Coming To Terms
How do you begin to say, “I think we’ve been going about this all wrong?” How do you get out of a dead-end without going in reverse?
It seems like in the last fifteen years, rape has gone from being an issue that was only talked about by feminists and downplayed in other radical communities, to one of the most commonly addressed forms of oppression. Part of this change might be owed to the hard work of feminist and queer activists, another part to the spread of anarchism, with its heavy emphasis on both class and gender politics, and another part to the antiglobalization movement, which brought together many previously separated single issues.
Despite all the changes in fifteen years, its just as common to hear the sentiment that rape is still tacitly permitted in radical communities or that the issues of gender and patriarchy are minimized, even though in most activist or anarchist conferences and distros I know about, rape culture and patriarchy have been among the most talked about topics, and it wasn’t just talk. In the communities I have been a part of there have been cases of accused rapists or abusers being kicked out and survivors being supported, along with plenty of feminist activities, events, and actions.
All the same, every year I meet more people who have stories of communities torn apart by accusations of rape or abuse, both by the shock and trauma of the original harm, and then by the way people have responded and positioned themselves. One option is to blame a passive majority that toe the line, giving lip service to the new politically correct doctrine, without living up to their ideals. In some cases I think that is exactly what happened. But even when there is full community support, it still often goes wrong.
After years of thinking about this problem, learning about other people’s experiences, and witnessing accountability processes from the margins and from the center, I strongly believe that the model we have for understanding and responding to rape is deeply flawed. For a long time I have heard criticisms of this model, but on the one hand I never found a detailed explanation of these criticisms and on the other I was trained to assume that anyone criticizing the model was an apologist for rape, going on the defensive because their own patriarchal attitudes were being called out. After personally meeting a number of critical people who were themselves longtime feminists and survivors, I started to seriously question my assumptions.
Since then, I have come to the conclusion that the way we understand and deal with rape is all wrong and it often causes more harm than good. But many of the features of the current model were sensible responses to the Left that didn’t give a damn about rape and patriarchy. Maybe the biggest fault of the model, and the activists who developed it, is that even though they rejected the more obvious patriarchal attitudes of the traditional Left, they unconsciously included a mentality of puritanism and law and order that patriarchal society trains us in. I don’t want to go back to a complicit silence on these issues. For that reason, I want to balance every criticism I make of the current model with suggestion for a better way to understand and deal with rape.
When I was in a mutually abusive relationship, one in which both of us were doing things we should not have done, without being directly aware of it, that resulted in causing serious psychological harm to the other person, I learned some interesting things about the label of “survivor.” It represents a power that is at odds with the process of healing. If I was called out for abuse, I became a morally contemptible person. But if I were also a survivor, I suddenly deserved sympathy and support. None of this depended on the facts of the situation, on how we actually hurt each other. In fact, no one else knew of the details, and even the two of us could not agree on them. The only thing that mattered was to make an accusation. And as the activist model quickly taught us, it was not enough to say, “You hurt me.” We had to name a specific crime. “Abuse.” “Assault.” “Rape.” A name from a very specific list of names that enjoy a special power. Not unlike a criminal code.
I did not want to create an excuse for how I hurt someone I loved. I wanted to understand how I was able to hurt that person without being aware of it at the time. But I had to turn my pain and anger with the other person into accusations according to a specific language, or I would become a pariah and undergo a much greater harm than the self-destruction of this one relationship. The fact that I come from an abusive family could also win me additional points. Everyone, even those who do not admit it, know that within this system having suffered abuse in your past grants you a sort of legitimacy, even an excuse for harming someone else. But I don’t want an excuse. I want to get better, and I want to live without perpetuating patriarchy. I sure as hell don’t want to talk about painful stories from my past with people who are not unconditionally sympathetic towards me, as the only way to win their sympathy and become a human in their eyes.
