Hi Captain Awkward,
I (they/them) have just found out thirdhand that a straight cis guy I consider a casual friend has been banned from a community for harassing his ex-girlfriend. The second “hand” in this chain of information also has said that he is secretly a bigot who disliked everyone in the community anyway. Before I found all this out thirdhand, I had reached out to the guy in question to privately express concern over the sudden (and at the time, unexplained) ban.
The primary thing I wanted to ask your advice on is: what do I do now? My go-to M.O. for every difficult social situation thus far has been to just Leave Forever. But I can’t just Leave Forever. There is a started, unfinished conversation with a person in whom I have emotional stakes. I don’t want him to continue or escalate harassment of his ex-girlfriend (since I apparently can’t judge his propensity for such things at all), and I don’t want him to fall into a dangerous depressive episode (since he has been going through a bad enough time lately and we both have that going on), and I don’t want him to come away from this experience having learned the wrong lesson and treating other women badly in the future, and…?
I don’t know what to say, and I don’t know if not saying anything at all will also have bad consequences. I want to minimize harm. What do I do to achieve that?
(P.S. This literally just happened/is happening right now so I apologize for being unclear or rambling or nonsensical; I am still in shock and I don’t know where else to turn.)
Hi, I have at least 100 versions of this question in my inbox, so, know first of all that you aren’t alone.
It is heartbreaking when you realize that someone you like has been showing you a different face than the one they show other people. And it is admirable that you’d want to do something about it. You don’t want to be That Bystander, the one who enabled it and defended the person. You also feel loyal and caring toward your friend and don’t want to just abandon him, especially if he’s suffering from other things in his life.
My questions (for all the askers of this question) are:
- What is the person who did the harm doing now to take responsibility & mitigate the harm?
- Has the harassing behavior stopped?
- Are they respecting the boundaries set by the group and the ex-girlfriend?
- Do they accept responsibility for what they did? Or are they still trying to convince people that it was not true?
- Have they apologized to the people who were harmed, and done what they can to make amends there?
- Are they looking for guidance or resources or a way to learn from what they did and make sure they don’t do it again?
- Or are they just looking for the quickest path into everyone’s good graces?
- Have they asked you for help or some kind of support? In your specific case, Letter Writer, has he acknowledged your message at all?
- Have they taken some time to think about this and deal with it?
I don’t have a working framework yet for what happens when a creep and a bigot actually faces social or professional consequences for the harm they do. It’s so rare that someone harming a woman actually gets kicked out of a social space for that explicit reason that most of us honestly don’t know what comes next.
If your friend wrote to me for advice, I’d say stuff like:
- Leave your ex-girlfriend alone. That is not negotiable.
- Leave the group alone. Stop monitoring them, hide their activity feeds, disengage for your own peace of mind and their safety. Find a different group to belong to.
- Forgiveness/redemption with these particular people may not ever be possible. Your goal is not the restored approval and welcome of these people, your goal is to become a person who doesn’t harass people or say & do bigoted things anymore.
- Because of how you behaved, people might be slow to trust you in the future. That is entirely fair. You’re going to have to earn it. Like, the guy with the swastika tattoo is gonna stay totally undateable. That is not unfair.
- Admit what you did – to yourself, to your diary, to a therapist, to your friends. Yes, it feels bad to admit that and let those bad feelings in! Do it anyway.
- Apologize and make amends to the extent that it doesn’t infringe on the stated boundaries of your ex-girlfriend and/or the group. Like, if she’s said “don’t contact me ever again” she doesn’t mean “unless it’s to apologize!“
- Don’t do the harassing stuff again. To anyone. Learn from those mistakes.
- Take care of your mental health the best you can.
- Two books that come to mind: Paul Kivel’s Men’s Work and So You Want To Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo. (Both are on my fall reading list and I’ll have more detail about that once I do read them). There is a world of reading out there if you want to find it.
- There will probably never be a moment when the world says “Yay, you’ve officially changed! Good job!” and you can be done doing the work of wrestling with all this. Not Being An Asshole Anymore kinda has to be its own reward.
Without the person who harassed people asking us for help, our hands are kind of tied, right? If you’ve been harassing people, the work of not harassing people is pretty much yours. Your community did their work by removing your access to your victim and by making a clear statement that they don’t condone your behavior. Your friends can check in on you, but they can’t fix you or change you. Only you can change you, and you have to want it, and you have to sit with those uncomfortable feelings and relearn a way of being that doesn’t harm other people. And if you want the support of your friends, kind people like the Letter Writer, when they email you to reach out and say “Are you ok? What’s going on?” you can tell them the truth, like “Not really, I know I fucked up here, can you help me?”
I guess the other thing I’d say for friends and family members of people who have harassed or abused others is: There is no middle. If you’re like “I know my friend harassed you, and I’m so sorry about that, but he’s my friend and I want to stand by him and help him as he figures out how to stop doing this” that’s a choice you can make. Your history with the person and bond with the person can be very important to you, and you can choose to stand by them. But, at that moment, you gotta understand if the victim wants nothing to do with you, ever again. You’ve chosen a side, and the victims get to choose their comfort and safety, and if that excludes you from now on it’s not personal, it’s just survival, it’s not a comment on your good heart or pure intentions. It’s not your job to smooth the way for your friend, or try to convince people to trust him again, or to make sure his mental health is ok (you can refer him to resources, but you can’t fix it). “I know there’s better brothers/but you’re the only one that’s mine“ is incompatible with “Cool, but I really need to be sure that my rapist/abuser/stalker/harasser isn’t going to be at parties, so, I guess I won’t see you anymore“ and that’s okay. Well, it’s not okay, but it’s sometimes the best we can all manage when abusive behaviors are in the mix. Abuse in a community is like poop in the public pool – sometimes you gotta drain the whole thing before it’s safe again.
Letter Writer, you reached out to your friend. That was kind. You are uncomfortable with what he did and don’t agree with it or condone it. That speaks well of you. You’re not acting like a detective or legal scholar trying to defend him or pretend that it’s not possible to know what he did or make decisions about that. That’s a necessary shift in the way we talk about this stuff. Discomfort is part of it, and when people rush to try to remove that discomfort when the person hasn’t done the work yet to earn trust and forgiveness, that’s when we get sucked into empty redemption narratives and erasure of victims.
The next moves – all the next moves – are his to make.