Can I believe my boyfriend didn't assault someone without being a total hypocrite?

AN ANGEL:

I’ve been with my boyfriend for about a year now. I told him about my abusive ex and having been sexually assaulted about 3 dates in, and ever since I told him he’s been super supportive, has accompanied me to police stuff and generally dealt with everything really well. He’s totally understood when it took time until I felt safe during sex, what I like/don’t like and why, and tolerates my PTSD night terrors every night.

I’ve had amazing therapy and have a great support network, so I’m doing really well and was really excited about a new beginning and a totally different, healthy relationship. I’ve also put a lot of work/time into advocacy, and it's become something I care really, really deeply about. A lot of what we deal with at the organisation I volunteer with is to do with supporting people who aren’t believed by their place of work/school, getting them the help & support they need and generally providing advice/support/solidarity - most of us are survivors ourselves.

A few days ago, my boyfriend sat me down and told me that a couple of years ago (in college) he was accused of attempted sexual assault. He had gone home with a girl after a house party and they slept together, then she left his house and they never spoke/saw each other again. He thought it was just a hookup and that was it, but she reported him to the college a year later, for attempting to initiate sex a second time against her will, before withdrawing her complaint a couple of days after reporting.

I am super super conflicted about how to react to all of this. I feel like I’m being a total hypocrite if I believe that he’s telling the truth, and I can’t reconcile the person that I know with those actions, or with doing something that would make someone feel uncomfortable. BUT I keep thinking about the girl and how distraught and fearful and scared she must have been in that moment, and how she lived like that for a whole year before coming forward. I know that pain so well and I know how it destroys you, and I feel like I’m not being true to myself or to my activism work by doubting that something terrible happened to her. 

Since he told me there have been a couple of times where he’s said something insensitive (eg
”you were screaming ‘help me’ last night (in a night terror), and I don’t want a situation where my roommates hear that”) and I’ve brought it up, but he gets annoyed and upset that I’m not understanding being insensitive of ‘his trauma’ having been a 'victim of a false allegations’. I just don’t know what to do. Supporting survivors is SUCH a big part of my life and I know how important it is for my mental health and recovery to be around people I trust and who believe & support & validate my experiences, and I don’t know how to (or if I even should) try and incorporate this massive new thing into my life. 

ASK A QUESTION!

SOPHIA:

First of all, not that you need anything from me, but I’m so sorry about your assault. That never should have happened; it’s purely fucked. I’m also sorry that this is bringing shit back up again, like having to question yourself and how to navigate other people’s feelings about assault who are not survivors. I’m sorry you’re in this situation because it suuuuuuuuuuuucks from pretty much every angle I can see.

While I have personal experience with assault, I am not by any means the voice or authority of those who have been assaulted. In fact, no one is. There is no way to be a Perfect Survivor because that role does not exist. You do not need to follow certain rules: there are none. It’s a fucked situation, and all you can do is your best. Please do not let anyone— me, your friends, your fellow advocates, your family— convince you that any of the choices you make from here on out are Good or Bad as a survivor. Yes, you are an advocate, but you’re also a person. Make the best decision for you. Change your mind if you need to.

The following is my advice, but it may not work for you. You may read it and be like, “Sophia, this is a pile of dogshit.” That’s fine. Maybe my pile of dogshit advice helps you realize what you actually want to do. Again, I am not and can never be an expert at your assault and the experiences that have followed. But here is what I — a non expert—would tell you as a friend.

I think one of the big questions right now is, “Does your boyfriend believe the woman?” From what you wrote, it does not seem like that. It seems like he doesn’t believe her. I think he has the (VERY COMMON) belief that he would know if the sex he had was assault. Sometimes, two different people have different experiences of what sex was for them. For your boyfriend, he might have felt that the sex they had was consensual. This woman did not. Or at least, this is the information that you have right now. He can second guess her withdrawing the complaint, and use it to justify his belief in his own innocence all he wants, but the fact of the matter is that a year later, this sexual experience still bothered her enough to lodge a complaint against him.

I do not know what happened. You do not know what happened. I believe her, and I think that you do, too. That doesn’t mean that you can’t also believe that your boyfriend thought that the sex he had was sex and not assault, that it was consensual.

The problem that I have with your boyfriend—well, one of the problems that I have with your boyfriend right now— is that he has left NO ROOM for the possibility that this woman is telling the truth. In one sense, as bizarre as this is for me to say, and frankly uncomfortable as this is for me to say, I “get” the knee-jerk need to defend yourself, to insist that you could never do that. That you’re not a rapist. Or an assault-er. I “get” that if you hate rapists, and you think they’re bad people it might be hard to use that label for yourself. HOWEVER, in distancing himself from these labels, he’s abdicated any responsibility for the situation and in doing so, he’s said that he simply does not believe her. I do not think that’s a good sign.

This is not to suggest that there’s some magical words that your boyfriend could say that would make it totally fine that he’d assaulted someone. There are not. It’s not ok, and it will never be ok. At least it will (or may) never be ok for the woman who filed the complaint. His magic words to you don’t do much for her. But at the very least he could demonstrate an understanding of his actions, how they hurt her, how their experiences diverged, and what he could have done differently. That, to me, seems like very little to ask of someone you’re dating.

