It was the chilly mid afternoon of 9 June 2018, the internet chugging along with its usual lazy chaos, when stand up comedian JooYung Roberts posted a statement on Facebook that began:
Today… marks four years since Tom Ballard, host of the ABC television show Tonightly, indecently assaulted me.
The public post went on to detail what had occurred, and the way this had affected Roberts over the proceeding four years. It ended with a call for the importance and rewards of truth prevailing, the need for justice, and a hashtag: #MeToo.
Later the same day, Tom Ballard posted a statement of his own, outlining in several short paragraphs that while he had been made aware of the allegations, he denied them ‘in the strongest terms possible’, explaining:
Four years ago I had a consensual sexual experience with someone. I had absolutely no idea he believed it wasn’t consensual until six months ago.
Both these posts have been shared widely and discussed at length, but confusion reigns over how allegations like this are best addressed. There is a pervasive narrative that the way to engage with and respond to accusations of harm is not only simple, but is required to be simple by default. Seeking any complexity—be it in the claims, the responses, the contexts, or the wider norms at play—is seen as a watering down of one’s response. Although this may make sense on the surface, it is a response that ultimately fails victims.
The myriad ways that accounts, accusations, admonishment, and absolution of sexual violence play out every day are incredibly diverse, as are the survivors are sharing them; it is no surprise that we are everywhere. Victimhood is an inherently destabilising experience, and through calling out those who we see to have harmed us we are increasingly able to claw back power. The power imbalance in a call out is by design—the equalising power of social media wielded against men who have structural and social dominance. But as with any procurement of power we must be able to critically assess how that power can and will itself be abused.
When I say we need to talk about Ballard, I mean we actually need to start talking, and allowing the space to talk. How we interact with and respond to accusers and the accused is deeply complicated, and by its nature cannot follow one script of action or inaction.
We sit on the precipice of #MeToo’s future, a movement that has unseated tyrants but in the process shifted our notions of process and punishment, and it’s on us to take the reins and walk to a place of both cognisance and compassion, a conversation that is long overdue.
In the introduction to her book Rape and Resistance, Linda Martín Alcoff draws on her experience as an advocate, survivor and scholar when she states ‘the idea that sex is complex but rape is not is not helpful.’ At first, this truism seems almost undemanding, an understatement contextualising her body of work and the field at large, but it becomes a mantra.
We take for granted that sex, and by relation consent, are complex. The mingling of experience, attraction, expectation, inebriation and desire are heady and all part of an equation many of us readily enter into, yet we reductively point to rape as a single, definable thing. That rape is simply about power must not be confused with power being simple.
In her exploration of the state’s role in the production and prosecution of abuse, Sarah Schulman writes ‘the legal apparatus that has been put in place ostensibly to assist a victim can and often is used to extend the cruelty as well as to keep the perpetrator from facing their own issues.’ She draws heavily on the work of long-standing activist and social worker Catherine Hodes, who also explores the additional layers of complexity once we invite in the state’s protective machine. Hodes notes that ‘anyone can use the apparatus. Including abusers, to mete out punishment.’
The state has long demanded a burden of proof from victims of sexual assault. The public call out is a grassroots response to this; an inversion by design of the state’s demands, which seeks to remove the requirement for proof from the victim by placing it upon the accused. Instead, it has removed the need for a burden of proof altogether, implying that the very act of seeking any kind of corroboration from the parties involved is itself an act of harm.
The phrase ‘always believe women’ illustrates the need for a critical approach. Undoubtedly coined in light of judicial disbelief and structural disenfranchisement, the notion that women’s suffering is not taken seriously and that by believing them we help to subvert that system holds water, but the phrase itself is full of holes. Even when we don’t consider the heterocentrism of such a statement—women can and do accuse other women—to state ‘always believe women’ is to imply that no women lie.
Instead, in response to call outs we now see the koan ‘always believe victims’, yet this also remains a swiss cheese of possibility. While the myth of ‘false accusations’ is most often brought up by the very people statistically most likely to enact harm or violence, it does a disservice to our movement to claim that no accusation is made in bad faith.
These ideas complicate the ways we have learned to respond to accusations, and it is important to note that there is not always the need for this level of nuance; there are unequivocally men who harm women. And yet, as activists, allies, and survivors, we are expected to walk a thin line between the singular authority we increasingly afford an accusation and the sheer complexity of our perspectives and experiences. A new realm of theory is required to address these intersecting layers of rape, power and harm reduction, and we can begin to grasp a clearer picture of this interplay by understanding what sex and sexuality the state legitimises.
Seeing that maleness, whiteness, certain levels of education, wealth and heterosexuality are granted epistemic reliability—that is, the likelihood that legal and judicial apparatuses will legitimise one’s claims or testimony—our understandings of rape need to reflect these complex and unequal power relations. In this modern era, one such perspective is rape culture.
A sociological concept devised in the 70s, ‘rape culture’ highlighted the widespread nature of sexual violence, and the ongoing enormity of its effects, to make visible and thus fight against the social normalisation of rape.
