Seeing You With A Perpetrator Hurts. Here's Why.
I’m a survivor of sexual assault, and I have something to ask of you.
I’m asking you not to spend time with people who have abused me or your any other survivor you know.
“It’s complicated,” you might say.
I get it: it’s complicated for me, too. But stick with me until the end of this piece and listen to what I have to say about the impacts of your actions on survivors. Then, you can make your own decision.
To the survivors reading this: I invite you to share this article with anyone in your life who is still engaging with abusers. I know how hard it can be to bring this up. I hope this article can be one way to make that a little bit easier for you. Feel free to send this to anyone who you think might benefit from hearing this perspective and who should be respecting your boundaries more than they currently are.
I understand that some people do not have the ability to cut ties with some perpetrators. A few examples might include an employee who can’t cut ties with their boss because they need their job, or a minor who can’t cut ties with their sibling, parent or guardian. People in these types of situations are not necessarily removed from this conversation, but may need to modify their behavior in a way that preserves their wellbeing while reducing harm to survivors as much as they feasibly can.
For the rest of this piece, I am specifically referring to people who do have the ability to cut ties and are now challenged to make that choice.
As a survivor, knowing that you choose to spend time with a person who harmed me and violated my autonomy sends me the message that you are not disgusted by what they did to me. Whether the perpetrator is a distant acquaintance or your long-time best friend, your acceptance of them tells me that you are not repulsed by violence and abuse. That knowing they abused me did not make you angry or sad or disappointed or hurt enough to cut ties with them. Whether that is what you actually think or not, that’s what I see when I see you spending time with my offender, and that hurts.
It makes me feel like my offender’s happiness or your friendship with that person is somehow worth my pain and isolation.
Did you know that when people refuse to cut a perpetrator out of a survivor’s social circle, we are forced to take it upon ourselves to avoid those circles?
Survivors should not be expected to put in extra effort because you have decided that spending time with their perpetrator is worth causing them pain. Taking on that hurt (on top of all of the other negative impacts of sexual violence) is NOT the bare minimum that a survivor must strive toward. Keeping that difficult friendship is a choice that goes above and beyond, and that choice belongs solely to the survivor. Whichever route they choose to take, the survivor has the right to make that choice for themselves.
By staying connected with a perpetrator, despite knowing that they have harmed a survivor, you are contributing to that survivor’s isolation because it is almost always doubly traumatic and highly uncomfortable for survivors to be around perpetrators. Instead of accepting that harm, we protect ourselves and withdraw from spaces in which our offender is welcome.
As a survivor, it is difficult for me to imagine why a person would value their relationship with an offender more than they value the peace or happiness of a survivor. But all people have the agency to decide what they value most.
If you value your relationship with an offender enough to be willing to cause pain to a survivor, then you should know that it is up to the survivor in your life to decide whether it is healthy and sustainable for them to maintain a relationship with you.
Keeping up relationships with people connected to an offender is incredibly taxing for survivors like me. The thought, "Your relationship with my offender is more important to you than my pain," or the attached feelings can loom over these relationships and make them more difficult to maintain than a relationship that is disconnected from an offender. Like almost everything, some survivors may feel differently—and that is okay!—but that is the exception rather than the rule, and you should not assume that a survivor will feel comfortable knowing that you still maintain a friendship with their offender.
If a survivor decides that this perpetrator-adjacent relationship is worth the extra emotional labor or discomfort AND they have the capacity to bear it, then maintaining that relationship is the survivor's prerogative. They deserve that choice. On the other hand, it’s completely fair and reasonable if the survivor decides that the relationship is not worth the discomfort or difficulty that it imposes, or simply knows that they do not have space for that extra pain and emotional work.
While I wish survivors could always decide who to keep in their life, that isn’t always possible. From child survivors who live with their parents to student survivors who are stuck with oblivious classmates or teachers, some people are in a survivor’s life whether the survivor wants that or not. When you are one of those people a survivor is stuck with, like it or not, your responsibility to prioritize their safety is much greater.
Ask yourself: could this survivor cut ties with me if my relationship with their offender is harming them? If the answer is “no,” then you are not just deciding which person to stay friends with. You are deciding whether to be friends with a perpetrator and cause a survivor pain, or just cut ties with a perpetrator. I am not demanding that you must choose the latter, but I am challenging you to consider and confront the impacts of choosing the former.
In addition to considering the feelings of any particular survivor impacted by a perpetrator, know that other survivors see you too, sometimes even other survivors of that same perpetrator. When you spend time with a known perpetrator — remember, you don’t know who else is aware of the violence they committed, and it’s unusual for someone who abuses to only ever abuse just one person — it signals to other survivors that you would likely maintain a relationship with their perpetrator as well. This makes survivors less likely to share their stories and experiences, past or present, with you and less likely to feel safe around you. You are not entitled to a relationship with a survivor, especially if you are continually making space for their pain.
Is spending time with that offender worth losing the trust of all the survivors around you?
As you may have noticed, none of this discussion has been about whether or not the perpetrator would commit sexual violence again. It was not about how much or little they have changed and grown. It is not about who the perpetrator is today. It is about who the survivors are today and how your relationship with a perpetrator makes them feel.
You might think, “facts over feelings—this person isn’t bad anymore, so they shouldn’t be punished anymore.” But this is not about punishing the perpetrator for past bad actions or rewarding them for changing and becoming a better person. This is about harm reduction and survivors’ emotional safety. It is about respecting our experiences, creating interpersonal safety, and reducing the pain survivors feel as a result of your relationship with a perpetrator.
And you can start today.
It may be that spending time with a specific perpetrator of abuse brings you happiness. But there are most likely other people who can make you happy who have not abused or assaulted anyone. There are typically other people who can bring you joy. You have other options.
The most crucial action is to cut off your relationship with offenders. If you aren’t incredibly close to them, then it can be as simple as not reaching out again or not replying to their messages. In an article in Feministing, Alexandra Brodsky shared a story about a rapist on her college campus who began to question his pattern of abusive behavior only after a victim’s friend excluded him from a party. “Imagine the harm we could have prevented if we had stopped inviting him sooner,” she writes.
Simple things, like taking down offenders’ pictures, removing them from group chats, and unfollowing them on social media, are ways of showing that you care about survivors. When left untouched, breadcrumbs like these catch survivors off guard and cause real harm, signaling in subtle ways that this offender is still welcome in certain corners of your life.
If placing distance between you and the offender would not go unnoticed, you do not need to share details if you don’t want to. Just clearly communicate, “I do not want to be your friend anymore because you violated my other friend’s boundaries” or “I cannot be friends with the person who raped my friend.” While an in-person conversation may work better for some, a lot of people have found this easier to do through a text because that incorporates distance and allows you to think carefully about your choices without being pressured into returning to that friendship.
Regardless of which choice you make, someone is going to be driven away. You get to decide whether you alienate the person who has caused harm, or the already vulnerable and isolated person who has experienced that harm. Cutting ties with a perpetrator is not some huge favor that anyone should be praised for: it is a bare minimum. By taking these steps and disconnecting from abusers, you become a safer person for survivors to be around. You build trust and show that you will not tolerate any kind of interpersonal violence.
You stop enabling violence and start truly supporting survivors.
You are now finally on our side.