(Or, why moving past gender-violence-blind sexism is a vital step in defeating capitalism)
By Emma Ain’t Dancing
While living as an activist in the Bay Area from 2013-15, I experienced intense harassment and unwanted sexual attention from four individual people in different radical communities. I outed them every time, and then left the community for a while to nurse my sadness and trauma. During the time just after I’d leave, the person would throw a big ugly tantrum about me—“That woman’s crazy!” Then, sure enough, within a few months, others who had been assaulted and harassed by the same person would speak out.
10. 3. 4. 2. Those are the numbers of other people in my communities who experienced assault or harassment from the same guys who’d harassed me. Of the 19 of us who came forward after experiencing abuse, one was a cis-man. The rest had been gendered female at birth.
I have come to accept that I am “a canary in the coal mine” when it comes to sexual violence. I am an abuse survivor, and I’m also what some people might call “empathic,” meaning I tend to be emotionally receptive (something I can’t turn off), so, from what I’ve found, folks tend to feel pretty comfortable expressing their “honest self” around me. This is usually awesome, and leads to really neat interactions with a majority of people I spend time with. But sadly, for about 1 in 100 people, when they encounter an emotionally responsive person, they respond by harassing the woman in front of them.
It is very scary when that side of a person comes creeping out. Like the book “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.” What sucks is when no one else has seen the person turn into Mr. Hyde, they don’t believe that he could possibly be like that. They think you’re crazy when you start freaking out around the “mild mannered” man.
What’s frustrating is that, since women’s oppression is a huge part of our everyday lives, a single incident against a women can trigger memories of all the unprocessed gender trauma everyone carries, and if that trauma isn’t also addressed in an open and compassionate way, the weight of it can feel like community psychosis.
Additionally, it is very troublesome when the men who are emotionally receptive in the community take on the shame for the behavior of another man. This leads to a strange behavior pattern in which many man-dentified people in the community start fixating upon the idea they must defend the perpetrator, otherwise, somehow, they are also responsible for his actions. They haven’t seen him turn into Dr. Jekyll. If they had, they would recoil from the idea that he is “a man like me” and rather understand this man is a separate individual person who has behaved monstrously without implicating anyone else but himself.
When a community has to deal with a case of sexual harassment or gender violence, it brings everyone’s unprocessed gender-related tensions to the surface. This is always a bumpy process, but it can bring positive growth when folks are ready to hold space for it and work through it together. The women in the community are likely going to be reminded of aunts, sisters, and female friends who have been raped and gender-oppressed, along with the uncodifible feelings of terror that brings. The trans-women will likely be grieving in different ways than the cis-women, since they usually came into womanhood later in life, but their grief is just as real and important. Likewise, transmen may find themselves dealing with stuff through the unique filter of their memories of having once been gendered female. The male allies of women will also grieve, thinking about strong women they have known in the past who were torn apart by the violence embedded in gender relations. Gender-related grief is also often going to be expressed differently by those of differing racial and cultural backgrounds. Holding space for this grief is huge, and will only bring growth to the community!
So, it is important to hold space for the general gender-related grief that will undoubtedly emerge when an individual incident is revealed; however, we also must address every individual incident specifically: You can’t reset a broken bone by getting worked up about all the bones ever broken in the history of the world, but rather, you have to focus on the specific injury in front of you. It is through addressing individual instances that we can reframe the 5,000 years of gender oppression—(an oppression so old, it is even found in the world’s oldest book, the Epic of Gilgamesh)—and create an occasion to churn, compost and finally move past this systematized oppression.
That said, I don’t think people who have been sexually harassed should ever be pressured to disclose the details. Ever. Retelling it can put you back into a state of trauma, especially if pressured to share before you’re ready. But I do want to share some details of what happened to me because I’m ready. Also, I feel it is important every once in a while for someone in the community to clarify what is meant when people use terms like “gender harassment” “assault” and “threats of sexual violence.”
