Excerpted from the Summer 2019 edition of Communities, “Sexual Politics”—full issue available for download (by voluntary donation) here.
Trigger warnings: Sexual assault, predation
More than anything, we want to feel safe in the places and spaces we inhabit, especially within the communities where we find refuge. When we think of sexual assault and boundary violations, it is common to think not in my community, or the person I know wouldn’t do that.
When accusations of sexual violations arise in a community, disbelief and shock are common responses. At the same time, I have found that sentiments like these make communities especially vulnerable to predatory behavior. When people feel a sense of safety and openness, of feeling at home, their defenses go down, which increases their vulnerability. In alternative, conscious, radical circles, that feeling of openness and acceptance is healing, regenerative, expansive, and often filled with love. I’ve experienced this myself and I was slower than I would have been normally to perceive the threat that was before me.
To be fair, the first time the issue of sexual assault arises, the shock factor that reverberates and unsettles the fabric of a community and its members is intense. That was certainly the case when a member of a community I was part of in 2010 was raped by an acquaintance. It was initially allowed to be dismissed as a misunderstanding, though later in what I would now call an accountability circle he admitted what he did and why he did it. It had nothing to do with sex.
The second time it arose, I was less shocked, but no less impacted. In 2015, there were five men who were called out for separate incidents across multiple communities in Portland, Oregon. Many grappled with the shock, and there were many who rose to the defense of the men because the person they “knew” wouldn’t intentionally harm others.
In addition to this, it was challenging because they weren’t part of an intentional community, but more community in a broader sense, loosely knit, centering around the same events, organizing work, and/or lifestyles. This made it difficult in that membership in these communities was less defined, so questions of decision making, authority to act, and who should be involved were not so easily answered.
In response, myself and two other women organized a series of six events taught by local organizations to educate the community and unpack rape culture, teach concepts of consent for healthy relating, allyship, bystander intervention, and integration. From these and other education events, our attempt at accountability with the man who was part of our community, and my other experiences over the years, the following is what I have learned that may benefit ICs and other communities.
The Undercurrent of Defensiveness
In nearly every community dialogue on sexual assault I facilitated or participated in, there occurred what I came to call the Rise to the Defense of Men. Inevitably, and early on, someone would say, “But not all men are bad,” as if speaking to sexual assault, which for adults predominantly occurs male to female, somehow implies that all men are harmful. First, let me say that I love men and know many who are exquisitely beautiful in their integrity, humanity, and care. Of course, it is true that not all men are malevolent, nor even most. I believe in the overall goodness of men.
The challenge is not in the statement itself, but in the effect it has on any attempt to advance the dialogue that must happen to create a shift in the overwhelming instances of sexual assault. As soon as “the Rise” starts, there follows a symphony of voices that chime in to support defending men. The result is that the conversation no longer centers on sexual assault, but rather on the defense of men. And as those versed in critique of the patriarchy might say, much of society already centers on men and this is part of the problem. At the same time, it’s worth noting that it is not always men who initiate the Rise. It is not gender specific in that way.
While speaking with a friend about my frustration with all this, he said, “I bet the ones who speak out the loudest have been sexually violated themselves as a child.” His words were highly suspect to me. Still, I openly sat with the questions they instigated. Then, in the final integration circle at the end of our educational event series, the first share was from a brother who rose to the defense of men. I was heartbroken. After muddling through the various responses that followed, again decentering sexual assault from the dialogue, we engaged an exercise for personal reflection and integration. Upon returning for a closing circle, the brother shared first again, but this time, he shared how he was personally violated as a young boy by a grown man. It was as if he needed to know that not all men are bad for his own benefit and sense of self.
As I integrated this experience, I reflected on the man who resisted bringing a consent workshop to our volunteer collaboration who later confided in me that he was molested as a child. And I later spoke with a woman(1) who had been raped and had to deal with a man who loudly defended her rapist(2), even going so far as attempting to discredit her. She said he had confided in her long before she was raped that he was violated as a child.
It’s worth stating that in the case of the two men I knew, we went forward with the integration and consent workshop as planned, and in each instance the men found pieces of their own healing, voice, and recovery.
I could theorize about why I think this is, but there is not yet much by way of science or formal study, so I will leave this here. I do want to be a voice for compassion. Even when someone appears to be derailing good faith efforts, there is likely something underneath the surface at play.
Of course, resistance to dialogues and accountability efforts could also reflect people subscribing to beliefs that more align with rape culture, or other personal and cultural blocks. I don’t want to paint the picture that this will be the case in all instances, but it is something to consider when faced with resistance and defensiveness.
Patterns of Predation
There is a common idea that sexual assault happens by strangers in dark alleys. This myth is starting to lose its hold in the collective consciousness; however, many are still not aware of the facts. Eight out of 10 sexual assault instances are committed by people who are known to the survivor. Only 19.5 percent, or two out of 10, are committed by strangers.(3) This means that those who violate people most often build a base level of trust, then violate that trust with intention. That’s a difficult reality for many people to grasp, especially those who want to see only the good in people. I can relate. I personally believe in the goodness of people and believe that represents the majority of people. And there are exceptions.
