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’s Pissed: Shifting the Balance of Power in Our Communities
by Timothy Colman of Philly’s Pissed
I could start with a story: in college, I was marginally involved with a campaign organizing to get the institution to pay its workers a living wage. I stayed on the outskirts though. The core members of the campaign were a handful of my closest friends — and the boy who’d sexually assaulted me two weeks after I arrived on campus. I avoided his gaze for many years, at parties, in the cafeteria, in the backseats of cars. When he joined the white anti-racist group I helped start, I’d stare at my hands through meetings about building trust and acting against oppression. Afterwards, I’d go home with the sweet girl I was dating and freeze up and shake while talking in her bed.
It’s a true story. I could tell it in riveting, emotive detail, but I’m just throwing it up here to say these things happen all the time. I know countless more stories like this. Maybe you do, too. Survivors of sexual assault are frequently pushed out of radical projects, out of political organizing, out of communities, because somehow perpetrators of assault and abuse have an easier time digging their feet in and staying. Or, there’s no way to even start talking, no space to start addressing these “personal issues”, and so we leave. So much of being assaulted is about having power taken away from you, and so much of the dominant way of dealing with survivors is about pushing these experiences into the shadows. How do survivors begin to say that we shouldn’t be pushed out of our work and communities, that we are at least as important to radical movements as abusers and perpetrators?
When I moved to Philadelphia, I had a long history of involvement in radical and queer communities. And I’d also done a lot of work around sexual assault: facilitating workshops on consent and acquaintance sexual assault prevention for incoming first-years at my college, helping to run a survivors’ support group, serving as a peer counselor on the college-sponsored sexual assault response team. But these two arenas had never overlapped. Sexual violence wasn’t seen as an issue to organize around within the radical communities I was connected to, and there were no channels for dealing with the “I Can’t Focus on the Work Cause the Boy Who Assaulted Me Keeps Coming to the Meetings” conundrum. And the political alliances I had with people also doing work around sexual violence were tenuous at best. Largely, the work we did together was about assault prevention, individual psychological healing and maybe pressing charges in a court of law or the college’s disciplinary system. I found that most of the people I was working with were oblivious to the impact of sexual assault on queer, trans and male survivors. And I had serious misgivings about presenting the criminal justice system as the primary option to survivors who wanted to take action. I supported survivors who chose to engage with the law, but I knew the criminal justice system wasn’t the solution; I was already working against its own kind of violence, the violence inflicted and legitimated by the state. And when I went to court to support a survivor who chose to press charges against her assaulter, I saw firsthand the abusive and traumatizing way the criminal justice system treats survivors of sexual assault. The work I was doing around sexual violence didn’t contain a vision of transformation; I didn’t find within it the courage and momentum to challenge the world around me to become a place where survivors of abuse and assault could live fully and wholly and be believed and respected.
Then I arrived in Philadelphia, and found Philly’s Pissed and Philly Stands Up.
Philly’s Pissed works against sexual assault in our communities. While the group emerged in response to a series of assaults at a punk rock show in Philadelphia, “our communities” have shifted and expanded to include overlapping queer and radical communities located in West Philadelphia as well as a web of contacts within related communities across the United States and Canada. We provide direct support to survivors, and we do education and advocacy promoting survivor autonomy and perpetrator accountability. We work in tandem with Philly Stands Up to create a community response to sexual violence and provide an alternative to the criminal justice system, which we believe frequently retraumatizes survivors
A survivor will approach a member of Philly’s Pissed and ask for support in dealing with a situation. Our job is to help them figure out what support they need in that moment and help them figure out how to get it, then remain in the picture after their immediate needs are met and they begin the process of figuring out what justice and healing will mean to them. Our work is always done confidentially unless the survivor requests otherwise. Survivor support can look like a lot of different things: talking someone through a crisis, validating their emotional response to an assault, helping them find a safe place to crash, going with them to the doctor or an abortion clinic, aiding them in dealing with dissociation or panic attacks, or organizing friends to cook meals or provide childcare for them. We provide direct emotional support, but we also encourage survivors to tap into the support networks they already have. This can range from helping someone strategize about how to ask their friends or family for support, to actually providing a training on crisis support, survivor-sensitivity and the aftermath of trauma for a political organization or a community.