As for the other person, I don’t know what was going on in their head, but I do know that they were able to deny ever harming me, violating my consent, violating my autonomy, and lying to me, by making the accusation of abuse. The label of “survivor” protected them from accountability. It also enabled them to make demands of me, all of which I met, even though some of those demands were harmful to me and other people. Because I had not chosen to make my accusation publicly, I had much less power to protect myself in this situation.
And as for the so-called community, those who were good friends supported me. Some of them questioned me and made sure I was going through a process of self-criticism. Those who were not friends or who held grudges against me tried to exclude me, including one person who had previously been called out for abuse. In other word, the accusation of abuse was used as an opportunity for power plays within our so-called community.
For all its claims about giving importance to feelings, the activist model is coded with total apathy. The only way to get the ball of community accountability rolling is to accuse someone of committing a specific crime.
The role of our most trusted friends in questioning our responses, our impulses, and even our own experiences is invaluable. This form of questioning is in fact one of the most precious things that friendship offers. No one is infallible and we can only learn and grow by being questioned. A good friend is one who can question your behavior in a difficult time without ever withdrawing their support for you. The idea that “the survivor is always right” creates individualistic expectations for the healing process. A survivor as much as a perpetrator needs to be in charge of their own healing process, but those who support them cannot be muted and expected to help them fulfill their every wish. This is a obvious in the case of someone who has harmed someone else it should also be clear in the case of someone who has been harmed We need each other to heal. But the others in a healing process cannot be muted bodies. They must be communicative and critical bodies.
The term “perpetrator” should set off alarm bells right away. The current model uses not only the vocabulary but also the grammar of the criminal justice system, which is a patriarchal institution through and through. This makes perfect sense: law and order is one of the most deeply rooted elements of the American psyche, and more immediately, many feminist activists have one foot in radical communities and another foot in NGOs. The lack of a critique of these NGOs only makes it more certain that they will train us in institutional modes of thinking.
The current method is not only repulsive for its puritanism and its similarity to the Christian notions of the elect and the damned; it is also a contradiction of queer, feminist, and anarchist understandings of patriarchy. If everyone or most people are capable of causing harm, being abusive, or even of raping someone (according to the activist definition which can include not recognizing lack of consent, unlike the traditional definition which focuses on violent rape), then it makes no sense to morally stigmatize those people as though they were especially bad or dangerous. The point we are trying to make is not that the relatively few people who are called out for abuse or even for rape are especially evil, but that the entire culture supports such power dynamics, to the extent that these forms of harm are common. By taking a self-righteous, “tough on crime” stance, everyone else can make themselves seem like the good guys. But there can’t be good guys without bad guys. This is the same patriarchal narrative of villain, victim, and savior, though in the latter role, instead of the boyfriend or police officer, we now have the community.
The term “survivor,” on the other hand, continues to recreate the victimization of the standard term, “victim,” that it was designed to replace. One reason for calling someone a “survivor” is to focus on their process of overcoming the rape, even though it defines them perpetually in relation to it. The other reason is to spread awareness of how many thousands of people, predominately women, queer, and trans people, are injured or killed every year by patriarchal violence. This is an important point to make. However, given the way that rape has been redefined in activist circles, and the extension of the term “survivor” to people who suffer any form of abuse, the vast majority of things that constitute rape or abuse do not have the slightest possibility of ending someone’s life. This term blurs very different forms of violence.
Hopefully, the reader is thinking that an action does not need to be potentially lethal to constitute a very real form of harm. I absolutely agree. But if that’s the case, why do we need to make it sound like it does in order to take it seriously? Why connect all forms of harm to life-threatening harm instead of communicating that all forms of harm are serious?
As for these crimes, their definitions have changed considerably, but they still remain categories of criminality that must meet the requirements of a certain definition to justify a certain punishment. The activist model has been most radical by removing the figure of the judge and allowing the person harmed to judge for themselves. However, the judge role has not been abolished, simply transferred to the survivor, and secondarily to the people who manage the accountability process. The act of judging still takes place, because we are still dealing with punishment for a crime, even if it is never called that.
