In the past five years alongside the #MeToo movement, we have witnessed an unprecedented number of celebrities and public figures face allegations and criminal sexual assault charges. More recently, the compounding trauma and increased use of technology during the global COVID-19 pandemic may also contribute to more survivors sharing their stories publicly online. As high-profile individuals facing charges, the accused usually have loyal fanbases willing to defend them in the court of public opinion.
Despite research on the prevalence of sexual violence, many people still struggle to accept that their favorite actor, singer, or sports figure is capable of sexually assaulting or harassing someone. The difference between the persona they love and the reality of that person's actions often leads them to blindly support the perpetrator, accuse the victim of being dishonest, or claim that the victim is motivated by financial gains.
It is difficult for many to reckon with the reality that someone they admire or idolize has committed abuse. The problem is that not only do many individuals hold onto these biases themselves, but when biases go unchecked in the public conversation, they contribute to the shame, fear, humiliation, and silence inflicted on victims.
Unfortunately, we know victim-blaming and misinformation are rampant on social media. The more time we all spend online, the greater potential for harmful comments to reinforce societal norms and beliefs that allow for sexual harassment, assault, and abuse to occur.
Here, we have tackled 11 common misunderstandings people have about high-profile sexual assault cases, pulled directly from social media comments.
1. There is no “look” shared by people who commit sexual harassment and abuse. They can present as wholesome, moral, and good-looking.
Anyone can perpetrate sexual violence, and anyone can be a victim. Unlike the roles actors play in movies, stereotypes about moral goodness equating to physical attributes are not real. In fact, people who sexually assault others can often be charismatic, seemingly empathetic, and successful. Feeling someone isn’t guilty just because they don’t “seem” or “look” like they committed sexual assault is a mistake.
2. No amount of money or fame invalidates the crime of sexual assault or renders someone incapable of abusing or harassing another.
People don’t perpetrate sexual assault or harassment out of a desire for sex – they do so for power. Be it to affirm power they feel they have, to diminish someone else’s power, or to assert dominance over someone else. People who commit sexual abuse may also feel entitled to harass a victim because of their celebrity status, or do it as a self-serving way to feel strong when overpowering the victim. They may also feel confident that they can get away with harassing someone as a result of their social status, and feel more empowered committing the crime.
3. Survivors often face great personal, professional, and financial costs when they come forward. There is no big lawsuit payout.
This is yet another example where perpetrators are protected while the victim is accused of having an ulterior motive. Despite their strength, sexual violence survivors face a great deal of public contempt. In high-profile cases, the victim’s most painful trauma may be forever memorialized online — for all to read and comment on.
Even if a judge does require compensation to be paid to the victim, the amount is calculated based on costs which the victim has full legal right to — such as lost wages, pain and suffering, cost of therapy, treatment and/or medical bills, medication, court costs, lost opportunity costs, or other expenses incurred due to the harassment or assault. Furthermore, many survivors pay out of pocket for the legal costs of the suit, even if the judge decides in their favor. In most cases, the survivor chooses a legal path after being counseled by a team of experts, because the outcome of their case will set a precedent on record to prevent others from being victimized.
Despite this, no amount of money can undo the pain and damage of sexual violence. Survivors of sexual assault and harassment do not magically ‘benefit’ from being victimized by rape or harassment simply because perpetrators have been made to cover their overdue restitution.
4. Previous good deeds, happy marriages, or donations to charity don’t undo the fact that a celebrity perpetrated sexual assault or harassment.
The concept of “moral licensing” is very important here. Moral licensing is a mental bias in which people weigh good behavior against bad behavior in a way that justifies it as less damaging. For example, a politician might not scrutinize themselves for sexually harassing their staffers because they give an annual donation to a feminist charity or because they appointed a woman in a position of power in their campaign. This then plays upon implicit biases that exist in society — many of which are perpetuated by the media. We see images depicting stereotypes at such an early age that we tend to see them as a naturally occurring given instead of as a media construction.
This is what makes us respond on impulse to what we think seems true in the real world, even though those standards are based on constructions from movies and TV. Those depictions usually portray perpetrators of sexual assault as visibly suspicious — for example, someone hiding in the shadows of a dark back alley waiting to pounce on an innocent victim. In reality, however, sexual abusers can often be esteemed members of the community — they can be successful CEOs, sports stars, or heads of charitable organizations. Yet, because of this imagined inconsistency, many people believe that someone cannot possibly have perpetrated a sexual assault, simply because of the way they look or other behaviors they have displayed to the public. Yet again, good deeds and sociable personalities do not erase the fact that they committed the crime of sexual violence, and the victim suffers further when they are not believed simply because the individual in question “seems like a nice person.”
5. Just because no one has ever accused them before doesn’t mean there haven’t been prior victims.
Perpetrators of sexual violence do not harass or assault everyone they meet. They may have one victim or several. They may have 50 victims that never divulge or one victim that goes public about it. They may groom a single victim over the course of several years, or they might perpetrate violence against someone they just met. They may strategically choose someone who they feel won’t be believed (such as minors, those who have used drugs or alcohol, individuals involved in the criminal justice system, etc), or whom they are confident will feel too much shame in going public with their story. The absence of a criminal record in the past doesn’t undo the possibility of that person committing a crime in the present. For example, if your house was robbed, an investigator wouldn’t say, “Well, you’ve lived here for 20 years and have never been robbed before, so it’s hard to believe you were suddenly robbed now.” And yet, that form of flawed logic is often used against survivors of sexual violence.
