When your friend is accused of sexual assault
Kyle* had always been a good friend to me. We watched movies at his house when I needed to relax, we talked late at night when I needed to vent, and he has texted me long messages about our friendship for my birthday.
But we were different. While I grew up with liberal, black parents — a working mother and stay-at-home dad — in a relatively affluent gated community in New Jersey, Kyle grew up in a nearby town with wealthy, white, more conservative parents. Every time I talked to Kyle’s dad, I could feel that difference. Once, Kyle’s dad made a comment to our friend Katherine* and me that made it clear he assumed that we, the only girls of color in our friend group, lived in public housing. His father also once said that the only way a student could ensure a spot at their top choice for a college was to somehow become a black trans male student.
I was the first person Kyle came out to as bi, and I saw how hard it was for him to feel like he couldn’t be his full self around the people he wanted to love him. To remedy this, it seemed like he often overcompensated in some ways to live up to his dad’s expectations: He played as many sports as he could in and outside of school and kept up an off-and-on relationship with a girl in his grade, about whom he made comments the like of which could be called “locker room talk.”
I thought of this behavior while sitting with David*, one of our best friends, in a coffee shop just last week. Before we had left school that day, David’s mom had texted him, “Did you hear what’s going on with Kyle?” We assumed Kyle had done something embarrassing, but we should’ve known something was wrong when his mom refused to text and insisted on calling. As David held the phone on the walk from school to the coffee shop, his face melted from a smile into an expression painfully close to tears. We reached the shop and before I went inside, he looked me in the eyes as he said to his mom, “So, he thinks it was consensual?”
When David eventually came into the coffee shop, he reported that Kyle had been suspended from school indefinitely. A girl in his class had come into school on Monday with her parents to tell the principal that Kyle had raped her at a party that weekend. Kyle wasn’t allowed to talk to the girl or any other students about the now-open investigation, and his parents had immediately hired their own attorneys. It was less than two weeks away from finding out about early decision, and Kyle’s school explained that once the investigation closed, they had to tell the colleges he applied to that it had happened. People at school who knew what was happening had texted Kyle to make sure he knew they weren’t friends with him anymore. Those who didn’t know were told that he was out sick.
My heart dropped. I had just talked to Kyle about how we hadn’t seen each other in person in weeks. I even joked that he must’ve broken up and gotten back together with his girlfriend at least eight more times since we’d seen each other last. How could he not mention this?
“He said he has proof he didn’t do it,” David insisted.
“He gave the investigators their text messages. She said she wanted to do it.”
“Because a text that says ‘yes’ one day means yes the next? Because a text means it doesn’t matter if you’re drunk? A text means she couldn’t change her mind? Really, David? You know better than that.”
David was silent. He had been the closest with Kyle and I knew he was just trying to avoid the reality that his friend may have done something horribly, disgustingly wrong.
I haven’t talked to Kyle since the day before I found out about the accusation made against him. Sometimes David tries to bring it up (“the more I think about it, the more I worry that he really did do it”), but I don’t know what to say. While I know l don’t have all the facts, I do know there is no reason any girl would go out of her way to tell her parents that she got so drunk at a party that she lost control and a boy raped her and then repeat that to her school’s administration unless that truly happened. She has no reason to lie.
I see and have always seen myself as a feminist — as an advocate for female empowerment and someone who pushes for a culture of believing women. Especially in the context of the #MeToo movement, I’m a proponent of women who are ready to expose the men who had sexually harassed them. I am aware of societal myths that women are liars. I’ve seen people react to women’s accusations of men’s wrongdoing by worrying about those men’s futures.
But I couldn’t help myself from asking these victim-blaming questions — the very kinds of questions I had always criticized others of asking women who come forward about sexual assault and harassment.
What if she’s lying? What if she was just embarrassed and regretted it afterwards? She told practically the whole school; what if this is just for attention? He just finished applying to college; what if this ruins his future? He’s such a good person, could he really have done any of this?
I also fell into the gendered trap of blaming myself, wondering if I had done enough as Kyle’s friend leading up to this moment and since. I thought back to all the times Kyle had joked about sexual harassment or repeatedly poked and touched girls when they told him not to. I wondered if it had been enough to tell him that his jokes weren’t funny and to lay off.
While I certainly wouldn’t comfort Kyle or tell him it would be alright or that he did nothing wrong, I also didn’t say anything after the news of the allegation — to him or anyone else. After years of friendship, I couldn’t help but feel bad that he had lost friends and could lose a spot at school. But after years of being a feminist, I simultaneously believed that he deserved everything coming to him. You don’t get to rape a girl, miss some school, and then return as if you did nothing wrong. Kyle didn’t deserve sympathy.
In trying to figure out what a feminist whose friend is accused of rape should do, I turn to the women who have already publicly responded to the men they know and trusted who were confronted with accusations of sexual misconduct. The women who handled it best, in my opinion, were Gayle King and Nora O’Donnell. After Charlie Rose was fired after allegations were made that he sexually harassed women, the two women clearly stated that they would always be on the side of women who come forward about this treatment and encouraged them to continue to be vocal about this behavior. King even took a moment to say that while she hadn’t yet talked to Rose about what happened, she would speak to him soon.
The model of this reaction made me realize that while I’m still in the “processing” phase of my own experience with this, I should continue to hold the boys and men I know accountable for anything and everything they do that contributes to this norm of mistrusting and taking advantage of women. My friends and I have yet to talk to Kyle about what happened, but if the #MeToo movement has taught me anything, I know we’ll find the courage to break the silence.
*All names have been changed to protect the privacy of people involved
More articles by Category: Feminism, Gender-based violence
More articles by Tag: High school, Rape, Sexualized violence