Thursday, 11 October 2012

Organisational Response to Sexual Violence in Activist Groups, Part 1: A Personal Perspective

Trigger Warning: This post discusses Sexual Assault

This blog post is largely adapted from a discussion piece I wrote for the now sadly defunct Glasgow Womens Activist Forum as a contribution towards a draft sexual assault policy. 

I’ve made a couple of attempts to put down my thoughts in policy form but it’s not really worked out. I have views about how responses to sexual assault in activist spaces should be handled but putting them down cold wasn’t really doing them justice. I’ve come to the conclusion that we will get further if I’m up front about where my ideas come from and why I’ve reached the conclusions I have.
With this in mind, I’ve decided to be upfront right with you that my observations come largely from my own experiences of being sexually assaulted in an anarchist space. And, most relevantly the reaction I got from the people I that space when I reported what had happened.  
In my view it was dealt with pretty badly but it was by no means the worst I’ve seen it handled. Also, when similar situations have occurred, I’ve noticed the same or similar mistakes are made so I think it is possible to universalise from my experience a bit.
This is not a task I have the objectivity or breath of experience to attempt by myself. I think its best therefore, that I give you my experiences, my observations and my recommendations and let these form the basis of further discussion, hopefully taking in others experiences and  leading to the formation of a draft sexual assault policy.

What happened

I was sexually assaulted during a party in a large squatted anarchist space, which was operating as an open crash space for international activists and summit hoppers hoping to mobilise against an international summit in Spain. (I think the summit got called of in the end and the mobilisation never happened)
I woke up the next day and remembered what had happened. I had a friend with me who had actually intervened to pull him off me and we basically looked at each other and said “Oh crap, that really happened didn’t it. Well I suppose we’ll have to deal with it now.”
I did not deal with it however, and instead cycled home and got on with the rest of the day, planning to just forget anything had happened.  About midday it occurred to me that I’d just left a rapist in a squat full of women and thought to myself “Fucking hell that was irresponsible of me. I’d better go back and deal with it” So off I went, expecting to find the situation embarrassing and difficult but thinking that my comrades would be grateful to me for bringing this important public safety information to their attention.
Back at the squat, I discovered that my friend had already let everyone know what had happened and that there was a big meeting planned to discuss what to do. Two American women told me that they were going to a bar in town rather than to the meeting and asked me if I wanted to come with them. I said yes because the meeting sounded kind of intimidating and awkward. I remember thinking it was thoughtful of them to offer me a way out. I was confident in the community as a whole to handle the situation (especially with my friend there) so I didn’t have any reservations in leaving them to it.
At the bar, however, I started to get a different impression. The Americans were kind of offish and insensitive with me. I started to think that they were not really interested in my welfare and perhaps I had been taken away from the situation because it was more convenient to have the meeting without me.
Looking back, it’s kind of odd that I didn’t talk to my friend in any detail about what went down at the meeting. It is my understanding, however, that she had to fight my corner fairly hard against a lot of scepticism and hostility. It was decided that the perp would be asked not to return to squat. (I think he had also left in the morning and wasn’t around for the meeting but was expected to come back at some point that day.)
This was duly done, in the most gentle and sympathetic manner imaginable, by way of a “man to man” chat with a comrade chosen for his tactful manner. He apparently denied any memory of the incident and said it didn’t “sound like something he would do.” I know this was his defence because it was relayed to me later by “Mr. Tactful” himself in the manner of a mediator “putting the other side.”
I think he was eventually persuaded that although he might not believe he was in the wrong, he should perhaps stay away from the squat in the interests of group harmony and everybody moving on. He accepted this and, as far as I know, didn’t attempt to come back.
Over the next couple of days my friend was brilliant, just sort of sticking around me, watching how I was and being unobtrusively protective of me. It was exactly the right thing and incredibly I have never properly expressed to her how grateful I was and am.
Unfortunately, I also became aware, bit by bit, that my friend’s attitude was the exception to a general atmosphere of scepticism and minimisation. No one came out and accused me of lying, or bringing it on myself in so many words, but people came pretty close to it.
For example:
Discussing the incident the next day: I said that perhaps I would try not to get so drunk in future ( I had been exceptionally drunk!) and Mr. Tactful said “Yes I think that would be a good idea” in this incredibly pointed way.  
My best friend in the country at the time cut me off from trying to talk to her about it by saying “Yes well it wasn’t a very serious sexual assault”
I queried how she would know that (I hadn’t spoken to her about it before) and found out that the version of events doing the rounds as activist circles was that “This guy was coming on a bit too strongly to Ellenor and her friend flipped out and attacked him”
Someone suggested that the sexual assault was a cultural misunderstanding and that I should have been more tolerant and/or more careful not be send out the wrong signals.
In general, I felt like there was resentment towards me that I had brought up something uncomfortable and got in the way of more pressing political action. This was the complete opposite of what I had expected and would have wanted which was:
  1. Anger that someone would attack, not just a woman, but our activist community in this way. A consciousness that the whole space was at risk if people couldn’t be physically safe. In all honesty, physical violence would have been appropriate, achievable, and would certainly have sent a clear message.
  2. Some sympathy.

