Note for those who don’t read Feministe. Clarisse Thorn posted an interview with Hugo Schwyzer. People objected to Hugo Schwyzer being given this space on a feminist blog as he had, among other things, tried to kill his girlfriend a decade ago. Clarisse Thorn responded by closing comments on the interview thread and writing a post called On Change and Accountability. This post is primarily in response to that last post of Clarisse’s, which attempted to transfer the debate to a theoretical one about change and accountability. (Feministe has since offered this apology). This post will focus on the general not the particular – so you don’t have to have followed all the links to understand it. If you want to follow the wider discussion La Lubu’s post is my favourite (I also think there’s been some good stuff on Tumblr, but I can never find stuff there).
Towards the end of your post On Change and Accountability you asked:
Have you thought about these questions in your own life? I don’t mean abstractly, as an intellectual exercise. Concretely, and with intention. What would you do if, tomorrow, you found out that your best friend was a rapist? Your lover? What would you do if your sibling came to you to confess a terrible crime? To request absolution? To request accountability?
Did you expect your readers to answer no? Sometime this year, it’ll be a decade since a man tried to rape a woman in my house. They knew each other, and me, through left-wing political circles. Since then I’ve known more than ten left-wing men who used intimate violence against women. I’ve never been central to any collective response, all of which were ad hoc and some of which may have done more good than harm, or been particularly close to the men. I still have no idea on how to respond to intimate violence on the left in a positive way, but I do have quite a good idea of some of the ways individual and collective responses can do harm.
So yes, I have thought about your questions – my answers and my response to you is deeply intertwined in the experiences I’ve had, the conversations I’ve had about those experiences, and the reading I’ve done.* However, I am being a little bit more focused in my response than you were in your post. I am very suspicious of attempts to broaden discussions of intimate abuse and abuse of power, to a wider idea of bad things people have done. Men who use the power that our sexist and misogynist society gives them to hurt women generally find it easy to do so, and get a lot of support when they’re challenged. I believe that that social context is important. I am going to focus this post on responses to men who abuse women, because that was the situation that triggered your post and it’s what I have most experience with.
I will provide direct answers to your questions the end of the post. First, I want to outline the ways I disagree with the premise of your post, and why some parts of it I disagreed with so strongly that I felt driven to spend the last few days planning and writing this reply. You ask:
How can we create processes for accountability? Feminists often discuss crimes like partner violence and sexual assault. Our focus is on helping survivors of these crimes, just as it should be. I personally have been trained as a rape crisis counselor, and I have volunteered in that capacity (if you’re interested in feminist activism, then I really encourage you to look into doing the same). And the history of feminism includes convincing people to actually care about and recognize the trauma of rape: Rape Trauma Syndrome was first defined and discussed in the 1970s.
But perhaps because of our focus on helping and protecting survivors, I rarely see feminist discussions of how to deal with people who have committed crimes. In fact, I rarely see any discussions of how to deal with that, aside from sending people to jail. Let me just say that problems with the prison-industrial complex are their own thing—but even aside from those, the vast majority of rapes and assaults and other forms of gender-based violence go unprosecuted.
I think other people have already pointed out whose work you rendered invisible in this section, but I want to take it in a slightly different direction. Here you seem to suggest that responding to perpetrators and responding to survivors are two separate things and that feminists’ focus on survivors has left little space for dealing with perpetrators. My experience has been that the best response to perpetrators have been more survivor centred, and the worst have been entirely perpetrator-centred. Why? Because abuse is about power and control – and centring perpetrators is giving them power and control.
A basic assumption of your in the post is that good responses to perpetrators need to be centred around perpetrators. You barely mention survivors in your post, let alone other people who may have been hurt by similar behaviour and have boundaries and triggers and want to keep themselves safe. Men who use the power society gave them to hurt women can do so because their experiences are centred in society. I think centring perpetrators makes it harder for them to change, not easier.
“Accountability teams” are one way I’ve heard of for dealing with this: whether support groups of perpetrators who share their experiences with making amends and changing their ways, or groups of friends who assist a perpetrator with those processes. I would like to see more and larger discussions about those teams, and more acknowledgement that change is possible.
