Accusations are easy to make, but impossible to take to take back, as Shawn Peters painfully discovered.
Imagine you’re in college, listening to your university’s radio station, and someone has called in and accused a male student of sexually harassing a female student.
The caller is a well-known on-campus social activist, headed to Yale Law School, and he is speaking on behalf of the alleged victim because she fears reprisals for coming forward. It’s understandable, considering the accused is a member of a fraternity … an off-campus fraternity, which isn’t even recognized by the school.
This victim’s advocate is eloquent, confident the school’s judicial board will take action, and he is happy to name the guilty party. It’s a compelling case, despite the fact that so far, he has given no actual details.
Now imagine the person he’s accusing is you.
It was just over two decades ago, when I was a sophomore at Brandeis University, that returned to my room after a play rehearsal to my phone machine full of messages telling me to turn on WBRS immediately because I had just been branded a creep and a criminal on the airwaves.
In the time before cell phones or social networking or voicemail (see “phone machine), the radio was one of the most readily available ways of spreading the message, and the message that was being spread was that I had harassed a woman … in a sexual manner.
I could take you through the next few hours of trying to figure out what I’d done and who I’d done it to and what my girlfriend would say, but that’s not really what this column is about.
It turns out the DJ finally convinced the caller to explain what the actual harassment entailed without revealing anything that would put the accuser at risk, and he admitted that the criminal act was … (drumroll) … asking this young woman about her bra size.
Immediately, I understood.
Five months earlier, when I had been pledging, we had a scavenger hunt over a weekend, and one of the items on our list was a size 44DD bra. I had asked three “ample” women I knew and considered friends if they had a bra fitting that description and none had. One was a suite-mate of mine, another was playing my paramour in the play I was in, and the third had been the costume mistress for a musical I’d done earlier in the year. A quick mental review of those requests told me it had to be this third woman—a person who knew every measurement on my body, and had seen me in nothing but boxers several times in fittings—who thought I had violated her by asking the question. She had never said so to me. She hadn’t acted differently towards me in the weeks and months after. None of our mutual friends ever asked me if something had happened between us.
So why did this come out right then? Had it been so traumatic that she had taken several months to process it and find someone she could tell? Or was something else going on? I was sure I knew the answer.
At Brandeis in the early 90’s, the number one source of student-on-student vitriol was fraternities and whether they should be allowed on campus. About 10 percent of the students were in off-campus fraternities and sororities. Another 10 percent despised and vocally opposed them. The other 80 percent’s opinion went back and forth depending on whether they could get into the parties on a given weekend. The campus paper, The Justice, was full of the pro- vs. anti- Greek rhetoric every week.
After reading dozens of op-ed pieces where my brothers and I were painted with the same brush as groups that had hazed pledges to death, engaged in sex with sheep and committed acts of gang rape, I decided to pen my own tongue-in-cheek piece about how I felt like a “failed fratter” because I’d never done any of those things. I admitted enjoying the parties, but also wrote earnestly about how, as an only child, being in a fraternity was an experiment in what it felt like to have brothers who I had to support, even though I didn’t choose them. I admitted that we could be knuckleheads while still being OK chaps, and asked for tolerance from both sides. It was well received. Too well received.
And so I was smeared on the radio a month later. I was also lucky.
After a month of dirt-digging, the bra request was the worst they could pin on me. When the details were heard on the radio, the DJ and subsequent callers gave the topic a resounding, “Really? That’s it?” I went on the offensive the next day, telling anyone that asked that I hadn’t been contacted by the J-Board, but if I was, I’d give them the names of the other two women I’d approached about the bra to give them a chance to press charges. I never denied that I did what I was “accused” of, nor did I ever tell even one of my fraternity brothers who the woman was that had accused me. As betrayed as I felt that someone I had once considered a friend had chosen “the cause” over letting me know I’d offended her, I still felt guilty that I had so badly misread our relationship and made her feel uncomfortable. So I let it drop.
No charges were ever pressed. No op-eds were written about me. My girlfriend stayed my girlfriend and is now my wife of 16 years. Like I said … I was lucky. Because there really were only a few hours when people assumed I was guilty. The picture painted of me, as a crass frat boy who thought nothing of violating a woman’s rights, turned out to be drawn in chalk and watercolors that were easily washed away by the facts. But the experience changed me.
I’ll admit, I’m still slow to assume guilt when I hear a man (or a woman) accused of something in the press. Jerry Sandusky, OJ Simpson, even Justin Bieber get the benefit of the doubt from me, at least at first.
That said, I’m well aware that for every Duke lacrosse case where the charges are false, there are dozens of instances when a real victim comes forward, bravely and against his or her own best interests, to confront an abuser and stop it. I know it takes the kind of courage I hope to instill in my own 11-year-old daughter should anyone ever make her feel unsafe or worse. But I’ll also make sure she knows that especially now, in the time of tweets, texts, status updates and blogs, an accusation is easily spoken, and impossible to take back.