Responding to sexual violence in our groups and communities: Facing discomfort and creating genuinely safer spaces

What can you do when someone in your group or organisation says that someone else within the group has been sexually violent [1] or abusive to them? What if that person is central to the group, is really nice to you, seems to have a great analytical understanding of power and privilege – surely they wouldn’t. It can feel confusing, uncomfortable and sometimes painful to take those claims seriously but it’s important that we do. Drawing on my own experience of supporting other survivors and of disclosing to my own community, here are some things you might want to think about.

Five years ago I was part of a circle of young people running campaigns and setting up community projects. Within this broad circle, there was a friendly, proactive and seemingly dream-team heterosexual couple. Whilst I didn’t know either well, I enjoyed speaking to both of them at events and friends houses. When they broke up, the woman told her friends that the man had sexually assaulted her. When I heard about this, I was confused.“But he’s such a nice guy. I can’t imagine that he would hurt her. Maybe she misunderstood. Maybe she’s exaggerating. Maybe she’s getting back at him for something” were the thoughts that ran through my mind. Mutual friends were calling for us to boycott meetings and groups that he attended, and to publicly block him from attending our meetings and gatherings. I didn’t want to believe that he had done something wrong, or that what he’d done could be that bad… It would be such a loss if we pushed him out, he was a lynchpin in so many campaigns. Without knowing the details, I decided to ignore those conversations and continued to attend events that he did (albeit a little more wary of him, and a little less friendly). The woman quietly disappeared from our hang-outs and stepped back from the groups that he remained most involved in.

Too often in our society survivors [2] are disbelieved, or told that they are (at least partially) responsible, and that what happened to them was not that big a deal anyway. Just like me five years ago, people seem to frequently hope that it was a one-off slip-up and feel that it would be unfair to punish the person who did harm [3] too harshly. It is uncomfortable and disturbing to acknowledge that people we know, care about and respect have harmed others – I know that it feels much easier to ignore, dismiss or minimize those accounts, brushing them under the carpet.

I now understand that sexual violence happens all the time and everywhere. It happens within families, within friendship circles, within relationships – it also happens within groups of “good people doing good”: in campaigning groups and organisations, in charities, at protest camps, at skill-sharing events, in coops, in anarchist groups and autonomous spaces. In these past two years as I have been learning to speak about my own experiences of sexual violence without shame, and as I’ve spoken louder and with more and more people I have been shocked by the number of women (and some men) who have shared their experiences in return. As a rape crisis helpline volunteer, I have listened to and supported survivors from all kinds of backgrounds and occupations as they try to make sense of what was done to them and try to process their confusion and pain.

Sexual violence – whether it is a one-off event or prolonged abuse – can haunt people for a lifetime. It can erode a person’s ability to trust others and their general sense of safety; lead to sleeping disorders; corrode confidence and self-esteem; result in mental health problems including depression, obsessive compulsive disorder, eating disorders, chronic fatigue, substance abuse; some people develop Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and suffer flashbacks and dissociation. We need to start listening and responding to prevent further harm and create space for healing.

If we want our groups and organisations to be genuinely safe, welcoming and sustainable then we need to learn to better respond when people disclose this kind of violence. We need to make it easier for people to disclose abuse, take their accounts seriously, offer them support, and to take their lead when figuring out how to help the person who harmed them to be accountable. Drawing on my own experience of supporting other survivors, and of disclosing to my own community, these are some things you and your group or organisation can do:

1. Talk about and agree how you will collectively respond to a disclosure of sexual violence or abusive behaviour, pre-emptively. Make sure that this process of disclosing and seeking accountability is clear, easy to access and explained to new people. For someone to feel assured that their disclosure will be taken seriously, it’s important that they know the process will not be biased if the person who harmed them is well liked, has greater institutional power or is considered indispensable. Without a clear process in place it may feel too risky or vulnerable to come forward – survivors can fear that they will lose friends or will have to leave the group. It is important that the process supports the person/people doing harm to recognise, stop and take responsibility for what they have done. As robust processes become precedent it will hopefully feel easier for survivors to come forward, as well as open up culture-shifting conversations around respect, boundaries and care within the broader group.

