Public Reactions to Sexual Assault Accusations Are Distressing as a Survivor

It’s Not Up to the Accused to Decide If They Hurt You

Graphic Breea Kobernick

As a sexual assault survivor, it’s been an interesting couple of years.

At times frustrating, often challenging, and frequently disappointing, the time that has passed since the beginning of the #MeToo movement has been transformative for women and men, particularly those who who have survived sexual assault.

Personally speaking, the #MeToo movement is the reason I realized that I’ve experienced sexual assault. The stories that came out of the movement made me re-evaluate the interactions I’ve had in my own life, and helped me to realize that I’m not okay with the way that several of those interactions transpired. What I once thought of as “boys being boys,” was suddenly, blatantly, men being terrible. Men not taking no as an answer. Men—who I trusted, and loved—taking advantage of me. I’m one of the lucky ones. I wasn’t forcibly confined, I wasn’t physically hurt, I was simply manipulated. It was a different kind of assault, but a kind that is well crafted by those who wield it.

So where does this leave me? It leaves me as a person who gets more and more angry every time she hears of a celebrity who has sexually assaulted someone. It leaves me as someone who’s blood boils every time she hears another tale of someone being taken advantage of by someone they looked up to and respected. I empathize with the feeling of seeing your abuser doing well, going about their life, and feeling the overwhelming need to tell the world what they did to you—and I feel infuriated by how those brave people’s stories are handled.

So, you can imagine my frustration when, a few months ago, allegations against famous astrophysicist and TV personality Neil deGrasse Tyson arose, and he gave—in my opinion—the most tone deaf response of all time. Tyson is someone I admired and loved to watch on TV. My family and I have watched him together on many a Sunday afternoon and many a late night talk show appearance. We loved how he made the sciences seem so accessible. He was well spoken and came off as an approachable, kind, and extraordinarily intelligent person.

The three allegations against him—one from the 1980s, one from 2009 and one from 2018—range from a drugging and raping incident to a cringy dinner date to a groping. Days after the allegations surfaced, Neil posted a letter in response to them on his Facebook page, titled “On Being Accused.” He began his letter with the following: “For a variety of reasons, most justified, some unjustified, men accused of sexual impropriety in today’s ‘me-too’ climate are presumed to be guilty by the court of public opinion. Emotions bypass due-process, people choose sides, and the social media wars begin.”

Neil, you’re a smart guy. A doctor, a renowned scientist and TV personality. Surely you have the ability to understand that women go to the “court of public opinion” because going to the real courts doesn’t work. Going to the authorities, whether immediately after being sexually assaulted or decades later, rarely turns out to be a fruitful endeavour in getting justice. Surely you, a successful astrophysicist, can comprehend why a woman who feels wronged by you may want to let the world know about it. Surely you can comprehend that it probably has a lot less to do with you, and more to do with wanting to lower the chances of any more women being hurt.

He goes on to outline each of the incidents from his own perspective—the way that he recollects each of them, and in the closing paragraph states that he welcomes the independent investigation which had already been announced by Fox and National Geographic, who produce his current show, Cosmos. Before finishing up, though, he reminds readers that “accusations can damage a reputation and a marriage. Sometimes irreversibly.”

Don’t get me wrong—I appreciate an accused sexual assaulter making a public statement. It’s certainly better than seeing someone carry on with their career as if nothing happened. What I don’t appreciate is a man of power and influence using his platform to pull on people’s heart strings and flat-out deny any wrongdoing. How nice it must be for him to have this platform where he can state his side of the story for the whole world to read; meanwhile one of his accusers spent eight years trying to have her story read by the masses (as per an article published by Vox in December 2018).

Who am I to say who’s telling the truth? I wasn’t there, and I have no idea what really happened between Tyson and those women. What I do know is that who I heard from in that letter was a man who was unwilling to take responsibility for his actions.

It is not up to Neil deGrasse Tyson, nor the court of public opinion, to decide whether or not those women were justified in feeling uncomfortable, wronged, or assaulted. Only they can decide.