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When Someone You Thought Was A 'Good Guy' Turns Out To Be An Abuser
Talking to kids about "bad guys"; Ashton & Mila; and Danny Masterson
Note: Please feel free to scroll down to the list of six parenting action items, if you came here solely for that. This is an essay about abuse and assault, but it’s not detailed or graphic in any way.
A decade or so ago, I worked on a story about a man who had sex with a woman who was too inebriated to consent. The story wasn’t written by the man, but rather by a friend of mine, a writer who is also a survivor of a home invasion and stranger rape. He was her friend, a man she’d trusted.
This man was, in all ways the author could’ve previously imagined, a good guy. The idea that he would violate consent in this way floored her, and she was devastated to tell him that she would be siding with the woman in question (whom she did not know) rather than him.
She wrote the essay to raise awareness one of the less-recognized (at the time) ways in which seemingly “good guys” can harm women.
When the essay was met with criticism, we realized that there was another major gap in the discourse about rape and sexual assault: at that time, people believed only obviously bad guys commit rape, that it simply didn’t happen with guys who had no clear intention of causing harm to the woman in question.
Before #MeToo opened people’s eyes to the frequency of sexual assault and harassment, before TikTok and Instagram gave survivors of all ages a way to talk about their trauma and have their experiences validated, before we realized how horrifically inadequate sex and consent education had been, rapists were seen as dirty guys in dark alleys with weapons — not your friend with great teeth who smelled of Bounce fabric sheets. They were guys who plotted out how to harm women, not guys who were ignorant and selfish in ways that seemed relatively “tame” at the time.
We want to believe only creepy guys can be abusers
The false binary of bad guys vs good guys creates a world where we can feel safe.
In the world where bad guys wear ski masks and good guys wear suits and ties or Patagonia fleece vests, we are free to believe that dressing modestly, behaving sweetly, staying home from parties and never walking alone at dark will keep us safe.
Of course, it was never true. Modesty doesn’t prevent rape. Sobriety doesn’t prevent rape. Going nowhere but church and home doesn’t prevent rape. Hanging out with guys who wear ties and avoiding guys who look (to you) like criminals doesn’t always keep you safe.
The binary also allows us to believe that we can tell which men will harm us right away and that avoiding them will keep us safe.
Wouldn’t that be nice if it were true, I just said out loud to myself.
But it’s not.
Why rapists love the “bad guy vs good guy“ myth
The idea that only weirdos or obvious predators commit rape gives rapists an easy costume to wear in order to gain access to trusting women. It also gives seemingly “good guys” plausible deniability against any accusations they face.
“I’m a youth pastor, how can I be a bad guy?”
“I have a daughter and a beloved member of the community, how can I be a sexual harasser?”
“I’m a professor who teaches women’s studies, I can’t be a predator*!”
When we believe the “good guy” can’t commit rape, we pass the responsibility for that man’s choices onto the people he decides to exploit. She went to his room with him, she took off her sweater during their meeting and revealed a crop top, she drank too much, she was sexting with him earlier, she showed up to his office after office hours.
Sorry, folks. People of every occupation, position in society, socioeconomic status, religion, gender, sexuality and outward appearance can commit rape or assault. What’s even harder to swallow? Anyone can be made a victim, no matter how “good” they may be.
These days, it’s pretty easy to accept all of this as true… until it’s your friend or loved one who has done the harm.
What not to do: Ashton Kutcher and Danny Masterson
Masterson, one of the stars of That 70s Show and friend of many celebrities, was convicted of drugging and raping two young women in the early 00s — though there were other credible victims who helped build the case against him. Sentenced to 30 years for his crimes, Masterson didn’t stand a chance against the evidence.
The sentencing is a relief to victims and survivors of sexual assault, as it’s relatively rare for a white guy (especially a wealthy one) to be convicted of rape — even when evidence appears to be clear.
But there is one aspect of this case that advocates and survivors are particularly troubled by, even after his sentencing: The number of seemingly good people who spoke up in defense of this convicted rapist.
