Against Rape Culture! Against the State! Anarchist Responses to Sexual violence: A conversation

By Joey

Currently a social worker for folks living with HIV, I’ve worked around sexual health for five years. In August, I interviewed my friend Tuck who lives in Eugene, OR and works in sexual assault survivor support and advocacy. Her work includes on-call crisis response advocacy, e.g., for someone who has experienced a recent sexual assault and chooses to either come in and disclose, or goes to the hospital to get a kit done, or wants to make a police report, or wants accompaniment to any of those. She also accompanies clients to court, staffs a crisis line, and trains volunteer advocates and crisis line workers.

J: What’s the current system like for responding to sexual violence?

T: The current mainstream system for responding to sexual violence, specifically for Oregon – and I will say that I think things are transitioning in law enforcement in an effort to become more trauma-informed – is that if someone is assaulted, they can go to a hospital and get something called a sexual assault forensic exam kit, which collects forensic evidence from their body, and they may get interviewed about what happened, anonymously or identified. The process for making a police report is that they’re interviewed by the responding officer (a beat cop), and that person collects initial evidence, might interview witnesses, might talk to the perpetrator, and then if they decide there’s enough of a case it gets passed on to a detective and possibly eventually to a DA.

The survivor can also file a lawsuit, but I don’t know as much about that. There are other services that folks become eligible for as well, like reimbursement from the state for lost wages, mental health care, etc. People also have civil protective options for their safety, which aren’t dependent on having a criminal case.

J: The state plays quite a large role then.

T: Yeah, I’ve started collaborating with a perpetrator intervention program, and there are some things in place around restorative justice or community accountability, but these are all community-created, not civic in any way. Most of it is the state.

J: The reason I reflected how much involvement the state seems to have is that we’re an anarchist publication and we’re – I am – interested in the groups you just mentioned, which are doing this at the community level, not at a civic level, as you put it. Two questions: what are the implications of the state having so much involvement, and could you saw more about the programs that are doing this kind of work on their own from a restorative justice lens?

T: I’ll answer the second one first. The question I’ve been thinking about is what does accountability mean? There’s a whole host of issues related to responding to sexual violence as a crime: one of the main problems is that the criminal legal system is so based around property that it doesn’t translate to these harms that are more spirit-based. How do you understand or quantify intent or impact?

I think that one of the issues that a lot of community accountability processes – and there’s a great book called the Revolution Starts at Home that has a ton of info about projects that folks have done around accountability, specifically confronting sexual violence in activist communities – is that people seem to mimic the criminal justice system in the ways they’re approaching accountability. Everyone is innocent until proven guilty, so then you have to prove that crime took place, which when it comes to something like theft is demonstrable: I used to have a bicycle, now I don’t. But when it comes to something like sexual violence, especially around consent, it becomes much harder to prove, as any detective will tell you, and it doesn’t really reflect what actually happened in an act like sexual assault.

What ends up happening is that there are big town hall meetings, people present evidence, and people’s character comes under attack. If someone has more social capital, they’re more likely to believed; if someone has shaky standing in their community, that comes in as well. So there are a ton of problems that arise when we try to recreate a system that is inadequate to respond to this type of event — and, I would argue, is inadequate to respond to most things.

I’m by no means an expert on transformative justice, but I do feel that there are things that can be learned from survivor support movements, that would better inform accountability and transformative justice projects. People who have worked so closely with survivors are better equipped to understand the impact of sexual violence on people and should therefore be part of crafting the response to it.

Within anarchist/radical/whatever communities, there’s often an agreement around shared values, and one of those is that we need to develop alternatives to the state, so there’s more of a framework in place for working on this, as well as a high value on community; sometimes it doesn’t work that well, but at least folks see each other as members of a community rather than people who happen to live in the same town. Well, I don’t just work with survivors who are anarchists, I work with survivors from everywhere – how do we provide for folks who aren’t necessarily already involved with radical spaces?

J: I think there’s maybe a tension between folks who would say they’re not concerned with how well you can scale up a project like that: if you can make a project work in your community, that’s what you can do, and any attempt to scale up becomes inherently recuperative – and on the other hand, I think there’s a lot to say for the idea that, as you put it, a lot of people who experience sexual violence aren’t in those communities – and a lot of people who are swallowed up by the prison-industrial complex aren’t in those communities.

T: I think the issue is seeing community accountability as a replacement for the criminal legal system, because it’s too big. We can’t have a community accountability practice end up as a town jury.

The problem is if you imagine that you’re going to rehabilitate a perpetrator, for example, or work with them so they stop perpetrating violence or unlearn toxic patterns of violence and control, which is a task radical communities often give themselves – we’re working so far out of our skillset. And a lot of the time we don’t have healthy communication and boundaries, because we’ve never had it modeled for us. Especially in communities that are more transitory, it’s hard to imagine how personal-work-based change takes place. So how do we make community with each other that’s accountable, that takes care of each other, where each member is committed to working through their own stuff, where the social norms support that? I think it’s much more about culture-shifting than creating another non-profit or collective; there’s a lot of good to be done in having community workshops where people talk about these issues.

J: What do you think prevents communities from being accountable?

