By Danielle Marse-Kapr, YWCA USA Communications & Marketing Director
Growing up, I had the same impression many people have. Men who commit sexual violence are notably bad people. They hang out in back alleys or drug your drink from across the bar. You can spot them in a line up. They aren’t your friends or family. They aren’t people you trust.
Later, when I began working in the movement to end gender-based violence, I learned quickly from my colleagues at YWCA Orange County and the women and families we served that abusers can be anyone. That often, they gain our trust simply to gain access to a victim. That they leverage whatever power they can get their hands on against the people they are abusing. The information was so simple and obvious, but so many of us miss it – or we ignore it. Accepting that abusers can be people we know, love, and revere is a dark reality to confront. If we fail to acknowledge this reality, however, we will ultimately fail to acknowledge survivors.
A few years into my work at YWCA, a dear family friend and religious mentor was revealed to be a predatory man who used his position as a youth pastor to abuse girls. Equipped with the information I had gained, it was easy for me to believe the victims. Despite my close friendship with him and the free access he had to me as teenager, I now knew that no man was sacred. My relationship with this man, the fact that he had not abused me personally, the way he was revered by his community, and his seemingly tolerant nature did not discount the possibility that he would be abusive, but rather made it even more possible. He had the trust and access he needed to groom and abuse the kids in his care.
Today, we have daily media blasts that yet another beloved public figure has assaulted or harassed the people around him. Today alone both Garrison Keillor and Matt Lauer who have been well known voices for families across the country were dismissed from their jobs for sexual misconduct. I’ve watched, disheartened, as self-proclaimed feminists, even people working on issues of gender-based violence, grapple with how to respond when their heroes are not what they seem.
In the media and across our social media feeds, a troubling debate is taking place: what should the consequence be when men who appear to share our values or have done good things also abuse women and girls? Many argue that because sexual violence occurs on a spectrum that some does not warrant a response at all. After all, they argue, Senator Al Franken has done so much good for progressive causes, why should his choice to harass and humiliate colleagues impact his future access to leadership – it’s not like he raped them. Others argue that accountability should be based on whether leaders with opposing values are also held accountable. Sure, President Trump has been accused of sexual assault and harassment, but why should he be held accountable when President Clinton wasn’t?
There is an impulse to place policy priorities and personal grief above the needs of survivors. We need to eschew that impulse and think bigger. We do not need these men to be in power to achieve the great things we want for women, girls, communities of color, and certainly not for survivors of violence. In fact, it would probably be better if men like this were not wielding so much power. We can and must build a representative government, entertainment industry, and business world that is not led by abusive men. If we are willing to put our values to the side to protect abusive men because we think there is no other way to achieve our goals, then we might as well all pack up and go home because that is the weakest thing I’ve ever heard.
Yes, it is embarrassing and disheartening when someone we have placed our trust in, looked up to, or publicly supported turns out to be a creep, but we can’t let that shame and grief keep us from supporting survivors and working for gender justice. If we do, then abusers continue to hold the power they need to continue their abuse all while empowering other abusers to do the same. We can’t let that happen.
Danielle Marse-Kapr is the communications and marketing director at YWCA USA. She has worked at the local, state, and national level for the YWCA movement in direct service, advocacy, and communications capacities.