Saturday, September 7, 2013

A critical look at an "accountability process"

Recently, the "accountability team" of a local-ish animal rights group has caused weeks of havoc over their attempts to punish a local activist whom they claim is guilty of rape, sexual assault, and sexual abuse. Other than claiming that a dozen women have come forward (to the animal rights group, not the police), they give no evidence for the alleged crimes. This activist, an intelligent and dedicated man who has volunteered hundreds if not thousands of hours over the last 10 years for the animals, is now being ostracized, and anyone who asks about the unknown process by which his alleged guilt was determined is accused of not caring about the unidentified "survivors" and women's safety.

Since this group has not been at all transparent about their approach, I did research online in an attempt to learn about "accountability processes", and discovered taking risks: implementing grassroots accountability strategies1 by Alisa Bierria, Onion Carillo, Eboni Colbert, Xandra Ibarra, Theryn Kigmavasud'Vashi, and Shale Maulana. I don't know if the local group used this approach or not, but since a number of activist organizations have linked to this paper some people are doing this so I think it is worth a look at the benefits and risks of this approach.

Bierria et al claim (without giving evidence) that the notion that survivors of sexual assault need professional assistance from trained professionals such as law enforcement and medical staff is somehow alienating to survivors of assault. Instead they advocate relying on family and friends. Obviously the support of family and friends is wonderful (if you have it), but can your family and friends collect and analyze a rapist's DNA to conclusively identify him? Are they qualified to advise on the risk of pregnancy or sexually transmitted diseases? Can they treat serious injuries? Do they know the nuances of the legal system so that the survivor can decide about pressing charges? Are they trained psychotherapists with experience helping survivors heal from trauma?

Contrary to Bierria et al, I think that qualified professional help is essential to anyone who has suffered a serious crime. I believe that it trivializes the seriousness of rape and other forms of sexual assault to claim that merely getting the support of family and friends is sufficient. Even if these informal supporters do have the specialized knowledge to be helpful, they are unable to prevent the perpetrator from committing future crimes against other people.

CARA's accountability principles

1. Recognize the humanity of everyone involved.

They urge that while the process may be angry and confrontational to the "aggressor" (as they call the accused) it should not be dehumanizing. It's not clear to me what the hell they mean by this, especially when as will be clear they do not allow accused people any opportunity to respond to accusations apart from admitting guilt and complying with demands. Their language ("aggressor" rather than "accused") shows a presumption of guilt.

2. Prioritize the self-determination of the survivor

While survivors do need and deserve our support, putting them in charge of deciding what is a fair process and what the outcome should be creates a system which is highly vulnerable to abuse.

A popular statistic is that only x% of rape accusations are false, where x is very low. However this statistic (which is impossible to accurately determine) refers to the proportion of rapes reported to police which are false. Reporting a rape to police is incredibly stressful, as the survivor will have to recount all the horrible details of what happened to strangers, who to do their jobs must ask all kinds of detailed questions as part of their investigation. (Also, some police offers are jerks who imply that the victim did something to cause the crime, which is a terrible thing to do to anyone. Only rapists are responsible for rape.) Because of this, and because false claims to police will result in legal penalties, almost no one will falsely report a rape to the police.

However, under this "accountability" principle, there is no disincentive to stop people from falsely reporting rape (except their own consciences). In the accountability system, the accuser need not go into detail about what happened or provide any evidence at all, and the accuser gets to decide what the punishment will be. So while well intentioned, this system is vulnerable to abuse by people who want to hurt others with false accusations.

3. Identify a simultaneous plan for safety and support for the survivor as well as others in the community

Once again, this section assumes that the accused is guilty. The focus is on planning responses to defend against the "aggressor" or "abuser", with some mention also of providing emotional support to the accuser and any other survivors in the abuse, who may be triggered by the process. A glaring omission is that these principles provide zero protection for anyone who may be falsely accused.

4. Carefully consider the potential consequences of your strategy

Some consequences mentioned are risks to the safety and privacy of the "survivor" and organizers, threats to the "aggressor", providing the "aggressor" with a platform to "justify the abusive behavior [sic]". Again, the assumption of guilt. Also, the idea that people accused of wrongdoing have no right to give their side of the story.

5. Organize collectively

Bierria et al say that having a group of people working on the process will improve thinking as more people's experiences and perspectives can be involved, and will prevent burnout. Seems reasonable, but there is a risk that the group will be dominated by unqualified or biased people.

