I read an article arguing that we should have a zero-tolerance attitude toward sexual predators and felt compelled to write an argument for a more realistic approach. I realize now that part of my feeling was a visceral reaction to the zero-tolerance concept which has frequently resulted in outrageously unreasonable consequences over things less serious than sexual predators in places such as elementary schools.
Like all pushes for zero-tolerance – regardless of the subject – the basic idea was rooted in good intentions and certainly deserves thoughtful consideration (as opposed to a visceral reaction). I loved the open callout against partisanship – demanding that Democrats go no softer on Sen. Franken or Rep. Conyers than they do on Roy Moore just as Republicans should go not one ounce softer on Roy Moore than they do on Sen. Franken or Rep. Conyers. (Hint, hint, Mr. President) That part I wholeheartedly agree on.
Where I get off the zero-tolerance train is when things veer into:
It does not matter that Minnesota Sen. Al Franken was only joking…
It does not matter that Louis C.K. apologized.
It does not matter that Kevin Spacey is seeking help.
Actually, it does matter. I’m not going to argue that some or all of those circumstances (joking, apology, getting help) make things at all right – they don’t. But those circumstances as well as many others matter a great deal in how we seek to address the issue so that the perpetrator in question becomes no longer a threat for future intolerable actions.
We don’t (and we shouldn’t) treat the kid who got behind the wheel while intoxicated and killed someone with his car the same as we treat the enraged husband who murdered his wife or the serial killer who shot people in Washington DC. They all killed someone thanks to choices they made but their culpability and risk profiles are very different and need to be treated differently. Likewise, while date rape is just as unacceptable as serial sexual predation, the (ex)boyfriend who wouldn’t take no for an answer has a very different risk profile than a drunk stranger or a Harvey Weinstein and thus our responses and remedies must be tailored toward those disparate risk profiles.
If punishment is your goal then zero tolerance is your solution but if the goal is to remove the threat and remedy the problem then the solution requires the much more complex task of assessing and addressing various risk profiles.
I consider myself lucky that I discovered a rape survivor and her attacker who demonstrate this need for nuance. Together they prove powerfully that redemption can be possible under the right conditions and that not all perpetrators are equal. They readily acknowledge that their path to healing (for both of them) is not necessarily prescriptive for others and I would be foolish to argue against them. On the other hand, I believe that their story illustrates some universal principles for both victims and perpetrators of sexual aggression.
For survivors, the parts that I take as universal are the need to divest yourself of the guilt, shame, and self blame that victims often feel and to learn that you are more than a victim, that your life need not be consumed by this wound. (The self blame helps to keep the present and future captive by that past.) These lessons are also apparent in the Elizabeth Smart story which helps give me confidence that they are generally applicable.
For sexual aggressors past and present, the points that I take as universal are the need to fully accept the responsibility for your actions without trying to pass along any part of the culpability to others – especially the victim(s) – and to be willing to meet the victim on their path to healing in whatever way they determine. That means not rubbing the past in their face if they are not yet ready to process it just as much as it means owning up to it without evasion when they are ready to deal with it. It means giving them their space if they want it as well as giving up your own comfort of distance if they request a more direct setting or interaction for dealing with the wounds you have inflicted.
There is a certain symmetry here in the proper response of the aggressor. Just as the victim should divest themselves of blame the perpetrator must willingly shoulder the blame for their actions (and conditions – no hiding behind “I was drunk so I wasn’t fully culpable”). Similarly, in committing their particular act(s) of aggression the aggressor took the initiative away from their victim. Recompense demands that they subject themselves to the initiative of their former victim when it comes to the healing process of their former victim – ie. “I took away your choice in our prior, hurtful interaction(s) and now I will subject myself to your approach to healing from that wounds I inflicted.”
This is the more nuanced approach that will serve better than a feel-good no-tolerance approach to sexual aggressors. Recognize that not all the situations or perpetrators are the same and that punishment is not the same as progress. Punishment is part of the equation of progress but the focus must be on supporting and healing for victims along with mitigating the risks that do or did drive the aggressors.
We’ve come to a point where victims are more likely to feel safe saying #MeToo than they used to be. We need to make sure that this shift produces more understanding and dialog about the keys to healing. We will also need to come to the point where perpetrators can learn to say #IDidIt and I’m committed to changing myself and helping the victims – especially mine – to heal. Aggressors being able to openly acknowledge their culpability is a prerequisite to building a dialog and wider understanding about the path to changing whatever brought them to be aggressors in the first place.