‘Accountability teams’ sound great – but I’m pretty sceptical of them. When I’ve known support groups set up formally around perpetrators, they have become advocacy groups for those perpetrators. One man I know, who was part of ‘support group’ for a perpetrator rang up individual members of a collective who had decided that the perpetrator was not welcome in their space; he attempted to pressure each individual member, and ignored a woman who repeatedly stated “I’m not comfortable with this” and kept trying to pressure her. Likewise, I’m reasonably familiar with government funded programmes which act broadly like the perpetrator groups you describe above. From what I know of the research, they’re not particularly effective, and there is some suggestion that they actually make people better abusers.
We live in a world with a profound level of ignorance about intimate abuse, and an awful lot of myths that many people believe. In my experience, perpetrators who don’t want to change have found it easy to surround themselves with friends who support their worldview in some way. This makes sense – if you’re someone who doesn’t want to be abusive, you are likely to have among your friends people who will support you in meaningful ways, but if you don’t want to change, then it’s very easy to find people who will act as your apologists. Those who surround themselves with apologists will generally be happy with presenting themselves as trying to change – and use any support group to bolster that claim.
This doesn’t mean that I don’t believe in support for perpetrators who are genuinely trying to change. I just have known far more perpetrators who were trying to persuade people that they were genuinely trying to change, than those who have genuinely tried to change. And those who are not trying to change have tended to use systems that have been set up to punish women they have abused.
I can imagine a time, or a circumstance, when I would have been excited about ‘accountability teams’. I think our disagreement there is just a sign about how many layers of abuse apologist bullshit I have found around every abusive man I have known. However, my disagreement to what you said next is more fundamental:
If we can’t create this kind of process, then how can we expect to create real change around these crimes? How can we expect perpetrators of violence to work on themselves if we can’t give them the space to work? Why should someone work for forgiveness if they know forgiveness can never come?
I want to untangle this, because there are a lot of different ideas here. First of all, when it comes to feminist blogs, there is no ‘we’, in fact when it comes to communities (which after all are informal sets of relationships with non-formalised power and decision making) there is no ‘we’. There can be no ‘we’ without a collective decision making process – just a false ‘we’ people talking on behalf of others.
I agree that perpetrators need space and resources to change, but the biggest barrier to that is generally that they are surrounded by apologists and cultural narratives that justify their behaviour. Outsiders can’t intentionally clear that away, they can only offer alternatives.
But what I really disagree with is the idea that abusive men should be working for forgiveness, let alone your conclusion that that means people need to forgive.
As others have pointed out forgiveness has a lot of religious overtones and baggage, it’s a narrow way to frame responses to abusive men, that will only speak to particular people. However, even if I translate it to language that resonates more with me, rather than forgiveness I would talk about ‘being OK with someone’, I still think you are talking about deeply personal decisions and boundaries that people can only draw for themselves. For example, seven years ago I stayed silent, when a woman with black eyes told me it was an accident, even though I knew that wasn’t true. I have realised, over the years, that I am never going to be OK with what I did. I also realised that that meant I was never going to be OK with this woman’s boyfriend, because I’m not going to hold myself responsible for my inaction around abuse, longer than I’m going to hold the man who did it (who has changed more than most men I know who have committed intimate violence – although he has behaved in deeply problematic ways much more recently than seven years ago).
Perpetrators should not be working for forgiveness, because forgiveness is deeply personal. But more than that I’m incredibly wary of the idea that abusers should be working on stopping hurting people, for any kind of reward, including changing the way people think of them.
One group response I saw from a distance used their silence over a rapist (and were generally very good at silencing other people) to try and get him to attend an anti-sexual-violence programme. They held out that they would keep his abuse from going too public and got him to take certain steps. It was, obviously, a disaster – change is fucking difficult and people have to really want to do it. If you try and use leverage you have over someone to make them change (particularly someone manipulative, as most successful abusers are) then you are going to be unsuccessful.
An easy path back to everything being OK, is often what abusive men who don’t take their abuse seriously (but don’t necessarily deny it) – want. I’ve known an abusive man demand this, and punish the survivor because he didn’t get it. He used all ll those subtle talking to friend of friends ways that it’s so easy for abusers to punish survirors particularly if other people let them. One group I know set the simple requirement “you tell us when you think you are ready to come back” and never heard from two different men again. I think it’s important not to offer short-cuts or a path to people being OK – learning to live with what you’ve done and other people’s reaction to what you’ve done is a perpetrator’s own messy work.
However, none of that was why your post troubled me so much. You wrote it in response to people who were part of a feminist space and were outraged at the way you had centred in that space a man who had tried to murder his girlfriend. You were explicit both at feministe, and your place, that criticisms of that man bothered you, and shut that criticism down.