Other people (especially those not of the female gender) might have detached, abstraction-based reactions to the incidents found below. Part of what made these incidents so terrifying to me and (potentially triggering to other females—you have now been TWed) is that there are the underlying gender relations & power dynamics at play, which meant I lost my power the moment these things occurred.
Incident 1: One dude was just a friendly face in my favorite anarchist community space. Until one day when he randomly informed me that “he liked the way we flirt.” I was confused by this because I had never once flirted with him. When I informed him of this, he claimed “we were always flirting” and began to threaten me with sexual violence, repeatedly, hedging it under the language of “you secretly want me to…” and would not stop when I said the conversation “needed to end – stop stop stop” until I had to flee. Some terms for this: threats of sexual violence, harassment.
Incident 2: One person at a farming project where I was an intern grabbed my ass, hard, like with his fingernails digging into my buttcheek (for a second I thought I was being attacked by a wild animal!). This happened in the dark while I was walking alone to the outhouse to pee (he was crouched in a bush, I guess). After this happened, I locked myself alone in my tiny house and spent the next two days dealing with panic attacks, afraid to go outside. Finally, I confronted the individual, who was a founder of the project. I told him I did not enjoy what he did and would like him to never touch my body again and that I likewise did not want him touching anyone else in the community the way he had touched me. With that, he spent an hour yelling at me, spiraling all over the place, saying everything from “I was expressing my natural self—I’m a touchy person!” to “I’m the victim here—I was sexually assaulted as a child!”—he kept getting louder and louder, as he rattled off excuses and blamed me for having not wanted to be touched. Terms: physical assault—sexual? Definitely non-consensual.
Incident #3: In a co-op house where I lived, a PhD student moved in who really didn’t like being ignored by women—he would bully the other cis-ladies into giving him back rubs, but I was the only one who ignored his random, forceful proclamations of his shoulders hurting. Then, one Friday, after everyone else rolled out of town for a music festival, he violently attacked me while I was making tea. “Please leave me alone!” I kept saying as he backed me through the house. I spent six hours hiding in a closet, shouting “I have a knife and will stab you!” every time he tried to force the door open, until finally he left for work the next morning and I was able to safely leave the premises. I spent a week staying at a friend’s house, lying on her floor, unable to get a sentence out without crying, before I finally emailed my housemates to tell them what had happened. …They didn’t believe me until he’d done this kind of thing to two other women (!), and was actually caught in the act of pinning a female housemate to the ground while she begged him stop (!!). Terms: gender-based sociopathic behavior, assault, harassment, serial abuse
Incident #4: Finally, I had just moved into a new apartment, a live-work space for progressive artists. A few days after moving in there, one of my new roommates said he was bored, so I suggested we watch a movie together in the living room (because why not?), but he kept trying to talk during the movie (like, random ranting about his day or something), and after fifteen minutes of this, I was like “Ya know, I haven’t seen this movie yet, so is it cool if we don’t talk until after?” At that moment, he rather violently ripped the TV cord out of the wall and said, “This is my TV anyway!” and carried the TV into his room, and then he came back out into the living room and broke a lamp and started throwing things. I left the house, deeply alarmed, and spent the night sleeping in the woods nearby (I hadn’t been able to grab my phone before leaving, unfortunately). The next day, I snuck back into the house to gather my vitals and texted the other housemates. I learned that this guy had a “weird habit” of “latching on” to women, and that one of the other female housemates had caught him lurking outside of her boyfriend’s apartment in the middle of the night a few weeks before. Terms: stalker, gender-related harassment.
None of these people were close to me. They were just people who had randomly been in my milieu, folks I’d see in passing, and then one day I saw this really terrifying side of them, a side that only came out once they perceived themselves to be alone with a woman.
