Recently, the issue of sexual violence in activist circles has very much come into the fore. A number of attacks have come to light and a lot of people have been wrestling with the hard fact of sexual predators in the scene.
In light of all this, I’ve decided to write a post, on the some of the most common mistakes and pitfalls I’ve noticed in activist organisations trying to deal with these issues. Here are my top 6 common mistakes to avoid:
- Not having a policy.
The most basic mistake is not to have a policy. Perhaps you hope you will never need one and I certainly hope you are right. The fact is however, that sexual violence is as prevalent amongst the activist community as it is in wider society and failing to prepare will certainly not protect you from having to deal with it.
Perhaps you don’t feel qualified to write one. This is natural enough, but think about it: if sexual violence is a difficult subject to broach now, how much harder will it be to deal with when it happens. Better to think it through now and be prepared.
- Ill defined Responsibilities
Activist spaces are often places where new methods and structures of organisation are pioneered and experimented with. This can mean a very loose structure where responsibility and decision making is shared. The flip side of this is that sometimes no one takes responsibility and important issues fall through the cracks.
It is not acceptable for anyone’s safety to be left up to chance.
Regardless of organisational structure: It should always be clear to all participants, who they should speak to if they feel uncomfortable with someone’s presence or behaviour or if they have information which may be important to the safety of others.
That person tasked with this role should be competent to carry out the task, should be clear about the response required and should be supported to carry it out.
- Open/large meetings
Some activist spaces make decisions in large open meetings. These can be empowering and fun but also unpredictable and intimidating.
Large open meetings are not safe places to disclose personal, sensitive or painful information and it should go without saying that survivors should not be expected to bring instances of sexual assault in activist spaces to meetings like this.
- Not believing women who report a sexual assault
This is possibly the single most damaging mistake. The worst possible thing you can do to someone who has been sexually assaulted is to not believe her.
- Hearing “both sides”
Activists like to feel they are fair. They don’t like to jump to conclusions about people. A common error is to attempt to achieve fairness by making space for a person accused of sexual assault, harassment or rape a “right of reply”
It should be obvious that this is inconsistent with point 4, but since a surprising number of people have trouble with this, I’ll go into more depth.
What “hearing both sides” amounts to is setting up a quasi judicial process, within an activist group. This is not something any activist group is really qualified to do, and neither should they try.
The reason a real court adopts this approach is that they have a responsibility to ascertain exactly what happened, beyond reasonable doubt and the power to send someone to prison.
Putting aside the woefully low conviction rate for rape, which is a subject for another day, consider this: as an activist group, do you have the same power or the same responsibility?
You don’t of course. Your only responsibility in this situation is to keep your own members safe and your only real sanction against people who threaten that safety is to exclude them from your events.
Even if we accept the judicial “hear both sides” type approach from the legal system therefore, it doesn’t follow that we need to adopt it ourselves.
More sensible and pragmatic then, given that you will NEVER know for an absolute certainty what went on between two other people in private, is to work from the understanding that false accusations are vanishingly rare.
Believe the survivor, thank her for bringing this important public safety information to your attention and then act on it as appropriate, hopefully in line with her wishes and the sensible policy you already drew up.
- Letting everyone having their say
It’s understandable that when information about a sexual assault comes out, everyone is shocked and upset. They want to know details of what happened and they want to have their say. This is particularly true of those who are close friends or comrades of the perpetrator.
It’s understandable that they want these things, but they should never be allowed to have it. Any conversation about the rights and wrongs of a particular incident puts the word of the survivor up for question and this cannot be tolerated.
Plus, if you allow everyone to have a say, rape culture
will tend to rear its ugly head and all sorts of hurtful and wrong headed stuff will be said.
This is where that written policy is so important, because you can point to it and say
“Look this is the policy. We agreed democratically to adopt this and now we will have to implement it.”
This hopefully takes some of the heat out of the situation and gets everyone people to back off before they inadvertently and for the most understandable of reasons, fuck things up worse than they already are.
So, What should we be doing instead?
This is a question, no one person is qualified to answer in full.
The truth is that collectively we need to improve our response to these situations. I would like to us build a consensus across the movement on some basic principles that should, in all cases govern a response, adopting a survivor centred approach.
I would also like to see some formal lines of coordination between different activist groups, similar to the pubwatch
scheme so that if someone has been a sexual predator in one activist group, it shouldn’t be possible for them to simply move on to the next.
The fractured and sectarian nature of some of our scene is a major structural weakness, but in this case it is a danger to our members as well.