This is a report from the contact group that was set up to keep in touch with the perpetrator in this case of sexualised violence, and make sure he carried out the demands made by the victim and their support group.
At the time of writing this, more than four and a half years have passed; in this time he has not carried out any of the demands set out in the letter. We are writing this report so that others can learn from what we have done. Ultimately we think that processes around sexualised violence cannot take responsibility for changing or rehabilitating perpetrators. The only person who has the power to change the perpetrator is them, and many perpetrators (including the person in this case) are unwilling to do so. Too many processes around sexual violence echo the abuse that has already been carried out, in that they put all of the focus on the perpatrator while neglecting the victim and how they can be supported. For us the role of a contact group is about validating and upholding the victim’s perspective on sexual violence. This is done by enforcing as far as possible the demands of the victim, and making sure that the perpetrator is challenged with the victim’s perspective.
The contact group was formed at the end of 2015 to take on the task of being the point of contact for the perpetrator (will is given the name X from now on following what is used in the letter)taking this task over from the victim and their support group. The role of the contact group was to stay in touch with X and make sure that he was fulfilling the demands that were set out in the letter and to provide a critical reflection from the victim’s perspective without them needing to personally be in contact with X. The demands from the letter were:
1. Seek critical help to recall and understand what he has done in order to change
We believe that taking responsibility for his actions must involve him recalling and understanding his acts of violence. This is why we demanded of him – and provided him with some contact information – to seek competent and critical help to do perpetrator work with him. At the time of writing this, he still claims to not recall his acts of violence. Considering his actions and the verbal and physical resistance of the victim, we think this is very unlikely and otherwise a serious problem.
2. Inform any new political environment and sexual partners about his abusive behaviour
We also believe that a perpetrator has the responsibility to make his past transparent to the people around him. This for us concerns any future sexual partners, but also people he works with politically. This is not to punish him but so that they can – on the basis of that information and his way of dealing with it – decide for themselves in what ways they trust him. As we see his acts of violence not as single events but also linked to abusive tendencies in the way he does politics and further believe that it was his powerful position within political groups that allowed him to get away with it, we think it is important that if he wants to continue doing politics, the people around him are informed. This includes not just the leaders of political groups, but especially those who are not in the center of decisions, in less central and powerful positions.
3. Stay accountable to us and a contact group
We think it is important that X cannot run away from his responsibilities by changing political group, city or friends. For the time being, we are in contact with him and will continue to do so over the next few months in order to allow the discussions in Birmingham to not focus on this task. In the future, we hope to establish a contact group in the UK to take over and discuss with him the steps he is taking in response to our demands and beyond. We think this group should be formed by people who are not close friends of X but willing to be part of this process.”
None of us had experience of doing something like this before and from the start of forming the group we tried to recognise the limitations of what we could achieve. We are only volunteers and have no power to force the perpetrator to do anything. We had help from people from the support group who had previously been involved in contact with perpetrators. They advised that we should not be taking responsibility for X’s actions or his ‘rehabilitation’ because only he can do this, and because taking the responsibility from him gives him power over the process. Instead we saw our role as the more limited one of making sure that he carries out the demands in the letter, and listening critically to his reflections. All of us agreed with the demands as very reasonable and worthwhile ones to direct at someone who has committed rape.
Given that none of us had done anything like this before, when we started this process we needed to do a lot of thinking and reading around the subject. Through our reading, discussions we had with people who were supporting the perpetrator, and the contact group work; we came to some perspectives on rape that we think are useful when dealing with a perpetrator.
Unlike many processes we do not believe that the primary or only point of contact group work should be about making the perpetrator ‘accountable’ or rehabilitating them. For us the most important goal of contact with a perpetrator should be to believe and uphold the victim’s narrative of what has happened to them and to support them to continue to be a part of the group. These are not abstract goals, but are fundamental to recovery from the trauma of sexual violence. All too often victims are forced to withdraw from their political or social group, while the perpetrator stays and shapes their own narrative of events. Demands made of the perpetrator seek to establish (in whichever way that might be) a way that the victim can continue to be part of the group, and the community enforcement of these demands shows to all sides that the community upholds and acts upon what the victim has said about their abuse. Listening to and critiquing the narrative of the perpetrator allows the victim’s narrative of events to be asserted – and the perpetrator’s distorted perceptions challenged – without the victim needing to do this deeply traumatic work themselves.
