Challenging the assumptions that protect perpetrators

The following text was written in the first few months of the process as a response to concerns being raised around the perpetrator’s need for support. We added it in here, as we believe that the arguments brought about for the need to sympathise with the perpetrator are commonly used to disarm attempts at holding them accountable for their actions.

From the very beginning of the accountability process in Birmingham a number of variations of a very similar argument have been made. This argument is not unique to the space of the Birmingham left, but is pervasive in discussions of sexual violence more broadly. In the case of this process about the rape and abuse that X committed, the argument that was used to challenge the process has a number of variations, with different times things being left unsaid or unstressed, however the basic structure goes something like this:    

Even though the letter states that we should not focus on the perpetrator, and that the point of discussing the structures that enabled this case is to find ways of political organising that make sexual violence less likely to happen; this is a lie. What the process is really about is punishing the perpetrator, and getting out the spite, political disagreements (or even ‘violence’) we have towards him.   This then leads onto an argument about how the perpetrator should be dealt with, that isn’t ‘really’ about punishing them. This goes something like:

 1.  In order to do what they have perpetrators must be seriously damaged.

2.  Many perpetrators have been victims of sexual violence themselves, or have mental health problems, or problems with drugs or alcohol.

3.  It is not helpful to take a conflictual approach with them, or ‘make them feel bad’, this will only prevent them from changing themselves.

4.  Instead perpetrators need ‘support’ from those around them to understand that what they did was wrong, and to help them to change.

The first thing to say about this argument is its contempt for the position of the victim, and the politics that has been developed in the process and the letter. In the letter, the victim has explicitly stated that the process is not about focusing on the perpetrator and developed at length the reasons for discussing the structures that enabled this case to happen.  

Proponents of the above argument simply dismiss this without argument and use the untrue assertion that the process is really about punishing the perpetrator. This is something that has now happened a number of times within this process. The victim and her support group have made it clear, that they don’t want to focus on the perpetrator. People claiming that the process is about punishing the perpetrator – without any justification other than that it is hard for the perpetrator to now be confronted with people knowing about their rape and abuse – are doing exactly this. This focus would prevent the process from taking the perspective of the victim or addressing the structures within society and left groups that allow this to happen.  

Making dealing with the perpetrator the main or exclusive focus of a process on sexual violence is very common (even the phrase ‘accountability process’ implies that dealing with the perpetrator is the point). It is, however, extremely unhelpful for a number of reasons.  

Firstly, focusing on the perpetrator continues the overemphasis on their needs over those of the victim. This is especially true in processes that see their main goal as the speedy ‘rehabilitation’ of the perpetrator.  But it is also true in a negative sense for processes that simply exclude the perpetrator.  In both cases the perpetrator and his personal circumstances are taken as the main thing to be addressed and success is measured by what happens to them.  

Secondly focusing on the perpetrator is likely to make the process disappointing and seem pointless. The fact that someone can be so violent to people with whom they supposedly have an intimate connection does not come from nowhere and it does not go away without serious work and time. Abuser programs in many different contexts have extremely low success rates. In the majority of cases the perpetrator is simply unwilling to embark on the process of self-reflection and work that is necessary to allow them to change. Instead they tend to push the responsibility off themselves and portray themselves as a victim. Even where the perpetrator shows some degree of willingness to participate, processes are often unsuccessful. As will be explained below, this is even more likely to happen if those around the perpetrator protect them from being confronted with what they have done and believe that the primary necessity is to counsel or support them in order to overcome personal problems.  

Thirdly focusing on the perpetrator leaves more important questions unaddressed. If the primary aim of a process is taken to be supporting the perpetrator or just excluding and punishing them, then the process cannot adequately address the questions of how to take the perspective of the victim and take responsibility for dealing with what has happened to them. It also cannot adequately address the question of the structures that enable sexual violence and abuse to take place in wider society and within left groups.  

