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Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Notes on Survivor Autonomy and Violence (2010)



A few notes on language: many of the terms used herein are vague, subjective, loaded, or otherwise ambiguous. For purposes of clarity, when “accountability processes” are referenced, this will be a specific reference to sexual assault accountability processes, as distinct from any other such process, the basic model of which can of course be applied to any number of issues and situations. In discussing “anarchists” or “anarchist men”, I am rather loosely defining the subjects as members of an existing anarchist milieu, or social structure of and among many anarchists and those who identify similarly - this is not in any way to suggest that anarchism itself is somehow the exclusive domain or property of said milieu, only to use self-identification as a reference point.

Additionally, mentions of gender are inherently problematic. When discussing “men” assaulting or raping “women”, the intent is not to oversimplify the issue of gender constructions, but rather to use a shorthand in reference to people socialized male, on the one hand, and people socialized female on the other. Obviously, however, perpetrators of sexual assault are not always male (though, unfortunately, most are) and, conversely, survivors are sometimes male. These dynamics, when interrogated, are in no way limited to male-female relations, or gender-normative relations at all. However, the act of sexual violence perpetrated by males against females occupies, in many ways, its own specific social and historical context. This constitutes the fundamental circumstance of patriarchy. In this, some passages here deal more generally with our attitudes towards any perpetrator of sexual assault, and some directly with said specific phenomenon. The behavior of patriarchy outside gender normativity, as a basic social relationship of domination, is an issue which goes largely unexplored here. That being said, an analysis of sexual assault and capitalist gender oppression is relevant to anyone in these communities, anyone being confronted with these situations.

Thus, I beg the reader’s forgiveness for the use of what is admittedly a reductive and problematic vocabulary.
There is a peculiar sort of discourse which surrounds the issue of accountability in anarchist or otherwise "radical" circles - one that takes for granted that anarchist men should receive treatment distinct from other men. When, in the anarchist milieu, a man sexually assaults a woman, the surrounding community will often engage in a process designed to hold the man accountable for his actions; in the name of "restorative justice" or a "safer" community, with the intent of keeping the individual from doing it again.

My contempt isn't for any one of these goals, but rather for the idea that seems to regularly accompany them, being that - as opposed to non-anarchist men - anarchist men who commit sexual violence should first be approached from a standpoint of community repair. Whereas with other men, the knee-jerk reaction of many women (anarchist/radical or otherwise, but let’s here focus on the former) to these offenses would likely involve something resulting in hospitalization on the man's part, anarchists are somehow given the benefit of the doubt, the opportunity to "work on their shit.” That is, after an assault takes place (quixotically and rather disturbingly, prior to such an offense, it seems, the subject is rarely directly broached, its importance rarely emphasized).

While noble, this is also somewhat paradoxical - if anything, shouldn't men in these communities be held to a more immediate standard, given their implicit allegiance to certain ideals off the bat, and their (unfortunately, often falsely) assumed understanding and critique of capitalist patriarchy and its functions? Shouldn't men in these communities be even more detested for falsely displaying comradeship for, and then afterwards still expecting it from, the survivors of their actions?

And if the answers to those questions are yes and yes, why are they confronted more theoretically, more verbally? The simple and legitimate reply is often that such a response is what corresponds to the wishes of the woman assaulted. But this is not without its own problematic. Why would you leave his teeth intact while anyone else would eat the curb? What is it that convinces us that we should consider this less violent option in one instance but not the other?

That is to say: if his twisted understanding of anarchism (or any other radical or revolutionary politics) involves or excuses sexual assault, why does anyone owe him anything? Why then give him the benefit of the ideal?
And if we do not believe that anarchist men have a better understanding of gender oppression than other men – that there is adequate basis for such an assumption – why the hell do we put up with them in our communities in the first place? To put it tritely, something has got to give. Our continued insistence on accountability neglects the fact that a shared politic should function as the bearer of that information and consequence before the assault takes place – and from there, step two should be as with any other man who commits sexual assault, wherein the perpetrator faces the same unpleasant consequences.

The many complex ongoing conversations about the nature and characteristics of accountability processes, or even their effectiveness, almost never address the possibility that their very practice is often already a compromise. To directly prescribe emotional response is never acceptable and not the intention here, but the point remains that a cultural routine in which this constitutes step two is self-perpetuating in such a way as to reinforce its own insularity by granting judicial advantages to those who have already proven contemptuous of them while leaving others, who might have even less of an understanding of how fucked up their actions are, in the emergency room where they ostensibly belong.

The necessary caveat here is that the majority of anarchist accountability processes are not at all delicate or diplomatic, and the intention is in no way to suggest that employing this tactic implies some sort of being "soft" on sexual assault, or that these points make the practice itself illegitimate. The women I know who work in these processes have more nerve than almost anyone, and have anything but any kind of mercy for the perpetrators they work with. And there are undoubtedly many situations in which an accountability process makes sense pragmatically and in terms of scale or severity. What concerns me is what seems to be the automatic tendency towards one reaction versus another. What concerns me is the possibly cultivated mentality that these anarchist men, whose presence in a community would ideally be a self-evident assurance of their ability to keep themselves from raping women they claim to respect, should be given a special second chance that their very participation in the community should waive.

To be certain, we are all guilty of indirectly/unintentionally perpetuating systems of oppression through subtle socialized behavior, and to this, a different response is perhaps warranted. Maybe this is the line between issues of language or social behavior and issues of direct physical attack. Maybe it’s the line between a naïve misunderstanding and the refusal to give half a fuck. But an outright act of physical violence deserves no such understanding. An intentional or even malicious disregard for consent doesn't merit a conversation.

