The thing about the 70s, speaking as a child of the 70s, is that we didn't talk about sexual assault. But, since the beloved characters who awakened our nostalgia for those days of blissful unawareness and willful ignorance are in the news because of it, let's discuss.
The most recent stats report 1 in 6 women in the U.S. have experienced a completed or attempted rape (NSV Resource Center). With so many survivors, we all likely know someone who has suffered. It follows that we all must know someone who has coerced, drugged, or forced themselves on another, even if we aren't aware of such past or present behavior.
The MeToo movement and open discussion about consent are relatively new things. Holding people accountable for assault, harassment, coercion, or non-consensual touch is essential to a healthy society. Still, until recently, justice served to wealthy, influential men was not a frequent occurrence. Accountability and justice are welcome change, but change is a long and challenging process, and we are in the thick of it.
I use the term predator because it can cover numerous abuses. I have issues with terms like groomer, especially with people wielding it against the LGBTQ+ community. So, I'm going to take a moment to point out that it was my friends in the LGBTQ+ community who normalized conversations about consent for me and many people. Such discussions have positively impacted sexual assault prevention and accountability for such crimes. So, no, no one is protecting anyone by throwing the term groomer around to justify bigotry. We actually have the LGBTQ+ community to thank for pushing conversations about consent forward.
Before I knew I had a right to consent, I already had a wealth of experience with predators. In my life, there was a teacher, a manager, a co-worker, a neighbor, a chef, a musician, a stagehand, a former police officer, and more who turned out to be predators. Incidentally, they all fit neatly into a hetero-binary box. They look like anyone because they can be anyone.
For every person a predator has assaulted, harassed, or coerced, numerous acquaintances, friends, and family members know NOTHING about their criminal behavior. A predator hides it carefully. The more cunning make it a point to groom (*sigh*) character witnesses too. They aren't predators to everyone. They are often people in a position of being role models. The most violently abusive person I've ever known was Johnny-on-the-spot at every church function. They hide in plain sight and very upstanding, respectable places.
Living with and working through the trauma of sexual harassment, molestation, and assault, I've thought about what I would do if someone accused a friend or acquaintance of such a crime. Survivors can be hyper-attuned to signs of abuse but can also have glaring blind spots. I've spoken with friends and fellow survivors about this because I know I've missed signs. We all have.
Are you a well-intentioned, trustworthy person? Are you loyal to your friends? You should know predators will befriend people like you and borrow your credibility. Being a well-intentioned, trustworthy, and loyal friend means you don't quickly abandon those you've grown to love, even in the worst circumstances. That's what makes you such a good friend for anyone to have. That's who you want to be.
I was deeply uncomfortable reading the letters Ashton Kutcher and Mila Kunis wrote to the court about Danny Masterson. I understood them to be advocates for victims, and their words did not come across that way in that context. But even as a survivor of the same crime, I was not angry at them for writing those letters. I wholeheartedly believe Masterson deserves to go to prison, and from what I read and heard, his friends said nothing to contest the verdict. Still, I wish they would have written something different, something more aligned with survivors. But a huge part of my discomfort came from understanding the position they were in and how the public would receive their words.
We all think about what we would do if a person raped someone we love. We don't often think about what we would do if someone we loved was the one who did it. What do we do when a lifelong friend and the justice we advocate for are at odds? I've had to think about that a lot in recent years. The more we hold people accountable (and we should), the more likely we'll have to deal with that conflict.
What if someone accused your dearest friend or spouse? Would you denounce them at the moment of accusation? What if the incident happened before you knew them or before they addressed an addiction? Several famous and beloved artists fall into that category. Hardly anyone discusses their guilt. Few remember their traumatized victims. What if your friend or family member claims complete innocence or their child or spouse approaches you, pleading for help, afraid of losing their husband or father? I have relied on so many friends who've helped me face and overcome the worst of myself. Would I flat-out refuse them in their time of need? So many circumstances could make it challenging to know where I'd stand.
I write none of this to say I agree with what Ashton Kutcher and Mila Kunis wrote in those letters. Were I in their position, I may have decided to write about who Masterson was in my experience, but I don't think I could bring myself to plead for leniency. But I say that as a survivor that crime, living with that trauma and how it has impacted every facet of my life. And I say that having no real connection to Masterson's family or anyone involved in this case. But every time I think it through, putting myself in their position, I find it unreasonable to expect his dearest friends, no matter who they are or what they represent to the public, to handle a situation perfectly when I know I would struggle with it.
I understand the urge to cancel people we put on a pedestal when they fall short of our expectations, to insist that the way we’d handle the situation from our perspective is the only acceptable way to handle it, but it’s not that simple. I won’t be cancelling those who were asked by Danny’s family to speak to who he was in their experience, especially those who have used and will continue to use their resources to help abuse victims. Their efforts are still valid and survivors need more of those efforts. There are too many Danny Mastersons in this world. We have to realize that the impact of holding them accountable will eventually reach our own social circles if it hasn't already. When it does, we'll each have to decide how to respond. We'll have to decide, knowing people will make assumptions about our character based on our decision. The choice may seem simple from a distance, but when we’re talking about real relationships, it rarely is. And our decisions have to sit right… not with the public but with our souls, in light of the people we love and those who love us.
There are much more important discussions than picking Danny Masterson's friends and family apart. He is in jail, and I can't imagine Kunis and Kutcher intended to hurt anyone, not with their track record. The consequences they suffer do not equate to justice for victims; the backlash isn't healing anything. It may make some feel righteous for a time, but it doesn’t right any wrong. We should be learning from this experience and not how to avoid public backlash or cancellation. The most important thing we can learn is that we need to prepare for our own conflicts ahead. It's time to consider how we're going to handle a long overdue reckoning when it comes to our door.