This past week, Justin Bieber took to Twitter to deny sexual assault allegations. In his post, the Intentions singer provided "receipts" from 2014 that allegedly proved Bieber's innocence.
"Every claim of sexual abuse should be taken very seriously and this is why my response was needed," Bieber said at the end of his thread "debunking" the anonymous allegations. "However this story is factually impossible and that is why I will be working with twitter and authorities to take legal action."
Days before, actor Chris D'Elia was accused of sexually harassing minors online. D'Elia provided a statement to TMZ denying the accusations. Earlier, a story describing an abusive situation with actor Ansel Elgort and a 17-year-old surfaced. Elgort took to Instagram to pledge his innocence, saying, "I cannot claim to understand [his accuser's] feelings but her description of events is simply not what happened." Elgort went on to say that her reaction was his fault, because he ended their relationship and subsequently ghosted her.
Putting aside for a moment the question of these celebrities' innocence or guilt, the way they're reacting to the accusations are raising red flags for some experts. When celebrities respond to an allegation of abuse or sexual assault in an exceedingly public and open forum, such as on social media, they are taking advantage of a power imbalance inherent to the medium, and they're harming victims everywhere.
Accusations against Bieber, D'Elia, and Elgort all surfaced on Twitter. So the fact that all three responded publicly — Bieber and Elgort on social media, and D'Elia on TMZ — may not seem strange, at first. But consider that these celebrities have huge follower bases, a large subset of which are comprised of die-hard fans.
"[These celebs have] millions of followers who are unwilling to believe the bad things, and what they’re preying on is people’s ignorance about sexual assault," Veronique Valliere, PsyD, a psychologist who counsels sexual assault perpetrators and victims, tells Refinery29. "They try the case in the public eye with the limited evidence and arguments that they choose to present," Valliere explains. The top comment on Elgort's post reads, "Ansel would never ever hurt a girl. I'd put my kidneys against her word." His accuser appears to have deleted her Twitter account, possibly in part due to backlash from his fans.
On average, nearly one in five women will experience sexual violence at some point during their lives, according to a 2010 report by the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control. This violence disproportionately affects women of color: 22% of Black women, 27% of American Indian or Alaska Native women, and 33.5% of multiracial women have experienced assault, compared to under 19% of white women. Immigrant and LGBTQ+ women may also be at higher risk.
Only 310 out of every 1,000 sexual assaults are reported to police. A common reason survivors of sexual assault don't report is the fear that they won’t be believed, or that authority figures and the police won’t do anything to help. That's one reason that it's so upsetting to watch powerful stars rejecting a victim's experience in the public eye, opening them up to hateful and abusive comments and even doxxing by their followers and fans. This kind of very visible reaction may simply reinforce the damaging idea that if a survivor of sexual assault discloses their experience, they won't be believed — or they may even be blamed.
A quick denial, followed by an outpouring of public support for an accused celeb, may also make it much harder for other people who have been assaulted by that person to come forward. "When they do, they can be dismissed as jumping on the bandwagon," says Valliere.
This pattern can harm the mental health of survivors of sexual assault in general. Elizabeth Jeglic, PhD, a psychology professor at John Jay College who has written three books on preventing sexual violence, told The Washington Post that when a traumatic memory of sexual assault is triggered, whether from the news or something else, "the individual may feel as if they are back in the situation and their fight-or-flight response may be activated."
Valliere also says that the trend of providing explanations or "receipts" for why the accusation can't possibly be true is especially damaging. "First of all, why does he have receipts from 2014? How many people have that at their disposal? That’s what perpetrators often do to attack the victim, is to attack the case," she says. Jennifer J. Freyd, PhD, founder and president of the Center for Institutional Courage and professor of psychology at the University of Oregon, has extensively studied a tactic known as Deny, Attack, and Reverse Victim and Offender — or DARVO — which is a perpetrator strategy.
"In full-fledged DARVO, the perpetrators aggressively deny the allegations, then they attack the person making the accusation and their credibility. Then they reverse the victim and offender, and become the victim," Dr. Freyd explains. "That is a response that shuts down conversation, not only for that case but for other cases. It's really terrifying to people."
Dr. Freyd says that when someone gets DARVO'd, they're more likely to blame themselves and stay silent. "When third parties are witness to a DARVO response, they're somewhat swayed by it — except when they're educated about sexual assault," she explains.
But is there a right way to respond to allegations of sexual assault, especially ones that have been made public? Both Dr. Freyd and Valliere think so. "There are ways that things could be done, even if you’re innocent, that doesn’t automatically activate harm against other people," Valliere says.
For a celebrity to denounce an accuser on their Twitter or Instagram page "exhibits a level of uncaringness," she continues. Most responses would likely have some negative effect on victims of sexual assault, but responses such as, "This deserves a full investigation" or "I’m not going to comment on this," can minimize the harm.
Dr. Freyd says that those accused can also validate the importance of the issue. "They can say, "What you're saying doesn't feel like what I know to be the case, but I want to understand why you feel this way,'" she says. "Acknowledging that these are serious and important issues and inviting dialogue is a good approach." A non-defensive response that invites dialogue can improve the climate of the situation — and it gives permission for people, not just in this specific situation, to come forward.
Everyone has a right to defend themselves — but it's problematic to do so on a public form, in a way that silences and harms victims needlessly. We all have a responsibility to listen respectfully to survivors and create dialogue, Dr. Freyd says. Let's stop normalizing and reinforcing this type of response, and start holding people accountable.
If you have experienced sexual violence and are in need of crisis support, please call the RAINN Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673).
(Previously, this post cited that 18% of Black women will experience sexual violence in their lifetime. In context, this figure was misleading. We updated the post with more accurate statistics, which also take into account other at-risk communities.)