One of the starting points for our understanding of sexual violence and the approach we would take with X is that committing abusive violence is a choice. Most (if not all) programmes that work with abusive men hold as a fundamental tenet that abusive men need to take full responsibility for their behaviour. Perpetrators try to justify themselves and blame their actions on outside factors, whether that is their partner, substance abuse or a history of previous violence. Issues from a person’s past can explain why they have strong needs (psychological, social, emotional, etc), but not why they chose to satisfy those needs by raping or abusing another person. The fact is that the majority of substance abusers, victims of violence, or any other personal experience you might choose do not go on to commit abusive violence themselves. The explanation for abusive violence must be something more than this. It should explain why and how a perpetrator makes the choice to abuse someone.
In order to make the decision to rape someone, a perpatrator has to have some self-justification of what they are doing. People always try to justify their actions in some way, even if they know with another part of themselves that what they are doing is wrong. These self-justifications can take a variety of forms. Perpetrators often think that the victim is provoking them and somehow deserves it, that they are entitled to sex or to the victim’s care or subservience, or that they simply cannot control themselves and so do not have responsibility for what they are doing. All justifications for raping or abusing someone are, in our view, inherently delusional. The perpetrator must warp the way they see the world to justify the unjustifiable. They satisfy their needs by completely ignoring the needs, bodily integrity and selfhood of their victim.
A perpetrator is always getting something from abusing their partner, otherwise they wouldn’t do it. This is not to say that the abuse is making them happy, but that it gives them some kind of psychological or physical benefit. Very often this benefit is a feeling of power that comes from dominating another person and subjecting them to the perpetrator’s will. A genuine reflection on abuse requires the perpetrator to understand the needs that are met through abusing someone, and to see how extremely selfish this is. The perpetrator puts their needs so far above that of their victim that their short-term psychological gain is worth destroying their victim’s psychological and bodily integrity for.
For us any genuine reflection on abusive behaviour has to come to terms with (at least) these three points. If a perpetrator does not take responsibility for the abuse, they are continuing with the self-justifications that allowed them to abuse someone in the first place. If they can’t recognise and come to terms with the psychological benefits they gained through their violence, how can they learn to meet these needs in a non-destructive way. At no point in the process did X come to terms or reflect on any of this openly. Instead he constantly centered himself and posited himself as somebody who was hard done by, while refusing to take responsibility for what he had done.
The contact group was first established at the beginning of 2016 in a meeting in Birmingham at which the victim was present. It was decided that having a contact group was a necessary step to take the burden of staying in touch with X from the victim and their support group in Berlin. General reasons for having a support group and what their task should be are outlined in the iL-guidelines.*
At that meeting, there was a call-out for volunteers to be part of a contact group. This group would provide a means of ensuring ongoing contact with X, relay the demands set out in the open letter and facilitate a correct interpretation of the demands by X and people around them. We hoped to create a critical surrounding for X which is necessary for him to genuinely reflect on his actions. So far, the support group for the victim in Berlin had been supporting the victim throughout the establishment of the process, the writing of the letter and the branching out of the process in Birmingham and also being in contact with X. Apart from recognising that this is a position that is difficult to maintain, we also hoped that our relative physical proximity would make it easier to work with X.
Five people volunteered from this meeting, two of whom had been initially told about the rape by the victim and their support group and started the extension of the accountability process into the UK, two others who had been part of the group that handed out the letters in the initial stages of the process in Birmingham and one other person. The contact group was split between Birmingham and Glasgow. We believe that this split was necessary at the time in order to get enough people willing to be part of the contact group, but it was challenging to have online meetings on such difficult and emotionally charged themes.
