I’ve been sexually assaulted by three people. To this day, all of them think that they are good people. And you know what? With the exception of one of them, I agree.
When survivors come forward with their stories to people who know the perpetrator, they’re often met with lines like “They’re a good person. They would never do that!” Hearing those words are not only hurtful, but also invalidate the survivor. It implies that their own memories and experiences can’t be trusted. Survivors need support and they can’t get it when people don’t even believe them in the first place.
The idea that a good person can’t do bad things is hugely problematic. Even though most of us like to think we’re good people, there isn’t a single person on this planet who has never done something wrong. Yes, even good people with the best of intentions can commit sexual assault (definition: any non-consensual sexual activity).
A prime example is the second person who sexually assaulted me, who I was dating at the time. By then, I had already been sexually assaulted multiple times by my previous boyfriend who touched my breasts without consent. Because of that, I anticipated that second base would be a trigger and wanted to wait until I felt I could handle it without having flashbacks. I told “guy #2” not to go to touch my breasts until I made it perfectly clear that I was ready, but was not ready to tell him why. He agreed to steer clear of my chest until then and promised to always respect me and my boundaries. And he meant it. Three months later, I hadn’t said a peep about second base and he was wondering when/how he would know if it’s okay. Instead of asking for clarification, he just went for it one night and touched my breasts without my consent. He never meant to hurt me. Is he at fault? I would argue that he is.
Now bear with me, things are about to get super nerdy. Utilitarianism is an ethical theory which says that a moral act is one that creates the greatest good for the greatest number of people. In this theory, the consequences of our actions matter more than our intentions. In fact, our intentions have little importance. Our laws are actually built on this.
Here’s an example: I’m driving down the road and fiddling with my radio. Since I’m looking down, I don’t notice a red light and drive right through it. A pedestrian happens to be crossing the street at the time. I hit them and they die from their injuries. Am I at fault?
According to the law (and society as a whole) I am at fault even though I never meant to kill anyone. I am at fault because I was not paying attention to the road.
Now you may be thinking, what the heck does this have to do with sexual assault? Well, the previous example is much like what happened with my ex-boyfriend. He never intended to hurt me. However, he is still at fault for neglecting to ask for consent. He ignored my “red light” and is now responsible for the aftermath. Even if I had never said that my breasts were off limits until further notice, he would still be at fault. Whoever initiates a sexual act is responsible for obtaining enthusiastic, sober, conscious, ongoing consent.
And you know what, this is scary! I get that it’s scary that even the most well-meaning person can be held responsible for hurting someone they care about. But the person who initiates a sexual act has the ability to “keep their eyes on the road” – to ask first, to watch the other person’s body language, to check in if they sense something is wrong.
If we fall into the trap of thinking that good people aren’t capable of doing bad things, we are avoiding the problem. Sexual assault is not just committed by monsters who lurk in the dark. Most of the time, it is committed by someone the survivor knows. No matter what their intentions, perpetrators are at fault and must take responsibility for what they have done.
This is why feminists are so in favor of making sure everyone fully understands consent. It teaches people to always keep their eyes on the road. It teaches us to communicate and respect one another’s boundaries so no one gets hurt.
Thank you for reading this article. You can find my backstory here.
Here’s another article about a rapist who isn’t a completely terrible person.