This collection of resources and writing deals with the subject of sexual assault, which may have intense connotations or bring up difficult feelings and memories. Please consider reading this when you are in a safe space or have some one available to talk to about the material if necessary.
Grounding our work
by Em Squires
Relationships are slippery and wet like water. I can feel a relationship touch the flesh of my heart or the skin of my back, and I know it is there because I can feel that presence asking for my attention. I cannot explain the work of Philly Stands Up without talking about relationships. They explain how I got involved and why I stay committed. Our model and processes are rooted in a criss-crossed web of friendships we share with eachother, the working relationship(s) PSU builds with perpetrators of sexual assault, and each of our individual commitment to PSU as an organizing collective.
Almost two years ago, I decided to move to Philly. I couldn’t afford New York City and needed to get the hell out of the Midwest. I didn’t have a job, but I had a place to live with my friend Nic. Stevie and Nic raved about the magnitude of Philly’s awesome-ness and how much I would love it. So I did either the stupidest or bravest thing I’ve ever done – I packed a van, maxed out my credit card, and dropped a cannonball into the pool of my future with a vague agenda to “find some work” and, hopefully, meet some new people who would inspire and challenge me. Sink or swim. Either way, I would feel the water.
It was Stevie who sent me the email inviting me to my first PSU meeting. I had been in Philly for just over six months, working a demoralizing service job and was painfully clawing my way out of an abusive relationship. I was not in a great place. It was a long email, certainly the most formal email I’d ever received from him, but by the time I finished reading, my pulse was racing. Work with perpetrators of sexual assault? Engage with building a culture of consent within a sex-positive framework? I didn’t even really know what that meant. My own organizing background was grounded in anti-oppression youth organizing and the labor movement, with some work on gender, affirmative action, and independent media thrown into the mix. I was a teaching artist posing as a waitress – what did I know about working with perpetrators of assault? I went to the meeting not knowing what to expect. I left feeling like I had just breathed pure, undiluted oxygen for two hours.
It was early June, almost a year ago. I didn’t know a person in the room except for Stevie – but I could feel the energy prickle my skin, passionately delicate and oh-so-insistent. PSU members who were about to step back from the collective for various reasons – school, family, needing space, etc – talked about the history of the group, the Points of Unity, etc – and then we all went around and talked about why we were there, present in the room on this random Sunday evening. I had never even been part of an activist group that was so committed to process that we wrote down our organizing principles! And here I was – invited into a space that would never ask me to justify why I identify as queer, that would never question the “validity” or experience of being a queer woman in a f***ed up relationship with another woman, and would not only demand but value my voice, my agency, and my ability to articulate and respect my own limits. Although I was initially intimidated by my lack of relevant “experience,” the energy and interests of everyone present very quickly had me doing some quick internal surveys. Fine, I had never worked in this “field,” either academically or politically. However, the work I had just heard described to me was based on listening skills, relationship building, the belief that behavior can change, complex, radical, and queer-oriented analyses of power across multiple communities and potential identities, resource development, grassroots education, and a commitment to building a more sex-positive and responsible culture.
I was down with that.
Our work isn’t about fixing people. First of all, a perpetrator has to want to “work on their shit” – that’s our colloquial umbrella phrase to refer to a perpetrator who is willing to engage with us on the issue(s) at hand. The shit can include, but is certainly not limited to: a specific incident or [repeated] behavioral pattern of emotional, physical and/or sexual assault with an intimate partner or random stranger (or any person on the interpersonal spectrum in between), substance and alcohol abuse, mental health, and any number of other influencing factors. We are not “professional” therapists or social workers or health care professionals – we are a collective of individuals with all sorts of organizing experience(s) and interests and committed to radical social change. We share and constantly engage with an evolving analysis (see our Points of Unity for some examples) which influences not only how we approach situations and perpetrators as unique experiences, but also with our own internal group dynamic and intro-collective processing.
We don’t often “find” situations (what we call each separate “case,” usually involving a perpetrator, a chain of events, and some request for action and/or resources) – situations usually find us. Since we’ve been around for a couple years, we don’t have to do much self-promotion, and in reality, don’t have the member-capacity to do high-volume work. What happens most often is either a perpetrator will contact us, having heard about us through some workshop, friend, referral, etc and initiate contact and somehow communicate zi’s desire to “work on hir shit,” OR we’ll begin to work with a perpetrator via a shared situation with Philly’s Pissed. [I’m using gender-neutral pronouns here for two reasons: 1) PSU seeks to support and be an ally to trans folks in whatever ways we can, and part of that is being conscious of how we use basic pronoun language; and 2) We don’t want our language to perpetuate the myth that sexual assault is limited to heteronormative situations in which the man is the perpetrator and the woman is the survivor. Anyone – regardless of gender – can be a survivor or a perpetrator of assault.]
