In recent months, survivors of sexual assault and harassment have come forward to share their stories with various groups on the left, including activist networks, trade unions, reform caucuses, and socialist parties. They have stepped forward to share these stories in search of active support and accountability. Overwhelmingly, the responses they’ve received from members of these groups have been inadequate; often, the responses have been damaging and re-traumatizing as well. This damage affects both the people coming forward to share their experiences of abuse, as well as others within our organizing bodies—particularly survivors of trauma and members of groups routinely exposed to gendered violence such as women and LGBT people. Rather than offering support for survivors, respecting their articulated needs and demands, or undertaking real accountability processes, groups on the left have tended to shield those who are said to have perpetrated sexual assault or harassment, while isolating those coming forward to share stories of abuse.
While each situation is different, and while we aren’t necessarily unanimous about the particular steps that should be taken when someone comes forward with a story of sexual assault or harassment, we think it is necessary at this time to reiterate what we consider to be some basic truths about these situations. We are making this statement in part because we find ourselves navigating a situation of this sort.
First, we recognize that it takes a great deal of courage for someone to come forward and say that they have been sexually assaulted or harassed by a member of a political group. In doing so, they expose themselves to the danger of scrutiny, retaliation, and being made into an object of scandal. They expose themselves to the possibility that, depending on the responses of others, they could endure forms of disempowerment and aggression that, in echoing the original act of violence, are triggering and re-traumatizing. They risk losing forms of support and comradeship that have helped enable them to be politically active and to move with some level of comfort through the world.
How a group responds when someone comes forward with a story of abuse significantly affects other members of the group, particularly women, LGBT people, and survivors of trauma. Some of us are currently living through a situation of this sort. Upon hearing that someone has come forward with a story of abuse concerning a member of the group, some of us feel intense forms of fear for our safety, and some of us have trouble imagining how it will be possible for us to continue to be involved in the political bodies we’ve helped build and maintain.
Members of political groups sometimes suggest that, in the absence of a legal conviction, the only option is to assume the innocence of the person and try and get back to the normal work of organizing. Though that may feel like an option to some, it is not an option that is available to many of us who more routinely experience our vulnerability to sexual or gendered violence. For example, when some of us enter a room with a person about whom we’ve heard stories of sexual violence, we experience acute physical symptoms of dissociation, during which we lose connection with our bodies and become unable to engage with those around us. Others of us experience intrusive thoughts that make us feel like we may be in present danger. Yet others of us experience lower-level fears that nevertheless make us more inclined to stay away from organizing spaces. How we and other members of the group respond to situations such as these will have a lot to do with whether we continue to feel able to participate in our political groups. We want everyone we organize with, as well as those who organize in other spaces, to take seriously this reality.
We feel that it is critical for political groups to take very seriously stories of abuse; to respect the needs and demands articulated by survivors of rape, assault or harassment; and to undertake real accountability processes insofar as these are in line with the wishes of those coming forward with stories of abuse—processes crafted and carried out in ways that make it more possible for women, LGBT people, and survivors of sexual violence to share their own stories of abuse and to be active members of our groups. We do not feel that it is acceptable for those who are called out to refuse to participate in any process of accountability by saying they do not accept the version of the story about their actions. It is not acceptable for those who are called out to threaten or retaliate against those who are calling for an accountability process or demanding that other measures be taken in line with the needs and demands of the survivor. We do not find it acceptable that a denial of responsibility would, in and of itself, foreclose a process of accountability.
When groups shield those who are called out this sends a message to all people in the group that perpetrators of sexual violence will face no consequences and that they will be able to freely continue their lives without interruption. This message makes the group especially hostile to women, LGBT people, and survivors, who will likely be more afraid of coming forward with their own stories. When groups shield those called out it also signals to perpetrators of sexual violence that their actions are tacitly endorsed by the group, which normalizes and promotes further sexual violence. When groups protect those called out, they prioritize the comfort, freedom, and work of the perpetrator over all others’. In doing so, they act in contradiction with their stated commitment to justice and liberation. We do not see any possibility of building labor movements or movements for social emancipation with groups that refuse to fully address and respond to accusations of sexual violence; that do not actively oppose gender and sexual oppression; and that push to the margins women, LGBT people, and survivors of sexual violence. The stakes are too high; we will not remain silent.