There is a spectrum of violations and misconduct that occur, ranging from “Oops! I didn’t know better,” to those who cause harm and feel no remorse. Education and consent training are very helpful and can often course-correct for those on the Oops! end of the spectrum. However, for those on the opposite end of the spectrum, it becomes about mitigating their capacity to do more harm. And there is a broad range in between. Unfortunately, many predatory behaviors are seen as normal, accepted, or even sexy, masked as a cool façade painting over the culture of rape hidden underneath.
The Portland-based organization Call to Safety (calltosafety.org), working to support survivors of sexual and domestic violence, shares the following about a typical person who sexually assaults others, based on Dr. David Lisak’s study over the years of 1991-1999.(4) Contrary to popular belief, they don’t use a weapon, they use “just enough” violence, have access to consensual sex, are not mentally ill, premeditate their actions, look for VAL (vulnerability, accessibility, and lack of credibility), use alcohol deliberately, often groom or stalk, and are repeat offenders. It’s also important that people understand that rape is about power and control. It is not about sex.
From my experience, a common tactic is to isolate their targets, perhaps going for a walk, waiting for them outside an event, inviting them to do something alone. It is also common for them to target new people, especially young women. And they are often likeable people, incredibly charming and charismatic.
What I believe is that no one wants to consider themself to be a person who causes another harm. Of the three men that I personally had direct experience with, what I found unsettling was they each saw themself as a sort of hero to women. One saw himself as a protector of women, repeating this claim over and over and over. Another saw himself as a healer and considered what he was doing when he violated women as “healing” them. And the third saw himself as a sort of liberator. They were each out of touch with the reality of what they were doing. It was as if they were so wrapped in the lies they were telling that they wholeheartedly believed them.
This is where the role of community as protector and keeper of truth is so important. And it is critical to recognize when something is bigger than what a community can hold, process, or otherwise deal with. It is quite easy to get seduced by those who cause harm, especially when one’s proclivity is to see the good in people.
What I have witnessed in nearly every instance where someone was confronted for sexually violating others is that they pack up and relocate, often to other unsuspecting communities where they again harm people. A network to share information between communities would be helpful in mitigating the potential harm that too often follows.
Another pattern that is important to recognize is Stephen Karpman’s Drama Triangle of persecutor, victim, rescuer. Invariably, when someone is called a persecutor (or abuser, violator, or rapist), they claim they are in fact the victim, wrongly accused or otherwise harmed. The victim then gets painted as the persecutor, and often, the community goes into rescue mode. This becomes a dance in which the actors involved move from one point of the triangle to another with very little resolution.
To break this dysfunctional pattern, people must be heard, supported in the ways they have requested (not what we think is best or needed), unless of course it creates a safety risk, and challenged where behavior needs to change (i.e., boundaries set and enforced). This is where accountability processes come in.
Matters of sexual assault and violence are not easy, simple, or straightforward. They are uncomfortable, emotionally taxing, and many people would rather not deal with them. However, if we are to move from rape culture to consent culture, we must.
Creative Interventions (www.creative-interventions.org), a national resource center to create and promote community-based interventions to interpersonal violence, defines accountability as “the ability to recognize, end and take responsibility for violence.” They further state that “Community accountability also means that communities are accountable for sometimes ignoring, minimizing or even encouraging violence. Communities must also recognize, end and take responsibility for violence by becoming more knowledgeable, skillful and willing to take action to intervene in violence and to support social norms and conditions that prevent violence from happening in the first place.”(5)
This toolkit was our guidebook as a group of us attempted to bring an accountability process forward for the man who was within our community. It was challenging, and in the end, we were not able to fulfill our objective. However, we learned many things from our process. Here are highlights from my own perspective which may benefit ICs.
First and foremost, when someone has been violated the top priority is for the community to be accountable to both the person who has been harmed and the overall safety of the community. Supporting survivors is often where we fall short. To do so well, Call to Safety recommends the following:
- Start by believing
- Offer unconditional support
- Ensure safety
- Listen carefully
- Let them take time
- Validate them
- Remind them they are not at fault
- Let them decide if they want to go to the hospital and/or report
- Don’t ask too many questions
- Don’t blame yourself
- Let them know about available resources
Accountability best practices start with centering the survivor, meaning that the survivor’s needs, desires, and well-being guide the process. For instance, it would be retraumatizing, likely causing greater harm to the survivor, for them to be asked to confront their violator, especially if there is a web of lies clouding reality. Survivor statements, whether written or video-recorded, can be very powerful if they choose to make them, while the survivor does not need to be present when the violator receives the statement. It is helpful for community members to be present to help the integration process.
