Kate posted a comment about my blog on Facebook, which I think needs to be added to this conversation. She called me out on a very important point. It really is a community’s responsibility to build and enforce safe containers. It should not fall solely on the shoulders of the accusers/victims. Thank you, Kate, for correcting me.
I wish instead of her suggesting how the accuser could rephrase questions to the community the author put the responsibility on the community and surrounding parties to ask the right questions. Of course a survivor is going to lash out and say so and so is a rapist. And I feel that her point about supporting the survivor is lost when her only examples of how discourse can happen is when the survivor just says things a little differently. It’s still victim blaming. Why not instead make a plea for the surrounding community to have responded to the accusations differently. Asking her “how can we make you safe?” or “this person has done a terrible thing to you and this person will be addressed before they attend the party”…
I’m still trying to wrap my head around these issues my own self, and I don’t pretend to have the definitive solution to ending violence. I’m grateful that my writing is sparking thoughtful and meaningful discourse.
You cannot shame or belittle people into changing their behaviors
In the last few years, I’ve read a lot of opinions about how to handle perpetrators and those accused of abuse and boundary violations. One of the biggest points of contention is the phenomenon of naming one’s abuser.
This issue is one that I’ve been really torn on. And it’s taken me a long time to figure out why.
I was chatting with a dear friend of mine who does a lot of work in the field of Domestic Violence prevention and is not unfamiliar with the world of kink. I was talking to him about an incident that is causing major rifts in my larger circle of friends. Someone who had been accused of rape by his former partner showed up to a party. While the accuser was not in attendance, the events that transpired were made public on Facebook and Livejournal in ways that raised lots of hackles, and caused many lines to be drawn in the sand.
This is not the first time I’ve seen something like this happen within a community, and I’m sure it won’t be the last. Every time a situation like this crops up, it grates on some core nerve in me. And, much as I hate to admit it, my feelings towards to one who is making the claim of abuse are not always charitable. In a way, I’m surprised at myself by my own reactions. After all, I’ve worked as a rape crisis counselor, for crying out loud. I’ve spent the last two years working with kids and adults who have endured some of the most horrific abuse imaginable. Why then do I have such a strong gut reaction to an allegation of abuse?
Whenever I’ve been privy to someone naming their abuser, the result is never pretty. The accuser names someone, expecting that the community will rally around her and kick the unsafe party to the curb. Instead what happens is a firestorm of harsh words, hurt feelings, and victim blaming.
My friend asked me some questions about how my community views the actions of the accused party. Is this issue the accuser’s issue or an issue for the community? If it’s a community issue, then what needs to happen so to make the aggrieved party and the community whole? Who is responsible for holding the accused accountable?
And I couldn’t answer those questions. So I looked back at the various facebook and LJ posts to see if there was an answer. No one was asking these questions. No one was giving anyone space to have these constructive conversations. The accuser was coming from a very triggered, angry, and hurt space. In her eyes, there was a dangerous person in our midst, and any minute now, he could be finding his next victim. When the hosts did not immediately evict or disinvite him, they became complicit in perpetuating abuse. Then, if anyone came to the hosts’ defense or in anyway justified their decisions, they too became part of the problem.
All of a sudden, the conversation was no longer about establishing safety, it was about picking sides. What started as an incident that may or may not have been handled well became a contagion of a sort. Their perceived actions, or lack thereof, became yet another betrayal.
I can understand why people feel so passionately about the importance of naming one’s perpetrator. If we do not hold people accountable for their actions within our communities, we cannot keep our communities safe. And I think there is a way we can start having these conversations that will not ultimately devolve into name calling, victim blaming, and community shattering.
I think the language of accusations is very important. Whenever I have seen accusations posted publicly, much like the one I referenced, the accuser talks about their perpetrator in terms of identity and not behavior.
“Joe Schmoe is a rapist.”
“Dommy McGee is a predator.”
When put in those terms, community members have a limited menu of options; ostracize the accused, or let the accused off the hook. After all, if this person is such a horrific individual, the only recource is to cast him or her asunder. This does nothing, however, to hold the accused accountable or allow the victim and community to heal.
What if, instead, we separate the person’s behavior from their identity?
“Joe Schmoe raped me.”
“Dommy McGee violated my boundaries, and I worry he will do the same to other community members.”
To me, those statements are so much more powerful. Even people who may think that Joe is a fun person to hang out with in x or y venue can engage in this conversation and help find a way to hold Joe accountable. This does not mean, however, that we ignore or minimize the gravity of a transgression. We can hold someone accountable for the full weight of their actions without demonizing them or making them out to be some cartoon villain with an evil looking mustache. If the accused does not somehow take responsibility for their actions, acknowledge the impact of those actions not just on the accuser but their entire community, then we can have a conversation about whether that person can remain in the community’s ranks. As satisfying as angry finger pointing and public shaming can sometimes feel, it has proven over and over again to be a completely ineffective agent for change.
I am reminded of an amazing documentary called Into The Abyss, in which the documentarian, Warner Herzog, interviews two boys who were convicted of a horrific and seemingly senseless murder. Here is what Mr. Herzog says in his press kit about the subjects of his film:
It is also absolutely clear that the crimes of the persons in my films are monstrous, but the perpetrators are not monsters. They are human. For this reason, I treat them with respect, addressing them with Mr. or Mrs. and their full name. Although I am not visible, I wear a formal suit.
I recognize that this is far easier is theory than practice. After all, when someone violates your boundaries or treats you with cruelty, it’s only natural to want to demonize that person. We don’t want to see them as human, and sometimes it feels that no punishment will ever be enough to forgive leaving such deep and lingering scars (emotional and/or physical). Also, when we acknowledge a perpetrator’s humanity, we open ourselves to the possibility that we too might be capable of such darkness under the right conditions. And that is a very scary thought to entertain. But if Mr. Herzog can recognize the humanity of murderers without minimizing the weight of their crimes, can’t we do the same for perpetrators in our communities?
What can we do within our local communities to embody this sentiment and promote cultures of trust and safety? How can we find healing and create a space for true accountability?