We all think we'd do the right thing if someone was being sexually abused. But when the accused is a person we admire, many of us don't.
Opinion piece by F. Diane Barth
After every new revelation about a celebrity accused of sexual misconduct — especially those whose misdeeds have long been talked about— the public starts asking why nobody stopped them sooner.
The question is particularly poignant following the Sundance screening of the Michael Jackson documentary "Leaving Neverland" and the release of the Lifetime documentary “Surviving R. Kelly.” The first, a four-hour look at both the stories of two accusers and the lifetime of emotional fallout that followed, are essentially new allegations to many viewers, though Jackson faced and was acquitted of similar charges during his lifetime. (His estate has strenuously denied both men's accounts.)
The second adds context to what Chicago Tribune reporter Steve Johnson noted were “allegations of sexual abuse of women and girls by singer R. Kelly [that] have been part of the public record” for nearly 20 years. (Kelly, too, faced and was acquitted of sexual abuse charges and his representatives deny any accusations of illegal activity.)
Here’s the thing: All of us think that we would do the right thing in these situations, were we made aware of people in our lives being sexually abused. But when the accused is a person we admire — whether a celebrity or a religious leader or a beloved member of the community — many, if not most, of us are equally likely to not do the right thing, if that means taking the side of the accuser over the accused.
There are many reasons that we (as a society and as individuals) do not always take victims’ complaints seriously. One is denial — the inability or unwillingness to see something that appears obvious to others. Denial is a way that our brains try to protect us when someone we love hurts us.
As a psychotherapist, I have worked with parents whose denial made it impossible for them to see that their partners were mistreating their children, and with adults who were still hurt by their parents’ failure to recognize what they suffered as children. Sometimes the parents in denial are themselves the adult survivors of abuse.
All of this means that someone who was abused may simply not be able to recognize another’s cruelty and mistreatment.
And there are a lot of folks in this category: According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, one third of women and one fourth of men have been found to have experienced some sort of interpersonal violence.
Another reason, besides his celebrity and wealth, that Kelly’s victims were not taken seriously (until now) may have been that they were often young black women, a group whose voices have been historically muted. And, with Jackson, his alleged victims were all young boys, and research suggests that stereotypes about masculinity contribute to men and boys not coming forward and to people disbelieving them when they do. (Terry Crews, who was groped by an agent, has spoken about how men reacted more negatively to his reports of assault than women.)
That said, neither gender nor race convinced people that the victims of college gymnastics coach Larry Nassar (given a life sentence in January, 2018 for sexually assaulting numerous young gymnasts under his care) were telling the truth. His victims had reported his behavior to the Michigan State athletics officials for more than two decades.
But parents, university officials and other responsible adults in these youngsters’ lives often failed to recognize, hear, see or acknowledge what was happening, even continuing to take their children or athletes to Nassar for care.
So how do we change the dynamic of disbelief that survivors face, and which discourages them from reporting?
The first thing is that it’s important simply to take a stand against unacceptable behavior in general. You don’t have to — and in fact should not — become judge and jury: None of us want to destroy a potentially innocent person, or accept as automatically true any accusation. But you can (and should) advocate for the values in which you believe, and be aware of the social and personal dynamics that often lead people to believe and protect abusers rather than victims.
Your job as someone's confidant is not to determine what’s true, but to affirm their right to have their feelings and to protect themselves.
So, listen carefully to the accounts of people who are reporting mistreatment, as well as to those who are accused. Research has shown that abuse is often accompanied by forced or voluntary silence, and that acknowledging a victim’s feelings is extremely important to the healing process. And, on the other hand, Sarah Newman, the managing editor of PsychCentral and an abuse survivor, notes “Abusers don’t want you to trust your feelings. They tell you — maybe explicitly but definitely implicitly — that your feelings don’t matter.”
It's also important to understand that both abusers and abused both tend to minimize the destructiveness of abusive behavior so, if someone you know is telling you of such behavior, you should emphasize that it is not acceptable. It is normal for an abuse victim to attempt to defend the very person they have just complained about, because they often feel dependent and vulnerable, and at the same time, protective.
This is what the men in the Jackson documentary now describe as their motivation for testifying in his defense: Not only did he make them fear that they would be in trouble, but they would be the cause of his trouble, and they cared for him. Aishah Shahidah Simmons suggests the same might be true in the case of Whitney Houston, who, her brother alleged in the documentary “Whitney,” was abused by Dee Dee Warwick, the sister of the famous singer Dionne Warwick.
If someone reports abuse to you, encourage them to seek professional counsel, both psychological and legal. Good help for victims of abuse is much easier to find than it was in the past but, if you do not know specifically where to send them in your community, you can start with the National Sexual Assault Hotline staffed by RAINN, the largest anti-sexual assault organization in the United States. They provide immediate and confidential support in English and Spanish and can help victims or their supporters find further assistance near where you live.
Finally, though, understand that someone's accusation of abuse is not about you or your choices: You can love R. Kelly’s or Michael Jackson's music, Kevin Spacey’s acting or Bill Cosby’s humor, but you can also understand, affirm and recognize that a beloved person can do terrible harm. In fact, the more adored a person, the worse the damage he or she can do — not just to those who they abused, but to the society that allows them to get away with it.
F. Diane Barth, LCSW is a psychotherapist in New York City. Her most recent book is "I Know How You Feel: The Joy and Heartbreak of Friendship in Women’s Lives" (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2018).
This article was first published on NBC News' Think. Opinions expressed in View articles are solely those of the author.