(I first wrote this piece in 2014, when I didn’t have a website and when there wasn’t (or, probably, I wasn’t aware of) much writing with this perspective — i.e. practical ideas on defeating rape culture — but am only publishing it now, with some changes/additions. Since writing it, I have encountered & read many more pieces of writing, some phrased quite a bit better than mine, on ending rape culture, community accountability and action, etc. I am providing a list of some of these resources at the end, and crediting ideas that have informed my thinking throughout.)
I’ve been involved in activism against sexual violence for decades. The work is often really discouraging, with bad news coming every day, and what can feel like miniscule changes every once in a blue moon — but I don’t want to give up on it, because I’m a survivor, and know so many other survivors, and/so this fight is intensely personal. But in 2014 it started feeling like a sea change is starting to happen across our society, like ending rape culture might be possible in my lifetime.
And post much reading of brilliant, powerful, and creative intersectional anti-rape culture writings (and cartoons), and post activist brainstorming session on community responses to sexual assault and harassment, I found myself feeling like I’d finally grasped a bunch of large, useful concepts, and suddenly was holding what looked like the beginnings of a road map for defeating rape culture. So I wanted to share what I’ve got with anyone else who might find it useful (and who might have their own pieces of a map to fit).
This piece is for anyone who wants to do this work, or who cares about the goal. I am not assuming prior activist involvement, and I don’t think you need strong radical credentials to put these ideas into use.
Note: This is in no way meant to be an exhaustive list, and is not intended to pressure or guilt folks into doing more than they can. These are suggestions, written with the understanding that each person reading will decide which of these, if any, they wish or are able to put into action in their own lives, and in what context, and how often. I know any of these actions can be really hard for some of us, as we deal with shame and PTSD and victim-blaming, and feelings of isolation or rejection in our communities, and disabilities that limit or use much of our daily energy. I am fervently hoping this list will be a tool (one of so many out there) for gaining a sense of power in our lives and our communities, not a tool for beating ourselves (or each other) up or judging ourselves as inadequate.
Also, thank you So Much for everyone who’s written, spoken, or made art on this topic. If I’ve read/heard your work, I’ve likely benefited from it. An especially fervent thanks to Audre Lorde (Rest In Power), Cliff Pervocracy, Shiri Eisner (also here), Captain Awkward, and Robot Hugs for introducing me to some key concepts and perspectives.
Here, then, are Some Ideas for Fighting Rape Culture in the Wider Society and Also Decreasing Assaults and Abuse in Our Communities (With Scripts):
Calling out all consent violations
Let’s call out every consent violation. Whether related to our physical or emotional safety. (So, including without-permission touching, being photographed, having our private information or contact details given out, being spoken to in a disrespectful or cruel way — as well as victim-blaming.) Whether big or small. Let’s call it out the way we’d call out racism or transphobia or ableism, etc.* (Of course, consent violations regularly are also racism or ableism or homophobia or fatphobia, etc.) And defeating rape culture needs to be intersectional work; we cannot do it without also taking down the larger framework of systemic oppression.
Let’s consider doing it even if we feel awkward, and don’t know if we’re “doing it right”, and “maybe this is only such a big deal to me because I have PTSD”, etc. We each get to say where our boundaries lie, and what is and isn’t okay with us, and just how upsetting it is when our boundaries are violated. No one else. And the more we state them and enforce them, the more ‘normal’ it is, for us and for folks around us, that people should get to say what their limits are, and have them respected, or — consequences. Also, small consent violations are sometimes a prelude to big ones. Sexual predators don’t usually start out with violent assaults, they work up to them — so, sometimes, we can help prevent a really serious problem if we call out a smaller issue. The calling out doesn’t automatically have to involve making a scene, or labeling someone a predator.
— We can be low-key and casual if we want: “Hey, I don’t want to be touched without permission. Please check with me first next time?” Or: “I see that you’re trying to help me because of my disability. But I need you to first check with me what kind of help I want. Just grabbing me or my stuff doesn’t work for me.” Or: “Please don’t tickle me; I don’t like it.”
— We can be abrupt and direct: “No.” Or: “You don’t have my permission to do that.” Or: “Ow. NO.” Or: “Rape jokes are never okay with me.”
