What does it mean to be an accountability process?
I was part of this group 4 or 5 years ago. What I remember mostly reflects the loudest voices which stick out sharpest in my memory and should not be taken as an accurate reflection of what we covered. But since they also typically sway impressions and decision making at the time, I think it worth commenting on those dynamics I do remember.
Accountability processes necessarily bring the trauma which sits among us to the surface. Creating activist spaces which are capable of holding this trauma and working with it rather than around it is something we need to do in order to begin to undo capitalist indoctrination which causes us to view each other only as partial humans. Especially since a majority of this trauma is produced by capitalism itself. To breach this knowledge gap, we need to understand that the frameworks most of us are familiar with to understand these experiences have been produced by the medical industrial complex in the service of capitalism.
I learned a huge amount from taking part in this process and having reflected on it since. As activists I believe what we commit to is doing better, and sometimes the things we need to learn will feel insurmountable. But there are plenty of resources from which we can learn and I hope others doing this work have easier access to them than we did.
Why was I there? Initial Response
I was angry when I received the letter. Not at the perpetrator nor at the injustice of what had been done to the victim. No, though I hadn’t known it at the time, my rage at my own experiences of sexual violence had finally bubbled to the surface in a misdirected outpouring. The last vestiges of control I’d had over how to engage with my own rapes were being ripped from me as someone else’s pain was unveiled, and the shadow of a truth I’d successfully suppressed for almost 2 years loomed large in an unexplored corner of my psyche.
Whether it’s our own or someone else’s, we don’t get to choose if trauma happens to us, and we don’t get to choose when or how it comes up either. Just as brutalising violations of will happen outside of your control so too is their exposure necessarily unpredictable. With hindsight then, it’s perhaps unsurprising that our accountability process unfolded much like one might expect a natural disaster; one for which none of us were prepared nor for which we had the resources (knowledge, material, emotional, experiential, spiritual) necessary to grapple with it.
I’d known neither the victim nor the perpetrator in this case and had been only tangentially aware of the group’s activities. I found myself frequently questioning my right to be there and wondering what it was I actually hoped to get out of it. On the surface, I was there to feed in thoughts and feelings from those of my friends who’d themselves been subject to the abusive organising tactics of the group. I now understand that I was also subconsciously seeking something for my own experiences of rape, despite not yet recognising what had really happened to me.
Initially unaware of this deeper motivation, the process acted as an intermediary for me to have some form of both input and outlet through which to assimilate those experiences. Like many others, I was able to channel that previously unexposed and mischaracterised rage through the process itself; as something with the potential for healing and change and with little alternative available, this seemed like an appropriate place for it. But it also uncovered a wellspring of guilt and shame that within the structure of the group I found myself unable to speak about.
This community accountability process revealed parts of myself that I didn’t know were there, and I have no doubt it did the same for others. I was not prepared for what it would bring to the surface and nor were we equipped to navigate these experiences together. I was not alone among the people who joined this accountability process who had had our own previous experiences of sexual assault. Nor were we the only ones who found it difficult, confusing, and at times overwhelming to share in the depth of realisation that thorough elaboration of those experiences, and their contextualisation, necessarily brings to light.
Set up of the Group
As a group of people, we’d shared only loose ties with one another beforehand. And as is common for cases of sexual violence, whatever trust we’d had in each other before, now lay in tatters. The convergence of so many angry, untrusting, and traumatised (be it directly or indirectly) people in need of varying kinds and degrees of support made for a fraught environment. One in which someone always had something to say which created a space where people felt unheard; our vulnerability was excised from the room, protected by layers of either righteous anger or detached analysis.
Attempts to set up concurrent support systems for victims/survivors went nowhere and avenues for emotional expression embedded within the process itself, which were intended to circumvent harmful norms, were ineffective with few of us feeling comfortable to share our feelings. As a victim myself I found these dynamics distressing, and I found it difficult to make peace with our inability to accommodate people who wished to contribute but who found the atmosphere too stressful (mostly those with mental health conditions or their own experiences of sexual assault).
These are fragile beginnings for any endeavour. This coupled with residue of the attitudes and organising tactics which had caused harm to so many people, and enabled this case to go unnoticed and unheard for so long, led to significant oversights in how we decided to organise the process and inevitably reproduced the very norms we were there to unpack.
