Cross-posted from the whirlwinds project by team colors
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.
Philly Stands Up- Our Approach, Our Analysis
by Esteban Kelly
Our point of departure is drastically different from mainstream analysis of sexual assault as it pertains to both survivors and perpetrators. In Philly Stands Up we always begin with an assessment of how we can support and take direction from survivors of sexual assault. Though the vast majority of our organizing is direct work with perpetrators, our view is that these efforts are perhaps the most important way that our group supports survivors and, by extension, the community of radical organizers of which we are a part.
Our project is an enabling project. Healthy individuals and safe spaces provide the basic foundation and capacity for people to kick ass in reconfiguring our society into one characterized by socio-economic justice and compassionate interpersonal dynamics.
When a sexual assault is committed, the entire community is affected. As organizers, addressing the harm to survivors and the community is an important way of sustaining organizing more broadly. Thus, three fundamental approaches to our work:
– A steadfast commitment to supporting survivors through centralizing their needs to assert control and power in their lives and surroundings. Also, because Philly Stands Up is firmly against violent retribution in principle, we focus our energy into creating positive mechanisms that validate and support survivors.
– The belief in the particularity of each sexual assault situation, and with it, a unique effort and opportunity for the perpetrator to better understand physical, sexual, and emotional boundaries and communication
– The intrinsic importance of humanizing perpetrators; to be grounded in compassion as a source of strength in persevering through very difficult work and transgressing the ubiquitous alienation that haunts everyone affected by sexual assault situations.
In Philly Stands Up, we tether our work to reaching out to perpetrators of sexual assault while maintaining the centrality of the survivors, from whom we take our cues in determining the actions and progress that need to transpire for the overall healing in assault aftermath. The key mental shift that sets us on a new path in sexual assault community organizing is in refusing to distance ourselves from perpetrators of sexual assault, or even to presume that all perpetrators could be characterized by a particular moment of awful behavior.
It was only after we had spent time working with perpetrators (and of course survivors) that our current analysis really took form. On the one hand, in the aftermath of a sexual assault survivors can feel a loss of power and control over their bodies, their environment, their lives and their community. Our work, therefore, is grounded in helping to empower survivors (directly or indirectly) by aiding them in feeling safe and by assisting them in exerting control over their selves, their space and the world around them. On the other hand, the perpetrator has lost the trust of the survivor and the community. This trust is not just lost in terms of sex, but also in terms of social relationships, politics, and solidarity.
Those directly and indirectly affected by sexual assault are reluctant to trust the perpetrator as an organizer, worker, neighbor, performer, leader, roommate, or peer. So our work in Philly Stands Up is to help rebuild trust. To interrupt what may be patterns in the behavior of perpetrators of sexual assault. This commitment to work with rather than punish or criminalize the perpetrator is imperative to them once again becoming fully functional, trustworthy, and participating members of the community. In some cases survivors may still not want the perpetrator to be in their community. In Philly Stands Up we do what we can to support the wishes of the survivor and see the work of restoring trust and responsibility to perpetrators as essential to any community in which they will end up living. For that reason, one of the main functions we provide in our community is as a buffer, where we can distinguish ourselves as a more appropriate space for perpetrators to vent their concerns, frustrations, and perspective while coming to terms with and understanding the implications of their actions. In this way we hold perpetrators accountable for their analysis and behavior, and prevent future assaults by facilitating personal growth on both fronts.
One of our main contentions with most standard treatment of perpetrators of sexual assault is that they are typically dismissed as criminals. We call for a closer look at the people, their behavior and the social dynamics that surround sexual assault to be considered much more thoroughly in order to effectively rectify the damages that result from sexual assault situations and ultimately prevent them from occurring at all. In our experience, when pre-established structures like this are in place, people called out for sexual assault have been less likely to cling to defensiveness and denial since they can trust that there will be space for things to be worked out, and they are also less likely to fear immediate physical harm.
In taking a closer look at typical responses to sexual assault beyond radical communities, we noticed that perpetrators are rarely factored into the daily lives of the community at large. Instead, perpetrators are punitively shuffled off to various criminalizing apparatuses (strongly linked to the prison industrial complex), and left out of what we see as highly gendered social services, which focus almost exclusively on (non-trans) female survivors. It must be clear that our group does not outright refute the resources (legal, social, and otherwise) that are available for these women. We certainly recognize the importance of such services and see other local organizations as allies by and large in our work. However, in doing so, we remain acutely aware of the limitations of their impact, most notably in losing sight of the ultimate goal of breaking the cycle of sexual assault, and in neglecting to serve the diversity of classes, genders, ethnicities, linguistic communities (e.g. English & Spanish speakers) and so on, that do not neatly coincide with the target population of certain women-only resources.
Those of us in Philly Stands Up refuse to pretend that sexual assault only constitutes a certain action among certain persons (i.e. rape of women by men). Anyone can be assaulted. Anyone is capable of transgressing somebody else’s boundaries. Our analysis (which is by no means a “definition”) encompasses and extends beyond rape- in its most strict sense- to include any situation that a survivor identifies as a breach of a particular boundary, or a lack of consent in a sexual situation. We distance ourselves from the criminal justice outlook that demands “objective facts” be presented to a judge and jury, a trend we have seen in our community, and many others. Philly Stands Up goes beyond that, seeking to reconcile all of the pieces of a situation. We acknowledge that clarity and guilt aside, people involved in the messy business that we find ourselves in are hurt, and feel that something painful and difficult has transpired, whether or not it would be “legally” recognized as assault. And regardless of the specifics, there are relationships that need to be healed or perhaps kept apart with community support.
It is worth noting that as organizers in Philly Stands Up the other half of our work is a proactive campaign to stimulate and embolden “a culture of sexual responsibility.” This is a broader preventative educational project that includes a multi-sited animation of intentions, actions, and expectations that raise consciousness around all moments of (potential) sexual behavior. This is ambitious, but vitally important work. In this other mode of our work, we create workshops, trainings, and consultations where we try to stimulate deep commitments to clearer communication that fosters consent and mutuality. When we are invited to speak at conferences, or to campuses and grassroots groups we don’t show up tell other people how communication is done, but rather help to tease out the local character and specificity of each group or community’s norms of conduct to maximize mutual understanding and respect for personal or group boundaries. In spite of the heavy work that addressing sexual assault necessitates, we see all of that balanced by assembling working, positive models of consent. Hence one of our (many) unofficial mottoes: Consent is sexy! Each of us can be enablers for people in our lives to find new and particular ways to enact that. Imagine positive sexual encounters declined, postponed, and felt, unspoken, signaled, whispered, and yes, beckoned in a multitude of articulations.
Finally, the type of work we do in Philly Stands Up should not be ghettoized and left to the purview of sexual assault organizers from city to city, but incorporated into the routine functions of any organizing collective. Through an explosion of our project- to holistically heal communities and invigorate sexual responsibility everywhere, all of the time- we strengthen one another as organizers with deeper trust and more salient accountability. We believe in spaces, where sex and physicality are varyingly turned down, spiced up, and deal with confidentially but forthrightly. That honesty can and should be as much a part of our organizing as the daily decisions we make to upend injustice in order to exist in this world in radically new ways.