— We can call in reinforcements (friends, acquaintances, strangers): “That guy just touched my ass. Could we move to the next subway train? / Could you stand close to me and help me make sure he doesn’t do it again? / Could someone here explain to him why it’s not okay to touch someone’s body without permission?” Or: “Hey, A, can you tell your friend B that I don’t like to be touched unless I’ve been asked first? They grabbed and hugged me when they first came in, and it didn’t feel okay.” Or: “Hey, this asshole has just told me that wearing a short skirt is asking to be raped! Friends, could you give a little education session on consent and rape myths?”
— We can lay out consequences: “I asked you not to touch my breasts/chest during sex. I need you to remember and respect that. If you do it again, I won’t be having sex with you anymore.” Or: “If you talk to me disrespectfully like that again, I’m going to take a long break from hanging out with you. I’m not your punching bag.” Or: “If you don’t stop making comments about my body and jokes about my sex life, we can’t be friends.” Or: “If you wake me up by sticking your penis/hand inside me again, I will break up with you/call the police**.” (Obviously, we can put all those consequences into action the very first time the consent violation happens too. These are scripts for if we choose to give another chance. But we don’t have to.)
— We can communicate our distress: “You just grabbed me from behind and put your hand over my mouth! What the fuck?! I feel scared and angry, and I’m going home.” Or: “I can’t believe that you shared my private, sensitive information with someone else! If I’d wanted them to know, I would have told them myself.” Or: “Ow! My arms are injured, and it’s not okay to hold them up like that!” Or: “Wow, gross stereotypes about my culture! Way to piss me off. This date is over.”
Some folks might experience most of these scripts as really blunt or even rude. We all come from different cultural and class backgrounds, and acceptable tone and level of directness can vary quite a bit. (Additionally, this can be affected by our individual upbringing and the way our brains work.) I’m an immigrant, from a culture where casual conversation is, by Canadian standards, Very Blunt Oftentimes Crossing Over Into Rude, plus I’m autistic. And I mostly wrote these suggestions in the way I (might) communicate. Your culturally comfortable/neurodivergent boundary-setting and consent-violation-calling-out mileage might vary. You know best what you might feel okay to say, and whether (and how) it might be understood by folks in your community/ies. I enthusiastically encourage creative script-designing and lots of practicing with trusted loved ones. Let’s please speak up, as much as we can, as often as we can, in the ways we can.
*If we don’t already call out other oppressive micro-aggressions, especially as allies who have privilege in that situation, this might be a good time to start. We can begin slowly, with addressing an (ideally thoughtful, aimed at education rather than mocking) online comment here and there to a racist or biphobic troll, and as we gain confidence and articulateness, progress to more challenging anti-oppression resistance (e.g. in-person call-outs, challenging your friends or relatives on their shit, etc.). A reminder: calling out trolls is less about beating them down and making them admit they’re wrong, and more about openly supporting the folks wounded by their comments, and about possibly providing some anti-oppression education to underinformed bystanders who aren’t trolls yet. Please draft your calling-out accordingly.
**Many of us don’t feel safe calling the police when violated. We’ve experienced them as violating/supporting violence against people like us, and/or we know that they will mistreat our perpetrator for reasons other than consent violations (e.g. racism, transphobia, etc.). But I do want to affirm that every survivor has a right to deal with being violated their own way. It’s a fucked up world, and we’re all doing our best to survive it, and all the options for ‘how to handle your sexual assault’ suck a little/a lot.
Persistently educating about consent
Let’s educate about consent. Anywhere, any time. I don’t mean that our conversation should suddenly only be about that (that’d be untenable, exhausting, and boring) — but, especially in leftist, political circles, it is easy to work a small reference to something important to us into a longish group conversation. So let’s try to mention consent as much as we can, in all the contexts where we can.
And I mean concrete ideas on consent: talking about realising we shouldn’t tickle a person without their explicit consent; or about how we don’t make our child kiss relatives, but leave it up to them to decide how they want to greet and say goodbye, because we’re trying to teach them that their body belongs to them; mentioning that we don’t like to be touched unless someone’s asked our permission and gotten it; saying how much we like our new doctor because they always check before doing anything to our body, even when we’re expecting an examination; complaining that we just realised a song we like actually celebrates/normalises consent violations, and how we’re feeling about that.
