Aaron Coleman speaks in a campaign video.

Defenses of 19-Year-Old Leftist Candidate’s Abusive History Co-Opt Restorative Justice to Dismiss Sexual Harm

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If you’ve spent a minute of the past week on Twitter, then you know who Aaron Coleman is—the 19-year-old, leftist candidate for Kansas’ state legislature who was recently outed for sharing a 12-year-old girl’s nude photos when he was 14, pressuring a girl to commit suicide, and as recently as last year, hitting and choking his ex-girlfriend. Shortly after the allegations surfaced, Coleman withdrew from the race with an embittered statement blaming feminism for supposedly doing more to harm progressive causes (because holding sexual abusers accountable is … anti-progressive?) than the right wing. But just days after withdrawing, Coleman is officially back in the race, with a bizarre statement equating his experience being pressured to step down for his record of abuse to “undoing democracy.”

That assertion, accompanied by the outcry of many men on the internet—including men who identify as progressive and leftist—that Coleman’s life is being ruined simply by losing favor as a political candidate, is a textbook example of the violence of patriarchy. Where is the outrage about how Coleman ruined teenage girls’ lives, likely traumatizing and scarring them for life?

It should go without saying that not bestowing public office upon a 19-year-old who, not so long ago, committed acts of violence, harming young women and girls, is not the same thing as sending him to prison or “ruining his life.” Elected office is a privilege, not a right, and certainly not a right for people who recently (or frankly ever) committed acts of egregious sexual harm.

We’ve all seen defenses like those being deployed to dismiss allegations against Coleman before—”#MeToo has gone too far” or “it was a long time ago, he was so young”—but in this current moment of escalated dialogue about abolition and moving away from punitive, carceral responses to harm, it’s been especially frustrating to watch Coleman’s sympathizers attempt to co-opt restorative justice principles to dismiss his acts of sexual harm.

Restorative Justice is defined as “a response to harm that gathers all affected by conflict to collectively decide how to repair harm, and respond to harm without creating more harm and involving state systems.” It purposefully isn’t rooted in punishment, but it does require accountability, and it certainly requires active steps by the person who committed harm to repair that harm, and also requires us to center the healing and needs of victims. For what it’s worth, Coleman has yet to offer constructive apologies or share actions he’s taken to repair the harm he committed, and the women and girls he victimized have vocally opposed his campaign.

Look, 14 is young—of course, so is 12, which is the age of the girl whose photos Coleman leaked. And yes, a core tenet of abolition is that no human is irredeemable, but that redemption requires work, accountability, and justice, not toxic and offensive statements demonizing feminism to absolve yourself.

Defenses of Coleman from internet men on the left are especially infuriating because they’re rooted in the same twisted and misogynist logic we so often encounter from men in leftist, and nearly all, political spaces: that women’s safety and dignity—whether abortion rights or safety from harassment—are secondary to broader, more “important” political goals. We see it when liberal and progressive politicians suggest they can relegate reproductive rights to bargaining chips and embrace anti-abortion candidates in their parties; we see it when allegations of sexual harassment and abuse against male politicians are dismissed or swept under the rug “for the greater good.”

Progressive spaces should be celebrated for increasingly embracing abolition and acknowledging that no person is irredeemable. Yet, sexual abuse and misconduct are also rampant in progressive spaces, from progressive political campaigns to social justice organizations. As we strive toward solutions to harm that are rooted in restorative justice, we can’t allow rape apologists to co-opt this approach, minimize and dismiss the devastating impacts of sexual harm, and erase restorative justice’s demands for accountability and centering victims.

As often as we hear #MeToo has “gone too far,” or what a “scary time for young men” it is, we rarely hear about how the women who #MeToo has made feel safer, the women the movement has validated and made visible and empowered, and simultaneously, the traumas they will always have to live with. We rarely hear about the lives of women and girls that are “ruined” by the lifelong impact of sexual harm; we rarely hear about the opportunities women are denied by men who are “scared” of #MeToo—or, I should say, men who are scared of the mere idea of having to think of how their words and actions might make women around them feel. And, of course, we rarely hear about how men are more likely to experience sexual harm and abuse than be falsely accused of it.

The defensive and embittered response to allegations against Coleman is part of a pattern of excusing male abuse, sympathizing with abusers, and demonizing feminist movements for seeking justice, accountability, and safety. But now, this pattern has the added, agonizing twist of attempts to co-opt recently popularized abolitionist, restorative justice practices for personal gain, erasing that these approaches necessarily center victims’ needs and require meaningful action from the abuser to repair harm—action potentially including stepping down from a political campaign in accordance with victims’ wishes.

(image: Aaron Coleman, YouTube)

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