These days I am encountering a lot of issues where people in various communities to which I belong are being accused publically of consent violations or being abusive in their romantic relationships. This is actually something which we are all susceptible to. Consent isn’t just about sex, but can be used as a frame to view all human interactions.
My favorite model of how to establish consent is using Zach Budd’s 5 pillars of consent which are abbreviated as INVEST. He says consent should be informed, voluntary, enthusiastic, specific and timed. I highly recommend taking his training if you have the chance.
So what should you do if you are the person being accused of something?
It is easy to panic and think that you will no longer have any friends or access to your social groups and community. This is likely not the case. This does not mean you are going to be alone for the rest of your life.
Also take your time and think through anything responses you might make online or in person. It is easy to get swept up in intense emotions on something like this. Take time to take some deep breaths, check in with friends and think through what will be least hurtful to you and anyone who may have felt harmed by you.
Don’t Get Defensive
One of the mistakes that I see first off with people who have been accused of consent violations is defensiveness. This makes sense. Nobody wants to see themselves as a rapist or abuser (except perhaps a few sociopaths). This means that when someone says that you have harmed them, the first temptation is to try to discredit them. That way you can continue to see yourself as a good person. This tends to further the harm that the survivor experiences in that not only have they been traumatized, but they have now been accused of being a liar or being crazy. What is truly troubling is that often this strategy works. Frequently survivors are the ones who get kicked out of communities or alienated because of the accusations they have made.
Be Open and Curious
There is a lot to be said for showing true compassion, openness, and curiosity. It can be really scary to accept that something that you have done may have really hurt someone. It is possible that you didn’t know you were violating someone’s consent. Frequently when people are having a traumatic experience, they have a “freeze” response, which is that they stop being able to move or even speak. People often also have a “fawn” or “flirt” response which is to try to be as kind and connected to the person they perceive as hurting them in order to avoid being further harmed, either physically or emotionally. As the person who has crossed the line, it can be difficult or even impossible to tell that a line has been crossed. As far as emotional abuse, it is easy for things to seem normal, particularly if things reflect your family of origin’s way of communicating.
One way to come across as open is to say that you weren’t meaning to hurt someone but you are definitely willing to learn more to try to understand this person’s experience. It may be really difficult to learn that you have harmed someone, but if you are open, you are able to learn and grow so you can avoid that in the future, but if you deny it ever happened you will not be able to make the change you need to make sure you are the kind of person you want to be.
Also, remember that a lot of people will be really angry with you at a time like this. It may be hard for people to see you as having good intentions. Try not to take people’s anger personally.
Engage in a Restorative or Transformative Justice Process
I would recommend that if you have been accused of something like this publically on social media or within a community like the polyamory or kink community, there is a lot to be said for engaging with a restorative justice process. The idea of this kind of process is to help the people who have violated consent learn how to avoid this in the future, and to restore their good name and position in the community. This process can include going to therapy, taking classes on consent, reading books about trauma, etc. In this kind of process, we set goals for how the person who has been accused can make sure they prevent harm in the future and can maintain their status in the larger community.
An important part of this process is to involve the survivor. Since the survivor is the one who has been harmed in this situation, it is important to get their opinion on what this person could do to make up for the harm and to be restored in the community. Some things that survivors often request is to have the right to ask that the person they have accused not come to an event where they are going to be, or to ask them to be banned from communities temporarily while they work to prevent future harm. It may even make sense to engage the assistance of an expert in restorative and transformative justice like Aida Mandulay (http://aidamanduley.com/) or Samantha Manewitz (https://www.beyondsafewords.com/sample-page/).
Remember: This Does Not Mean You Are a Bad Person
People who have been accused of consent violations often go through some really intense emotional processing. They can often develop some severe self-harm behaviors or suicidal thoughts. People who have been accused of consent violations definitely benefit from therapy, particularly to help them remember that just because they did something wrong doesn’t mean they are a bad person. Doing the work and learning not to harm people in the future is the road to re-claiming self-acceptance and self-love after an experience like this.