For many survivors, watching people like Kutcher stand up for such a dangerous man is further proof that they should stay silent — which keeps people like Masterson on the street.
Two of these letters are from Mila Kunis and Ashton Kutcher — both of whom have been vocal in the fight against sex trafficking.
After outcry, Kutcher stepped down from the board of his anti-trafficking org and the two of them apologized. It was a weak apology, if you ask me, considering they appear to believe that the pain caused by their letters being made public is the problem — not the fact that they wrote them in the first place.
In their letters asking for lighter sentences for their friend, these two called Masterson a “role model” and “a man who treated people with decency”, apparently even after they knew the details of what happened to these women at his hands, even after his conviction.
Kutcher wrote, “While I’m aware that the judgement has been cast as guilty on two counts of rape by force and the victims have a great desire for justice, I hope that my testament to his character is taken into consideration in sentencing.” Read the full letters on‘s substack.
No matter what Kutcher may say now, it feels as if he doesn’t really want sex offenders punished to the full extent of the law — not when they’re his friends, at least. And that’s hard to swallow from a celebrity who appeared to be using his power and influence to help survivors and prevent human trafficking.
(Small sidenote: this is not an endorsement of the U.S. prison system)
We can have about a dozen social justice-related conversations here — including the fact that our entire carceral system is a broken and racist mess. Incarcerated people often return to society more hardened and desperate than when they went in, with more criminal connections and all sorts of trauma related to the dehumanization, civil and human rights violations that take place every day in our jails and prisons.
In addition, rates of false convictions (particularly for men of color) are startling, as exemplified by the release of Leonard Mack this month, falsely imprisoned for rape 47 years ago. Recently, DNA proved he was not the woman’s assailant.
So while I believe there are better systems than our for-profit, poorly-run prison system, leniency for Masterson, a wealthy white guy with fancy friends, is not a solution to the problem. Thankfully, no leniency was given.
When your friend is the one who is accused
So, what does this have to do with you and me?
As individuals, we may find ourselves asked to defend someone who is accused of sexual assault or harassment. I know how hard this is, as I once had a friend and colleague who was accused of sexually targeting women over whom he had power in his workplace. Before these accusations, he’d been a good friend and colleague toward me, was respectful toward me, and made me feel capable and smart. I thought I could trust him.
While I was far from naive about the world of sexual assault and abuse before this event, learning the truth about this man changed the way I see the predators.
The guys I’d known in the past who’d harmed me and other girls had been very easy for me to spot. They were aggressive meatheads, the type of homophobic guys who used coarse, sexist language and were controlling and unkind to their girlfriends.
But not all predators and rapists are like those guys. Some are charming and appear kind to others. Some wear convincing costumes as feminist allies or compelling religious leaders.
As parents, we need to bust the “good guy vs bad guy” myth
As a writer covering parenting issues, I have to turn this into something productive. Meandering on about Danny Masterson and creeps from my high school doesn’t get us very far — but talking about how to discuss these issues with our kids might.
This isn’t a comprehensive list of lessons for our kids about consent or “stranger danger”, as that could easily become an entire book. In fact, if you have a teenager, you will be able to find that info and more in Christopher Pepper’s and my forthcoming book, Talk To Your Boys, via Workman Publishing.
For now, these talking points are a good place to start.
Six lessons for kids about identifying abusers & talking about sexual abuse/assault
1. Not all “bad” people are strangers or scary-looking
Regular conversations about “strangers” will look different depending upon the age of your kids, but children of any age will benefit from omitting the word “stranger” from these talks.
Instead, use a term like “tricky people” and ask them to look out for “strange behavior”.
Crystal Hardstaff has an ebook about this — as well as a number of videos and social media posts we can refer to. In short, her point is that over 90% of children who are victims of sexual violence suffer at the hands of someone who is known to the child and even trusted by their family.
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Calling bad guys “strangers” — or saying it’s the “bad guys” who hurt people — teaches a child that a person they know or who seems “good” will never harm them. It may confuse them, keep them silent and/or encourage them to blame themselves if someone they thought was good harms them or makes them feel uncomfortable.