The patriarchal definition of rape has been abandoned in favor of a new understanding that defines rape as sex without consent, with whole workshops and pamphlets dedicated to the question of consent. Consent must be affirmative rather than the absence of a negative, it is canceled by intoxication, intimidation, or persistence, it should be verbal and explicit between people who don’t know each other as well, and it can be withdrawn at any time. The experience of a survivor can never be questioned, or to put it another way an accusation of rape is always true. A similar formulation that sums up this definition is, “assault is when I feel assaulted.”
Distinguishing Rape and Abuse
I don’t want to distinguish rape from other forms of harm without talking about how to address all instances of harm appropriately. One solution that does not require us to judge which form of harm is more important, but also does not pretend they are all the same, would have two parts. The first part is to finally acknowledge the importance of feelings, by taking action when someone says “I have been hurt,” and not waiting until someone makes an accusation of a specific crime, such as abuse or rape. Because we are responding to the fact of harm and not the violation of an unwritten law, we do not need to look for someone to blame. The important thing is that someone is hurting, and they need support. Only if they discover that they cannot get better unless they go through some form of mediation with the other person or unless they gain space and distance from them, does that other person need to be brought into it. The other person does not need to be stigmatized, and the power plays involved in the labels of perpetrator and survivor are avoided.
The second part changes the emphasis from defining violations of consent to focusing on how to prevent them from happening again. Every act of harm can be looked at with the following question in mind: “What would have been necessary to prevent this from happening.” This question needs to be asked by the person who was harmed, by their social circle, and if possible by the person who caused the harm.
The social circle is most likely to be able to answer this question when the harm relates to long-term relationships or shared social spaces. They might realize that if they had been more attentive or better prepared they would have seen the signs of an abusive relationship, expressed their concern, and offered help. Or they might realize that, in a concert hall they commonly use, there are a number of things they can all do to make it clear that groping and harassing is not acceptable. But in some situations they can only offer help after the fact. They cannot be in every bedroom or on every dark street to prevent forms of gender violence or intimate violence that happen there.
In the case of the person who caused the harm, the biggest factor is whether they are emotionally present to ask themselves this question. If they can ask, “what could I have done to not have hurt this person,” they have taken the most important step to identifying their own patriarchal conditioning, and to healing from unresolved past trauma if that’s an issue. If they are emotionally present to the harm they have caused, they deserve support. Those closest to the person they hurt may rightfully be angry and not want anything to do with them, but there should be other people wiling to play this role. The person they have hurt deserves distance, if they want it, but except in extreme cases it does no good to stigmatize or expel them in a permanent way.
If they can ask themselves this question honestly, and especially if their peers can question them in this process, they may discover that they have done nothing wrong, or that they could not have known their actions would have been harmful. Sometimes, relationships simply hurt, and it is not necessary to find someone to blame, though this is often the tendency, justified or not. The fact that some relationships are extremely hurtful but also totally innocent is another reason why it is dangerous to lump all forms of harm together, presupposing them all to be the result of an act of abuse for which someone is responsible.
If their friends are both critical and sympathetic, they are most likely to be able to recognize when they did something wrong, and together with their friends, they are the ones in the best position to know how to change their behavior so they don’t cause similar harm in the future. If their friends have good contact with the person who was hurt (or that person’s friends), they are more likely to take the situation seriously and not let the person who caused the harm off the hook with a band-aid solution.
This new definition is a response to the patriarchal definition, which excuses the most common forms of rape (rape by acquaintances, rape of someone unable to give consent, rape in which someone does not clearly say “no”). It is a response to a patriarchal culture that was always making excuses for rape or blaming the victim.
The old definition and the old culture are abhorrent. But the new definition and the practice around it do not work. We need to change these without going back to the patriarchal norm. In fact, we haven’t fully left the patriarchal norm behind us. Saying “assault is when I feel assaulted” is only a new way to determine when the crime of assault has been committed, keeping the focus on the transgression of the assaulter, then we still have the mentality of the criminal justice system, but without the concept of justice or balance.