As a necessarily crude and reductive yet possibly helpful example (as different systems of oppression and the relationships between them are, of course, neither simple nor identical), white people guilty of racially motivated transgressions (verbal or physical, slurs or attacks) are rarely recommended for "accountability." They are not given the benefit of a process, all too often organized and worked on by the very people towards whom their violence is directed, aimed at rehabilitating their racist ways. No one, it would seem, bends over backwards to grant them a complex opportunity to repent. Because racism is fucked, and people should know that, period.

Sexual assault and rape are not things that just happen. They are not merely individual transgressions. These acts are political – intentional perpetuations of a system of domination; a system which subordinates women on every level; a system which is always violent, hostile, and manipulative; a system which cannot be addressed by “fixing” individual perpetrators on a philosophical level and then welcoming them back into the arms of the community they attacked. And it was never just an attack, but always a deliberate reinforcement of patriarchal oppression. These systems necessitate self-defense as material as the manifestations it confronts.

Just as sexual violence isn’t something that simply happens without implication, capitalist patriarchy isn’t something that simply exists without origin. Historically, as was an integral part of the development of capitalism, women’s labor - that of physical reproduction - is distinctly corporeal. This process occurs only physically, fully within a body. “Men’s work”, or manual labor, is physical in its operation, but deliberate operations of the hands also necessarily involve the mind as well - these acts are not performed innately, naturally; their every step requires some brief intellectual evaluation. Following this, we can easily observe a greater social emphasis on women’s bodies than men’s bodies, as women’s intellects are simultaneously presumed to be inferior to those of men.

Rape violently reifies this corporeality as a female experience. Women, here, are not only primarily bodies to begin with, but are then further forced into and confined within those bodies. Accountability processes as mental, emotional, or intellectual endeavors can be said to perpetuate this divide - the woman’s experience is a battle with the physical, the man’s remains verbal, psychological. On the back of the very dynamic which has carried the development of capitalist social roles, then, we would appear to be resting our own understanding of justice.

And what of revenge? A humanist critique posits that such a motivation is unhealthy or even illegitimate, and concepts of restorative justice follow suit. Perhaps revenge is even the opposite of accountability. But when we break windows, or advocate general/human strike, are we holding capital accountable, or enacting revenge upon it? In reaction to the constant attack of capitalist domination, aren’t all political actions ideally vengeful?

It has been said that, regardless of circumstance, violence is simply not the way to deal with conflicts “within the community”. Leaving aside for a moment the terrible nature of a community that clings to the performance of cohesion for the sake of its rapists’ safety, we must also be driven to analyze the role of honesty in our responses to these situations. Is it more honest, more direct, more real, to enact a visceral physical response – even revenge – or to engage in a lengthy pseudo-judicial “process”? In some instances, the answer may well be the latter, but the possibility of the former as genuine needs to be seriously considered in all cases, especially by the survivor, whose actions must not be dictated by expectation or precedent. Honesty is a crucial dynamic within any community worthy of the name, and just as the use of unmediated violence against perpetrators is a result of the honest community, it is equally important that the honest community is itself a result of actions such as these.

A common criticism of accountability processes of all varieties is their tendency to mirror some sort of judicial system - structured mediation toward rehabilitation or punishment of one kind or another. While an outcome dictated by the survivor is certainly not akin to one dictated by the state, the process remains a mediation. Conversely, to move away from this judiciary is to reject mediation, a remnant of the idea that our interactions must be somehow guided by third parties, even third parties we choose ourselves. To that end, an attack on one’s rapist is unmediated and direct, precisely that which any judicial system forbids; the line between desire and action is erased.

Most accountability processes force a violent perpetrator to “work on” his existence as male, his performance of masculinity. They aim to persuade him to adjust his role as a man. But patriarchy can only exist so long as it is performed - that is, so long as the role of the man is fulfilled. What we want, quite simply – as for with any other determinate role imposed by and in the service of capital – is for it to be destroyed.

Further reading:
Theses on the Terrible Community (Tiqqun)
i. communiqué (Radical Women’s Kitchen)
Divine Violence and Liberated Territories: SOFT TARGETS talks with Slavoj Žižek"
The Dictatorship of the Postfeminist Imagination (Institute for Experimental Freedom)
Reflections on Violence (George Sorel)
Justice is a Woman with a Sword (D.A. Clarke)
Patriarchy and Accumulation on a World Scale (Maria Mies)

Later Post-Script to Notes on Survivor Autonomy and Violence<

It was pointed out almost immediately upon publication that the second paragraph of this piece, that which attempts to address the inherent problem in discussing gender, is unintentionally yet strongly dismissive of trans experience by way of referring to "socialization" without clarifying self-identification as a separate factor.  This was a serious oversight, and one for which I offer a sincere apology.  For what it's worth - not as any excuse - trans experience was always meant to be included as a singular and crucial aspect of any consideration of gendered violence or simplistic/stereotypical assumptions about it.  The majority of perpetrators of sexual assault are MALE-IDENTIFIED male-socialized individuals, the latter term as definitively not synonymous with the former (the term "cisgender", which I take separate issue with, could also be applicable here), and this should have been made clear, as well as the unique circumstances which accompany sexual violence against trans people.  Still, it is my hope that the basic arguments made regarding accountability and community response will remain pertinent.

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