As a group responding to an incidence of sexual violence we were limited throughout the process by issues of trust, the priorities and division of labour around the distribution of care and support work, as well as geographical and organisational constraints.
Trust, Priorities and the Division of Labour
As a group responding to an incidence of sexual violence we were limited throughout the process by issues surrounding trust. Some of us involved were not well acquainted at the beginning of this process and as such had not had the opportunity to establish strong bonds. For others, bonds had already been established but trust had been shaken as a result of the revelations of sexually violent behaviour. This applies to trust between those involved in this process, as well as trust between those involved and the perpetrator.
There were other interpersonal factors which meant that it was difficult to proceed with this process. Many members of our group are involved in other political activity, including being members of national organisations, and as such there were very often timing clashes with meetings and events. As such, the workload that people take on outside the process places pressure on processes like this one and the question of priorities becomes a factor in what kind of structures we can set up. The question of priorities became a concern relatively early on as the size of the group actively involved in this process shrank and the work of pushing the process forwards fell on fewer people.
How the labour is divided is an important issue to consider when engaging in a process like this one, particularly considering the emotive and complex nature of the issues at hand. Indeed, the pressure that this kind of work places on the interpersonal relationships between the individuals involved in it should not be underestimated. This was further exacerbated in our case because the isolation referred to previously meant that at points during the process the meetings were the only time that members of the support group met each other.
In our case both the victim and the perpetrator were no longer in the city where the original incidences of sexual violence took place. The victim had a support group working with them directly in Germany and this meant that we were relieved of the work which went into supporting them directly. As such, our work supporting the victim was limited to what could be called a theoretical role because the need to provide immediate emotional support for the victim was not necessary. Our contribution to their welfare was instead bound up in creating an environment in which they could be satisfied that their story was believed and that the incidences were taken seriously by the community. In order to create this environment, we met regularly to discuss the history of our student group and how its structures had facilitated sexual violence.
Some of those involved in these discussions also formed a contact group which was tasked with maintaining contact with the perpetrator in order to hold them accountable for their actions. As a result of geographical distance, the question of whether we would need to exclude the perpetrator in order to create a safer space for the victim did not arise in our case. However, the geographical distance did mean that it was difficult to conduct the contact work with any regularity or consistency. This was compounded further by the inconsistency of the perpetrator’s engagement with the contact group. Therefore, geography is a factor in dealing with sexual violence and different challenges can emerge depending on whether or not the perpetrator is present or absent.
Membership and non-member organisations
The community involved had been largely brought together through being involved in free education activity at the university. This composition does not provide a stable basis for community accountability processes like this one because it is a common occurrence for people to move to other cities and even other countries to work or study after leaving university. As a result, different individuals involved in the process became more and less prominent at different times and in relation to different kinds of tasks as people both left the process and the community at large recomposed itself. This in effect meant that different skill sets became more or less important for continuing the work at different moments within the process. As such, because communities which emerge from student activism are unstable in the long term they can only provide sufficient cohesion for engaging in long-term processes like this one if those involved are willing and able to change direction as the process evolves.
In addition, the free education group which many of us had been in was always done on a voluntary basis. Further to this, many of our group’s actions were illegal and carried out publicly. As a result we had to deal with the ever present possibility (and at times very real reality) of state repression. In this context, keeping formal membership lists would have been a security risk and so the community was by necessity ill-defined and amorphous. Engagement in this process therefore came down to an individual commitment which was either felt or was not. There was no organisational mechanism with which to discipline anyone for not being involved and there was no way of collectively determining exactly who should be told about the process once it had started or who should be involved in it.
In effect, the process mirrored our previous free education group in the sense that it was done on a voluntary basis which consolidated itself around a core group of those most committed and able to engage in the work. Due to the length of this process and the unstable nature of student communities, the community broke down throughout this process and the composition of the group had to change. If this process had happened inside a membership organisation it is arguably the case that those involved would feel an organisational responsibility to be involved even if they moved to a new city. This is itself more likely if the new city that they moved to has a local branch of their organisation that they could get involved with. However, this is likely only if the organiation has an internal culture which takes incidences of sexual violence seriously.