6. Make sure everyone in the accountability-seeking group is on the same page with their political analysis of sexual violence

So much for drawing on a variety of perspectives. People who seek some kind of evidence for the accusations are to be excluded. The legal principle of "Innocent until proven guilty" is explicitly rejected.

Also, Bierria et al's understanding of rape and other sexual violence seems to assume that only women are victims.

7. Be clear and specific about what your group wants from the aggressor in terms of accountability

Bierria et al state that the "aggressor" should be given an opportunity for "redemption" even though the rage of the accuser and allies may make them want to inflict long-term suffering. Suggestions include counselling for the accused, an admission of guilt, a public or private apology, and restrictions on the accused's involvement in the group.

While redemption is better than eternal punishment, again it is assumed that the accused is guilty and must acquiesce to the accuser(s)' demands.

8. Let the aggressor know your analysis and your demands

Again, the assumption of guilt and the bias which allows no response from the accused other than what the accuser's demand. They say that "[p]ublic shaming may be a tool that makes sense for your group" but is not enough to hold the accused accountable. I agree that if the crime actually took place, there should be serious legal consequences, but of course this is not what Bierria et al mean.

9. Consider help from the aggressor's friends, family, and people close to her [sic]

Again the assumption of guilt. While accusers are entitled to the support of family and friends, people who have been accused (perhaps falsely) can expect attempts to turn their families and friends against them, to increase pressure to comply with the accusers' demands.

10. Prepare to be engaged in the process for the long haul

Even if the accused complies with all the demands, the accusers are counselled to "arrange for long term follow through to decrease the chances of future relapse". What this means and how people who may have no knowledge of rehabilitating criminals can do this is not explained. And again, the accused is assumed guilty and punishment will continue even if all the groups' demands are met.

Bierria et al say that any criticism of the process should not be considered seriously as it is just a manifestation of rape culture (as if there is no possibility of an accountability group doing something wrong).

Bierria et al then give three examples of communities responding to "sexual violence" with accountability processes.

Accountability scenarios

Scenario 1

Dan was an anti-racism activist, who was well-known and popular. Four young women came to CARA with complaints about him. The incidents which they described as "sexual harassment" were:

  • Dan took people whom he mentored to strip clubs.
  • Dan asked drunk young women whom he mentored to have sex.
  • Dan had conversations in the organizing space about the size of women's genitals and how it relates to their ethnicity.

In the workplace, the second would be considered sexual harassment, the first and third are ambiguous (in the workplace).

However, volunteer activist groups are not workplaces. Activists don't have to worry about losing their source of income if they refuse to have sex with someone, even a mentor, or if they object to certain topics of discussion. While employees cannot freely consent to sex or sexual discussions with an employer, activist groups are more like friends with common interests working toward a shared goal. Many people will get involved in activism partly as a way of meeting compatible partners, so asking another activist to have sex is not inappropriate unless they are underage or either person is in a monogamous relationship. Also, many people are comfortable with going to strip clubs and talking about sexual subjects with their friends.

There is no indication that Dan coerced anyone into going to a strip club or having sex, or that he continued sexual discussions after being asked to stop. If no one had objected to any of this, he probably assumed that the group he was working with shared a sex-positive culture which respects the sexual rights and freedoms of consenting adults.

Some people are uncomfortable with talking about sex, and that is certainly their right and one possible valid perspective. However, it is not reasonable for them to assume that everyone shares or should share their values. They certainly have the right to speak up, to say "I don't want to go there", "I don't want to have sex with you", "I don't want to talk about that." But only if the unwanted behaviour continued after they communicated their feelings would it constitute harassment.

As sex therapist Marty Klein writes, unwanted sexual attention is not sexual harassment.2 "[I]f the recipient of a non-pressuring, non-institutional, friendly OR clueless sexual invitation isn’t grown up enough, she (or he) will feel assaulted." However, feeling uncomfortable or offended does not mean anyone has done anything wrong. Adults make sexual invitations to other adults all the time; if we didn't, everyone would be celibate and humans would go extinct. No one can predict with certainty who will accept or reject an invitation. Occasionally getting unwanted advances in a social setting is just part of life, but it is not harassment unless it persists after they have been clearly rejected.