At the other extreme, there are people who act inexcusably and are totally unable to admit it. Simply put, if someone hurts another person and they are not emotionally present in the aftermath, simply put, it is impossible to take their feelings into consideration. You can’t save someone who doesn’t want help. In such a case, the person hurt and their social circle need to do what is best for themselves, both to heal and to protect themselves from a person they have no guarantee will treat them well in the future. Maybe they will decide to shame that person, frighten them, beat them up, or kick them out of town. Although kicking them out of town brings the greatest peace of mind, it should be thought of as a last resort, because it passes off the problem on the next community where the expelled person goes. Because it is a relatively easy measure it is also easy to use disproportionately. Rather than finding a solution that avoids future conflict, it is better to seek a conflictive solution. This also forces people to face the consequences of their own righteous anger which can be a learning process.
Finally, the most important question comes from the person who was hurt. The victimistic mentality of our culture, along with the expectation that everyone is out to blame the victim, make it politically incorrect to insist the person who has been hurt ask themselves, “what would have made it possible to avoid this?” but such an attitude is necessary to overcoming the victim mentality and feeling empowered again. It is helpful for everyone who lives in a patriarchal world where we will probably encounter more people who try to harm us. Its not about blaming ourselves for what happened, but about getting stronger and more able to defend ourselves in the future.
I know that some zealous defenders of the present model will make the accusation that I am blaming the victim, so I want to say this again: it’s about preventing future rapes and abuse, not blaming ourselves if we have been raped or abused. The current model basically suggests that people play the role of victims and wait for society or the community to save them. Many of us think this is bullshit. Talking with friends of mine who have been raped and looking back at my own history of being abused, I know that we grew stronger in certain ways, and this is because we took responsibility for our own healthy and safety.
In some cases, the person who was hurt will find that if they had recognized certain patterns of dependence or jealousy, if they had had more self-esteem, or they had asserted themselves, they could have avoided being harmed. Unless they insist on retaining a puritan morality this is not to say that it was their fault. It is a simple recognizing of how they need to grow in order to be safer and stronger in a dangerous world. This method focuses not on blame, but on making things better.
The Most Extreme Form of Harm
Sometimes, however, the person will come to the honest conclusion, “there was nothing I could have done (except staying home / having a gun / having a bodyguard).” This answer marks the most extreme form of harm. Someone has suffered a form of violence that they could not have avoided because of the lengths the aggressor went to in order to override their will. Even shouting “No!” would not have been enough. It is a form of harm that cannot be prevented at an individual level and therefore it will continue to be reproduced until there is a profound social revolution, if that ever happens.
If we have to define rape, it seems more consistent with a radical analysis of patriarchy to define rape as sex against someone’s will. Because will is what we want taken into the realm of action this idea of rape does not make the potential victim dependent on the good behavior of the potential rapist. It is our own responsibility to depress our will. Focusing on expressing and enacting our will directly strengthens ourselves as individuals and our struggles against rape and all other forms of domination.
If rape is all sex without affirmative consent, then it is the potential rapist, and not the potential victim, who retains the power over the sexual encounter. They have the responsibility to make sure the other person gives consent. If it is the sole responsibility of one person to receive consent from another person, then we are saying that person is more powerful then the other, without proposing how to change those power dynamics.
Additionally, if a rape can happen accidentally, simply because this responsible person, the one expected to play the part of the perfect gentleman, is inattentive or insensitive, or drunk, or oblivious to things like body language that can negate verbal consent, or from another culture with a different body language, then we’re not necessarily dealing with a generalized relationship of social power, because not everyone who rapes under this definition believes they have a right to the other person’s body.
Rape needs to be understood as a very specific form of harm. We can’t encourage the naive ideal of a harm-free world. People will always hurt each other, and it is impossible to learn how not to hurt others without also making mistakes. As far as harm goes, we need to be more understanding than judgmental.
