2020, almost 8 years after I have been raped by my former boyfriend for the first time, and 5 years after I made it public by writing the open letter, I want to summarise what I have taken from the accountability process that I initiated.
It matters that and how people speak about sexualised violence
The reason I spoke about my experiences of abuse was because someone else had done it. The letter of a person publishing her experience of rape and violence opened up a space for me to talk about the questions bothering me without having to raise them myself out of the blue. It created a debate in the left scene that offered me a way out of the silence and isolation that I had seen myself stuck in. The open and supportive positioning of my political organisation towards cases of sexualised violence and my flatmates reading anti-sexist books on this subject, finally gave me the confidence to open up about my own experiences.
Shifting the blame: to be questioned and silenced
The reasons why people thought I should not talk about my experiences were diverse, but almost all of them were accusing in one way or another. People questioned my experiences as well as my intentions of speaking up. Some suggested I was on a personal revenge trip and unable to think reasonably. Some suggested sexualised violence was a private matter and should not take up so much space and time. Others (or sometimes the same people) were worried that it could destroy the social or political cohesion and yet others raised concerns about the negative consequences that an open letter would have on the perpetrator, his surroundings and the broader left scene, as well as other victims/survivors. Instead of the fact that my ex-boyfriend had raped me, the act of speaking up was being made to be the problem and seen to be damaging and harming people. This is ridiculous.
All these different forms of delegitimising the simple act of writing a letter, made me realise that the fear of speaking up wasn‘t something irrational. I could see all the good reasons why I hadn‘t done it before. The emphasis in the open letter on supporting victims to speak up was meant to acknowledge how hard this can be and that I would not have lived through this time if I didn‘t have the support that I did.
Solidarity takes courage and commitment
By the time we had finished writing the letter, only two out of nine people in Birmingham were prepared to distribute it. At that moment, the silencing took on a very practical form. Some didn‘t want to hand out the letter because they didn‘t find the time, others because they felt a sense of overburdening. But most people refused to hand out the letter because they disagreed with its content and distribution. They made it clear that those people who would hand out the letter on my behalf would be criticised for it and made responsible for any negative outcomes this may have on the welfare of any one person or the group at large. This pressure worked to protect the perpetrator and the power structures that had supported and sustained his actions.
Until today I am infinitely grateful that those two people, and everyone who decided to help them and be part of the process since, had the courage to pull this through. And to do so despite the hostility they were faced with and the insecurity they may have felt themselves. Supporting me in this process and the conflicts that came with it wasn‘t easy. It required not only a lot of time and energy, but also for people to risk their own social stability by standing up for someone else. This has been the strongest sense of solidarity and commitment I have experienced in my life.
Community accountability depends on a community willing to engage
I didn‘t go to the police because I didn‘t want to entrust dealing with my experiences to the justice system and because I believed that that a left-wing movement could do better at holding a perpetrator of sexualised violence accountable. Frankly, this has failed and it is frustrating to know he is surrounded by people who know about the open letter and the demands towards him, but see no problem in him doing politics or responsibility for themselves to hold him accountable.
However, I am glad we decided from the beginning to not make this accountability process about the perpetrator, but about us. The process in Birmingham and the reflections they have written, have helped me to validate and contextualise my own experiences. By treating this as a political issue rather than a personal problem, it has shown not just me but also others, that sexualised violence is taken seriously and victims can expect support instead of silencing and doubts. And despite the lack of cooperation by the perpetrator, the establishing of a contact group and informing his surroundings have allowed me to give up on the wrong feeling of responsibility that I felt towards his actions and to move on with my own life.
Feeling guilty doesn‘t help anyone
This conclusion may read thus far as if there are good and bad people and indeed, either you side with a victim or you don’t. There is no inbetween and no neutrality. But people make mistakes and people can learn. This is not to suggest that victims should be forgiving with all the shit that gets thrown at them. But to the people who contribute to the hell that victims go through; don’t be too proud to admit you made a mistake and do the right thing next time. And of course there are also those people who just don‘t know what to do. A lot of people avoided me after I started speaking about my experiences because they were insecure and/or felt some sense of bad consciousness for not supporting me (enough). This applies to people in my current political organisation as well as to people who invested countless hours into this process. And it made the situation a lot worse for me because it is uncomfortable to be avoided when you just shared something so intimate and it is exhausting to always be the one to approach people and make them feel secure. I never expected much of people but the insecurity and guilt that people felt inhibited them to do what would have been so valuable for me at the time; to express their solidarity. The few emails I received in response to the open letter belong to the most encouraging moments for me in this process.
It is no exaggeration when I say this accountability process has changed my life. I no longer feel ashamed or guilty for having become a victim of sexualised violence and through this process I have gained back a feeling of agency in dealing with it. It has empowered me to speak about the secret that has kept me at a distance from old and new friends and which had created an unspeakable isolation and loneliness. It has made me aware of the reactionary forces that are no imagination of victims/survivors and put me in a place to be active on this topic politically. The solidarity I have felt throughout this has allowed me to stay active in left wing politics and gave me back a feeling of confidence and hope that this is something worth to fight for.