Here’s the second issue I have with your boyfriend right now— how this all came out. It seems very odd to me that he told you this now, more than a year after you’ve been together— a year where he’s known your history with sexual assault. I’m not sure that there’s any good time to bring up this topic, but a year later seems…late. Especially since you two have presumably had a ton of conversations about assault. It also seems like after his disclosure, he has done a bit of a shift…

And this brings me to the third issue that I have with your boyfriend: how he’s been treating you since his “confession.” He’s all of a sudden a “victim” of a false accusation. Why hasn’t he been feeling this way the entire year? Has he been feeling this way the entire time that you’ve been dating??? That he and you have survived similar things??????? BECAUSE THAT IS NOT THE CASE. MY DUDE THAT IS SO GROSS~!!!!

ALSO!!!!!! Re: the night terror situation. If his roommates hear you yell “help me” in the middle of the night, they will probably think you’re having a bad dream not that he’s assaulting you…. unless…. he has a reputation for that? I mean, if my roommate’s partner yelled out in the middle of the night and I heard (and I really couldn’t figure out what happened) I would later discretely say to the partner, “Hey, I heard you last night and I don’t want to be nosy or weird or anything I just wanted to make sure you were ok.” And then they’d say, “Oh yeah, sorry, I have night terrors.” And I — A NORMAL PERSON— would go, “Oh that sucks, I’m so sorry!!!” Is he really afraid his roommates are going to think he’s assaulting you? WHAT ON GODS GREEN EARTH!!????!!?!!?

This, so far, has been pretty centered around your boyfriend, but I’d also like to take a moment and talk about the most important person in this specific situation right now: YOU. YOU are an advocate for survivors. YOU are the one whose mental wellbeing is potentially at risk. YOU have done (and are doing) waaaaayyyy too much work for it to be diminished by this guy’s poor response to assault.

This whole situation, in case you forgot, is total bullshit. It’s bullshit of him to have dropped this into your lap after a year of dating. It’s bullshit of him to have put you in the position to have to navigate this. It’s bullshit of him to not have a better response. (That’s all on top of how fucking awful of a position he put another woman in years ago. That’s not strong enough of words; I don’t know what to even say).

I do not think that you should put yourself through imagining what this woman went through again and again. I do not think you should put yourself through wondering about if this makes you a bad advocate (it unequivocally does not!!). I do not think you should be dating this man waiting on the other shoe to drop, the next piece of evidence that he’s not a good person to come out. I don’t think you need to Blues Clues your way through his past and present to decide if this is a good relationship for you. I think you have enough information to make a decision, whatever it may be.

If I were you, I would probably leave. This is much much easier said than done. Leaving a YEAR LONG relationship is heartbreaking, and this is an especially hard situation. If you do decide to leave and you want to tell him your reasoning, I would say something like this IN YOUR OWN BRILLIANT WORDS, “I am having a really hard time with how you’ve handled telling me about your past with assault. I know you will likely feel that this is me punishing you, or that I’m being unfair. You’re allowed to feel that way, but it’s not why I’m leaving. Dating me isn’t a reward for good behavior, and therefore not dating me isn’t a punishment for bad. I have thought about this and I cannot get over that I didn’t know this information for a year, that you don’t seem to believe this woman, and that you seem to feel like you’re a victim. I simply don’t think we’re ever going to see it from the same place, and I’m sorry for that. This is fucking painful, but I’m really having a difficult time seeing how we can move forward, and I think we need to break up.”

Normally, I’d opt for more definitive language, “We are breaking up,” vs. “I think we need to break up.” But this is going to be a hard one for both of you, as you both likely feel that there is something “off” about the breakup. In some ways, it’s much “easier” (sorry to keep using quotes so liberally) when a wound is fresh, when you’ve witnessed or even experienced some wrong-doing, when you feel immediate and proximal outrage about a situation. This situation is much more nebulous, much of it happened years ago, and happened to someone whose story you will never get to hear. Of course, the REAL reason you’re breaking up with him is much deeper and more complex than one piece of a story from years ago, it’s how he’s still dealing with it today, but that may bee hard to feel as you hash it out.

I cannot, of course, make you break up with him. I don’t think you’re an evil person for not breaking up with him. I just think it will cause you a lot of psychic pain to stay. Maybe I’m wrong. Again, I am not the expert on your pain or this other woman’s; I cannot be an expert in that. All I can say is that there are no great, painless choices here. The best you can do is pull back and take in the most holistic view you can of the situation and try to do what you think future you would be the most happy with. That is an impossible task— no one knows the future, of course— but I find it helpful for myself to frame things that way, “What would future Sophia want me to have done?” or “What will I wish I’d done.”

I’m sorry you’re here. It’s going to be hard no matter what, but eventually it will be good. In the words of Kris Jenner, “You’re doing amazing sweetie.”


Sophia Benoit writes this very newsletter; she also writes about sex & relationships for GQ, tweets about everything else at @1followernodad, is a researcher for Lights Out With David Spade, and has had bylines in The Guardian, Reductress, Refinery29, Allure, and The Cut. You can reach her or yell at her at 1followernodad@substack.com.