But we can and must encourage the ideal of a world without rape, because rape is the result of a patriarchal society teaching its members that men and other more powerful people have a right to the bodies of women and other less powerful people. Without this social idea, there is no rape. What’s more, rape culture, understood in this way, lies at least partially at the heart of slavery, property, and work, at the roots of the State, capitalism, and authority.
This is a dividing line between one kind of violence and all the other forms of abuse. It’s not to say that the other forms of harm are less serious or less important. It is a recognition that the other forms of harm can be dealt with using less extreme measures. A person or group of people who would leave someone no escape can only be dealt with through exclusion and violence. Then it becomes a matter of pure self-defense. In all the other cases, there is a possibility for mutual growth and healing.
Sympathetic or supportive questioning can play a key role in responses to abuse. If we accept rape as a more extreme form of violence that the person could not have reasonably avoided, they need the unquestioning support and love of their friends.
We need to educate ourselves how systematically patriarchy has silenced those who talk about being raped through suspicion, disbelief, or counter accusations. But we also need to be aware that there have been a small number of cases in which accusations of rape have not been true. No liberating practice should ever require us to surrender our own critical judgement and demand that we follow a course of action we are not allowed to question.
Being falsely accused of rape or being accused in a non-transparent way is a heavily traumatizing experience. It is a far less common occurrence than valid accusations of rape that the accused person denies, but we should never have to opt for one kind of harm in order to avoid another.
If it is true that rapists exist in our circles, it is also true that pathological liars exist in our circles. There has been at least one city where such a person made a rape accusation to discredit another activist. People who care about fighting patriarchy will not suspect someone of being a pathological liar every time they are unsure about a rape accusation. If you are close to someone for long enough, you will inevitably find out if they are a fundamentally dishonest person (or if they are like the rest of us, sometimes truthful, sometimes less so). Therefore, someone’s close acquaintances, if they care about the struggle against rape culture, will never accuse them of lying if they say they’ve been raped. But often accusations spread by rumors and reach people who do not personally know the accuser and the accused. The culture of anonymous communication through rumors and the internet often create a harmful situation in which it is impossible to talk about accountability or about the truth of what happened in a distant situation.
Anarchists and other activists also have many enemies who have proven themselves capable of atrocities in the course of repression. A fake rape accusation is nothing to them. A police infiltrator in Canada used the story of being a survivor of an abusive relationship to avoid questions about her past and win the trust of anarchists she would later set up for prison sentences.  Elsewhere, a member of an authoritarian socialist group made an accusation against several rival anarchists, one of whom, it turned out, was not even in town on the night in question.
Some false accusations of rape are totally innocent. Sometimes a person begins to relive a previous traumatic experience while in a physically intimate space with another person, and it is not always easy or possible to distinguish between the one experience and the other. A person can begin to relive a rape while they are having consensual sex. It is definitely not the one person’s fault for having a normal reaction to trauma, but it is also not necessarily the other person’s fault that the trauma was triggered.
A mutual and dynamic definition of consent as active communication instead of passive negation would help reduce triggers being mislabeled as rape. If potential triggers are discussed before the sexual exchange and the responsibility for communicating needs and desires around disassociation is in the hands of the person who disassociated then consent is part of an active sexual practice instead of just being an imperfect safety net.
If someone checks out during sex, and they know they check out during sex, it is their responsibility to explain what that looks like and what they would like the other person to do when it happens. We live in a society where many people are assaulted, raped or have traumatic experiences at some point in their lives. Triggers are different for everyone. The expectation that ones partner should always be attuned enough to know when one is disassociating, within a societal context that does not teach us about the effects of rape, much less their intimate emotive and psychological consequences — is unrealistic.
Consent is empowering as an active tool, it should not be approached as a static obligation. Still, the fact remains that not all rape accusation can be categorized as miscommunication, some are in fact malicious.