Another key learning was to not make the process, the task, the effort so big that you get stuck. It’s okay to start small and build to something larger. We expanded into multiple groups focused on the various aspects of survivor support, offender accountability, education and resources, and a few other subcommittees. This stretched both our bandwidth and capacity to bring actions full circle. There was also a separate attempt at one point to do a restorative justice circle earlier on by a different group. However, that effort was not fully realized either and the offender ended up pointing to the initial effort to say that he had been through an accountability process already, which was not validated when we spoke with those involved.
Keeping the process manageable can also help with the overall emotional weight that can quickly burn people out. Emotional fatigue is a real thing. It’s crucial to be a team and tap out when someone needs a break. Pay attention to who is doing the heavy emotional labor and work to support each other.
One challenge that especially restricted our group was the effort to make sure that those who were involved or joined us were not abusive themselves. As the #MeToo movement has shown, it is often central figures in positions of power that abuse that power with sexual coercion. I have also witnessed that people who harm others are well versed in the language of sexual assault and violence resistance efforts. The man from our community was even attempting to teach consent a year later in a different city.
A key question to an accountability process is how to repair the harm. Again, this is best centered on the survivor. Here are some essential pieces to consider and act upon:
- Support for the one(s) harmed, perhaps creating a collective fund for therapy.
- What does accountability look like for the survivor? What do they need and/or desire?
- Therapy for the one(s) who harmed is also a reasonable ask. For people who rape, group therapy is important because it is through listening to the stories of others who harmed that they begin to see themselves and their own behavior.
- How can the community support the people involved to ensure they are not at the same events at the same time?
- Limiting engagement within community activities until certain requirements are met (perhaps cooperation, therapy, or when/if it works for the survivor).
The community has a critical role it can fulfill in caring for the integrity of safety for its members. And it is important to note that safety cannot be guaranteed by anyone. Some groups like to refer to “safer spaces” for this reason. I prefer “brave spaces” because this life calls upon us to be brave, to face the uncertainties, to be present, aware, and attentive to that which is happening within and around us. I believe our modern desire for “safety” comes from being disconnected from the wild nature of this world. While most people are genuinely good people, we each play the role of the one who harms and one who has been harmed at various points in our lives, sometimes even in the same day. When we go into blind faith and trust in our surroundings, we are at risk. The unfortunate reality is that the minority who do harm with intention prey upon people and places where people feel safest. So we do our best, and lean into the difficult moments, to open space for the uncomfortable truths to emerge, and find our way through it all.
One of the men we worked with on the education piece, Chris Huffine, who leads Allies in Change (www.alliesinchange.org) and is an advocate for the role men have in ending violence against women, said that he believes communities play a central role in accountability and creating substantive change in both the dialogue and response around sexual assault and domestic violence. I share his perspective.
Ideally, agreements and processes on behavior, conduct, and what happens when violations occur happen before they are needed. Considering the systemic failures of our larger society with regards to sexual violence, community action and response is perhaps the most viable solution we have.
I love community and have found deep healing in the bonds I’ve been gifted with through community living, especially in ICs. Over the years, I have learned that community is both sanctuary that offers shelter, and a home that needs protection.
Perhaps the greatest teaching I have gained from these and other experiences is to trust my intuition, to not dismiss it; to respond to it; and to pay attention to the intuition of others, as well. The root word of intuition means “to guard.” It serves as our internal warning system.(6) May you be guided by the wisdom within you. May you be guarded by and guardian to the places, spaces, and people you hold dear.
Creative Interventions Toolkit: www.creative-interventions.org/tools/toolkit
Call to Safety: www.calltosafety.org
The National Hotline for Domestic Violence: 1-800-799-SAFE (7233)
The National Child Abuse Hotline: 1-800-422-4453
The Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network: 1-800-656-HOPE (4673)
1. Generalizations of gender do not intend to dismiss other experiences by non-gender-conforming people, nor men who have been violated and/or raped. It is important to acknowledge that transgender individuals experience the highest rate of sexual assault and face significant risk as a result of simply existing.
2. Labels of victim, violator, persecutor, even survivor, are less than ideal as they can lock people into an identity and come with heavy shame. More conscious communities are increasingly averse to their use. I have interspersed labels with “those who have harmed and been harmed” to speak to the simultaneously occurring experiences within our society.
6. Gavin De Becker, The Gift of Fear: Survival Signals That Protect Us from Violence, 1997.
Amanda Rain founded Speaking the Unspeakable® to inspire the courage to meet our challenges and empower our lives through effective communication. Her blend of rhetorical studies, speech communication, debate, activism, political advocacy, and dynamic life experience is distinct and powerful. Amanda inspires the willingness to face our challenges, while confronting them with skill. Her voice offers hope for the spirit and medicine for the soul. She loves to sit by rivers and be immersed in the natural wonder of this place. You can reach her at connect [AT] speakrain.com and speakrain.com.
Excerpted from the Summer 2019 edition of Communities, “Sexual Politics”—full issue available for download (by voluntary donation) here.