2. Believe the survivor. It takes a huge amount of courage to speak out about someone who has assaulted or abused you – regardless of whether it was recent or historic. Survivors often fear retribution from the person who harmed them, ranging from physical threats and violence, to character assassination that could cast doubt amongst mutual friends, family or colleagues leaving the survivor isolated and potentially estranged. This is especially likely when the assault doesn’t fit the stereotype of violent stranger in an alleyway, because it’s hard for people to believe that someone they know, like and/or respect has caused harm [4]. However, as one survivor of domestic violence said: “We need to trust people to be the experts on their own lives.” (Quoted in the Creative Interventions Toolkit)

3. Recognise the significance of all forms of harassment, abuse or assault. Things that may seem “small” – for instance being touched or groped – can have a huge impact on a person. I’ve noticed a tendency to compare these “less significant” experiences to extreme behaviour at the far end of the spectrum of sexual violence. I have heard people say, “that’s bad, but at least it wasn’t that bad”. Diminishing these “lesser” behaviours ignores the impact of this kind of assault. When someone gropes or touches someone else, or crosses their personal boundaries in some way without seeking and gaining consent, they make clear that they don’t believe that person is worthy of respect or care and that they are not interested in their well-being. They are saying “I am entitled to touch you. If I want to, I can and will touch you regardless of whether you want that to happen.” This can be deeply threatening, can erode a person’s sense of safety and can undermine a persons sense of worth.

4. Remember that it is not the survivors fault. No one invites assault or abuse. Consent once doesn’t mean consent always. Short skirts and flirtatious banter aren’t invitations for creeping hands or rape. Emotional manipulation and threats undermine a person’s capacity to consent freely.

5. Make sure the survivor has support. Disclosing and seeking some form of justice often takes a huge emotional toll on survivors. Handing over some or all control to others to decide the process and outcome can leave a survivor feeling exposed and vulnerable. As I’ve already outlined, survivors frequently fear that they will lose friends or maybe even the group or community they are part of, as well as possible retribution. People respond to trauma and the stress of disclosure in many different ways; some people overwork to block anxiety, others may feel so panicky and exhausted that they need to take time out; some people may start drinking more frequently, taking drugs and/or having one-night stands, whilst others may withdraw and isolate themselves – some people swing between different emotional states and responses. Equally people will want and need different kinds of support. Ask the survivor, do they have support? What kind of support would they like? Do they need or want help accessing this support? How would they like you as a community, group or organisation to support them?

6. Make the survivor’s sense of safety your priority. As in the story I told at the beginning, a survivor may leave the group and avoid spaces where the person who harmed them is if they don’t feel safe or are re-traumatised being around them. You may face a choice as a group between “default” letting the survivor slip to the periphery of the group, or leave entirely, and directly asking the person who has caused harm to step back or leave, either for the duration of the accountability process or indefinitely. In groups that pride themselves on their inclusivity, acceptance and forgiveness, it may feel hard to actively ask someone to step back or leave because this feels in conflict to your shared values, but not doing so can be the silent equivalent of asking the survivor to remove themselves.

7. Support the person who caused harm to be accountable. The person who caused harm cannot undo what they did, but they can take responsibility for it. They can look inwards and try to make sense of why they did what they did by becoming better aware of their chronic patterns, the beliefs that underlie them and perhaps acknowledging and processing their own trauma if present. This is not easy to do and the person who harmed will need support to do this. They too may feel isolated, scared and confused. As a friend, you can help them to recognise what they have done and directly challenge their excuses whilst also recognising their humanity. You can help them find and access counselling or join a support group and check that they are maintaining their commitment to attending. If the person has been asked to leave the group/space (either temporarily or indefinitely), you can act as a go-between: relaying the requests of the survivor, helping them understand the implications of their actions, and reporting back to the group process the ways that the person who harmed is trying to be accountable. By helping the person who harmed to have better self-awareness, you can collectively reduce the likelihood of them harming some else in the future and helping them to better hear and respond to the feelings and requests of the survivor.

If you’re interested to think about this issue in more depth, or if you’re looking to design an accountability process and/or facilitate one, then I recommend looking at the work of these brilliant people and collectives thinking, talking about and facilitating accountability processes:

Notes

[1]  Sexual violence can range from a/multiple one-off experience/s to prolonged abuse, and includes (but is not exhaustive to): threats of sexual violence, sexual harassment (unwanted sexual attention), sexual assault, rape, stalking, child abuse, domestic abuse, female circumcision, forced marriage, ritual abuse, trafficking for sexual exploitation.

[2]  Throughout this piece I refer to the people who have had their boundaries crossed as “survivors”. I have adopted it from volunteering at Rape Crisis, however I’m aware that not everyone likes this term and some people prefer to be called victims because they don’t feel that they are “surviving” and/or want recognition that something awful was done to them.

[3]  Inspired by the Creative Interventions Toolkit, I use the term “person who harmed” rather than perpetrator, offender, abuser, batterer, rapist, predator, criminal because I believe that people can change and stop harming other people.

[4] Most sexual assault is perpetrated by someone known to the survivor.

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