And, especially, let’s educate about consent every time we hear victim-blaming. Of course, if the victim-blamer is ignorant by choice, this might not change their mind — but educating can reach bystanders, and, just as importantly, creates/supports a climate where victim-blaming and other rape-culture myths are known to not be tolerated. If we disseminate consent ideas all the time, eventually the spaces we hang out in will absorb them into their ambience. This isn’t to say that all consent violations will entirely stop — but I do think folks will find it easier to speak up, to intervene, to back up someone who’s spoken up, to have a conversation about repeat offenders and to consider applying social consequences.
Bonus points for: educating about the reality of rape culture. It’s totally not an uplifting topic, but neither is Canadian (or American) politics, and we manage to spend a lot of hours talking about that. Folks I know, folks whose work I read, and I, have regularly worked rape-culture news into our social conversations, and can report back that it’s doable, and at least some of the time makes a difference: it encourages folks to rethink attitudes and behaviours, and provides support to folks feeling alone and isolated.
Teaching consent to kids
Let’s teach consent to the kids in our lives. The kids we’re raising, the kids we’re related to, the kids we work with, the kids we’re friendly with through their parents. This can start super-early. We can talk with even 2-to-3-year-olds about how hurting others is not okay, and how it’s always good to check with folks before touching them, or doing things to their body: “Honey, you hurt Robin’s arm when you pulled on it. They didn’t like it.” or “Ask before you touch.” We can reinforce that kids’ bodies are their own, and they get to decide how they are used, especially in the service of interacting with others or making others happy: “How do you want to say hello to your cousin? Do you want to tell them ‘hi’ or wave or give a hug or do a welcome dance?” We can model asking for consent: “May I hug you?” or “Do you want me to tickle you?” We can talk make comparisons: “You know how you don’t like it when your hair gets pulled? Do you think people should just pull your hair whenever they feel like it? Or maybe, if they asked you first, you could have a chance to say no? Well, I think Lesley didn’t like it when you slapped their arm when you were playing. They cried. Maybe you can ask Lesley next time you play what kind of touching their body is okay with them.”
We can even let a toddler we’re taking care of say not to getting their diaper changed right now, or having their private parts washed, and let them decide who touches them there. Kids who are regularly taught that everyone’s body belongs to that person and no one else, and that using others’ bodies without asking for and gaining consent is wrong, tend to grow up into adults who are not confused about consent. (Obviously, they might still potentially grow up into assholes who know but don’t care about consent. But they are not likely to be confused.)
Asking/allowing our communities to witness
When something abusive is done to us, let’s talk about it in our communities when/as soon as we feel able to. Let’s not worry about “ruining someone’s reputation” or “making people uncomfortable”. We deserve support and kindness and social inclusion, especially after being assaulted. And we’re not coercing anyone into ‘taking our side’; everyone still gets to make their own decision about how they will respond. But we can say what happened to us, ask to have our distress witnessed, and to have help in recovering and safely accessing community events. The well-being of the person who hurt us does not have to be our responsibility or priority. And if we are able to talk about what happened, we might find that not only do we get support and help in healing, but that others now feel enabled to speak about their experiences, thus breaking out of their isolation and pain, and/or that others will use our information to better protect themselves.
If the kids in our lives are assaulted, let’s let them talk about that freely — to us, and to others. Let’s not treat it as a dirty secret. Kids often experience significant additional trauma from being forced to keep assaults or abuse a secret, whether by the abuser(s) or well-meaning caregivers. Let’s convey to them that they didn’t do anything wrong, that they were super-brave/strong/resourceful when they told about it/fought back/resisted/survived. Let’s teach them that the shame is the abuser’s; they get to tell anyone they want to (and they might want to, once they feel safe), because these are their stories, and they are those stories’ heroes.
Asking for support
Let’s ask for support. Whenever we experience anything abusive or creepy, let’s plan to tell at least one person, and let’s access as much support as we can. That can involve talking to kind friends or partners or activist groups — or joining a support group, or calling anonymous crisis lines. (I’ve had good experiences with support from various rape crisis lines, even around non-sexual violence — e.g., emotional abuse in a relationship, stalking, torture.) The relief and healing from being heard and witnessed in our distress, can be pretty substantial; we shouldn’t have to carry our distress alone. And on some occasions the person who hurt or creeped us out has been a problem for others, and when we share that information with each other, we can then mobilise a community response.