The term “tricky people” also teaches kids to look out for tricky strangers, who often use trickery to lure children away from their caregivers. They may say there is a litter of puppies nearby, that they have candies in their car, or that they know the child’s parent and that’s who sent them.
Teaching children that people who want to harm them will use “tricks” to do so opens up the possibility of who this predator, while still teaching them skills for dealing with strangers.
As kids get older, asking them to pay attention to people’s behavior is very helpful. Is someone violating your boundaries in ways that feel weird, but aren’t quite abusive? Are they asking you to keep secrets — even innocent ones — even though they are older than you or even adults?
While some people may act in ways that seem strange for innocent reasons, like a neurodivergence or as a result of being from a different culture than a child may be accustomed to, it’s always good for a child to talk to you about how they feel. You can validate that something seemed different to them about it, and if it’s for an innocent reason, you can explain why this is and praise them for asking you to help them understand and/or brainstorm solutions.
Diversity is beautiful, and it’s good for our kids to learn to embrace it — while also being aware of the line between “different and OK” and “different and threatening”.
2. People who seem good can hurt others, too
We often tell kids that firefighters and cops and pastors and rabbis (etc) are good guys and that robbers and people in dark alleys are bad guys. We need to be careful about this binary for all the reasons I listed in the introduction of this article and in the point above.
The general idea of a good guy vs a bad guy is just too black-and-white to be instructive for kids of any age. It limits whom they will run away from when in danger, and gives truly harmful people a way to blame a child when and adult chooses to harm them.
3. Kids have rights, too
Every time my children have gone to the pediatrician for their well-checks, our doctor has told them that their genitalia are private, and that nobody should ask to see them or touch them other than the doctor — and even then, only if a parent is there to help you say if it’s OK or not.
While this isn’t a preventative for all types of abuse, it’s a great start.
Teaching our kids that their bodies are their own private business, that they have the right to say “no” to any sort of touch, and that their “private parts” are different from other body parts and should not be shared with other kids or grown-ups is key.
Yes, it’s an awful conversation. I hate having it every single time. But the more information a child has about what is appropriate, the more likely they are to say “no” firmly and/or to tell a trusted parent or grown-up if someone is being inappropriate with them — whether that’s unwanted cuddling and tickling or sexual abuse.
4. Only yes means yes
While this lesson is particularly useful for adolescents who are dating or may be engaging in romantic and sexual relationships soon, there are great ways to start teaching this concept early on.
The first thing is for us understand what it means in the first place, since most Gen-X and elder Millennials were taught literally nothing about consent or “no means no”.
When I was young, we were taught (implicitly and explicitly) that sexual activity should be pursued until someone (usually the boy or man, the pursuer) is told “no” or “stop” — and then they must stop.
While the latter part is true (definitely stop if someone says to!), this model relies upon a person being pushed too far before boundaries are defined. Here’s an example of why the old model is inadequate and even harmful, using two fictional people:
“No means no”:
Taylor and Addison are hooking up after a date, both extremely interested in kissing one another. Taylor reaches under Addison’s clothing, which Addison was not expecting. Startled, Addison says “Stop!” and Taylor does.
By the time “stop” came out of Addison’s mouth, Taylor had already crossed a line that Addison hadn’t wanted to cross, and Addison is shaken.
“Only yes means yes”:
Taylor and Addison are hooking up, kissing after a date. Taylor stops for a moment, smiles, and says “I would love to touch under your clothes here, is that cool?”
Addison smiles back and says, “I’m not really ready for that right now, but I’d love to keep kissing you, if that’s good?”
Taylor nods and they go back to kissing, each of their boundaries fully respected.
(Note: I used gender neutral terms here for a reason: both boys and girls all advance sexually at their own rate. Regardless of gender, one partner may be more interested in sexual activity than the other, and everyone deserves the right to set their own boundaries and to have them respected.)