Of the 4 above-mentioned cases, outing the person either led them to be forced to leave, or led the community to have a discussion which placed the person’s behavior in the spotlight, leading the person to realize they wouldn’t be able to get away with it again. I am thankful for the women and women’s allies who facilitated these community actions to address what happened while I was off healing. I helped those allies as they organized those communities discussions as much as I was able, but an important part of my healing was to not feel like I had to confront my attacker. That would have traumatized me even further (emotions can’t be “solved,” only healed).
Ultimately, after the initial fallout after the community actions, the communities got bigger, stronger, and continued to thrive thanks to women feeling more empowered to speak out should things become unsafe for them. But initially, I get a lot of blowback. Here is a sampler of things people actually said to me when I outted these men:
“But he reminds me of my big brother!”
“He is an irreplaceable part of this movement!”
“But he is a minority!”
“But I think he’s mentally ill.”
None of these things are excuses. Yet, in the first few months after outting a person, it’d be an endless, frustrating non-communicative loop of “He violently attacked me” versus “But he is so ________!” It’s a strange, fucked up, illogical cycle. It usually wasn’t until the 2nd or 3rd or 8th victim stepped forward before the community finally woke and took action.
Being the first to step forward takes a lot of courage. But how could I not step forward once someone had shown themselves to be dangerous? Each time I stepped forward, it wasn’t out of concern for myself (if I’d been thinking only about myself, I would have simply left and never spoken to any of these communities again), but it was out of fear for the next bright-eyed person who might step into the perpetrator’s path. I wanted it to end with me—or at least make life a little better for the next crew of ladies coming through.
But being the first person to step forward, unfortunately, means you will experience a shitstorm from the community. After I stepped forward following the above cases, random people who weren’t involved gave me threats of violence. People I’d never met said they were going to sue me. I even had someone send me a harassing, illogical email accusing me of being “a spy for Fox News.” What the fuck does that even mean? People of all genders blew up at me—in fact, the most vicious and hurtful bullshit I fielded was often from other women.
The thing I learned from these experiences is, when you are outting an abuser who is involved with a project, people think you are pissing on their project. But that couldn’t be further from the truth. You are trying to save the project from a parasite—from someone who is sucking up the project’s positive energy and turning it into trauma.
There is a common saying in activist communities that “Accusations of harassment damage the community.” This saying is simply not true. It is not the accusation that hurts the community, but the silence that proceeded it. Yes, it seems like “more bad stuff is happening” when female victims start speaking up, but it was all there before, it is now just coming to the surface.
We live in an anti-women culture, and gender violence is a key way women are kept in check. Gender violence is in every corner of society—from the most elite conservative prep school to the most radical wingnutty anarchist co-op. When sexual violence happens in your community, it is not because your community is sick, but because our society is. When someone outs a consent-violator, they are doing the most good they can for the community. Consent-violators are what keep amazing movements small. When women can’t be assured of our safety, we will not stay in a community.
Sexual violence is a big part of what keeps women clinging to capitalist spaces rather than thriving in community spaces. Joining community space is already an energy suck under capitalism because you still have to interact with capital to cover your basic needs. So then, if there is a violent person in that space targeting people because of their gender, the community project goes from being a sometimes fun energy suck to a nightmare scenario to be avoided at all costs.
Based on the numbers of people who came forward after I stepped forward, I am increasingly convinced that it is gender harassment, and communities’ failure—to address it—that pushes out a majority of those who leave radical community. Currently, gender harassment causes too many people to give up on the idea of community and go back to devoting their energy exclusively to sustenance under capitalism—and the ecocide capitalism entails.
When you speak up about gender violence, the only thing that gets hurt is people’s delusions about the world we live in. And those delusions must go. We must move beyond gender-violence-blind sexism. We must see it to heal it. We must make space for it to be real to heal it. We have not yet achieved gender freedom or gender equality, but we can get closer by learning to hold space for the reality of gender violence when it happens in our communities.
I hope someday women are able to share when stuff like this happens without community backlash. I hope that someday, victims of gender-related violence are able to have our words received in a rational way. But until gender becomes equal, this is what we’ve got.