When we tell our story, we can ask our support folks for emotional and also for practical help: food delivery, a place to stay, a time to talk, a shoulder to cry on, help in protecting us from an abuser in social spaces, someone to screen our messages, help in recovering our possessions from an ex, etc. Rape culture thrives in places where survivors are ashamed and isolated, rather than places where survivors are included and a vital part of our communities. So let’s interrupt rape culture by asking to be heard, valued, supported, and included — and offering the same to other survivors when they tell us their stories.
Prioritising survivors’ narratives
Let’s make it a practice, when hearing about sexual violence, to start out from the perspective that the survivor is likely telling the truth, rather than from the perspective that until we have hard evidence, the alleged perpetrator must be considered innocent. (According to statistics, 2-8% of sexual assault reports are considered false or unsubstantiated. And a community is not a court of law. We are not convicting or sentencing anybody when we think/say/assume that the report is probably true. And as for reputations…the survivor has one too. It is most likely being dragged through the mud right now, along with their safety. Many survivors who go public with their stories get death threats.)
And/so when someone reports abuse, assault, or harassment by someone we know/trust/are friends with, let’s not assume the reporting person is lying, and so, look away from their pain. We do not have to end our friendship with the accused person — but we should not ignore or pretend away someone else’s pain in order to keep it. We can (and probably should) check in about the report. (Unless it was shared in confidence, obviously.)
E.g., “Hey, A has told me/written a letter to our organisation/posted publicly on social media that you sexually assaulted them. They said this happened: [details]. So I’m coming to you to ask about it.” And listen to what the person says. Is he* indignantly calling A a liar, who’s only talking about what they wish had happened, or insisting that he had consent from A, or putting A down as a slut who “doesn’t know what they want”, or acting angry and betrayed that we’d ask to check out the allegations? Is what he’s saying sounding insincere, dishonest, or uncaring? If yes, we might choose to end our friendship with him — though that is not our only option. If we value this person, can we talk to him, with compassion but also expectation of accountability, about what consent means, and how he can change his harmful behaviour?**
There are cases, where we might choose to remain friends with folks reported to have assaulted someone else. In addition to the possibility that we’re attempting to educate someone we care about, trying to get him to take responsibility for him actions and for changing future behaviour, it may be that our friend has confirmed the assault and said he is working to change, or even offered a denial of the events that we have no trouble believing.
And/but if we choose that option, we should not expect A to (continue to) befriend us. Right now they likely only have space in their life for people who support them through this difficult time. And that’s okay. Let’s not guilt or badger them into retracting their report, or into interacting with the person they have indicated is their rapist. Unless we know for sure that A is not telling the truth (and false reports are rare, and knowing for sure that someone is lying about their experience is even more rare), we should not treat them with anything less than respect for their person and their boundaries, and sensitivity to their pain.
*I am using the pronouns ‘they/them’ for the survivor in this particular example, and ‘he/him’ for the alleged perpetrator. But all combinations of (binary and non-binary) genders and pronouns can and do occur in sexual assault. Men get raped; folks of all genders can be perpetrators.
**Credit to Shiri Eisner for articulating this last concept super clearly, while I was still circling around how to talk about it.
Let’s trust our gut feelings. If we have a creepy feeling about someone, it’s okay to trust that feeling and take action based on it. We can change seats, change out mind about a date, exit an elevator, back out of a social engagement, refuse to talk to a particular person at a party, or give someone the wrong home address or invent a sudden errand if we feel alarm bells when getting a ride home from an acquaintance. We don’t have to be absolutely sure that the person will turn out to be An Abuser before we allow ourselves to protect ourselves and make our comfort and safety our priority.
And/also: if we find ourselves persistently having more creepy feelings about members of a marginalised group than other folks, let’s — after we’ve taken steps to be/feel safe(r) — gently interrogate our feelings. Are they based in stereotypes? If the same behaviour we just experienced came from someone else (a neurotypical person, a white person, a middle-class person, etc.), would we still be creeped out? If our reaction is coming from an oppressive place, becoming aware of that, bringing that disparity in perception to our attention, will help us change it over time.