Modeling “yes means yes” for younger kids:
While this seems absurd to teach tiny kids, it can be modeled with games — with parents and with other kids. For example, ask your child before you tickle or wrestle with them and check in with them frequently.
“More tickles?” you can ask any child who communicates — even as young as one year old. Then wait for the “yes” and tickle on. When the child says “No!”, even if they are laughing, stop immediately and ask again. Always respect their answer and never make them feel silly or ashamed for wanting to stop playing.
We can also teach our smaller kids how to ask for a yes from their friends.
If you see your child being chased in a game of tag they don’t seem to be enjoying, remind them they can say “No thanks!” and walk away. If your child is the chaser, ask them, “Did your friend say they wanted to play? Are you sure they’re having a good time? Let’s go ask!” and help your child ask their friend if they want to play tag and if they are still having fun.
Not only do these lessons teach kids to seek consent, they show your child that you expect them to only behave consensually toward other people. They also teach our kids that saying “no” about their own bodies is serious business that should be respected by anyone of any age, and that we will help if they need it.
5. Honesty will be welcomed, even if rules were broken
This is a hard one for parents like me who feel strongly about consistent enforcement of the rules, because it’s much less black-and-white than we might like. It requires every situation to be analyzed individually and sometimes some wiggle room in regards to consequences is appropriate.
Before you fellow strict parents balk, hear me out.
When I was in my late teens, a friend of mine called me crying. She had fallen asleep after a few alcoholic drinks and awoken to find a young man she knew (and whom her family knew) behaving sexually inappropriately toward her. When she told him to stop, he became more aggressive.
I told her to tell her mom immediately, and she refused. She was supposed to have stayed home that night but had snuck out. On top of that, her parents were strictly against drinking alcohol and being passed out was a big part of the story that she could not omit.
Nobody ever found out that this man, who was over 18 at the time (and she was a minor), committed this crime because my friend felt she had no choice but to keep it a secret. She had broken the rules.
All of our friends seemed to understand her choice, and most agreed they would have done the same thing.
With this in mind, is it any wonder that so many predators who start harming girls as teens continue to do so many years into adulthood?
(Here are some stats about perpetration courtesy of RAINN — though it should be made clear that rape and sexual assault data is notoriously hard to accurately gather and report, as few people are honest about committing crimes, and many people are ashamed or afraid to admit they have been victims.)
So, how do we make clear to our kids that they are safe to tell us anything?
It takes a lot more than simply saying, “You can tell me anything” for a child to believe that to be true. You actually have to walk the walk and show up for your kid when they admit to having broken rules.
The worst part of this advice is that I cannot tell you exactly how to do it, and not just because it varies dramatically by age. Every situation is different and requires us to be patient and empathetic in different ways.
A few ideas:
For younger kids, it can be as simple as giving them a “safe window” to tell you what actually happened.
When my older kids were little, it worked to say, “You have one hour to decide the best way to tell me what actually happened here, and your honesty and openness will be considered when we figure out what the consequences might be and how to solve the problem.”
After all, they need a little time to think about it on their own.
When put on the spot, a younger child’s brain may not even be capable of processing the reality of the “truth” anyway. Did I actually throw the rock that broke the vase? Could it have been my brother, maybe? How sure am I that this vase wasn’t already broken? These questions can be totally developmentally appropriate for a young brain, where concepts are less concrete than in a teen’s or adult’s mind.
Kids of all ages may need time to think about whether telling the truth is going to be “safer” than lying. Given time and space, many kids will tell you the truth to the best of their ability (tiny kids cannot always discern the full truth from some degree of fantasy), but under pressure, many will resort to a lie out of sheer panic.
What should you do once they tell you something complicated that took place when they broke a rule? That’s the part I don’t have firm answers on.
Every situation like this that has arisen in the last 18 years has been unique. One thing I can say for sure is that we wanted our kids to be able to tell us the truth. Meeting them with gratitude for their honesty and a sense of support from us seemed to have helped, when we were able to do that.
Tweens and teens:
Older kids are capable of absorbing a lot of nuance when given theoretical situations to consider, so I would start there.
