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Effective Community Justice

Posted on May 30, 2019 by
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Excerpted from the Summer 2019 edition of Communities, “Sexual Politics”—full issue available for download (by voluntary donation) here.

Rape: Sexual penetration accomplished through violence or the threat of violence, or when the victim is unable to consent. The victim is unable to consent if she (or he) is drunk, high, asleep, mentally deficient, or underage.

Frozen in terror, I stayed as still as possible, pretending to still be asleep. His hand continued working at my crotch for a while, then withdrew. Suddenly I could move again, and I demanded in a hard voice, “Leave now.” Miraculously, he did so.

I left the bed where my toddler slept beside me and walked across the community garden to my community pod’s common house. Unaware of what I was doing, I slammed the door so hard that the glass broke and scattered across the floor. Startled, my community-mate looked up from his late-night computer use and asked, “What’s wrong?”

“I’ve just been raped!” I stormed, and stomped past him into the shower for the requisite post-rape scrubbing.

It wasn’t the first time someone I knew had raped me, but it was the only time I had an adequate response from my friends and community. Living in intentional community doesn’t eliminate the risk of sexual assault, but it does give us the opportunity to address it in profound ways. In my case, my community’s response empowered, healed, and supported me. I actually left the experience feeling closer, more connected, more trusting, and more courageous than before. Many people contributed to this wonderful outcome, and it was made possible partly because my community had an ongoing practice of actively questioning rape culture and standard sexual norms. I hope to share here a vision of effective community justice, to inspire others towards a world of true sexual agency.

The supportive actions of my community-mates ranged from small to large, and all played their part:

First, the man in my community pod’s house cleaned up the broken glass and repaired the window. He never said a word to reproach me.

The next day, as I explained to a female community-mate what had happened, I expressed the agonizing feeling that it was my fault. After all, I had allowed him to give me a massage, and then I had fallen asleep. My friend cocked her head at me and crooned sympathetically, “Oh, it feels like that!” Her words returned me to my senses. Of course it wasn’t my fault! Agreeing to a massage is not the same as agreeing to sex, even if the location is my bed and even if I am not wearing clothes.

Note that my friend’s apt response required advanced communication skills. If she had tried to talk me out of my feelings by denying my assertion and arguing the point, I would not have experienced that instant awakening into sensibility. It would have been nearly as confusing on an emotional level as if she had agreed that it was my fault. When one is seeking to make sense out of a traumatic situation which involved erasure of one’s autonomy or perspective, more erasure of autonomy and perspective will not lead towards healing.

As I continued to talk about the rape, and my community-mates talked about it with others, the general feeling from my community was that this was not okay, and something had to be done. A woman and two men decided to hold a meeting with my assailant. As I was not present for most of the meeting, I will tell you what I know.

The meeting happened in a community space, and lasted several hours. The woman and two men met with my assailant, and talked with him about how his behavior was unacceptable. They listened to him as well. During the meeting, my partner and I waited in the garden near our sleeping space. At one point the woman left the meeting to ask me a question. She said my assailant claimed that I had “wanted it” because I had an orgasm, and they didn’t know how to respond to him about that. Embarrassed, I answered that I had no idea if I had an orgasm or not; I was so terrified that I could not move, and felt as if I was floating above my body. If my body responded, it was not a reflection of my will or consent.

I also explained that this man and I had a history. I was 25 years old, and he was near 50. He had been flirting and coming on to me for months, and I consistently rebuffed him. I said no to him so many times that I thought his continued flirting must be a joke. I started to alternate negative responses with outright laughing in his face. I had agreed to a massage only because we were both part of a wider community where people talked about consent a lot, and sought to de-couple affectionate touch from sexuality. It was widely understood in our social group that snuggling, massage, nudity, hot-tubbing, and other potentially confusing behaviors were valuable unto themselves, and did not automatically indicate a sexual invitation. So when I agreed to a massage, fell asleep, and woke up with his hand penetrating me, I was genuinely shocked and traumatized.

Nodding, the woman thanked me and returned to the meeting.

After another hour, my partner and I were invited to join them in the community space. My assailant sat with the other two men, while I stood in the middle of the room, my partner and the woman on either side of me. They invited me to say anything I wanted.

“Did you know that I am in a monogamous relationship with my partner?”

“Yes.”

“Did you hear me say ’no’ to you over and over again?”

“Yes.”

“Did you just hope I had changed my mind?”

“I guess so.”

Although furious, I was not shaking. I felt a rush of power running from the Earth through my entire body. I was a force of nature as I told him how he had disrespected me, my partner, and my toddler who slept in the bed during the entire scene. Finally I wound down, and he had a chance to respond.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “What do you want from me?”

“I want to be able to go to social events and feel comfortable staying at them when I find out you are there. I don’t want to limit or shrink my life because of you.”

Surprisingly, he cringed. “It seems like you have all the power in this situation,” he said.

What a turn-around: from being a victim to being the one in charge. I really did feel powerful, and he felt powerless. I wish every rape victim could look her attacker in the face and hear him say that she had all the power. At the same time, it sounded pathetic to me. He still had no idea how his positioning in the wider society (as a man, and much older than me) gave him automatic privilege and power in our relationship. He felt powerless, so he denied his authority.

Note that while he was a part of my wider community, this man did not live in my intentional community.  If he had, I would have made other requests to ensure my safety.  Depending on the community’s social and physical infrastructure, this might have included moving him to a different part of the land, changing our working groups, or requesting eviction.

We finished the meeting soon afterwards, and I thanked the support people who had done the intervention. Within six months, my attacker moved to a different state. I actually felt sad and disappointed when I heard that news. As long as he stayed in our city, people who knew him could hold him accountable to better behavior. Likewise, women could be warned that he had a history of violating boundaries. By moving to a different state, he removed the accountability of his support network. I felt confident that he would not repeat his behavior in our city, but I feared that in a new community he would violate women again.

Let me be clear: I know this man is a good person, and is doing his best. I believe his best is better in a community where his past mistakes are known, confronted, and followed-up on. In a place where he is completely unknown, the risk of repeat offenses increases. The effectiveness of community justice dissolves when one leaves the community.

Sexual crimes are hard to prosecute in the criminal justice system because they frequently happen in private, with little or no physical evidence, and pursuing a case re-traumatizes the victim. In community we have an opportunity to institute our own forms of justice. My community created a structure where evidence was unnecessary, women were believed, and pursuing justice healed and empowered the survivor. May others be inspired by this article to create workable community justice processes to hold sexual assault perpetrators accountable, and help heal and protect their victims. So mote it be.

Excerpted from the Summer 2019 edition of Communities, “Sexual Politics”—full issue available for download (by voluntary donation) here.


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