Responding to assault as a community
Let’s get together in community groups when there is a report of assault or harassment in our community. Let’s talk about what we know, and make concrete plans for how to confront the person reported to be violating consent, and what to do to protect folks in our community. (E.g., we can exclude a reported attacker from our events, publicise a community member’s abusive behaviour, announce clear consequences for violations, etc.)
If we hear of stranger sexual assaults on people perceived to be female and/or trans in our neighbourhood, we might put up posters with any details, about the assaults or the attacker, that could help folks protect themselves.
If our geek community hears that one of us is making harassing or unconsented-to sexual comments to other folks at our social events, let’s plan to confront the person, and decide on consequences if the violations persist.
If our community meetings or social events feature folks who spread victim-blaming myths, let’s calmly correct those, and if the person/people doing it don’t stop doing it, let’s bring it up with them, and outline consequences for persisting.
If we are organising a sex or kink party, or another event where attendees will be potentially vulnerable to consent violations (a cuddle party, a trauma workshop where participants touch each other, etc.), let’s take any reports of consent violators among the participants seriously. I cannot stress this enough: paying attention to reports like these, and taking action, is a super important part of fighting rape culture, and of making sure that everyone, not just some folks, is able to have a good time.
So if we learn that a participant has committed consent violations/assaulted someone, let us collect as much information as we can, and talk to the alleged perpetrator. And, just as in #6, we can evaluate how they respond in order to decide whether they can attend, and under what strictures. Attending kink or sex parties or other events where people make themselves vulnerable and trust that the group will take care of their safety, where consent absolutely needs to be respected, is not a right, it’s a privilege.
So, if a person is not being accountable for the harm they’ve caused, or is denying the reported experience occurred at all — how sure are we that they will be safe to other participants? Unless they are our dearest friends, and even then, unless we were there during the interaction in question — we might want to concede that they are a risk and consider excluding them from the event.
If they are professing accountability — what do we see them actually doing that’s accountable and consent-respecting? Are they going to be alone with folks at the event at any time? Can we trust their word that they have changed?
Other than excluding reported perpetrators, we do have the option of assigning them minders during the event, making sure they are never alone with another participant, or making it a condition that they publicly identify what they’ve done to the other participants, so that all attendees can make informed decisions about having interactions with that person. If those options feel wrong/too harsh, I trust that your community can brainstorm other ideas that will aim to keep folks safe while including perpetrators. I don’t actually believe in the permanent exclusion of folks who’ve committed violations; I think anyone can change their harmful behaviour, if they want to, and if they have community support. But I also believe, so strongly, that we must prioritise folks’ safety.
And we should never allow a sex or kink or touching event to include a survivor and their perpetrator, unless the survivor has freely offered for their perpetrator to be included because they trust the changes that person has made.
Let’s never decide that such issues are not our problem, or that we cannot act because “we don’t have enough information”. (Reminder: a community is not a court of law.) Let’s collect information, and let’s act.
Standing up for each other
Let’s have each other’s backs. As much as feels possible and safe-enough, let’s call out sexual (and racist, homophobic, transphobic, biphobic, classist, ableist, fat-shaming, and other oppressive) harassers even if they’re harassing someone other than us. Let’s call people on their victim-blaming — even if the victim/survivor isn’t present. Let’s confront (or calmly interrupt) folks being verbally or physically abusive to others, including to folks who appear to be their partners, in public. Let’s check with the victims if they are okay, if they need an accompaniment to the nearest subway stop or police station. (If we can. All these suggestions are “if we can, if we have the spoons and the time, if we feel safe-enough to”. For example, some of us would not be up for going into a police station for any reason.)
E.g. “Excuse me, you yelling at this person is not okay. Please stop. [turning to them] Are you okay? Do you need anything? Can I help?” Or: “Your comments are sexual/racist/transphobic harassment. Stop.” [turning to harassed person] “Are you okay? How can I help? Do you need someone to stay with you until it’s your stop, or a witness if you want to call the authorities?” Or: “Do you & this young person know each other? You’re asking them a lot of personal information.”* [and to the young person] “Do you want to keep talking to this guy? Are you okay? Do you need help?”
