sexual violence around these charismatic figures usually fall into two different camps: half of us are enraged, the other half are coming to the nice guy’s defense. But a new study, released in early March, demonstrates that these two polar responses may actually be contributing to the problem.
As a survivor of sexual violence myself, I know how hard it is to come out with the news that there has been a transgression, especially if the offender is a nice guy. Often survivors of molestation or assault put off sharing this part of their lives for years. In Cosby‘s and Allen‘s cases, the victims waited decades before they spoke publicly about these nice guys. I put off telling my immediate family until I was over 40.
There are many reasons why survivors wait to tell their stories. Part of the cause involves age and the healing process itself. Sharing a transgression often means understanding it. Even for those who do understand, it is hard to talk about. And the difficulty for victims is compounded by a nice guy vs. monster paradigm that our society clings to.
In a March 2014 scholarly article featured in the British Journal of Criminology, Anne-Marie McAlinden asserts that the current paradigm makes things worse for the victim in a number of ways. According to McAlinden, our society not only envisions the perpetrator as a monster, but it also paints the victim as innocent and pure. Children and teens become confused if they don’t completely see themselves as innocent, and when their molester has human rather than monster-like qualities. Children are often durable and tough, and the innocent victim portrayal might not resemble anything they are feeling. They are less likely to talk about their experiences as a result. And if they do speak out and are not the completely innocent child our society expects, they are less likely to be believed. This paradigm creates a landscape ripe for victim-blaming, and a society of onlookers who do little to change the landscape.
In an article in Slate, written around the events of the Penn State scandal, Mark P. McKenna reveals that he, too, was abused by a college coach. Of predators he states: “Predators do not look like monsters; they look like your neighborhood basketball coach or the guy running a children’s charity. They look like people you know, because they are.” The man who molested me was a fabulous cook and a great storyteller. He was kind and funny. He made people feel loved and valued, and even today, when I see some of these qualities in my own personality, I wonder if I learned them from him. Why is it still difficult for me to admit that he molested me one day when I was 9? It’s simply because I loved him and because, well, my family did, too.
McKenna brings up another great point. “If you teach them [your children] that they should be on the lookout for monsters, they will be confused by the inappropriate behavior of adults who don’t fit that profile.” As a society, we hate to admit that molesters are people. They have families. They advocate for what they believe in. They do noble things. They can be lovable, charismatic, the life of the party. And the sooner we admit this, the easier it will be for victims to get the help and support they need. Because even though it’s difficult to acknowledge, sometimes victims love their abusers for all the same reasons other family members do. If we are able to admit that a child molester can be lovable, then maybe it will be a lot less frightening for victims to come out with their stories.
To help victims of sexual violence, we need a paradigm shift when it comes to how we view them and the people who commit molestation. Child molesters are people who have made a terrible choice in their lives, a choice that will confuse everyone in its path. For those who have made their childhood secret public, I can vouch it was most likely one of the most painful and difficult decisions they have ever made. They did not go into it lightly. Unfortunately, often victims are ostracized and blamed for a crime they are desperately trying to survive, only compounding the trauma they have to endure. To help survivors of abuse, we need to acknowledge the ambivalent feelings survivors might be having around their abuse, as well as the fact that not all victims are virginal and pure with a perfect past.
So what do we do? We start out by not stripping the nice guy of his humanity — that is, by not turning him into a monster. I know this is hard. He has molested or assaulted somebody. But he is also human. We do hold him accountable for the event. We do find what he did inexcusable. We don’t blame victims. We instead listen and acknowledge how hard this must be for them. Then we stop being onlookers and focus on what we can do to lower the occurrence of sexual violence. Are there resources for people who commit sexual violence? What are they? How can we get help to the people who need it, both the victim and the perpetrator? Helping offenders will hopefully prevent some violence from happening, eliminating potential victims along the way. To do this, we have to see those who commit molestation as humans with frailties of their own, often the victims of sexual violence themselves, and we have to give them the resources they need to stop the cycle.
Christine Ristaino is a professor of Italian language and culture at Emory University. She recently completed a memoir titled “The Little Girl Is Me,” which investigates her exploration of identity after she was attacked in a parking lot. Ristaino is also a fellow in The OpEd Project Public Voices Fellowship at Emory University.