After the formation of the group a series of meetings took place in order to discuss how we saw our role as the contact group, how to best ensure our own accountability to the process as a whole and what our tasks would entail. The iL- guidelines were a useful starting point to these conversations. The process in Birmingham involved separate groups:a general support and discussion group (considered the central community accountability group), a contact group, and later a reading group. As the contact group, we set ourselves the aim to report back to the central community accountability group throughout the process.
Our tasks were derived from the initial open letter. It was our task to ensure that other people in the surroundings of the perpetrator could make informed decisions about how they wanted to relate to X, facilitate the demands to be met, and as well as establishing a critical environment. As the general community accountability group had been running in Birmingham for the better part of 6 months, many were disconnected from X. By moving away from Birmingham, he had distanced himself effectively before the open letter was disseminated, and only kept in contact with people whose initial response to the process had failed to take on a victim-centered approach. He had at this point not been in touch with the group in Berlin or the victim for months, nor had he informed more people, as demanded in the letter.
We started by getting in touch with X. We notified him of the formation of the contact group and told him that we were to take over from the group in Berlin. We then proceeded with notifying his partner and a few people around him, informing them of our existence, and asking them to support the demands that were made in the letter.
For more than 5 months, we had no response from X other than a first Email acknowledging the Email and saying he would respond soon. During that time, we tried to get in touch via other means, such as asking people in his surrounding to get him to get in touch with us; this also proved to be ineffective. We emailed him again, laying out the demands and asking if he had any reflections to offer or had done anything to meet the demands. We also utilized this time to respond to queries made by others who knew of the process, wanted to understand it more or had questions regarding what responsibilities they could or should take on in this process.
The first response from X was 5 months after we sent our first email as a contact group. The email was only a few sentences and inquired about the possibility of a face-to-face meeting. A meeting was organised. It took place around a year after our first email to him. In this meeting we discussed the demands with X and worked out intermediate actions to fulfil the demands, as he had by that point not done anything to meet them. We agreed to an additional meeting three months later and that there would be a meeting every three months thereafter.However in addition we asked for regular email contact and reflections to be sent to us so we could sufficiently prepare for the meetings. We also had two other meetings on the day of the first meeting with X: one with his partner at the time and a friend of theirs, and another with two people from his close friendship group that had been amongst the people initially told in Birmingham.
We consistently and clearly expressed that whilst we were not demanding that anybody distance themselves from X, we did express the hope that people in his surroundings would recognize their responsibility to actively challenge him with regards to his participation in the process and his reflections on what he had done. We further expressed an expectation that people would read the letter and act from a perspective that supported the victim’s narrative and thereby supports a fulfilling of the demands.
As agreed, we had a second meeting around three months later. At this point X had still not informed anybody himself, although he had had a few conversations about raping the victim with some of the people we had also met at the first meeting. These were people who had been informed of the process when it started.
He continuously expressed his desire to talk to us about his view of the events. We were sure to recognise the difficult balancing act in our role, as we are not there to support him and want to put the victim’s perspective at the heart of everything we do. We agreed to a smaller meeting of just 2 people in September, where he would be able to talk about what he had done in a smaller group, as requested by him. The general way he requested this did not make us confident that this would be an insight into reflections of why he did what he did, but rather an attempt to paint himself as a victim of his circumstances.
At that meeting he refused to talk about any of these reflections and his perspective, claiming this was not what he agreed to and that he would need more time to prepare. The discussion then turned to how he could meet the demands, primarily how to find and agree on a perpetrator programme for him to participate in. On this point, X continuously asked us to present him with a perpetrator programme, despite us requesting that he inform himself on the variety of programmes and to let us know about a selection of them. By the end of this we agreed to meet and revisit the personal reflections in December, but organise participation in a perpetrator program in the meantime.