T: That’s a good question. When you see a problem this systemic, the answer is always that it’s a system issue. Sexual violence is deeply raced, deeply classed, based in colonialism; and these dynamics are recreated in our relationships. All of that affects what we do. So creating accountable community is in part about destroying patriarchy, white supremacy, heterosexism, etc, and it’s as difficult as any anti-oppression work that we have.

J: The thought in the back of my head was, it seems like part of the reason we don’t have accountable communities is because we don’t have to do the work of creating accountability; people just call the cops and imagine that the cops and the prison-industrial complex will somehow do that work for them. Does that resonate with you at all?

T: Largely, people want to keep sexual violence an invisible issue. When you look at the statistics on sexual violence and domestic violence in our country, it’s staggering — it’s epidemic. To confront that means confronting a huge part of our entire culture. Most people don’t want to think about it, and even people who understand that aren’t necessarily thinking about what survivors have to work with. So they might reflexively say, “Don’t call the cops,” but they don’t know what it’s like to be a survivor or the choices they have.

I will say that the movement to end sexual violence works really hard to ally itself with the criminal justice system; it’s been an intentional act over the past three decades to get cops to respond adequately to sexual violence. Remember that most kinds of sexual violence weren’t even crimes until recently, and if they were crimes they were property crimes – marital rape wasn’t a crime until 1994.  A lot of the initial work went to moving these issues from the realm of private business to public crimes. And we’re now left with the result of that. A lot of that trajectory coincided historically with a state that said, “You know what we’re really into? Throwing everyone in prison.” And those two movements worked really well together. While critiquing that, I also want to hold that people had real safety reasons for doing that, and continue to.

J: Yeah, it would be a misstep to blame a survivor who calls the cops. We’re in agreement there. But a little while ago I wondered what you think the implications are of the state being so involved in the response process, and I was thinking on a more systemic level about the historical process you just described – of the genocidal levels of incarceration coinciding with this new approach of collaboration with the criminal justice system.

T: I feel a strong critique of the DVSA [domestic violence, sexual assault] movement around its cooperation with the criminal justice system, and that critique has been brought forward by women of color advocates consistently, and especially black and indigenous women, who had named so much of that. The history is really reflective of the ways white voices dominated the movement – they didn’t see obvious consequences to that choice to work so closely with the criminal justice system.

In terms of what are the effects of state involvement, I think there’s been an intentional process of mystification around how the criminal legal system works: most people think that an individual presses charges against an individual, but that’s not how it works. So survivors come to the system saying, “this is what so-and-so did, and it wasn’t OK.” But what they find is that it’s taken entirely out of their hands and comes down to an issue of consent, where one person can say it was consensual and the other can say it wasn’t, and then the law says, we don’t know who to believe.  This is an important lesson for accountable community processes, to know that we don’t want to do that, too. Instead, approaching survivors from a trauma-informed perspective takes us away from this abusive criminal justice system: it’s not an issue of, “only one person can be right here,” but rather two people perceiving a situation differently, where one person has been harmed, and the harm is what we need to address – not what did or didn’t exactly happen.

J: And it seems like the state doesn’t have any way to deal with processes from that framework.

T: No, it’s not a part of the framework. I’m curious about what will happen, because the way consent conversations have advanced in the past 10-15 years is outstanding. We’ve developed these nuanced ways to talk about consent as an active process, and a lot of prevention work is based around consent education, but none of that has made it into the state. That is just not how consent is reflected in the law.

The other thing is that trauma-informed care is working its way into some parts of the state response, but not all. Things like understanding flight-fight-freeze as a normal trauma response hasn’t made its way through yet. So people are still questioned about, “Why didn’t you leave? Your car was there – why didn’t you take off?” Because people don’t understand how trauma works.

There’s a common question I hear of why haven’t people put work into community accountability? Well, a lot of people have, and do this work around the world, but in my personal experience there’s a pattern where some people do this work and many people don’t. And that’s often across gender lines – who does emotional labor, and who can choose to ignore sexual violence. Who chooses to support survivors by working on these issues, and who doesn’t.

J: I think that parallels a long-standing critique of activist communities – and this is somewhat of a caricature of the critique – looking at who’s out in a riot, for example, and who’s taking care of the kids of those folks.

T: Who will do the dishes after the revolution, type of stuff.

J: Yeah, it’s both predictable and sad to see that dynamic here as well… Anything you want to add?

T: The only thing I would want to add is to leave you with, what do we need to be accountable to one another? What are the ingredients for the recipe of accountable communities? We need to be survivor-centered, etc. I’ve learned in doing this work that those ingredients are skills that you can learn, ways of looking at the world – at power – that can be reframed. What we know is that people in positions of power sexually assault people with less power because they know the survivor won’t be believed. That’s a classic situation that’s well known, and yet in radical communities we don’t have a deep understanding of that.

So part of being accountable means learning about patterns like that, to demystify sexual violence. We know that rape culture is more than a movie with a fucked-up portrayal of non-consensual sex, but is actually present in these subtle ways.

So again, what do our communities need to be able to do this better, if we want to have an alternative space?

J: Right, and that recipe connects to so many other struggles… Thanks so much,  Tuck!