We do not have a magic “perpetrator-free” stamp that absolves someone from whatever pain they have caused another person or community; we work to build an honest and accountable space with perpetrators. This demands a good faith effort from both directions. I have friends who upon finding out about the subject of my Sunday night meetings, are like, “What the fuck are you doing? why perpetrators? none of those programs ever work.” Valid response. But PSU isn’t a program. No one is more aware than we are that we can’t work with every perpetrator. In some cases, perpetrators are also survivors of other situations. We try to see the whole person and the whole situation, however complex, and remain aware of our limitations.
It isn’t easy to go step-by-step through our process, since it’s different each time. Typically, we’ll begin to work with a perpetrator either through a referral through Pissed or because someone will email us directly and ask for help or resources. We meet weekly, and commit to “tasks” – whether it’s contacting someone about a workshop, working on an article for a zine, doing research, working on a situation, or being the group’s email checker for the week. We do a decent job of checking our mail, and it’s the responsibility of the email checker to not only check the emails, but to respond based on the time sensitivity of what is emailed (either a “do you need to talk so someone in an hour” or a “can we check in about your request at our meeting on Sunday, which is four days away” type of response). Every meeting starts with a personal check-in and ends with a check-out, and includes a mixture of debriefing current situations and “tasking” new situations, discussing or planning upcoming workshops, projects, or proposals, or doing internal educational work. Committing to work on a situation depends upon what information we know, who can do the work – not only logistically, but also with respect to personal limits and triggers.
We understand that we have to have the capacity and resources to be an ally in the specifics of any given situation. Sometimes, we don’t. We are learning that it is one thing to offer advice and recommend resources and try and connect folks with local support over distance (we get a lot of emails from people in all parts of the country), but that working with perpetrators over distance is incredibly difficult. We always work in teams on situations, so working over distance in teams requires phone calls, chats, and all manners of creative communication and scheduling. When we are able to work locally, we set up initial meetings in public places where everyone feels safe. Whether working locally or over distance, we are committed to centralizing survivor demands. This can look like making sure that copies of therapy receipts are available to whomever needs to see them, facilitating meetings with community members, or helping write letters of explanation/apology.
We’re not passing judgement on having long-distance relationships – but we are slowly realizing that the intimacy and honesty and reliance upon our gut feelings and intuition that we base our work upon is exponentially more facilitated by engaging with perpetrators face-to-face. It’s just a different dynamic. Working with perpetrators, situation by situation, requires that we are continuously checking in with ourselves (individually and collectively) about where we are at, what we need, how we feel, what hurts, what is too much, where is the wall? We can do, feel, and trust this more when we operate in real time.
My commitment to PSU is the healthiest relationship I’ve ever experienced with an activist collective. I don’t have to feel guilty about my time limits – for example, at the time of this writing, I haven’t been able to go to an actual meeting in at least a month because of my work schedule, but my ability to commit to write this article and pull together resources for this zine is internally embraced as a valid part of our work. My emotional boundaries are respected – and furthermore, my efforts to even articulate my boundaries in the first place are appreciated as necessary. People step up and step back on a week-to-week basis. Literally. I was a little dubious that this function of the collective was actually the truth, but I personally have been proven wrong multiple times. I have learned that working with PSU demands a lot of honesty. I have to be honest with myself about my own triggers, limits, boundaries, needs. I have to trust my friends in PSU to help me both identify and respect what I can and cannot do. I have to be able to hear each of their own capacity for our work. I think our commitment to healthy activism works because we centralize it at our meetings (by framing with personal check-ins and check-outs), we have pre-existing/outside-of-PSU friendships and shared/local social networks that are incredibly powerful, and because there is a shared common and radical analysis of power and oppression – which informs not only our Points of Unity, but also our ability to just be there for each other and create a safe space (which isn’t to say that we don’t work to develop that space and challenge ourselves). I can only speak for myself, but I know I approach relationships (whether platonic, intimate, or somewhere in between) in a fundamentally different way since I joined PSU.
I am a more confident and thoughtful communicator and I stick up for myself and my boundaries, needs, desires, and dreams a hell of a lot more. Our space is safe, but we are not stagnant – and neither is our work nor our process.
Drop us a line at email@example.com.