X got in touch with a selection of perpetrator programmes. Sometime later, he informed us that he had made initial contact with a programme (DVIP) that we had agreed to be suitable. We contacted them in order to provide details to get in touch with the victim to make sure to have access to their perspective.
After that, we again did not hear anything from X for months. He did not show up to the December meeting, despite numerous attempts from our side to make contact and one of our members travelling to the agreed place and time just in case of a short-notice attendance. Whilst we regularly wrote to him and attempted to make contact, we only heard back from him a year later, when he announced that he was now ready to talk to us (August 2018). By this point the contact group had existed for almost 3 years and he had still not come close to carrying out any of the demands. Again, we arranged for another meeting a few months later. He did not show up to this either. In the meantime, he had also not responded to people from the contact group individually messaging him to offer to talk over his reflections and to provide their own critical insight.
More emails from the contact group followed, and only a year later (November 2019) did we get a response. This time X outlined how it would be unsuitable to attend perpetrator therapy, as he considered himself different to the other perpetrators that would be on this programme and because the last 4 years of this process have been hard enough for him. We as a contact group responded outlining why we do not agree with that reasoning. We do not accept that somebody can simultaneously reflect on their perpetration of rape and abuse and also completely ignore simple demands made by the victim of their behaviours and the community supporting these demands. The last communication from X essentially drew a line under his very meagre and mostly feigned collaboration with the process.
Role of perpetrator’s surroundings
The surroundings of a perpetrator will inevitably have a strong impact on their ways of thinking and behaving in relation to their abusive and violent behaviour. If they surround themselves with people who don’t ask them to take responsibility for their actions, they are much less likely to do so. It is of utmost importance that people in the perpetrator’s environment take a victim-centred approach to their abusive behaviour.
We have witnessed in this process the detrimental effects of people within the perpetrator’s surroundings portraying X as a victim of his circumstances and not adopting a victim-centred approach. Mainly, this came from people who would identify as left-wing and feminist, but when it came to incidents of sexualised violence, act without adopting principles that actually support the victim. There were many cases of people, even some of those who were amongst the first to be told about the rape and the planned community accountability process in Birmingham, who instead of supporting the victim in wanting to speak the truth about being raped insisted that the most important thing for them was to just stay “friends” with X. Whilst the process was never about asking people to not stay in contact with the X, the interpretation of “friends” meant trying to silence the victim, while denying his responsibility for his actions.
In our view the people surrounding X should have actively confronted him about what he did and why he did it, encouraged his active participation and communication with the contact group, and generally should have taken a stance that supports a victim’s right to speak out about their experiences. Instead people wanted to stress the necessity of a “neutral” friend that simply supports the perpetrator. We learned very clearly that talking about sexualised violence and taking an active stance that focuses on the victim rather than the perpetrator is something that meets enormous resistance, even within left wing circles. We do not think that there can be such a thing as a “neutral friend” and the fact that people would rather focus on the “victimhood” of a perpetrator due to the exposure of that person’s abuse and violent behaviour bringing about a certain level of (varying) discomfort shows how supposed “neutrality” in practice only serves to support the perpetrator’s denial of responsibility for what they have done.
We strongly experienced how these ways of (non) engagement with the process by people surrounding X allowed him to deny responsibility. Those around X acted as if speaking out about sexualised violence in itself is an act of indulgence and focused on the potential consequences for him rather than the importance of having a public narrative of sexualised violence. In this case, it allowed X to feign support for the demands made and have a superficial level of participation in the process, whilst only surrounding himself with people that did not actively challenge his narrative with the victim’s perspective and whilst refusing to commit to any actual involvement himself.
Reflections on the experience
Throughout our conversations with him, X constantly tried to push responsibility away from himself and onto us. He was manipulative in the meetings, acting as if he was willing to do whatever we said as long as we made it clear, but when pressed on doing something he would avoid it, not do it, or pretend we never said it. He never once took responsibility for his actions to us or told us any of his reflections about his abuse, and instead used the meetings to try and shape things in his favour. It is our impression that he essentially used our meetings and communications with him to see how much of a threat we were, and when he assessed that we were not a threat he cut off contact and then eventually said that he was not going to carry out the demands.