Tell them a version of the story I shared above. Explain that a girl was hurt by an older guy while at a party she was forbidden from going to. What should the kid who was hurt do? What should their parents do? What is the objectively right thing to do? Which “bad thing” is more important?
There aren’t objectively wrong answers here, really. There are just opportunities to explore the situation together.
Another example that might be helpful is a story my son and I heard on Armchair Anonymous, a podcast where listeners call in and tell hosts Dax and Monica true stories on a certain theme.
In this one, a young man was being initiated into a party house, similar to a fraternity, when he was given too many drinks and became extremely intoxicated. He fell off a ledge and broke multiple bones, including ones in his face, and knocked his teeth out. He was unconscious and bleeding and people at the party believed he was dead.
Start at 24:35 in this podcast below to hear his story.
Because these were people under 21 at an illegal party, nobody called the police or an ambulance, and the college kid was left to bleed out. Thankfully, a friend of his heard what happened, ran to the party house and called 911, likely saving his life.
Ask your teens to consider what they would do in that situation and share that you would be proud of them for calling for help, even if they were breaking the rules by being in that situation in the first place.
(There are, of course, many lessons and conversations to be had around both of these scenarios — about predatory behavior, peer pressure, the life-or-death risks of drinking too much alcohol and more.)
6. Remind kids that you will always help them solve a problem
What to do and who to blame in a situation where someone is harmed can seem murky to kids and teens — and even adults, sometimes. When a person is in a panic, it can be even harder to think about the best way to handle a problem.
To help with that, we started telling our kids when they were young that we can help them solve any problem. If one of our 4 year-olds was melting down and too distraught to tell us what was wrong, we might say, “When you’re ready to talk, I’m here and happy to help you try to solve the problem, if you’d like” or “We can solve problems together!” in a more upbeat situation.
As kids grow, it’s good to remind them that we can help them solve problems in situations like bad grades, missed assignments, forgotten chores or more.
That doesn’t mean you will find ways to keep them from having to take responsibility (which clearly very bad parenting that ultimately harms kids as they grow up). Instead, you can help by brainstorming the best way to approach a teacher, how to go back and find missing assignments and make a plan for getting caught up, how to apologize thoughtfully, and more.
Remind them that secrets can cause us to shame-spiral, and that asking for support can help us feel less alone and less panicked.
I can’t guarantee that any of this will be easy or that it will even work. I wish I could. No parenting method is fail-proof.
While I believe we have raised great kids, they aren’t perfect — just like we weren’t perfect in how we raised them (or how we’re raising the ones who are still at home with us).
I’m the first one to admit that I’m a mess about 33% of the time (or more), but I have been fortunate to work with incredible people who are credentialed experts in psychology, education and parenting and I’ve learned a ton from them, including many of the lessons I’ve shared here. I’m so grateful to them for this.
When it comes to teaching children healthy boundaries and how to practice consent, there is much more to say. This is just a start, and it must be a consistent and lived practice for it to be truly meaningful.
Fellow parents and educators: I’d love to know other ways in which you’ve taught your kids healthy boundaries, bodily autonomy and respect for others. I have some of the most amazing readers — so many true authorities and experts! I always love learning from you, too.
And remember, no matter how good you believe you are at judging someone’s character, a truly talented abuser can find a way to earn your trust. That’s why we need to dismantle the myth of the “bad guy” rapist or abuser once and for all. For our sake and for our kids’.
Note: If this article has left you looking for support or help for events from your past, please know that hope and healing are possible. 1in6 is an organization dedicated to helping male survivors of sexual violence and RAINN offers 24/7 live support regardless of gender. The Trevor Project is also available 24/7 for queer folks looking for LGBTQIA+ specific support.
*Aggressive asterisk directed specifically at the abuser I mentioned early in the article: You know who you are, and you know I’m talking about you. You are a predator and you need to keep any topics related to women and/or abuse out of your filthy, sociopathic mouth. You know what you’re doing, and so do we.
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