Our work proceeds from a certain set of assumptions. First, we believe survivors. We trust survivors’ accounts of what they have experienced. Even in radical communities, people often demand “proof” or require details of an assault before they will support a survivor. This is often invasive and hostile; it adds to the silencing and shaming that survivors often face already. We want to create communities that are free of these attitudes. Second, we believe in survivor autonomy. What that means is that the survivor is always in control and always gets to decide what happens next. We are there to facilitate the process, talk things through, suggest possible options, connect them with resources and information, and act as intermediaries. We never tell a survivor what they “should” do, and we never never never take action that the survivor has not asked us to take. Along these lines, we support and facilitate the survivor’s decision-making; we do not tell them what decisions to make. Third, we use harm reduction strategies to aid survivors’ in making decisions. Harm reduction is a decision-making strategy that encourages full understanding of the situation at hand, including risks, and prioritizes helping people strategize about how to best keep themselves safe while respecting the choices they make. For instance, if a survivor is really upset and just wants to go out and get wasted, we say, “Okay. You want to go out and get drunk. Do you have any concerns about the safety of doing that? How can we guard against those concerns? Are there people you can go out and get drunk with who will keep you safe and make sure you get home okay?” Similarly, if a survivor is considering pursuing legal action against a perpetrator, we provide them with the knowledge we have about what that might look like, the aspects of it that are often dehumanizing and retraumatizing, but we would never tell a survivor not to press charges or withdraw our support if they chose to do so. The harm reduction approach is crucial to our work, because we believe that part of healing is taking back power that’s been taken from you. Many survivors of sexual assault struggle with feeling powerless or like they lack control over their lives. If, in the course of supporting a survivor, you mark certain actions as “healthy” and “unhealthy”, offer a prescription for the correct way to heal or tell them how they should feel, you are effectively taking power away once more.
We also facilitate survivors in figuring out what they need to feel safe, whole and in control of their lives again. For many survivors, though certainly not all, this involves taking some kind of action with regard to their assault. One popular strategy is for a survivor to create a list of “demands” for the perpetrator to meet. If a survivor is interested in creating a list of demands, we encourage them to envision what would make them feel safe and more in control of their lives again, and what would make them feel that the person who assaulted them is being held accountable for their actions. Demands might include that a perpetrator do self-education around consent, write a letter taking responsibility for the assault(s), examine their substance use, or leave spaces when the survivor is present. Frequently, if a survivor creates a list of demands, they will ask that someone from Philly Stands Up works with the perpetrator in ensuring that they meet the demands.
Survivor demands have become a popular model in certain circles of how to do grassroots accountability work. I want to emphasize that there are limits to this model; for instance, it can place too much emphasis on the response of the perpetrator. Often, a perpetrator will not agree to meet demands, or will appear willing to engage on the surface but in the end, will refuse to substantively change their behavior in any way. This can be frustrating for the survivor; if they’ve placed all their faith in the demands model, it can be devastating. Making our communities more supportive of survivors and aware of survivor needs is a major goal of our education and advocacy work, because if we shift the balance of power in our communities in favor of survivors, we create more possibilities and channels for community accountability work. We believe it is the responsibility of our communities to end sexual assault and to get perpetrators to change. In the past, survivors have demanded that radical spaces prevent a perpetrator from entering the space when they are present; they’ve asked collectives to bar a perpetrator from attending organizing meetings when they are present. Other actions that survivors have taken include passing out flyers with details about the perpetrator and their patterns, distributing a public call-out asking individuals to spit on a perpetrator, and asking people to stop supporting a perpetrator’s work financially.