We tried in the process to compromise with X. To try and make him take responsibility for the process and the demands, we offered him the opportunity to propose how he could meet the demands in a way that he found reasonable. In hindsight this flexibility was a mistake. He never accepted the responsibility of defining what the demands would mean, and didn’t even stick to the few things we had agreed. Instead the effort at compromise was just used to shape things in X’s favour. The manipulative behaviour he used in personal and political settings at the time of the abuse continued into his communications with us.
We don’t think that there is a failure on our part to make X accountable or to make him carry out the demands. There are many things that we could have done better but irrespective of what we did, X was simply unwilling to genuinely engage or take responsibility for his abuse and rape. This was the expectation from the support group and people who had previously been involved in contact group work. His initial reaction when confronted with the rape and his initial contacts with the support group were completely centred around himself, and at no point in the process did he stop this self-victimisation or show any genuine empathy or remorse for the person he had raped.
We think the most useful thing to take from this experience is that a contact group should try as far as possible to set very clear demands and expectations for the perpetrator, and resist any attempt to weaken these demands or to accept responsibility for them being fulfilled. Ultimately the only person who can take responsibility for their actions and change is the perpetrator themselves. For us the more important role of the contact group is not rehabilitating the perpetrator, but upholding the victim’s perspective and reintegrating the victim in the political or social group. The setting of clear boundaries and the enforcement of these by those around the perpetrator achieves this, even if they refuse to take responsibility for what they have done.
Another main thought that we want to take from this process is the power of speaking truth both for the victim and also the community and surrounding they are in. Speaking the truth about experiences of rape and sexualised violence is still in itself a strong act of resistance towards a culture that victim-blames, shames and silences those who have been harmed by others. Speaking out about rape is seen as a threat. On a macro-level, it is the threat to a patriarchal status quo, which many activists would at least in spirit claim to reject. On a micro-level within activist groups the perceived threat comes out in fears over the disturbances caused by people speaking out about rape and abuse within their groups. People high up in the open or hidden hierarchies within a political group might push for the information to be kept quiet to avoid fallout, a change in power-dynamics or a sense that the perpetrator is too important for the functioning of the political group to be challenged. Silencing can take the form of people aggressively attacking the person trying to speak out or denying the possibility of the events having happened. It can also mean not listening properly when somebody hints at what has happened to them, at choosing to ignore and often choosing not to ask (not necessarily through bad intentions), particularly if the violence occurs within a relationship, as many people think of these acts as happening within the realm of “the private” which is not to be questioned, sometimes our of fear of receiving a negative response to the inquiry.
In the process, we have witnessed the power of speaking out about rape and sexualised violence. Bringing these conversations into the open and trying to take away the shame, stigma and fear for victims by accepting communal responsibility for their wellbeing and support is the best thing possible. For the contact group, knowing that there was a wide base of people (at least within Birmingham) willing to accept sexualised violence as a reality, talking about it as a real and impactful experience within a person’s life and being supportive in challenging “societal gut reactions” of looking away and silencing was much more important than the work with the perpetrator, as it was this base of people that were willing to put forward the victim’s narrative and this perspective on sexualised violence that lessened the victim’s fears in speaking out.
This reflection is not a demand that people affected by sexualised violence speak out about their experiences; rather it is a demand on people in their surroundings to support them to do so should they feel able and willing to share. If this is the case, we believe that it can be very useful to not give in to the urge to keep these events under the radar, to only let small “political” elites know about the perpetrator and their behaviours or to push them aside as “interpersonal” difficulties where it is inappropriate to intervene. Sexualised violence is something that happens many people, and by speaking up about it and creating a safe platform for victims to communicate, we take away some of the power that allows perpetrators to feel safe and legitimate in meeting their own needs by violating another person’s body and mind.