What if your friend harms someone?
I’ve been in the situation of having people I worked with or associated with be accused of harming others. I understand how jarring this can be.
As Danny Masterson’s history of drugging and raping women comes to light, and the subsequent letters of reference written for him by Ashton Kutcher and Mila Kunis, this has highlighted what not to do when you find out that your friend has been found guilty of any kind of assault.
Especially when you call yourself an advocate for victims of sexual assault. The subsequent non-apology apology issued by Ashton and Mila, after they were surprised that these glowing letters were public, only showed that they still do not get it. How they have handled being in the situation of finding out that someone they consider a friend has harmed others is a veritable masterclass of WHAT NOT TO DO.
I don’t mean to conflate serious crimes with smaller harms. My intention is to use this moment to share some important consent skills.
First, we need to understand that abusive people can be very charming and charismatic. Often this is how they are able to have many victims and carry on abusing people for years and even decades. And people who are bullies or abusive in any way, ALWAYS PUNCH DOWN. They can be charming and respectful to people they consider their peers and superiors, while at the same time gathering and targeting people they consider not as powerful or not as socially connected. People who they believe they can get away with abusing.
Just because someone has always been nice, respectful and charming to us, does not mean that that is how they have treated anyone.
When people we know and have genuine relationships with are accused of harming others, we need to keep this in mind, and listen to all sides. In an ideal world we will center the survivors and prioritize the healing of those harmed, and the safety and healing of the community at large.
Ashton Kutcher and Mila Kunis may not have realized that their letters would be public documents, but they should have known that these letters would be read in front of the victims. I really don’t understand how they could feel good about saying glowing things about Danny Masterson’s “drug and alcohol-free” mentoring knowing that he was found guilty of drug assisted assault.
Obviously this is a very high profile and serious criminal case. But what if you have a friend that has done something harmful, but not criminal, and you become aware that they’ve done this thing, or that they are credibly accused of doing it. You want to support your friend, and you can support your friend. Help them by supporting them to take accountability for what they’ve done. Say you’ll be there to listen to them and support them as they find their way to making amends and trying to repair the harm. Help them to figure out how they can take the next steps on a road to healing, and make better choices in the future. This is how we can center the people harmed and still be supportive of someone we consider a friend.
If you are also friends with the person harmed, make sure that you offer them support and help first, and ask them how they feel about you offering support to the person who caused the harm, by encouraging and supporting them to take accountability. Respect the victim’s wishes.
A big part of the road to repair is a meaningful apology. A meaningful apology has four parts:
Actually say you’re sorry - use the words “I’m sorry” or “I apologize”.
Describe what you are sorry for. This helps the person you harmed to understand that you understand what you did wrong. Be specific and clear.
Name the impact of your actions. Stating how your actions affected others and how you can understand how much they suffered shows that you get what you’ve done and that you’re not minimizing it.
Share how you’re going to behave differently moving forward. Show the person/people affected that you have learned and grown, and that you are taking steps to make sure that you don’t cause this kind of harm again.
Most people can begin healing when they receive a meaningful apology and are able to believe that the person who harmed them is truly sorry and won’t harm them or someone else in the same way again. This can usually start the road to repair if the harm is not too serious.
So let’s talk about the non-apology apology from Ashton Kutcher and Mila Kunis. They said they were sorry IF victims felt harmed by their letters. This shows that they don’t understand that what they did was wrong, they don’t understand the terrible harm they caused, and they are not prepared to take accountability for their actions. We can’t be sure that they actually meant to apologize, but if they did, they failed.
In our book we talk about how to be an upstander rather than a bystander, and how to provide backup to victims rather than backlash. If you’re present when a friend is targeting or harming someone, you have a duty to everyone involved to intervene, protect the person they are targeting, and support your friend to make better decisions.
If you’re aware that your friend has caused someone harm, it doesn’t matter how much you like your friend, you need to provide backup to the person they’ve harmed, and not join in on any backlash against them. What’s right and wrong is not a popularity contest, and it may feel difficult, but a true friend will support their friends to do what is right, rather than tell them that they are always right.
So, please do support your friends who have caused harm, but by supporting them to take accountability, and take steps to repair. And please do learn and grow from mistakes and missteps. Learn to give a meaningful apology, and to take accountability for your actions. We could all get better at this.
In the Consent Culture Intro workshop and the book Creating Consent Culture: A Handbook For Educators, we talk about restorative justice, what to do when we mess up, how to take accountability and make a meaningful apology, and how to support others to take accountability. We talk about how to be upstanders rather than bystanders, and how to provide backup to survivors, instead of backlash.
To learn more about the trainings and workshops available, visit www.creatingconsentculture.com
Order the book here!