Any process of dealing with sexual violence must first of all address how the victim can be supported and how their perspective can be taken on by the political or social group around them. This means collectively taking on the work and emotional effort of dealing with a case of sexual violence, making sure that the victim can continue to exist and operate within political and social groups, and making the needs of the victim central to any work that is carried out. Secondly the structures of violence that enable abuse to take place need to be analysed and ways of acting or organising that minimise these structures need to be carried out. Within left organisations it is insufficient to blame abuse on a nebulous concept of patriarchy that operates on left groups from the outside. There are specific structures of violence that apply within political groups that need to be analysed and addressed. The pattern of central figure within  a group (usually men) who believe that the role of others in the group (usually women) is to support them and to satisfy their needs, occurs  time and time again and there is an urgent need to develop methods of working that prevent this pattern as far as possible.  

In our opinion, the question of how to deal with the perpetrator is considerably less important than these two objectives; however as those  who are criticising this process tend to focus entirely on how to deal with  the perpetrator it seems necessary to address some misconceptions about the best way of going about this here. The arguments presented in 1-4 put forward an extremely flawed way of trying to get a perpetrator to go through a process of positive change.  

Therapy and Perpetrator Work

In order to go into this, it is worth examining some of the differences between traditional talk therapy, and the approach of perpetrator programs. This has implications, not only for the best kind of clinical programs, but also for the way that non-professionals should act towards a perpetrator if they want them to change. Traditional talk therapy was originally developed to help traumatised women come to terms with, and reconstruct, the abuse that they had been through. One of the main points of this is to address negative misconceptions of themselves and the environment that have been constructed by the victim as a response to the violent acts committed to them. This could be for example, that the victim has not protected themselves enough, brought it onto themselves, deserved it, etc. The counsellor or therapist here is a supportive platform that helps the victim address those negative misconceptions or sometimes subconscious believes. An important aspect of this is that the victim comes from a position of diminished self-worth and negative perception of themselves due to the atrocities committed on them. This kind of counselling takes place purely between the counsellor and the person receiving it and needs no input or perspective from third parties.  

This kind of therapy (and methods of support from friends that draw on it) is alone not appropriate when it comes to perpetrators, as their position and misconceptions are of a completely different nature. In order to rape or abuse someone a perpetrator must have a structure of justifications that allow them to see what they are doing as justified. For example, they may think that they are owed sex as this is a part of being in a relationship or that even if a sexual partner says “no” or does not give consent this can be ignored. Perpetrators must have a distorted understanding of the importance of their own needs. They must overvalue their needs and devalue the needs and human character of the victim to the extent that they can satisfy their selfish desires, without concern for the needs of the other person. In order to challenge these misconceptions a practitioner or friend cannot just be supportive but must confront the perpetrator with what they have done and challenge the perspective that allowed them to do it.  

Counselling will not normally seek to challenge these misconceptions and behaviours, and often inappropriate training and possibly a lack of understanding of basic feminist politics will make it extremely unlikely that these issues are being dealt with. Furthermore, if the counselling is not specifically sought out to do perpetrator work the perpetrator has more freedom to evade or completely ignore the rape and abuse committed by them in their sessions. As mentioned above, most likely perpetrators will victimise themselves and focus on how to make themselves feel better. The perpetrator could easily choose to never mention the rape and focus on completely different issues.

Perpetrators do not only seek to justify to themselves what they have done but use a variety of methods to do so to others (whether consciously or unconsciously). If a counsellor or friend only talks to the perpetrator, they only hear their perspective and it gives the perpetrator the power to decide what information to divulge and the ability to set the framework of interpretation. The normal process of counselling gives room to the person being counselled (in this case the perpetrator) to focus on their needs and perspective. In cases of sexual violence this means that counselling continues to focus on the needs and perspective of the perpetrator over that of the victim and therefore reproduces one of the factors that lead to sexual violence. Therefore, a counsellor or friend cannot just talk to the perpetrator but must actively listen to the perspective of the victim and use this to confront the perpetrator and challenge their self-justifications.  