What can we learn from this?

What was done right:

1. The perp was asked to leave. As far as I know he wasn’t allowed back. This was right.
2. No one was openly hostile or aggressive towards me.
3. I had the unequivocal support of one person.
3. I’ve seen it handled worse.

What was done wrong and how could it be put right in future?

Lack of security
The squat was open and unstructured in the extreme. Anyone passing through town to get involved in organising for the convergence was welcome to come and stay. People didn’t know each other well and no one was quite sure who was supposed to around at any one time.
While it would be naive to suggest that securing physical spaces will prevent sexual assault (given how much takes place between friends and lovers), I think the complete lack of control may have been a green flag to predators.

What could be done better:
Some kind of policy about who/in what circumstances people could come into the space. A sign in procedure. Code of conduct for residents and visitors. Any of these measures would have at least sent a message that the community was on the case and watching out for each other.

Lack of Policy
Part of the problem was that the community waited until a sexual assault had actually happened to decide what to do about it. This is obviously not going to yield best results. To be honest its surprising the response wasn’t even worse.

What could have been done better:
A written policy should have been in place from the beginning, stating clearly what the community response to sexual assault was going to be. It should have been specific. I.e.: Named people with responsibility, specific instructions and guidelines for how these people should respond. Training for them ahead of time.

Lack of Structure

The response was formulated in a large open meeting with anyone and everyone “having their say.” The intimidating nature of this was the main reason I took myself out of the decision making process. I’ve since learnt that the survivor’s wishes are normally considered to be paramount so obviously this was a big failure.
These big consensus meetings were and are a feature of anarchist organising and are valued for the supposed horizontal nature. In my opinion, this is a huge misconception. In fact structure less “everyone have their say” free for all meetings suit the mouthy, the confident and those perceived by others to carry authority (given the nature of our society, realistically white middle class men). Worse, because the hierarchies formed (there’s genuinely NO SUCH THING as a social situation without a hierarchy!!) are invisible they can’t be challenged.
More structured organisations tend to put measures in place to promote leadership of underrepresented groups such as dedicated women’s/black members posts, equalities substructures and training. These are unavailable to anarchos because we are too busy pretending that leadership itself can or should be abolished rather than actively promoting the leadership of oppressed people.
Even putting wider concerns of representation aside; at the very least, my experience shows that large open meetings are not appropriate for everything. Responding to specific instances of sexual assault being one example.

What could have been done better
Democratic oversight is important. Giving everyone has a chance to put their views is important. But big meetings with everyone getting a say are most appropriate for ratifying general policy, not dealing with individual events as they occur. In this case, an appropriate use for a large meeting would have been to ratify a sexual assault policy (as recommended above) and to vote in a team of trusted people to take on particular roles needed to implement it (again as recommended above).
The actual incident should have then been dealt with be those individuals, according to the policy and under the democratic control of the community as a whole. Part of their role should undoubtedly been to actually talk to me and to believe me.

Lack of Education
It’s clear that a lot of people had a pretty poor understanding of issues around sexual assault and in particular did not have a good idea of how they were supposed to behave. In general my views and feelings were not sought and when I did try to express then I was not listened to. In fact I was shut down. People did not, as a matter of course believe me and those that did minimised. To date, the tale f my sexual assault was the only instance I have ever seen of an activist rumour getting progressively less lurid in the retelling.
You’ll notice that anonymity wasn’t even on the table. Strictly speaking this is a problem of lack of structure rather than individuals attitudes however. There wasn’t any mechanism for the issue to be dealt with quietly so it was a case of once the information is out, its out to everyone.

What could have been done better
Undoubtedly the presence of training and education on issues of rape and sexual assault would have been helpful to a lot of people (not least me!) and might have dissuaded some people from being as insensitive as they were.
I’ve left this recommendation to last however, because I view it as less urgent to the activist community than the lack of security, structure and policy. I also think that education is sometimes seen as the be all and end all. Like if everyone’s attitudes can be improved and everyone is aware of their own privilege then, we can count on everyone to make the right call and not address our structural inadequacies.
This is naive. Looking at my own experience: we were in a space specifically set up to welcome anyone and everyone interested in a particular mobilisation. A lot of activism aims (as it should) on mobilising as many and as large a variety of people as possible. People enter activist spaces with differing levels of understanding and bring with them the attitudes prevalent in society at large. Even with the most thorough education programme, inevitably some people will have shitty attitudes and will express them.
What we can aim for however (and what I think my proposals on structure and policy would achieve) is to ensure these attitudes do not influence the decision on how to respond to a sexual assault.

Ellenor’s non-negotiable basics:

‎1. There should be some attempt at awareness of who is/should be in a space.
2. There should be a sexual assault policy in place before a situation comes up rather than dealing with it on the hoof

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