Orientation of the Group
Rape reveals even the trustworthy to be untrustworthy, including the self whose trust was misplaced. This makes seeing a clear path forward difficult and stepping into the unknown a requirement. In Pleasure Activism, adrienne maree brown writes, “Most of us resist change we didn’t spark. We feel victimized, so we try to hold tight to whatever we figure out as a way to survive”. Accepting this is a daunting task for anyone, especially for people who are having to confront their own trauma, and a task which demands a secure base to move from. Rebuilding trust is a complex task. Unfortunately, the process went ahead without first laying that groundwork together, which made for a tense environment and one which often inadvertently disregarded the needs of the individuals present.
From the outset there was a divide within the group between those who took a more process-orientated, ‘move at the pace of trust’-type approach and those who were impatient to get moving and see results. Given that violation of trust is a pivotal issue for victims of sexual violence and abuse, one would expect this to be the priority. But the tide of opinion, understandably anxious to feel a continued sense of forward motion, gradually swept aside this concern. This in itself was retraumatising and led to many being unable to participate at all.
This difference in priorities mirrors so-called gendered differences. The masculine principle being one orientated towards action, control, and progress, is the principle upon which global capitalism has been built. The version of feminity with which we’re familiar presents only a warped and stunted view of ‘the feminine’, produced through the imposition of patriarchy on the role and countenance of women. The feminine principle, on the other hand, encapsulates an understanding of the process as a whole which openly embraces change and the unknown.
The common misconception that these approaches are somehow delineated between genders erases the pervasive influence of imperialist-capitalist-hetero-patriarchy on our psyches and our consequent attempts either to resist it or to succeed within the narrow framework on offer. More than any other comparison these distinctions reflect left and right brain functioning*, and both are necessary for being able to produce a balanced approach.
Content of Discussions and Trauma
The group was configured primarily as an intellectual endeavour, not a space for meeting the needs of those involved. At times conversations were so abstract as to be alienating, especially for someone with a history of sexual violence themselves. When we draw attention to the prevalence of sexual violence, we do so to highlight that its causes are systemic. But since our personal experiences are particular, treating these as purely social or political phenomena can become dehumanising. Navigating this space between the lived realities of interpersonal trauma and societal trauma is complex.
When we spoke of structural factors leading to isolation and lack of support, we spoke only of material or resource restrictions such as time, energy, and insufficient mental health services, we didn’t give enough consideration to the barriers built up between us causing disconnection and alienation from each other which are inherent in this society. Questions of how we relate to one another as persons, as human beings, was side-lined.
We suffered an emotional and spiritual dearth and, with nothing else to hold us up, spending week after week examining in minute detail the structures which oppress us, created a demoralising atmosphere. Unable to support each other effectively through the process of interpreting and internalizing the meaning of these events, like many similar accountability processes, ours produced a gradual drop-off in participation. I found myself unable to express myself emotionally and decided to leave in order to begin my own healing.
Much of the stressful dynamics and rigidity of discussion was due to our varied and idiosyncratic responses to processing these traumatic events, both our own and others. As a group we lacked an understanding of trauma and what its presence in both the subject matter of our discussions, and in our personal experiences of the same, meant for working together collectively. Our inability to breach this space meant that opinions were informed from a place of fear and lack, rather than one which could rely on those around us for the care and respect warranted by the very real fears which lay beneath them.
In her book Emergent Strategy adrienne maree brown perfectly characterises how I felt during our discussions: “we are socialized to see what is wrong, missing, off, to tear down the ideas of others and uplift our own. To a certain degree, our entire future may depend on learning to listen, listen without assumptions or defences”.
The work of creating activist spaces capable of holding space for trauma is in its infancy, but our trauma must be incorporated into our spaces somehow. To do otherwise is to treat trauma as something other than ourselves, something different, unknowable, unrelatable. But trauma is a part of us, and we must learn to move with it, to honour its presence in our lives, and what it has to teach us both about the world we live in and about ourselves.
From Pleasure Activism:
“Shame might be the only thing more prevalent [than trauma], which leads to trauma being hidden, silenced, or relegated to a certain body of people. If we can’t carry our trauma and act normal, if we have a breakdown or lose our jobs/homes/children, there is something wrong with us. What we need is a culture where the common experience of trauma leads to a normalization of healing.”
The trauma produced by sexual violence isn’t special. We all have trauma of one kind or another. To ignore the very real similarities in the disconnection trauma produces, disconnection from ourselves, our bodies, our surroundings, and from each other, is to treat each other as un-human.