*Credit to C.L., who shared a story about using that line to successfully intervene.
Waiting for trust to be earned
Let’s consider trust something that is earned, and has many different contexts. We can trust someone to be on time when they meet with us, but not yet have enough information to be able to choose to be alone with them in our home. We can trust someone to be honest with us, but not trust them to keep what we tell them private. We can trust someone to respect our bodily boundaries, but maybe not trust that they won’t tell us upsetting jokes.
No one should get to guilt us into offering them blanket trust. And no one is so perfect that they are trustworthy in every single arena. So let’s consider only offering trust to folks who’ve demonstrated, in whichever particular context, that they listen well, are accountable, and can follow through well — and offering trust that only includes that context — and the rest of the time offering folks limited access to our bodies and minds and our time.
It is okay to prioritise our emotional and physical safety. And to consider that folks who question this, who act offended that we do not extend quick trust, perhaps aren’t honouring our well-being.
Demanding community accountability
Let’s demand community accountability. If it feels like our community doesn’t have our back, doesn’t speak up when we are harassed, doesn’t interrupt and correct victim-blaming, didn’t protect us when they had information on an abuser or harasser, didn’t support us in asking for support or help or protection, let’s call a meeting and talk about why — and what can be done better in the future.
No one should have their safety needs willfully ignored. Communities should be safe for everyone, and should expect everyone to bring their very best manners and consent skills to social or political events. If we find that folks in our communities don’t have those (whether because they’ve never learned, or because they’re traumatised, because they have madness/mental health issues or other disabilities), then we need to hold workshops or have one-on-one mentoring in those skills, tailored to their needs. But no one should be excused or immune from being held accountable. Small children are successfully taught consent concept and skills; everyone else can be too.
Refusing the monster/good person binary
Let’s not divide people into “predators/dangerous abusers” and “everyone else”. Despite the conclusions of studies like these (for summary of both see here) — observation of rape culture, my communities, other studies, and writings like this one, lead me to believe that while it may be that a small percentage of people are repeat rapists and conscious predators, the vast majority of us are still capable of consent violations, and many people, especially men, believe (consciously or unconsciously) that under certain circumstances they are entitled to sex, and are willing to commit consent violations to get it. They might not identify it as “rape” or even, as the men in the studies, “sex obtained through coercion, force, or while the victim was unconscious or too drunk to resist”. Their narrative would be that their ‘partner’ had consented.
I believe people committing these consent violations* are more numerous, and therefore as much of a problem as predators and repeat offenders, and that our communities need to address all consent violations. Ceasing to divide people into scary ‘predators’ and safe ‘everyone else’ would help folks who’ve experienced consent violations to acknowledge what had happened, without needing to adjust their view of the person who did it to ‘monster’; would help our communities act earlier, instead of waiting till something they judge as unquestionably horrific had happened; and might encourage the public to consider that consent violations can be committed by just about anyone/people other than scary men with weapons premeditatedly lurking in unlit back alleys. And it would enable our communities to respond to our members who’ve assaulted someone, to offer them consent education and non-judgmental support to change, instead of throwing people away.
And: we will sometimes hear sexual assault reports about folks we admire, folks who are big activists in our community, folks who’ve done a lot of good for our communities and causes, or mainstream or indie celebrities who appear to have good ethics. Let’s not go into instant denial: “Oh, ze couldn’t have possibly done that! Ze is being framed because of hir activism.” People are complex; most have good and bad qualities and behaviours. They can be great activists/truth-tellers/allies around (some) systemic oppressions, and still commit consent violations, small or large. And power can corrupt, including the power that comes with being an activist celebrity. The cult of celebrity can lead folks to stop offering criticism to that person, including around inappropriate behaviour, and the celebrity can come to believe that they are too awesome and amazing to ever transgress someone’s boundaries, or expect that they’ll never be challenged on their behaviour — or even that other folks will never have boundaries when it comes to the celebrity. Let’s talk out assault reports about those folks as seriously as about ‘ordinary citizens’, and start out believing the reporting survivors.
(* Which are sometimes labelled ‘grey’. I think the implication there is meant to be that they are situated somewhere between the ‘black’ of rape/bad, and ‘white’ of consent/good. Which is of course racist language, plus there is really nothing ambiguous about the lack of freely offered consent. Let’s not use that phrasing.)