To recap a traditional counselling approach – or supportive friendships that follow similar steps and seek to accomplish similar goals – are  likely to be ineffective or even counterproductive when it comes to perpetrators because:   

1.  It would not be normal counselling practice to confront the perpetrator with what they have done or to make sure that they accept their responsibility for it.

2.  They ignore the perspective of the victim and so reproduce the dynamics that lead to sexual violence and abuse.

3.  They do not challenge the mindset and justifications of the perpetrator that allowed them to commit their atrocities. The politics of the argument at the top of this document does not do anything to address any of these three problems, but rather seeks to inhibit the kind of challenge that is necessary for a perpetrator to genuinely change.  

The role of the perpetrator’s personal circumstances

The idea that a perpetrator commits violence because they are damaged in some way (drug or alcohol addiction, anger issues, mental health problems, previous experiences of abuse, etc.) is pervasive in political and popular debate. This implies that what we need to do to deal with a perpetrator is address the thing that has damaged them in order for them to come to an understanding of their abusive behaviour. The problem with this argument is that it conflates people’s needs with how they chose to satisfy those needs. Obviously, everybody has needs of all forms. Circumstances that have affected the perpetrator’s well-being can undoubtedly have an impact on these needs. But the relevant point in a case of sexual violence is not that the perpetrator has needs, but that they make a conscious decision to overvalue their own needs over the needs of the victim. Arguments along the line of “the perpetrator needs love and support” are therefore of course not wrong. Almost every person needs love and support and valuation. But in the context of a process on a rape committed by the perpetrator, it again supports the assumption that the needs of the perpetrator are more important than the needs of the victim. Before, the perpetrator’s overvaluation of their own needs led them to violate the victim’s bodily integrity, now their needs are getting placed at the focal point of the process again. The claim that the perpetrator needs support is particularly insidious when (as is the case in the argument above) support means attacking the aims of a process on sexual violence and shielding the perpetrator from accountability for what they have done.  

All explanations that treat perpetrators as victims of outside circumstances are rejected by perpetrator programs as justifications for abuse, because sexual violence and abuse are deliberate, functional, and planned behaviours. People chose to commit sexual violence, they do it for a reason, and gain a benefit from doing so. Treatments that seek to address circumstances that affect the perpetrator (programs for substance abuse, counselling, mediation, or anger management) without tackling their abusive mentality, can often make the situation worse. This is because it can provide the perpetrator with excuses that they can use to manipulate their victim or others around them, or give them false hope, while not addressing the central issue. Relevant factors in explaining domestic abuse, in the words of a set of guidelines on perpetrator work from the Scottish government ( are: “Gender Inequality, An abuse of power, Privacy of the home and resistance to becoming involved in what  is seen as a private matter, Attitudes and beliefs of some men as to their gender entitlement over women, and Ineffective sanctions for  perpetrators of abuse.” These are precisely the issues that we are attempting to address in this process and that people are actively derailing when they make the argument outlined above.  

When they are confronted with what they have done perpetrators almost always seek to deny responsibility and portray themselves as a victim (as has happened in this case). If this mentality is continued by the perpetrator and accepted by those around them, it inhibits the process of reflection and work that can produce real change. A counsellor or supportive friends don’t confront and challenge perpetrators with what they have done, or the dehumanisation and warped perspective that allowed them to do it; and yet it is this confrontation and challenge that a perpetrator above all needs in order to progress. The most successful forms of perpetrator work focus on constantly challenging them and always maintaining and reasserting their responsibility for the acts they have committed. If the perspective of the victim is not adopted by people involved in and around the process (or society as a whole hopefully in the future) then this allows the perpetrator to continue to bring forward  their perception of entitlement through needs and allows them to in that sense portray themselves as a victim (of their own needs, of environment, of the past). This is one of the justifications that allows perpetrators to evade a critical engagement and not change themselves in a way that protects people around them.