Our Limited Knowledge
As a group we had little familiarity with responding openly to sexual violence as individuals let alone collectively. Nor did we have much experience of concurrent and unearthed traumas surfacing simultaneously. We were considerably out of our depth. Insecure in ourselves and our knowledge, we attempted to remedy this by creating a reading group.
The material we covered there was restrictive in other ways, mostly white Marxist political theory produced from the Global North (and predominantly the USA) it stuck tightly to the remit of theorising sexual violence. There are rich bodies of practise and knowledge which theorise from, or work through, the space of trauma. Much of which comes from marginalised knowledges of oppressed groups, notably the Mad, racialized diasporic communities, and Indigenous peoples.
Our trauma goes far deeper than sexual violence. Despite several people’s familiarity with the work of Silvia Federici the version of capitalism we critiqued was dislocated from its colonial history, and as such our analytical frame was too narrow to confront the true nature of violence present within the group and society at large. The structure of Whiteness which built capitalism insists that we consider this knowledge beyond our purview, different, separate, unrelated, irrelevant. But the fundamental root of our trauma is the same and so our paths to recovering ourselves must cross. To acknowledge this is not to claim victimhood but to commit to our undoing and relish in it, to understand that on the other side lies wholeness.
Through restricting our knowledge base many norms of society and our group went unchallenged. If we are truly to understand trauma as the by-product of an oppressively organised society, we must reach into our roots for different imaginaries. Discussions of intergenerational or ancestral trauma are often limited to those who’ve been racially abused or dislocated, such as Jews and the descendants of slavery. The concept is also applicable for white people, through the lens of the development of our imperial and classed society who were violently dispossessed from our land for the founding of capitalism. This history has left us severed from our own holistic traditions of healing, and self-knowledge; folklore and popular stories are another tool to reconnect us with our sense of place.
When we speak of healing we speak of wholeness. And so necessarily the whole interconnected web of human experience is essential material for reconfiguring our place in the world and for reimagining a world worth living in. As a partial attempt to combat this knowledge lack, I’ve included some additional readings.
My Experiences of Sexual Violence and Healing
When I began having flashbacks, I finally realised that I was going to have to deal with what had been done to me, whether I wanted to or not. I was raped twice, once at the beginning of my second year of university and once towards the end of my third. My first rape was a one night stand I’d written off as a bad time, being unaware that non-verbal threats could constitute circumstances in which consent is voided, even by the limited definitions of our deficient legal system.
The second was by a boyfriend, together we’d been practising BDSM; because of the increased risk involved in these kinds of activities and dynamics, BDSM practice involves negotiating limits, desires, and consent beforehand. We both knew how this was supposed to work and yet, still, despite this, he went ahead with a sexual act we’d never discussed before without checking in with me and triggered a freeze response induced by my previous trauma. Confronting what had happened either with myself or with my then boyfriend felt unbearable, so I suppressed the experience and continued to live my life as though nothing had happened.
Like others who came forward as the months progressed, I spoke about my first rape within the group eventually but the BDSM component of my second rape prevented me from sharing that experience. I didn’t want to abandon the sexual desires that had found me in that situation nor view my boyfriend as a callous rapist, and I received little alternative ways of making sense of my experiences within this process. I didn’t feel there was space here for me to open up to the vulnerability of exploring these deeply traumatic wounds that I didn’t understand myself.
My sense of these wounds felt fragile and I didn’t believe they could be held in the way I needed. I didn’t even think any trained professional would be kink-literate – a prerequisite for me to feel safe enough to talk about my experiences – so much that it didn’t even occur to me to look. It took me four years after that rape to be able to find a competent therapist who I was comfortable to navigate this with. To date, I’ve seen no rape or sexual assault support services that mention BDSM at all, not even ones aimed at LGBTQ folks, a large number of whom practise kink in their sexual lives.
During this accountability process I lost my libido, this is a common symptom of sexual trauma. Dwelling incessantly in the miserable depths of structural violence is harrowing work, work which for the preservation of our health, sanity, and sanctity needs balancing with something nourishing, something healing. Collectively we found it difficult to envision what healthy consensual sexuality could look like. In other words, we struggled to maintain hope. It’s just as important for us to consider what we want from sex as well as how it’s been lacking so far. Let us joyfully imagine how wonderful desire could be.
After leaving the community accountability group I was, eventually, able to redirect my efforts towards my own healing, to understand that justice can mean simply the justice of restoring wholeness to myself, and to be able to enjoy my sexuality once more. During this process I came to understand that what I thought I’d lost through my rapes was illusory. What I was really grieving was a lost future of sexual emancipation because this wasn’t really something I’d had before. A future which I can still achieve even if its shape is markedly different now.
