How do you cope when the person who has caused violence, either against yourself or someone else, is not the faceless monster that we often perceive perpetrators of sexual harm to be. How do we balance our thoughts and make sense of everything when the person who caused violence is not someone you hate, but someone who you love.
As our society begins to understand the complexity of sexual harm and counter rape myths that there is only one type of offender and victim, it brings a lot more things into perspective. The perpetrator is no longer recognised as a sadistic kidnapper who hides in alleyways with a knife, but someone who has friends, family, a job and does normal people things. Perpetrators of sexual harm are more often than not, someone that we know, someone we believed we could trust and maybe even someone who we love unconditionally.
Attempting to make sense of the constant spinning emotions of uncertainty, anger, sadness, fear, stress, frustration, pain and predominantly the questions of how could this person do something like this and why did they do what they did. The warmth you felt toward that person does not simply perish instantly, making it even more difficult to compile and understand where to go next and how to deal with it.
Myself along with many others I’m sure have had countless sleepless nights racking our brains and attempting to decipher our memories to process the grief of the ideals that you previously had of this person which are now destroyed. There is no normal procedure to go through when confronted with these emotions and there is no ordinary way to feel. Through attempting to assemble my emotions and try to address everything of what I was feeling, I managed to gain some sort of perspective on it.
Addressing all of these cognitive emotions, warped the understanding of what I believed I already had in terms of the aftermath to sexual assault. I realised there is a lot more complexity concerning what causes sexual harms, people’s attitudes towards victims and offenders, the blurred lines between aggression and accountability or complacency and accountability.
To attempt to outline what I did (and am still) trying to come to terms during the aftermath of someone I loved immensely who I had an enormous amount of respect for, I thought through the main aspects which shone out to me.
The person who caused harm must non-negotiably understand that what they did is wrong. Not necessarily in a legal or moral sense, which both have straight forward answers, that it IS wrong. Rather focusing on why their specific actions were wrong and the significance of the harm caused. Some people will already know the impact of the harm they caused and what they did was wrong, but it needs to go deeper than just this.
On an intimate level of just how the consequences of their actions have impacted those around them, primarily the victim but those in the wider communities. Sexual assault is one of the most degrading and dehumanising forms of violence which can be inflicted on another person, regardless of how the ‘bad’ the assault is defined as, sexual harm can have lifelong physical, mental, spiritual, emotional and social impacts for the victims. The person who helps the person understand what they did was wrong can be a multitude of people.
Taking into account your mental wellbeing first in whether you want to be part of the group who helps them to understand their wrongdoing. Whether this is counselling, their social spheres, victim impact statements through various formal settings including the court system or restorative processes. The person has to be able to take genuine complete responsibility for the harm they caused, without simply saying it to get off the hook, but to understand and mean it.
The person needs to evaluate in-depth, why this happened. In no means to justify what they had done but to be able to address what factors contributing to the assault taking place. Criminologists explore the causes of criminality, not to justify the actions but to address why the action happened in the first place to prevent it from happening at all in the first place or to prevent reoffending. This includes looking into what factors lead to someone committing a sexual assault upon another person.
There is no one fits all reason for what could drive a person to inflict such a heinous act of violence on another person. Finding a driver can help ensure that the person never inflicts this type of pain onto anyone else and also can help them understand the harm they have caused. Agencies such as Wellstop and Safe specialise in addressing the contributing factors to why someone caused this type of harm.
There are treatment programmes set in prison facilities as well, which address the causation of a sexual offence in aim to hold accountability and to prevent recidivism. There is a large diversity of explanations of what could be identified as contributors to a sexual assault.
Theories that contribute to the describing why someone could commit any form of sexual harm include distorted sexual cognition, toxic masculinity, rape culture and myths, PTSD and misconceptions. This is once again not to give a justification for the harm the someone caused but if someone can identify in themselves what contributed to their attack, they can make sure they address this to prevent further harm. This step needs to be down largely by the person, with potential guidance from others and professional help.
An important part which I came to terms was having to learn to not bottle up emotions to protect the other person. When an extreme betrayal of trust happens, there is no right or wrong way to respond or feel. However, ignoring the emotions that are being felt can be incredibly dangerous. Regardless of the confusing mix of feelings which you have towards this person, don’t resist what you’re feeling to protect them.
They are the one who caused the harm and for them to comprehend this authentically, they need to understand that they have caused excruciating amounts of pain. This will not always be clear cut or easy to put into words, but just not letting the emotions internalise and eat you inside to protect the one whose actions caused these emotions.
Lastly one of the hardest struggles which I think is a battle for many people in these positions is the decision on whether or not to keep this person in your life. Many people will believe that this is a clear cut decision, the reality is that it is not. Ultimately this decision is a personal one and is not a simple one. This decision is yours, no one else’s regardless of what any other outsider believes is the right decision.
As long as this choice has not been coerced in any way, that you have been threatened in any way towards either side and that you don’t feel an obligation to this person or anyone else. The safety and wellbeing of yourself, the other victims and potential victims are prioritised in any decisions regarding this. All of the previous points are a large contributor to this decision as well if this person is willing to acknowledge their wrongdoing and make a change can be a contributor. In saying this though, what the person has done and the harm they have caused is unforgivable and there is never a justification for what they did.
All of these are points are irrespective of whether there is a criminal justice process or an official complaint made to the police or other authorities. These are all applicable when the offender may have any various sort of relation to you, they could be friends, partners, parents and other family members, institutions, authority figures such as Churches or someone who was complacent in the assault.
Regardless of whether this person harmed you, a stranger or someone else that you love, this is still a painful process and not one which is simple to navigate.
It is not your fault and you don’t owe anyone an explanation.
Ailish Leydon-Lyons is a researcher and writer for Mosaic-Tiaki Tangata. She has recently completed a