Looking at our own capacity to abuse and transgress boundaries
Let’s not assume that we (we feminists/radicals, we anti-sexual-assault activists, we gentle and compassionate people, we survivors, etc.) are unlikely to mistreat people or (knowingly or unknowingly) ignore their boundaries. Everyone has the capacity to hurt others, and many of us haven’t learned how to pay attention to others’ limits and boundaries, because we were raised in environments that didn’t consider boundaries important, or even environments that needed us to ignore our knowledge of what wasn’t okay and what was harmful. Let’s watch our own behaviour around how we respect others’ (bodily and emotional) autonomy, and our responses to others’ boundary-setting.
Do we respond with pleading or manipulation when someone first tells us ‘no’? Do we tickle or hug or initiate sensual or sexual touching without explicitly knowing the other person’s preferences and wants around touch, and what those are, not on average, but right now? Do we shame people we have relationships with? Do we blame them for our behaviour or for others’ mistreatment? Have you ever found yourself saying, “I’m sorry I yelled at you, it’s just that you ______” or “But you didn’t tell me you don’t like _______” when you really should have checked it out yourself ahead of time? That’s displacing responsibility for your misstep onto the person you hurt. Don’t do that.
Let’s be as aware as we can be, when interacting with others, of what we know about their boundaries and what we don’t. Let’s ask question about what we don’t know. Let’s pay attention to others’ words, as well as their body language and the level of comfort we hear in their voices. There are many ways to be informed about what others don’t want, about what would make them feel harmed or abused, what their boundaries are, what bodily autonomy looks like for them, whether they are exercising their right to informed consent. If we are saying we don’t know any/some of these things, we are usually not trying hard enough.
And if we find ourselves having transgressed someone’s boundaries and/or harmed them, let’s be accountable. We are not lost or monstrous or predators now. (See #12.) We are humans who fucked up. We can make amends, learn, change, and do better in the future. People do, all the time. It’s work that’s happening every day.
Fostering inclusion of survivors
Let’s encourage conversations about abuse/assault/harassment in our communities — and foster an atmosphere of support, kindness, welcoming, and inclusion towards survivors. This would include working towards making our spaces and events accessible. Many many survivors acquire disabilities as a result of assault — and rates of assault against folks who are already disabled are super-high. (E.g., 83% of disabled women will be sexually assaulted during their lifetime.) Accessibility means removing barriers blocking folks with physical, mental, and/or trauma-based disabilities — and economic and systemic oppression barriers. The most common access needs include: barrier-free access for folks with mobility devices (lack of stairs, ramps, elevators), ASL interpretation and open captioning, scent- and chemical-free policies and site arrangements, food free of common allergens, active listening, trigger warnings, child care, sliding scale or free entry, all-gender washrooms on site, clear enforced policies on not tolerating oppressive or consent-violating behaviour.
And let’s not treat folks who’ve been assaulted as broken and ‘weak’, or as liars — but as folks who have useful knowledge based in their experiences, and strength they’ve had to find while going through those experiences, and who deserve our respect, listening, compassion, and inclusion. Obviously, that doesn’t mean not setting boundaries or tolerating abusive behaviour from folks who are survivors; it means treating survivors like other people, who have a lot to contribute, and with whom we have an expectation of accountability. And let’s not dismiss or disregard survivors’ needs or requests around their trauma damage (e.g. need for trigger warnings, requests that we exclude particular content in any entertainment we share with them, etc.). As with any disabilities, when a disabled person tells their community they need an accommodation, the community’s job is to listen and see if they can provide it (and if not, calmly say why), not to judge the worth or soundness of their request.
Also, and I wish this didn’t have to be said: in order to help survivors feel included and welcome, we need to stop, and interrupt, crazy-shaming. A vast majority of survivors have madness/mental health issues as a result of, or which have been exacerbated by, their trauma — from the (relatively) more palatable conditions like PTSD and depression and anxiety, to the more stigmatised schizophrenia, BPD, DID, and psychosis. So, every time we crazy-shame, i.e. talk about mad people as freaks, dangerous, unwelcome, untrustworthy, or use ableist (anti-mad) insults, or speak shamingly of quirks that come with someone’s madness or neurodivergence and make them look ‘odd’ but are not harmful — we make survivors feel unwelcome, we don’t provide a safe space, we further stigmatise and isolate folks whose trauma has already isolated and harmed them. Let’s not fear the crazy*.
