Non-judgmental Ethics Sunday: How Do I Handle a Claim of Sexual Assault by a Close Friend?

October 18, 2015 by Joshua
in Ethicist, Nonjudgment, Relationships

Continuing my series of alternative responses to the New York Times column, The Ethicists, looking at the consequences of one’s actions instead of imposing values on others, here is my take on today’s post, “How Do I Handle a Claim of Sexual Assault by a Close Friend?


Several months ago, a female friend told me that, six months earlier, a close male friend of mine sexually assaulted a female friend of hers. The alleged assault was described as clearly nonconsensual; alcohol was purportedly involved. Nothing was reported. (I am in high school and am male myself; my male friend recently graduated.)

I have not contacted my previously close friend since being told of the alleged assault, but recently he reached out to me via text. I have not yet responded.

I generally believe in talking about serious issues in our society as a means of tackling them, and I also generally believe in due process of law and in giving people the benefit of the doubt. But I have had issues with my friend’s treatment of others before, and this incident fits into that pattern, though it is notably more extreme. I don’t feel that it would be appropriate for me to report the alleged assault, as I heard about it indirectly. I don’t really think that cutting off contact (the current situation) is the best approach, as it will do nothing to change his behavior. The friend has generally been honest with me in the past when confronted about various issues, but again, those were of much lesser magnitude.

I am searching for an approach in which I am not morally or practically complicit in his potentially continuing to assault women. Name Withheld, Atlanta

My response: An approach where you aren’t complicit in someone else’s behavior is simple. What works for me is that I don’t consider one person responsible for another’s behavior. At least for sane adults.

As for the possible crime, while I’m not a lawyer, it sounds like you have only hearsay. Something horrible could have happened, but you don’t know. What you heard was from someone who apparently didn’t observe anything directly. You also haven’t heard anything from the accused. It’s easy to hear one perspective, misinterpret it, and make big mistakes.

It looks to me like you could talk to any of the people involved and, as long as you did so sensitively, you could work out what to do with them.

The New York Times response:

You’ve obviously thought deeply about this. And, it seems to me, you’ve noticed almost all the most important features of the situation. I’m not sure I would have seen things so clearly at your age. But I do want to touch on a question you didn’t raise directly, which is what you owe to the woman who was assaulted. Let’s assume that what you learned via your friend is true. In that case, it seems to me that there was a crime here.

Whether this should be brought before the authorities, however, is fundamentally her choice to make. It’s her story. She’s the one who would have to face the burden of testifying, the public exposure of her life and all the other consequences. I’m not even sure that the person who told you about this should have told you; it depends on what the victim’s expectations were. Gossip about sexual assaults — as opposed to serious discussion of what to do about them — can be one of the harms that surround them.

Because you’re not close to the victim, you’re not in a good position to help her think about her decisions. (If you were, you might ask her to consider whether she should do something about what happened to prevent it from happening to someone else.) But you are in a good position to talk to your friend who, it seems, carried out the assault. It sounds as if you’ve discussed difficult issues with him before. That’s a good basis for trying this one. You can help him think it through responsibly. Because, as you say, alcohol was involved, he might not be aware of how awful the episode was for the woman involved; he may not take it seriously enough.

You could help him see that what he did was wrong; and probably, if your other friend’s account is correct, criminal. You could also help him decide what he should do about it. Here we enter very difficult territory. I’ve explained why you shouldn’t file a report. Might the same considerations apply to him? (Not that it’s likely he would want to, were you to propose it.) Mightn’t it seem to her like a noxious power move to go to the authorities without consulting her first? And can he consult her without imposing himself on a woman who has every reason to want never to see him again?

On the other hand, a straightforward letter expressing deep remorse for what he did might be welcome. And maybe the woman who knows you both can help figure out if it would be. (Of course, your friend might balk at the legal risk.) It’s a hard call. The main point is that the victim here has the right to control the agenda.

You could help him, meanwhile, to make sure he never does anything like this again. That’s especially important, because this is, you say, the extreme end of a spectrum of troubling behavior.

There are, in other words, forward-looking and backward-looking concerns: the challenge of facing up to a past wrong and the challenge of making sure he doesn’t repeat it. Both are morally important. Don’t be surprised, however, if he doesn’t welcome your intervention. And, if he doesn’t, then without the consent of the victim, there’s not much else you can do, except, of course, decide to keep him out of your life.

Recently, a close family friend revealed to many of her friends and family that she caught her husband cheating. She also revealed that she caught him last year and at least once before, many years ago, early on in their marriage. She also informed us that against the repeated and explicit wishes of her friends and family, she is going to remain married, as they have small children together. Before these unfortunate events, she was notorious for incessantly updating her social-media accounts with pictures of her children and her family, with captions painting a portrait of how wonderful their lives were together.

Since these events, her online updates of this nature seem to have increased. It looks like an unconscious attempt to convince both the world and herself that all is well. Do I have an ethical obligation to inform her of how her behavior is perceived by myself and others, either to spare her from embarrassment or alert her to our concern about her mental state? Is there anything to be said on the children’s behalf? She is immortalizing their lives on Facebook without their consent, and they may one day learn of these events and really come to dislike what is now permanently online. Name Withheld

My response: Ethical obligation to inform her how others see her? You sound like you are looking for justification to butt into someone’s life.

You can talk to her if you like. There’s no crime in it.

I suggest you drop what looks like a pretense about ethical obligation and ask yourself about your motivations. I suspect you feel like you plan to help her, but you sound like you want to indulge yourself. If I read you wrong and you find you do want to help her and think you can, then why wouldn’t that be reason enough to act? Why appeal to an abstract ethical obligation? That appeal makes it sound like you don’t believe in your own intent.

If you’re tracking her online updates and considering how to involve yourself more in her life, you sound like the kind of person you’re trying to protect her from.

The New York Times response:

Wait — there are people who parade an idealized version of their lives on social media? While I’m processing this, let’s take up the question of who is responsible for what in actual life. You say that your friend has declined to get divorced ‘‘against the repeated and explicit wishes of her friends and family.’’ Once you’ve delivered your advice, though, what you all wish for is neither here nor there. What matters is what’s good for her, her children, maybe even her straying husband. It’s her marriage, her life. For better or worse, she’s in charge.

Back in the digital realm, meanwhile, wouldn’t your judgment against parents who post pictures of their little kids ‘‘without their consent’’ apply to most parents on Facebook? You may think she should represent her life with spare and somber realism and have the decency to use the Diane Arbus filter on her Instagram pics. She may find comfort in curating the high points of her days. And, because some self-prettification is the Facebook norm, you don’t really want to jump on people who do the normal amount of it. I guess she would be exceeding any reasonable interpretation of the norm if people who learned of her difficulties were justified in feeling seriously deceived. I’m not sure, from what you say, if that’s the case here.

The main problem with her social-­media strategy — assuming you and your friends are typical — is that it isn’t working. What should you do about this? Some people think ethics is all about duties. I don’t think we have a general moral obligation to tell people that they’re making asses of themselves. (In the age of social media, that could provide millions with a full-time job.) But ethics isn’t just about the stern strictures of duty. It is also about helping people you care about make better choices: being a good friend. And it’s about being considerate and helpful and honest: being a good person. You know this, because you’ve already offered her advice about her marriage. So go ahead and break the news to her gently. Just be sure that you’re motivated by kindness, not annoyance. They can sometimes be confused.

And maybe technology will come to the rescue. Facebook may soon get a Dislike button.

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