There is a difficult contradiction between the fact that patriarchy covers up rape, and the fact that there will be some false, unjustified, or even malicious rape accusations in activist communities. The best option is not to go with statistical probability and treat every accusation as valid, because a false accusation can tear apart an entire community make people apathetic or skeptical towards future accountability processes. It is far better to educate ourselves, to be aware of the prevalence of rape, to recognize common patterns of abusive behavior, to learn how to respond in a sensitive and supportive way, and also to recognize that there are some exceptions to the rules, and many more situations that are complex and defy definition.
The typical proposal for responding to rape, the community accountability process, is based on a transparent lie. There are no activist communities, only the desire for communities, or the convenient fiction of communities. A community is a material web that binds people together, for better and for worse, in interdependence. If its members move away every couple years because the next pace seems cooler, it is not a community. If it is easier to kick someone out than to go through a difficult series of conversations with them, it is not a community. Among the societies that had real communities, exile was the most extreme sanction possible, tantamount to killing them. On many levels, losing the community and all the relationships it involved was the same as dying. Let’s not kid ourselves: we don’t have communities.
In many accountability processes, the so-called community has done as much harm, or acted as selfishly, as the perpetrator. Giving such a fictitious, self-interested group the power and authority of judge, jury, and executioner is a recipe for disaster.
What we have are groups of friends and circles of acquaintances. We should not expect to be able to deal with rape or abuse in a way that does not generate conflict between or among these different groups and circles. There will probably be no consensus, but we should not think of conflict as a bad thing.
Every rape is different, every person is different, and every situation will require a different solution. By trying to come up with a constant mechanism for dealing with rape, we are thinking like the criminal justice system. It is better to admit that we have no catch-all answer to such a difficult problem. We only have our own desire to make things better, aided by the knowledge we share. The point is not to build up a structure that becomes perfect and unquestionable, but to build up experience that allows us to remain flexible but effective.
The many failings in the current model have burned out one generation another in just a few short years, setting the stage for the next generation of zealous activists to take their ideals to the extreme, denouncing anyone who questions them as apologists, and unaware how many times this same dynamic has played out before because the very model functions to expel the unorthodox, making it impossible to learn from mistakes.
One such mistake has been the reproduction of a concept similar to the penal sentence of the criminal justice system. If the people in charge of the accountability process decide that someone must be expelled, or forced to go to counseling, or whatever else, everyone in the so-called community is forced to recognize that decision. Those who are not are accused of supporting rape culture. A judge has a police force to back up his decision. The accountability process has to use accusations and emotional blackmail.
But the entire premise that everyone has to agree on the resolution is flawed. The two or more people directly involved in the problem may likely have different needs, even if they are both sincerely focused on their own healing. The friends of the person who has been hurt might be disgusted, and they might decide to beat the other person up. Other people in the broader social circle might feel a critical sympathy with the person who hurt someone else, and decide to support them. Both of these impulses are correct. Getting beaten up as a result of your actions, and receiving support, simply demonstrate the complex reactions we generate. This is the real world, and facing its complexity can help us heal.
The impulse of the activist model is to expel the perpetrator, or to force them to go through a specific process. Either of these paths rest on the assumption that the community mechanism holds absolute right, and they both require that everyone complies with the decision and recognize its legitimacy. This is authoritarianism. This is the criminal justice system, recreated. This is patriarchy, still alive in our hearts.
What we need is a new set of compass points, and no new models. We need to identify and overcome the mentalities of puritanism and law and order. We need to recognize the complexity of individuals and of interpersonal relationships. To avoid a formulaic morality, we need to avoid the formula of labels and mass categories. Rather than speaking of rapists, perpetrators, and survivors, we need to talk abut specific acts and specific limitations, recognizing that everyone changes, and that most people are capable of hurting and being hurt, and also of growing, healing, and learning how to not hurt people, or not be victimized, in the future. We also need to make the critical distinction between the forms of harm that can be avoided as we get smarter and stronger, and the kinds that require a collective self-defense.
The suggestions I have made offer no easy answers, and no perfect categories. They demand flexibility, compassion, intelligence, bravery, and patience. How could we expect to confront patriarchy with anything less?