However, Bierria et al do not agree with me. They and the accusers insisted that Dan was guilty of "serious" sexual harassment. People who disagreed with them were accusing of discrediting women and being unsupportive. CARA decided that it was unsafe for Dan to work with young people. (The description of the alleged harassment does not mention the ages of the people involved.)

While many disagreed with CARA's claims that Dan's behaviour was "sexualized violence", they continued to influence group members and eventually Dan resigned from his mentorship rôle as a mentor.

Bierria et al bemoan that he still has not been held accountable, even though they got their demand that he no longer work with young people. They may be examples of absexuals, from the prefix "ab-" meaning "away from". Absexuals are people who seek to impose their vision of correct sexuality on others. As Carol Queen writes, "The crusading absexuals are fundamentally nonconsensual, for their goal is to impose their standards of sexuality on the rest of society."3

It is ironic that some progressives who are vocal in their opposition to homophobic absexuals don't recognize that their own condemnation of the sexual preferences of other consenting adults is the same phenomenon.

Scenario 2

A man called Lou was said to have sexually assaulted two women, encouraging them to get drunk and then forcing them to have sex against their will. If this happened, it was clearly rape and should have been reported to the police.

Instead, one of the accusers and her friends confronted Lou. He initially apologized, but later backtracked and justified his actions. A local alternative music group responded by creating posters naming Lou, repeating their accusations, criticizing a local paper for glamourizing the excessive drinking at Lou's parties, and calling for a boycott of the club where Lou worked.

Lou responded by threatening to sue for libel. The group wasn't expecting this (what were they expecting, realistically?) but continued organizing anonymously.

The group prepared a statement stating their beliefs that the legal system is not an effective source of justice and demanding that that the accused make a public apology (again the assumption of guilt), get counselling, and inform all future partners and friends about his alleged crimes.

Despite his threats, Lou did not actually sue the group. He ignored them until a boycott of the club he worked at began to be effective. He then asked the group to enter into mediation with him. The group refused, they were convinced of their analysis and inflexible on their demands. They were not able to agree to a meeting.

Ultimately the group gave up on Lou and directed their efforts to raising awareness about sexual violence. This is important and worthwhile work, but if Lou actually is a rapist he is still at large and free to assault other women.

I don't see how this outcome can be considered better than having Lou legally charged with rape.

Scenario 3

A young woman reported that while out of town at a conference she was sexually assaulted by Juan, another man in the same Chicano activist group as her. Other women also said they were sexually assaulted by Juan. (The nature of the assault is not specified.)

They told the leaders of their activist group. The leaders talked to Juan but he faced no real consequences.

Their community had had problems with the police so they did not trust the criminal justice system. Instead the women asked that Juan no longer hold leadership positions, that he get counselling, and that the organization give workshops on ending sexualized violence. All of their demands were met within two months.

In their conclusions, Bierria et al affirm that because victims of violence often come from people who routinely experience discrimination (women, people of colour, people with disabilities, queers, and young people), CARA leans towards believing every report of sexual abuse.

Bierria et al claim that their approach to responding to (accusations of) sexualized violence will cause "upheaval and hurt" but is also "vital, deeply liberatory, meaningful, and movement building." Ironically, they feel their approach which assumes the accused's guilt is more just than the legal system, in which all evidence is (ideally) considered by impartial third parties.

To me, it seems more likely that this kind of biased approach, which is vulnerable to exploitation by false accusers, doesn't build communities, it divides them. And any system in which the guilt of the accused is assumed based on a pro-survivor philosophy rather than determined through objective examination of the facts cannot lead to justice.

  1. Bierria, Alisa, Onion Carillo, Eboni Colbert, Xandra Ibarra, Theryn Kigmavasud'Vashi, and Shale Maulana, who are a collective of women of colour from CARA (Communities Against Rape and Abuse). "taking risks: implementing grassroots accountability strategies". Retrieved from on September 7, 2013.
  2. Klein, Marty. "Sexual Harassment or Unwanted Sexual Attention?" in the Sexual Intelligence blog, retrieved from on September 7, 2013.
  3. Queen, Carol. "Dirty Pictures, Heavy Breathing, Moral Outrage and the New Absexuality", pp. 30-38. (Quote on p. 38). In Real Live Nude Girl: Chronicles of Sex-Positive Culture. Pittsburgh: Cleis Press, 2002.

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