Emilie Buchwald, author of Transforming a Rape Culture, notes that a rape culture is not inherent and instead is a setting created by the normalisation of sexual violence, yet inescapable in the creation and application of rape culture is that we are talking about the violence that men commit against women. It is not news that the overwhelming majority of sexual violence is committed by men, and yet to apply the framework of rape culture to every instance of sexual violence ignores the unequal power relations upon which the concept was built.
In her chapter Global Resistance: A New Agenda for Theory, Alcoff speaks to the difficulty of maintaining a concern for truth, noting how ‘the legitimate venues for adjudicating claims and for communicating them to the public are untrustworthy.’ She writes however that, ‘the solution to these problems cannot be to forgo all concern with truth, but to fashion new truth-related norms and practices.’ Though her writing constantly comes back around to listening to survivors, she does not hide from the complexity of such a task, noting that ‘survivors themselves are among those who wonder about the neatness of our categories.’ It is through this complexity that she explores the idea of ‘grey rape’.
A hotly debated concept in feminist circles, the term ‘grey rape’ hopes to explore a territory in which consent may be more ambiguous. The phrase has long faced understandable criticism for its use by an accused party as a tool to avoid accountability. However, Alcoff takes the concept in the opposite direction by itemising the nature of the idea as it is explored by victims. She writes that it ‘could be understood as a marker of an ineliminable ambiguity, or as a placeholder until we develop better concepts, or as a type of experience somewhere on a continuum between existing categories.’ This is not to say that abuse and assault that occur beyond a framing of black and white are any less harmful or demanding of compassion and resolution, but rather that we do a disservice to conflate or look past different forms of power.
‘The process of defining and demarcating the boundaries of those domains we generally assign to the non-benign category of sexual experience … is an interpretive process’ she writes, proposing that ‘sometimes the full and adequate description of events belies simplistic classification.’ It is precisely in these explorations that we learn to make meaning, when perhaps meaning is more complex or ambiguous. Reclaiming the notion of greyness from perpetrators, she instead builds an approach that empowers victims to name their experience, and yet in naming it, to perhaps not always know quite what it is.
It follows that the broad brush of rape culture cannot be expected to adequately contextualise an accusation made against someone of a different class status, different ethnicity or immigration status, or similar gender to one’s own. Instead, we must look to the particular and complex context that these situations carry with them. The history of false accusations made against men of colour by white women, the blame placed on recent immigrants for any and all social ills, and the almost abolished ability of straight men to claim the ‘gay panic defence‘ in response to having committed murder, do not inherently go to prove that an accusation is false by any means. But they do place an impetus on being able to ask questions. Assuming that an accusation is a lie enacts a form of structural harm toward victims, but assuming that it is truthful may enact other structural harms in turn.
Alcoff writes on the importance of becoming ‘more reflective about … the dominant conventions concerning, for example, how presumptive credibility is differentially allocated across identity and status groups’. Her writing teems with the complexity of seeking truth-telling within the wider framework of epistemic injustices, and the necessary role of assessment—of questioning and enquiry—in response to an accusation. In specifying that ‘according a presumptive credence to accusations is not the same as granting an automatic acceptance’ she acknowledges the necessary greyness of an area we enter into when we are provided a claim unaccompanied by evidence. ‘Listening to survivors means according us the credible capacity to theorize complexity’ she writes, ‘as well as the ability to live with our sometimes indeterminate conclusions.’
Yet it is these indeterminate conclusions the movement shies away from; perhaps rightly worried that in our seeking of nuance we will let someone truly awful slip past, yet offering no alternative solution. We return to our original question: where do we go from here?
In asking what we must do when faced with a call out, it first bears asking what we have been called to do. Many activists in this sphere have identified the need for a call out to specify a series of actions that the accuser (or their community) has in mind, and what outcome they hope these actions will achieve.
For example, a call out may request that someone enters therapy, and that they confront the actions they are being accused of rather than ignore them, ideally learning not to repeat them in the process; or a call out may instead be seeking an awareness that an event was harmful at all, and asks that an apology is provided that shows the accused understands the gravity of what took place; or a call out might just be entreating distance—asking that the accused party navigates spaces and events in a way that is respectful and sympathetic to the accuser.
Often, as in the case of Roberts’ accusation concerning Ballard, a call out simply names a person and the harm they have allegedly enacted without a call for any specific action on the reader’s part. And yet, in not specifying a call for action, the required action becomes implied: punishment.
Punishment remains key in these conversations, an understandable request and response to harm committed. Yet what this punishment looks like, who decides upon it, and who metes it out often remains elusive. Does an adequate response see someone shunned by their community, removed from their employment, or condemned publicly by their employers and employees? Are we asking strangers to only renounce the accused, or their family, partners and friends also? Does appropriate punishment require the involvement of the state, and if so, are we to campaign to make sentences longer and information regarding sentencing more easily accessible? How may we begin to separate this from state-sanctioned homophobia and racism, clearly visible via the prejudice that some police officers hold and the over representation of some minority groups in prison, and does it rely on a weakening of some feminists’ fight for prison abolition, or exceptions?