If we feel scared of (all or some) mad or neurodivergent people, we could self-educate by reading blogs, articles or books on madness, talking with (consenting) mad friends, going to a workshop or education session where a mad person is speaking (ideally, that person is getting paid for doing that education!), etc. The fear and fear-based rudeness can lessen when folks know Real Live mad people and their (our) lives better. Then, let’s stop ourselves using ableist insults or shaming folks for their madness, let’s interrupt others doing the same, let’s show respect to, and learn from, and appreciate the community participation of, all survivors and mad folks.
Let’s advocate for mad and neurodivergent folks when systems of power chew them up: when disability benefits are cut, when violence is perpetrated against them and is considered justifiable, when workplaces fire or refuse to hire them, when they are involuntarily incarcerated in psych wards or when someone moves to have them declared mentally incompetent. Let’s show up as witnesses/watchers if needed (in court, in the psych ward, at hearings), help mad friends make safety plans, find and maintain lists of affordable therapists, staff crisis lines, advocate for oversight of psychiatric treatment and involuntary incarceration, for patients’ rights councils.
And let’s likewise advocate for sex workers and folks living with addictions, who frequently experience similar stigmatisation to mad folks, with similar results: exclusion, social isolation and shaming, lack of safety, high rates of violence perpetrated against them/us. Mad people’s rights, sex workers’ rights, and addicts’ rights are everyone’s rights. We all have the right to practice self-care in the best way we know, to have respectful and appropriate health care, to have workplace safety and protections, to have our humanity recognised and responded to. So let’s advocate for drug legalisation and for safe injection sites, for sex work decriminalisation and to have sex work recognised in workplace safety laws and contract laws, let’s contribute, if we can, to our local sex-worker-run organisations that help the workers share knowledge and skills and band together for support and advocacy, go to protests, write letters to our MPs, make connections with each other. A community that welcomes everyone is strong, vibrant, blessed with a plethora of skills and creativity arising from our differences, brave, fierce, and protective. This is how we will win.
*Credit to Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha for articulating this concept and for the phrase.
Dear people reading this who’d like to dismantle rape culture: I hope this list might help in some way with the work we are all doing. I’m once again expressing a desire that the ideas here be used to support efforts for change, rather than to make any of us feel inadequate for “not doing enough”. Much love and gratitude to you all for doing all that you do, and wishing us all tenacity, strength, and having each other’s backs in defeating rape culture.
— Cliff Pervocracy. “The Missing Stair”.
— Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha, Ching-In Chen and Jai Dulani, eds. “The Revolution Starts at Home”. A downloadable zine, with majority QT BIPOC contributors, about ending relationship violence in activist communities. This zine later grew into a book with the same title and added content.
— Hannah Harris-Soutro. “Hurt People Hurt People”
— Kai Cheng Thom. “9 Ways to Be Accountable When You’ve Been Abusive”
— Robot Hugs. Especially check out the comics grouped under tags: ‘assault’, ‘rape’, ‘harassment’, and ‘consent’.
— Captain Awkward. “#272: When you see Darth Vader coming, do you speak up?”. Advice and discussion on how to intervene when someone we know is harming their partner/friend/relative in front of us.
— Hari Ziyad. “I Looked at a Rapist in the Mirror and Saw Him Smiling Back.”
— Alli Kirkham. “What If We Treated All Consent Like Society Treats Sexual Consent?”
— Tashalaw. “Restorative Justice in Youth Courts: New Zealand – A case study”
— Creative Interventions Toolkit: A Practical Guide to Stop Interpersonal Violence. Put together by radical BIPOC. Many ideas on community safety and community accountability.
— Thomas. “Sleep and Negotiating Consent”
— Social Justice Journal Issue: “Community Accountability: Emerging Movements to Transform Violence”
[Photo description: Tea mugs and teapots in various colour of the rainbow. Credit: milkyway4567 — https://pixabay.com/en/tea-cups-tea-pot-teapot-cup-drink-264343/]