The #MeToo movement, founded by Tarana Burke in 2006, shaped a new landscape for justice by centering survivors. Society is just starting to believe survivors of sexual assault. Only recently, when accusations of misconduct were leveled en masse against entertainers, business leaders, and powerful politicians, has #MeToo’s message become part of the national conversation, emboldening countless survivors to share their stories.
With such growth and visibility, abusers have taken note, and many are scrambling to avoid accountability. One tactic is to position themselves not just on its fringes but at the heart of the conversation by co-opting movements as self-proclaimed “allies.”
Having survived such violence, I am attuned to conversations about the cultural impact of survivor-driven advocacy. I recently came across a tweet posted by my rapist on his personal account. In it, he said we should believe survivors of sexual assault and stressed the importance of #MeToo, employing language meant to hold abusers like him accountable.
I was outraged. Years later, I am still healing from the trauma inflicted by his assault and denial. And I am not alone; in the United States, an estimated 433,648 people are sexually assaulted or raped each year. In this tweet about #MeToo, my rapist painted himself as an advocate for survivors.
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His performative allyship was devastating because I felt it may make others doubt my experience. The disconnect between what I lived through and his self-positioning was jarring. It made me feel like my trauma was not valid. After he assaulted me, my rapist even attended rallies to raise awareness about rape culture, despite having taken no responsibility for his own violence.
His false stance is more than just incongruent with his actions: It is gaslighting. In declaring himself a champion against sexual violence, my rapist’s behavior mirrors that of many famously accused, who use the dissonance between perceived values and predatory actions to skew the truth and distance themselves from abusive behavior.
In 1991, as chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, then-Sen. Joe Biden was a key figure in denying legitimacy and support to law professor Anita Hill when she came forward with accusations of sexual harassment against now-Justice Clarence Thomas during his Supreme Court confirmation hearing. Hill’s bravery was met with humiliating questioning by Biden’s committee of all-white male senators, and his behavior toward Hill and failure to call other witnesses who could corroborate her claims led to Thomas’ confirmation.
Throughout decades in the public eye and as vice president, Biden failed to publicly recognize the implications of his behavior toward Hill—until he ran for president in the era of #MeToo.
As the movement built, Hill’s story became a cornerstone in conversations about abuses of power. It became clear that Biden would be forced to reckon with his past behavior to move forward on the 2020 campaign trail, and in April 2019 he called Hill to express regret for what she endured. He still did not accept responsibility for his actions.
Biden did tell the press, however, that we must “change the culture in this country, where a woman is put in a position that she is disbelieved.” When later asked how he would address sexual violence as president, he promised to “keep punching” at the issue.
Biden himself faces multiple accusations from women who say he touched them inappropriately. Still, he is the leading candidate for the Democratic nomination. His reputation well documented, Biden’s attempts to rebrand—including making light of his inappropriate touching in public appearances—have been effective. Outspoken #MeToo activist Alyssa Milano defends Biden’s problematic actions, despite having attended the 2018 Supreme Court confirmation hearings of Brett Kavanaugh in support of Christine Blasey Ford, a woman who accused the Justice of sexually assaulting her.
Actor James Franco, an alleged sexual assailant, has also made attempts at self-preservation through false allyship.
Franco has been accused of inappropriate behavior and assault by multiple women, including admitted advances made toward a 17-year-old. Yet at the 2018 Golden Globes, Franco wore a pin that read “Time’s Up,” the name of an initiative founded by survivors and advocates in the entertainment industry in response to the #MeToo movement.
Accusations against the actor accumulated, which didn’t stop Franco from aligning himself with #MeToo. In an appearance on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert shortly after the awards show, Franco said he wore the pin because he supports the movement, but in the same breath, denied the accuracy of accounts of his own misconduct leveled by many women.
Franco’s performative allyship was marked by his inability to believe survivors outright but masked by his self-proclaimed support of their cause. It was still accepted by many. Outspoken #MeToo activist Ashley Judd reacted to his Late Night With Seth Meyers appearance by saying, “I think that what James said is terrific…we’ve all operated with a certain amount of tone-deafness.” His career has continued to flourish, despite an additional lawsuit filed months later by two women who claim Franco and his now-defunct acting school sexually exploited them—allegations Time’s Up called “appalling.”
To save face, branding matters, and the list of those who posit support for survivors following their claims of assault is long. Woody Allen, for example, considers himself “a big advocate of the #MeToo movement” despite decades-long accusations that he sexually abused his daughter when she was seven years old.
These men pose as advocates because their own abuses of power have been called into question on the front pages of newspapers. But assailants do not have to be famous to position themselves as allies to avoid accountability, as my rapist proved.
This defense is only effective if we continue to allow it. People are capable of changing, reworking their views for the better, and acting accordingly. But those with influence, often men, have the privilege of claiming they’ve learned so loudly that it clouds their glaring inaction or self-recognition as a part of the problem. Meanwhile, survivors have to fight to be believed.
When perpetrators rebrand as allies, it is dangerous. Survivors can face anxiety, depression, and suicidal thoughts as a result of their trauma. Their careers and personal lives suffer, while the accused carry on, wearing a false badge that allows them to continue navigating the world with privilege. This misplaced perception allows rapists like mine to get away with—and possibly repeat—misconduct. We must look past an accused abuser’s advocacy because #MeToo demands we listen to survivors, which requires we focus on noise among the static.