Even if we were to decide upon what form of punishment was ideal, we must ask who is being called upon to enact it. Do we expect the community to take part in facilitating the solution? Despite the historic role of a call out as a way of reclaiming or transposing of power, allowing the public to ordain both what did and should happen creates its own form of power shift, our healing now reliant upon the interpretation of others.
The terms restorative justice, healing and resolution are often thrown around in these hypothetical discussions, but they rarely surface in the moment of a call out, where they are seen to detract from what must be dealt with realistically and expeditiously. It is in these moments that we must enquire into a call out’s circumstance and context, its implicit or explicit call to action, and how we might respond.
The uncomfortable truth is that there is no one-size-fits-all response to a call for accountability. If there must be a grey area—and clearly there must—it is up to us to define and demonstrate it. Catherine Hodes explains that ‘this concept, of having to earn the right to have pain acknowledged is predicated on a need to enforce that one party is entirely righteous and without mistake, while the other is the Specter, the residual holder of all evil.’ She describes and rejects the current paradigm in which ‘if you are not in an abusive relationship, you don’t deserve help. Being “abused” is what makes you “eligible.”’ Hodes asks if we can ‘[lower] the bar for what must happen in someone’s life for suffering to be acknowledged.’ In doing so, she poses a revolutionary model where compassion is not provided only in response to harm of the highest order, or necessarily in response to harm at all, but solely by someone’s need for it.
The creation of this new and softer lens for viewing how we respond to victimhood goes against many of the necessarily blunt mechanisms for addressing power we have helped to shape as feminists, rape activists and survivors in the past. And yet it is essential. Perhaps it is here that we need to look past a solution that seeks power at all, and instead find something more sustainable.
As public accusations and their responses grow ever more complicated, we become bogged down in this process of truth making, using the few resources communities of survivors have to consider and validate conflicting first person accounts, rather than to care for those who have felt harmed. In doing so, we may further that harm. Hodes clarifies this very simply, explaining ‘everyone deserves help when they reach out for it.’
This is the new grey area: seeing someone’s pain—any pain—as worthy of the provision of care. Whereas other neutral zones of consent and wrongdoing require belief as their starting point, allowing perpetrators to hide in the margins, this approach subverts that search for objectivity entirely.
It’s key to note the importance that remains in taking accusations seriously, but we can this do while recognising that a lack of instantaneous belief is not disbelief. Instead we can allow for a space where compassion is not contingent upon the validation of truth. As call outs increasingly both name perpetrators and demand intervention by the state, an accusation becomes inescapably weaponised. As those who continue to survive, speak out and campaign, it is our responsibility to build a politic that attempts to capture all of our experience, knowing that our mess is not to be shied away from simply because it is messy.
It goes without saying that this intricacy is confounding. For all these words you have read, I simply don’t know what happened in that hotel room between Ballard and Roberts. in many of these cases we cannot ever truly know. We must not give up because we cannot know. Instead we must engage in a whole other discursive practice that doesn’t rely upon the knowing.
When I said we need to talk about Tom Ballard, we need to be able to confront the complexity of this accusation head on, and encourage a discourse that wrestles with the nuance while remaining kind. To take an accusation seriously is not contingent on belief, but in the process of listening to victims, we must also know what we are listening for.
There are absolutely clear cut cases where the body of evidence leaves an indelible chalk outline, but there are also accusations like this one that are far less concrete. The call out of a gay man by a straight man compounds a number of power relationships in unclear ways, such as the presence of a gay panic style reaction to a situation, or the possibility of one party thoroughly believing consent was present while the other party did not. Acknowledging this does not belittle the fact that a person has come forward and indicated they felt harmed: Roberts deserves care from those around him.
In addition, while I am not suggesting we should ask Roberts about the issues above, it may be important to ask him what he actually does want to occur; whether a form of reconciliation, restorative justice, or punishment, and of what kind. We must also ask ourselves what punishment we consider acceptable in response to different kinds of accusation. Does the corroborated accounts of multiple parties have greater weight than the account of one person, or do we take an accusation at face value and respond in kind? Further, our responses to Ballard should not be divided into blind support or enraged disbelief: either end of this spectrum ignores the many possibilities that could occur in the middle that we may never be able to name but must try to engage with regardless.
I present this explicitly not as a series of answers, but to speak aloud the questions I have been hearing more and more among us. There is comfort in a hashtag platitude; the ease of a form response to stated harm is appealing in its simplicity, yet the waving away of nuance only feeds into the very rape culture we reproach. The strength of this movement has been on the back of our claiming difficult ground, and we must continue to do so; not because it is easy, but because it is right.
Liz is a writer, sexual health nerd and photographer who has had their work published widely. She can be found on @lizduckchong, co-hosting @letsdoitpodcast, or laughing at podcasts on public transport.
Schulman, S. (2016). Conflict Is Not Abuse. Arsenal Pulp.
Alcoff, L. M. (2018). Rape and Resistance. Polity.