Support and Care
The work which this process involved was often physically, emotionally and mentally draining. As such it is crucial for the sustainability of a process like this that those involved in it are able to have others to turn to in order to provide them with support. Who these supportive others were differed for different individuals involved in the work. For some, supportive others came in the form of intimate partners and in some cases both partners were involved in the process. For others involved in the work, supportive others came primarily in the form of friends or housemates. Intimate partners, friends and housemates not directly involved in the work formed a broader layer of engagement which was not always recognised though it was in effect crucial to the daily reproduction of the process as a whole. However, in practically all cases these supportive others were not trained to either provide this support or even see the warning signs that someone may need support. In addition, given the composition of our community there were many issues around physical and mental health which meant that it arguably would not have been possible even given the training for this broader layer to actually provide the support to those directly involved which was required. As a result, different individuals directly involved in the work experienced support in wildly varying ways depending on which members of the broader layer that they came into contact with and under what circumstances. There were several reasons for this.
As discussed earlier, at the micro-level there had historically been a lack of formal welfare provision within our free education group. This was something which had been raised many times throughout the history of the group and though there were attempts to engage with this at different times it most usually happened following risky actions such as occupations. This support included arrestee support for those who had been arrested as well as post-action meetings to which anybody could attend. However, outside of these flash points there was an insufficient institutionalisation of a welfare culture in our group. This was in part due to the aforementioned lack of training in this work but it was also reflective of the instrumentalisation of social relations which had been internalised within our group during the campaign for free education. Indeed, though many individuals may have in some cases deeply cared for and supported each other in their personal relationships, as far as the group was concerned people were considered one-dimensionally in terms of how useful they were to the aim of fighting for free education. In effect then, the group operated in the public sphere with the political aims of reclaiming space within the corporatised university and influencing education policy at the level of the state whilst care and support at the micro-level was left to individuals in the private sphere.
The issue of trust which had been evident throughout this process was a factor in who was to be involved in this project in its early stages. This was influenced by many factors but a particularly salient one was our commitment to not only examine masculinity critically but to do so from a perspective heavily influenced by Marxism. As such, we were in a sense limited by our political commitment to Marxism as well as the nature of our relationships with each other which had been mediated by this commitment. Indeed, the intention was not only to reinterpret our own experiences in light of the structural dynamics which had shaped our lived experiences as men but also to push Marxist theory beyond itself by examining masculinity through the application of Marxist concepts. In light of this commitment, we wanted to avoid simply rehashing old arguments about who has privilege and who doesn’t. During our days involved in the free education movement we had seen how this tended to degenerate into a shit slinging contest and were aware that this kind of behaviour in the early stages of developing a critical masculinities project could easily derail the development of it.
This is by no means unique to the project that we attempted but is always a potential outcome of left interventions in an era characterised by the entrenchment of a neoliberal economic, social, and political order. This is because a chief characteristic of this era is the tendency towards a hyper-individualised form of reason and rationality which attempts to explain social phenomena solely by reference to the immediate and the personal. While there is much to be said for agent centric explanations, the reduction of explanations to this are flawed in that they ignore meso-level institutions and macro-level structures which are impersonal and must be examined if agents themselves are to change. As such, arguments which remain at the level of a tit for tat over who has the most privilege are potentially toxic in the context of the early days of a consciousness raising initiative which are intended to bring to consciousness shared experiences whilst also providing an opportunity for personal reexamination. This tension between the general and the particular, between the shared characteristics of those belonging to a social group and the manner in which these characteristics are manifested in the behaviour of specific individuals, applies to consciousness raising activity broadly. However, it has specific difficulties for examining masculinity because this has not been broadly engaged with by either the left historically or within our particular community.
Another aspect which had its influence was the constantly present reality of busy schedules which had also affected the broader process itself. Indeed, throughout the process there were issues with timing clashes due to members of the process being involved in other political projects. However, as already noted, the four individuals who were involved at this early stage were not involved in many other political projects at that time and it was hoped that this would mitigate some of the overwork and burnout which would hamper the difficult work of engaging in consciousness raising activity. It is worth noting at this point that the critical masculinities project was proposed a second time at a meeting of one of the organisations which several members of the process, including the author of this section, have also been involved in. In the view of the author of this section, at the time this organisation was characterised by an unsustainable culture of overwork and burnout. It is unsurprising then that the project was once again rejected and this time it was explicitly on the grounds that other projects were of a higher priority. As such, overwork and burnout should not be left critically unexamined since it is also always important to consider how both individuals and organisations decide which forms of activity they prioritise at any given time.