I recently saw Andrea Smith speak, and she described how INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence began to formulate an anti-colonial response to ending gendered violence. INCITE! saw that there were staggering problems with the current options available to women of color who were survivors of violence. Most anti-domestic violence programs in the United States started out as grassroots projects but are now federally-funded non-profits; many of them even reside in police stations. Their primary solution to gendered violence increasingly seems to be to use the police and legal system to “protect” women. But initiatives such as mandatory arrest laws for domestic violence have taken control away from battered women and have not proven successful at ending gendered violence. And for women of color, whose communities are already the target of state violence (such as colonialism, police brutality, criminalization of youth, and prison abuse), calling the cops and inviting the arm of the state into their lives is often not a viable option. INCITE! saw the need for a solution that attacked state violence and interpersonal violence simultaneously. They began to organize activist institutes that asked: If there’s violence in our communities, is there anything we can do besides calling the police? The idea was that adequate options did not exist — even restorative justice models often break down when they’re applied to sexual assault and domestic violence situations — so communities would have to gather ideas together and try them out. Smith calls this approach “revolution through trial and error”. INCITE! has produced a number of stunning resources for anyone doing community accountability work, including the INCITE! Community Accountability Working Document [link], a list of potential strategies with which to experiment.
“Revolution through trial and error” is a good way to describe our approach. Philly’s Pissed is deeply invested in doing community accountability work around sexual assault, creating alternatives to the criminal justice system, transforming our communities and ending sexual violence. But we’re not experts, and we don’t have all the answers. We have very few models to work from; we’re pulling bits and pieces from different places, translating them to our context, patching it together and making it up as we go along. In the sexual assault work I’d done before I found Philly’s Pissed, it seemed that the options available for survivors were 1) Press criminal charges, 2) Get counseling to fix the “damage” done to you by the assault, or 3) Do nothing. This set of possibilities is deeply, deeply flawed; it is paltry and inadequate. The only model for justice is offered through the disempowering, retraumatizing criminal justice system, which is frequently the site of violence itself; the only model for healing is for people to work through their trauma individually, with the help of a professional. We believe that justice and healing are intertwined, and that transforming our communities is a key aspect of both; we are working together to envision new possibilities and try them out.
We believe that support and accountability work is best done by people who are within the same communities as the survivor and can understand specific dynamics at play. Philly’s Pissed is frequently in contact with survivors and supporters from across the U.S. and Canada, who contact us seeking support and advice. But distance makes it difficult to do this work effectively. Emails and the occasional phone call are a poor subsitute for supporting someone in person, and it’s difficult to do community accountability work or understand the context that someone is dealing with when they’re 3,000 miles away. We encourage people to organize against sexual assault in their own communities, and create structures for supporting survivors and holding perpetrators accountable. In the past, we’ve done trainings for groups of people aiming to start projects similar to PP/PSU, explaining the way we function and problems we’ve run into along the way. In the end, this work looks different depending on where it’s being done and who’s doing it. Nonetheless, it’s useful to share things we’ve learned along the way, and we hope that other projects can take what we share and avoid making some of the same mistakes we did.
We know that anyone can be a survivor (or a perpetrator) of sexual assault. It’s important not to portray sexual assault as though it only happens along clear identity lines; in particular, it’s important to recognize that it is not just women who are assaulted and it is not just men who are perpetrators of assault. However, sexual assault is often used as a tool of power and violence within a web of systems and structures that deny people’s bodily autonomy and both individual and community self-determination. All of our lives are touched by these oppressive structures, but we’re not all disempowered in the same way; we don’t all face the same kinds of violence. Philly’s Pissed is constantly working to understand the context that swirls around our work, and to learn from similar work being done by other groups and in other contexts.
Survivors of abuse and assault need to be able to articulate what they need, and demand it, with the knowledge that they will be believed and supported. Even within radical communities, there’s a pervasive tendency to blame and silence survivors. When sexual assault causes divisive upheaval within radical organizing, when violence causes fragmentation in our communities, the survivors of that violence are frequently blamed for speaking up about it, told the fallout is their fault, that they are “hurting the struggle.” Philly’s Pissed seeks to shift the culture of our radical communities to one that believes survivors and supports us in stating our truths and taking up space.