Who is Accountable for a Sexual Assault?

Watching The Hunting Ground was the first time I felt both horrified and empowered. I felt horrified by the pervasive issue of sexual assault in our society. The feeling of empowerment, however, came from the brave women who boldly told their stories despite the overwhelming criticism and harassment they faced. 

The backlash of the universities mentioned in the film was both sickening and unsurprising. Though colleges and universities are meant to be institutions of education, they are run like businesses. And businesses are no stranger to resisting accountability for sexual misconduct. After all, harassment allegations against businesses opened the door for sexual assault and harassment reform. 

But when schools, industries, and attackers skirt their responsibility to the person harmed by these actions, it begs the question: Who is accountable? I’ll cut to the chase: Everyone is accountable. Everyone, that is, except for the victim. 

Attacker Accountability

Let’s start with the most obvious. Whenever a person is sexually assaulted, I wait with bated breath for the inevitable meaningless questions. What were they wearing? How much did they have to drink? Were they alone? As if any of these things explain why the person was attacked. 

Another common question is, ‘What could have prevented this from happening?” The answers are astounding. The person could have stayed with their friends; they should have drank less; they shouldn’t have flirted so much. They should have. They shouldn’t have. 

In reality, the answer is much less complicated. What could have prevented this from happening is if the attacker chose not to be an attacker. It’s that simple. 

Partner Accountability 

Attackers aren’t always strangers or acquaintances. Sometimes, they are our most intimate relationships – the people we are supposed to trust most in this world. While we’ve heard of the horror stories, we don’t hear as often about the subtle, covert sexual assaults that take place in the confines of seemingly happy homes. 

Phrases like, “I bet Susie wouldn’t deny me if I asked her to sleep with me,” or, “If you don’t sleep with me, it means you don’t love me,” or, “I mowed the lawn and cleaned up the flower gardens all day, you owe me,” are just a few examples of subtle threats people use to elicit sexual behavior from their partners. It’s also called coercion, and consent through coercion isn’t consent. It’s assault. 

The good thing is that there is a simple way to stay accountable to your partner and ensure that they never experience sexual assault at your hands: respect their wishes and choose not to be an attacker. 


Friend Accountability 

This kind of accountability is a two-sided coin. On one side is friendships that look out for one another. It’s the person who steps in when their friend has had too much to drink or who talks them through the warning signs of sexual abuse in a relationship. This is the kind of friendship accountability we are used to discussing. 

The other side of the coin is the friend who speaks up when another friend is about to do something harmful. It’s the friend who tells their buddy to leave the drunk girl alone, who actively squashes sexist commentary, and who isn’t afraid to point out when their friends are behaving in a sexually aggressive manner. What’s important about this distinction is that the friend on this side of the coin often finds themselves the lone voice of their friend group. In truth, they’re likely just the first voice. Once one voice is brave enough to stand alone, others will join. And most importantly, your voice might just be the one that prevents someone from harm. 

The actions and words of a friend can only go so far, and friends can’t be in all places at all times. But if the words of a friend convince a potential attacker to choose not to be an attacker, that’s a win. 

Institutional Accountability 

Both institutions of learning and business are responsible for putting preventative measures in place to protect their students and employees and prevent harm. Many companies have corporate policies on sexual harassment and require all employees to go through sexual assault training. College campuses have adopted intervention programs like Green Dot Bystander Intervention to combat sexual assault, but some folks say these things aren’t enough

Sexual assault training is often not taken seriously, and bystander intervention is only one facet of the sexual assault pandemic. Potential perpetrators don’t feel discouraged from their behavior in these spaces largely because the ramifications of their actions are typically mild at best. The best defense against sexual harassment and assault ]from an institutional perspective is a robust training program that includes follow-up and refresher courses. 

The more seriously the institution takes the training, the more difficult it is for potential attackers to act on their impulses. And any training that convinces an attacker to choose not to be an attacker is a solid program. 


Bystander Accountability

The Bystander Effect is a well-studied phenomenon where people in groups assume that someone else will help a potential victim. Ultimately, however, no one takes action. Research shows that the more people around, the less likely a victim is to receive help. This is because bystanders tend to take their cues from others. The first few people to come across a victim or potential victim hold immense power as their actions will largely dictate how others will respond to the situation. 

It’s easy to talk about bystanders as ‘others,’ but the truth is that we are all bystanders. We can all hold ourselves accountable for the safety of strangers, friends, and loved ones. 

Still, bystanders can only do so much to prevent harm from coming to a potential victim. The only surefire, foolproof way to stop a sexual assault from happening is for the attacker to choose not to be an attacker. 

How else can I support survivors?

If helping survivors of abuse back on their feet is something you’re passionate about, petition your senators to sign the Violence Against Women Act


Britt Leigh is a freelance writer and writing coach based just outside of Philadelphia. She helps new, aspiring authors find their voice and write the stories of their dreams. Most of her free time is dedicated to writing for her website, Britt Leigh Writes and working on her second novel. She  also volunteers with the Victim Services Center of Montgomery County as a Sexual Assault Counselor. The rest of her time belongs to two spoiled cats, a sweet bearded dragon, and a wonderful husband. Writing for LiveYourDream.org is an honor for her as she fulfills her passion for bringing female voices to the forefront of society. Follow her on Instagram @brittleighwrites

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