6. No one makes a name for themselves by being sexually assaulted.
The stigma of sexual violence comes with a great deal of shame. This shame can sometimes impact an individual for the rest of their life. Only two to ten cases out of 100 are classified as having insufficient evidence to the degree that they may be classified as “false” — meaning that false accusations are generally a very rare phenomenon. Despite this, survivors may face bullying or humiliation once they are linked to a court case — most of which takes place publicly online via social media and in the comments section of news articles covering the case.
Sexual violence is an incredibly destructive form of trauma — it is not a means for fame and fortune. In fact, a great deal of social justice work has taken place over the past decades to afford the right for victims to be anonymous, as the fear that they must share their identity publicly often stops victims from coming forward with their story.
7. One’s success shouldn’t imply that they’ve always played by the rules, treated people fairly, and deserved their position of success due to good moral character.
The sheer number of perpetrators who occupy successful celebrity roles does not point to the fact that only moral individuals can become famous. Instead, the number of high-profile abusers demonstrates that even perpetrators of sexual violence can be hiding in plain sight. People who commit rape and sexual assault are most often times people the survivor knows and trusts. Almost 47% of female rape victims had at least one perpetrator who was an acquaintance, and over 45% had at least one perpetrator who was an intimate partner.
We may have seen celebrities perform profound scenes that touched us and made us feel connected to them. Maybe they scored a heart-stopping Hail Mary touchdown at the Super Bowl or won an Oscar for a touching role in our favorite poignant drama. Perhaps they played a wholesome, girl-next-door role like actress Allison Mack, or they portrayed a virtuous loving father like comedian Bill Cosby. Nonetheless, these performances are not actions for which their real-life moral character can be judged. Their own actions are not the roles they play on TV and the perceived familiarity which makes us feel trust in them.
Furthermore, many bystanders often fear speaking out against celebrities’ unethical behavior out of worry of retaliation that will put their life and career at risk. Many people simply “pass the buck, and enable the perpetrator. For example, in the prolific case of Harvey Weinstein, many people were aware of his status as a serial rapist, yet this only came to light publicly when his victims began to speak out. People who knew about Weinstein’s actions covered for him because they feared not being hired again on his productions, as whistleblower retaliation is common.
8. Our belief that we are good judges of character, or that our intuitions are always correct when they tell us “they didn’t do it,” are usually just the result of flawed logical fallacies.
Like all of us, celebrities have two lives — a public life and a private life. While we may know their public persona (you’ve seen them perform at events, you’ve watched them in movies, and you follow them on Instagram), we have no idea of the lives they lead in private. We don’t know about their inner thoughts, their intimate personalities, their traumas, or the way they treat people when the camera isn’t rolling.
9. Not speaking out immediately, not going to the police, or acting “normal” in the aftermath of a sexual assault is a common reaction that doesn’t discount the reality that the crime happened.
There are countless reasons why a survivor of sexual violence may not speak out right away or may never tell anyone about what happened. One of the biggest reasons is the pervasiveness of victim blaming. Throughout a survivor’s life, they have undoubtedly heard or seen comments which question or blame victims, making them feel that they won’t be believed, or maybe they were even told they were responsible for the assault. Affective forecasting error may be at play — meaning that the victim was so traumatized by the emotional impact of the event, they may have acted outside of their normal logic. They may have felt numb, or in denial that the event occurred due to the high likelihood that they perhaps knew the perpetrator. They may fear retaliation, be afraid of being interrogated by police, or not want to go through the trauma of seeing the perpetrator in court if they are charged. They even may have been so traumatized that they dissociated as a trauma response, and only when re-confronted with it, felt safe and ready to tell their story.
10. Just because they weren’t charged or a judge ruled “not guilty” in their case, doesn’t mean it didn’t happen.
Because of the power the criminal justice system has, we may often find ourselves believing that if someone was guilty of sexual violence, they would have been charged- or they would have been found guilty if charged. This, however, is false. A ‘not guilty' verdict does not mean innocent. Most sexual abusers never face any consequences. In fact, less than 1% of rapes lead to a felony conviction. This doesn’t mean they didn’t happen. Even when sexual abusers admit to their crimes, such as in the case of Bill Cosby, they may still never face charges. Relying on the criminal justice system to dictate whether sexual violence did or did not occur does tremendous harm to victims and is flawed. Also, not all victims press charges, so not all abusers face charges.
11. When you write a disparaging comment online, it doesn’t just harm the survivor in question — it sends a signal that victims won’t be believed or may be further abused if they speak out.
Yes, the specific victim or celebrity in question may not ever see your comment. However, other victims will. Perhaps a friend, colleague, family member, or acquaintance will read it. Given that sexual violence is alarmingly common, many of those loved ones may have a personal experience with assault or harassment or may be a survivor themselves. Seeing victim-blaming comments from friends or family will reinforce survivors’ pre-existing fears that they will not be safe, supported, and believed in telling their story. It may motivate them to live in silence with the pain — being robbed of the security to be able to speak their authentic truth. This may also make them self-blame for the assault or harassment, putting another emotionally heavy burden upon them despite the fact that it’s never the victim’s fault. It also sends a signal to abusers that people will defend them - and they may feel empowered to be able to get away with sexual violence.
On a grander scheme, a disparaging comment online reproduces rape culture and corrodes a survivor’s self-worth. It makes light of the immense suffering that sexual violence perpetrates, and lends itself to a discourse that conveys victims’ pain as a form of entertainment for the masses. It makes survivors feel unsafe online and in the world at large and robs them of the ability to participate in virtual spaces.
For more information about creating safer online spaces, visit our 2021 Sexual Assault Awareness Month Campaign.