See the original blog post, "PLP Defends Rapists" for the announcement and call to action regarding PLP's defense of admitted rapist Seth Miller.
***TRIGGER WARNING*** Everything in this blog is a frank discussion of sexual violence and rape.
Tuesday, July 23, 2013
How can the left change *that*?
By a comrade of the Cassandra Solanas Collective
It was not too long ago that I have learned that a comrade of mine is a survivor of rape. It was even more recently that I learned that someone prominent in my political group had previously raped a woman in a different activist group. When I first heard the statistic that 1 in 3 women are sexually assaulted in their lifetime, it did convince me of the importance and relevance of feminism. But it is only now that I’m slowly beginning to realize and understand the reality of the mind-numbing statistic.
The political group that I belong to dealt with the perpetrator of sexual violence in our midst, I think, generally in an appropriate way. Those who heard the information had extensive discussions and asked the perpetrator to step aside as we would figure out the process. After the perpetrator flatly refused and issued a legal threat against us, we wrote a statement of the principles affirming that those who are called out must participate in an accountability process, without a reference to the particular case. (http://notremainsilent.wordpress.com/) When the survivor bravely came forward with a statement naming the perpetrator, conscious of the legal risks she would face, we were able to send the statement over the listserv and publicly call him out. He immediately resigned from a leadership position and withdrew from all activities related to our group, when the statement came out publicly. The process was not perfect. The perpetrator’s legal threats, which could also threaten the survivor’s freedom from abusive court interrogations, meant that we could not discuss the matter openly and publicly; the dynamics of exclusion in the process did not necessarily result in the inclusion of those who should have been included. However, especially considering how often even activist groups get it wrong - the British SWP being the latest egregious example on the left – it is of some significance that we succeeded in creating a space that does not tolerate the perpetrator, who was indeed made to leave, and the survivor was not disempowered in the process.
It is imperative that every organization – a leftist, activist one in particular – have a thorough discussion to institute a feminist process to deal with the cases of sexual violence. Having a well-articulated process is crucial, not only to be able to run a process better when it happens, but also to send a message that survivors are supported and perpetrators are not condoned. However, establishing a sound and emancipatory process is more complicated than simply struggling against anti-feminist and reactionary politics. It seems to me that some of the principles and goals that many leftist, feminist activists espouse can be in conflict or possibly contradictory; for example, while most activists would agree on the importance of having a survivor-centered approach, it can mean many different things. Many advocates of the “transformative justice” espouse a “commitment to work with rather than punish or criminalize the perpetrator [that] is imperative to them once again becoming fully functional, trustworthy, and participating members of the community,” and consider these principles to be connected to the struggles against the logic of retribution that fuels mass incarceration and the prison-industrial complex. (http://phillystandsup.wordpress.com/2009/05/11/our-approach-our-analysis/) But what if the survivor wants retribution – which is eminently reasonable – or if she feels that the “transformative” approach grants an undeserved focus on the perpetrator? On the other hand, however, would it reduce the instances of sexual violence, if we just punish and banish the perpetrators?
Even the thornier question is how the notion of “determination of guilt” – or even the “presumption of innocence” – fits into the survivor-centered framework. Even though the presumption of innocence is indeed an important principle against the arbitrary power of the state to imprison people at will with flimsy evidence, it is unclear whether it is ever compatible to trust, believe and support the survivor while “presuming” the innocence of the accused. Of course, the survivor and her supporters are not the state. But if we hope the more radical feminist principles to be more commonly accepted and implemented, in the Left as well as in broader society, we need a strong, clear case for why the widely-cherished notion of presumed innocence should be inapplicable and we need to start from the presumed guilt.
Furthermore, what does it mean, more concretely in practice, to create and follow a notion of due process that starts from believing the survivor? Even when a group establishes an understanding and a process that never compromise on believing the survivor, it would most likely face difficulties as the perpetrators of violence mobilize close friends, comrades and networks within the group. Implementation of such a process faces particular obstacles especially when the domineering, masculinist perpetrator has established “radical” credentials – sometimes even based on anti-rape politics - and posited himself as a voice against those less radical and less “feminist,” or used such claim to radicalism to attack those who would challenge his power in the group. In the cases of longer-term abusive relationships, the perpetrators can attempt to conceal the abusive character of the relationship under the guise of relationship problems, Furthermore, as intense as the experience was for us in our group, the survivor herself was not in our organization - in cases where the survivor herself is present in a group, it especially takes great efforts to ensure that the survivor’s safety, trust and ability to participate are prioritized over that of the perpetrator, even in self-proclaimed radical groups. It takes a conscious effort of all activists on an everyday basis to maintain a feminist space which can actually implement a radical feminist process; an institutionalization of the process is only a part of what it takes.
The deeper, underlying issue is, though, that we as a society have scarcely even begun to deal with the fact that there are just so, so many rapists in our society. I have often heard the commonality of sexual assault being used as an argument against having retributive penalties against rapists. “It is a structural problem, it is so prevalent in our society, it’s not something we can change by punishing rapists,” they would say. We must be vigilant in ensuring that a structuralist argument is not used to obviate individual responsibility of perpetrators – that it is so common is not a proof that it is not serious. However, the underlying sense that makes such arguments persuasive is rooted in the commonality of such serious forms of violence. Indeed, dealing with rapists in a way that radical feminists advocate for – to make sure our spaces are free from tens of millions of rapists that presumably exist in our country alone – would be a revolutionary action that would upend the society as we know it. What would – or should - such a revolutionary future actually look like, I do not have an answer. However, as a starting point, nothing is more apt than Shulamith Firestone’s opening quote in her masterpiece, the Dialectic of Sex;
Sex class is so deep as to be invisible. Or it may appear as a superficial inequality, one that can be solved by merely a few reforms… But the reaction of the common man, woman, and child – ‘That? Why you can’t change that! You must be out of your mind!’ – is the closest to the truth. We are talking about something every bit as deep as that…that so profound a change cannot be easily fitted into traditional categories of thought, e.g. ‘political’, is not because these categories do not apply but because they are not big enough: radical feminism bursts through them. If there were another word more all-embracing than revolution we would use it.