Living in the shadow of a society which demonized sexual pleasure for centuries, it’s necessary to consider how our own shame about our consensual sexual preferences might influence the ease with which we can talk about sexual violence. In her Ted Talk, relationship therapist, Esther Perel notes that “most of us get turned on at night by the very things we demonstrate against during the day…the erotic mind is not very politically correct.” How can we give ourselves permission to enjoy fulfilling sexual lives when the sex we enjoy feels wrong?
Moving forward from the revelations of Me Too will involve asking difficult, searching questions, requiring us to be brave in opening up about our sexuality. In The Erotic Mind Jack Morin claims that “the erotic experience, by its very nature, is shaped by the push-pull of opposing forces and is therefore energetic, interactive, and potentially dangerous”. Accepting sex in its full complexity then means finding ways to move through that threat without ruining the fun of transgression (a notion he calls ‘the naughtiness factor’). How can we ensure we can distinguish good sex from sexual assault when we sometimes enjoy that feeling of wrongness?
Whether we’ve been socialised into occupying the roles of victim and perpetrator or not, there’s an inherent risk involved when two wills collide as they do even in consensual sex. Accepting the truth of that and working from there to build ways we can both be aware of and communicate our needs, limits, and desires effectively is an essential step in creating a world where we can enjoy enriching sexual lives. BDSM practise offers some models for how this communication can work.
People often resist taking this approach to communicating consent because they think it ‘spoils the surprise’ but imagination is a powerful tool and there’s no reason why fantasy can’t become part of that delicious dance as well. In Perel’s words: “we can imagine it, we can hint at it. We don’t even have to do it. We can experience that powerful thing called anticipation which is a mortar to desire. The ability to imagine it as if it’s happening, to experience it as if it’s happening, while nothing is happening and everything is happening at the same time”.
I have no idea what my healing process would’ve looked like otherwise but I am glad that when my trauma came up I was surrounded by people who cared deeply at the injustice of it, even though they remained unaware of what had happened to me. It meant that even in silence I felt supported, however inadequate that support was in terms of my emotional healing.
It is a sad fact that the bar for supportive environments for victims of sexual assault is so low that this, at times clinically abstract, discussion group was a life raft for many of us with previous experiences of sexual violence. This process gave me a vessel through which to channel my anger, a purpose to aim for, and people to share in it with me. But this ricocheting rage was also damaging and an important part of my healing has been to release myself from some of that anger.
With every acknowledgement, recognition, and response the experiences of us victims are solidified into a form which can begin to be addressed. This accountability process sent the message that we will no longer allow survivors to suffer alone in awareness of this unjust world. Together we are stronger, and we can begin to wonder what work we must do to create a better world, one where justice is possible, whatever that may mean and, hopefully one where less harm happens in the first place.
There’s no need to lose heart from the difficulty of every attempt to seek justice for sexual violence. We always learn as much, if not more, from failure as we do from success. But I hope that we can open ourselves up to a broader range of possibilities for accountability efforts, those which are able to take the emotional and spiritual needs of their number more seriously, especially the victims who will inevitably dwell among them.
Our work neither starts nor ends with individual accountability processes, it is so much bigger than any one attempt to seek justice and we must continue to incorporate the lessons we learn about the depths of damage capitalism has seared into our psyches, in both our radical endeavours and our daily lives. Otherwise, what’s the point? But we must learn to do this with kindness and compassion for ourselves and our communities not always present in the Leftist groups I’ve worked with.
The process was an important first step towards self-acceptance of my own rapes. For that, however difficult it was at times, I am immensely grateful to everyone who participated, and most especially to the survivor in this case, whose strength and determination in coming forward shone a light on my own experiences. And I am extremely thankful that we were able to give her what she needed to feel able to return and visit us.
- Sara Ahmed, Living a Feminist Life (See also her blog: https://feministkilljoys.com/ )
- adrienne maree brown Pleasure Activism: The Politics of Feeling Good (See also her blog: http://adriennemareebrown.net/ )
- adrienne maree brown Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds
- Franz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth
- Franz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks
- Bessel van der Kolk, The Body Keeps the Score: Mind, brain, and body in the transformation of trauma
- Peter Levine, Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma
- Audre Lorde, Uses of the Erotic
- Jack Morin, The Erotic Mind
- Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass
*For more on this see Iain McGilchrist’s, for a simple introduction start here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dFs9WO2B8uI