It all started with a few missed calls and then a text message saying we had to meet up. He sounded calm on the phone but his need to see me seemed urgent so we went out for lunch that day.
It was over a vegan meal my friend told me that a woman he’d worked with had accused him of sexual assault and the police were getting involved.
My first reaction was shock. How could this be? How could this man I know to be a funny, kind, sweet and wholly harmless human being be suspected of such a thing with a barely-adult woman.
He was distraught; not crying, but judging by the puffiness that filled the lines on his 30-something face, he’d done a lot of that already. He sounded embarrassed…devastated that his career might be on the line. But honestly, even as he insisted he’d acted “totally professionally” and the incident had been “taken out of context,” the exchange he described seemed questionable.
Now, let me quell your curiosity when I say that knowing the particular details of this incident isn’t necessary to underscore the fact that sexual misconduct on any level is unacceptable in the workplace, or anywhere else for that matter. Unwelcome explicit comments (something that was alleged) and unwanted, gentle grazes (also alleged) aren’t okay.
In the current climate of #metoo and #timesup, it’s very easy to class men like Harvey Weinstein in the predator category — more than 80 women have come forward to accuse Weinstein of sexual misconduct and over the years the disgraced producer cultivated an infamous reputation as a bully, notorious even by Hollywood standards—but what to do when someone you know and trust is also accused of similar grievances? “Today” host, Savannah Guthrie highlighted this dilemma when discussing her co-anchor, Matt Lauer’s sacking after sexual misconduct allegations came to light and wondered aloud; “How do you reconcile your love for someone with the revelation that they have behaved badly?”
It was a question I grappled with during that lunch and well after it, because, as a woman who’s experienced sexual harassment myself, I fully embrace this necessary reckoning that’s seeing many men being held accountable for their usually unpunished antics. I’d be remiss not to acknowledge that the conversations going on right now in offices, schools and bedrooms about women feeling mistreated or threatened sexually are very different to the public discourse happening 10 years ago (or even discussions we were having 10 months ago).
That day, while my friend proclaimed his innocence — and I do believe that no harm was intended — I thought a line had been crossed. And I told him so.
I told him while I cared for him deeply, I was very disappointed by his lack of concern for how his actions might be perceived by others; especially those who might be significantly junior to him, both in profession and age.
While my honesty was partially driven by my own moral understanding of the situation, I also believe that if we want to stop harassment in our own communities (if we think the likes of Harvey Weinstein only exists in Hollywood we have to wake the hell up) we have to confront the offensive actions of our fathers, brothers, husbands, sons, colleagues and friends, no matter how mildly-intentioned they might seem.
Not long after my friend had confided in me, his accuser reached out to me over email; working in a similar industry, she knew of our friendship and without solicitation, sought to give me her version of events.
Honestly, it was confusing to have a dialogue with this stranger because I didn’t know her from Adam. I know my friend. But truth be told, once I navigated around my kneejerk reaction to defend the person I know and care about from any nasty allegation, I felt for this young woman. I also felt there was enough space to let her feel heard, while still supporting the man I know — who still maintains his actions were misunderstood. Months after the exchange, I’m not sure if I walked that tightrope well enough, but I’m glad I made the attempt.
Initially, I was mad she reached out to me. “Why get me involved?”, I thought. I wanted so badly to poke holes and deny things had happened the way she had said they did — but, with an estimated “35 percent of women worldwide having experienced either physical and/or sexual intimate partner violence or sexual violence by a non-partner at some point in their lives,” according to the UN, I know many women aren’t lying when they come forward. The uncomfortable truth is that for some of us, people we know and care about have and will be, been culpable of misconduct and we will probably still love them once we know.
Sarah Silverman pondered how to deal with a friend who did bad things, following her longtime pal Louis CK’s admission that he’d been a perpetrator of sexual harassment after allegations from female comics surfaced.
In a November monologue for her show, “I Love You, America,” Silverman said that the crusade of “calling-out of sexual assault has been a long time coming.”
“It’s good,” she said. “It’s like cutting out tumors: it’s messy and it’s complicated and it is going to hurt. But it’s necessary and we’ll all be healthier for it.”
She also poignantly noted that an unavoidable consequence of changing the current culture would be that “some of our heroes will be taken down and we will discover bad things about people we like, or in some cases, people we love.”
And she’s right.
Real cultural change often moves slower than the news cycle and it remains to be seen what a post-Weinstein world will really look like, but the #MeToo reckoning is here. And, if we are serious about ending the insidious cycle of sexual assault against women, we can’t be quick to dismiss alleged victim’s stories just because we know or love the accused.
*Identifying details in the story have been changed to respect and protect the identity of those involved.*