Then you wrote a post that is incredibly dismissive of people who disagree with you:
But I hope I can dim the flamewar into a lantern to illuminate issues that actually matter.
I believe that the politics of this situation are mostly a cheap distraction from truth and honor.
You go further, you go into some detail about why you think Hugo has changed and explicitly argue that your view of Hugo should be other’s view of Hugo:
Other feminists have been angrily emailing me, Tweeting at me, etc with things like “FUCK YOU FOR PROTECTING THIS WOLF IN SHEEP’S CLOTHING.” But I have seen no evidence that Hugo hasn’t made an honest and sustained effort at recovery and accountability.
Your entire post reads, to me, like an argument that people who who don’t agree with you about Hugo’s transformation, or the relevance of Hugo’s transformation about the way he has treated should not hold or express those views (partly because you don’t spend much time trying to persuade people on either of these points). You are demanding a ‘we’ without a collective decision making process.
To explain why I think this is the most anti-feminist position that I have ever read on Feministe I have to tell a story.
In 2006, a man named Ira hit his girlfriend when they were breaking up (he did this in a supposedly radical social centre – he was not the first man to assault his girlfriend in that social centre). After they broke up the girlfriend (who I will call Anne for the purposes of the post, although that’s not her name) named the abuse within the relationship. Ira had been emotionally, physically and sexually abusive.
Ira had many defenders, and responses to the abuse focused on him (in fact a lot of my caution about ideas like accountability teams, and my firmness that all responses have to be survivor centred come from this experience). He was exceptionally good at using mutual acquaintances (and there were many) to punish Anne. He never made amends with Anne, or anyone else. He did what most abusers who I’ve known who were seriously challenged do – he left town.
Apparently in this new place, he talked a good game. He admitted to some of what he’d done, and presented himself as a reformed man. He didn’t need to make meaningful change, he just needed to present himself as someone who had done so.
In 2009, about three years after they broke up he was part of organising climate camp. This was supposed to bring people from all around the country to Wellington, where Anne was living. Anne wanted to go to the camp, but she did not want to be around him. She wrote to various people, including the safer spaces team, outlining the situation and asking if he could not come. She got nothing back but vagueness and an argument that they could not do anything because the camp did not exist yet.
One of the arguments of the safer spaces team, which included people who claimed that they were feminists, was that they had talked to Ira and were convinced that he had changed. They believed, or at least acted as if it was true, that it was their belief about him was important. They ignored the view of one of the people he had abused, and many other women who felt unsafe around him.
It got messy from there. Ira left, but only after a protest. A woman who had been part of protesting Ira’s actions was kicked out of climate camp by the safer spaces committee for being ‘abusive’ because she yelled at a man for hugging her when she didn’t want to be hugged. Ira got someone connected with Climate Camp to harass Anne – like I said he was good at getting mutual acquaintances to punish her.
The safer spaces committee had made it clear where they stood when they decided that it was their view on whether or not Ira had changed that mattered.
Your post read to me as taking exactly the same position as the climate camp safer spaces committee. You appeared to be arguing that your view that Hugo Schwyzer was reformed, and that his reforming mattered was important. Why?
Everything about your post oozes pressure. When you argue: “Why should someone work for forgiveness if they know forgiveness can never come?” You are arguing that people should forgive abusive men, because it’s necessary for them to change.
There is no space in your post for survivors. Either direct survivors of Hugo’s actions, or survivors of similar violence. There is no space for people to draw their own boundaries around an abusive man. Indeed nothing appears to matter in your post except the perpetrator, and his path to forgiveness. There is no way of getting a unified response – of promising survivors forgiveness – which doesn’t involve asking or demanding that some people ignore their own boundaries.
There is nothing new or transformative in arguing that survivors and those who care about their abuse, should not have boundaries because other people believe that the man has changed. Just a month ago I was in a meeting where someone argued that as far as we knew Omar Hamed hadn’t tried to rape anyone all year, and therefore it was divisive to argue that he should not be welcome at our political event.
I believe that part of being OK with an abusive man, has to be accepting that other people may not be OK and respecting their boundaries.
To pressure women to be OK, act OK, or pretend to be or act OK around a man who has been abusive towards woman, is a profoundly anti-feminist act. That pressure cannot be part of anything that is truly justice, or truly transformative.
I don’t have a generic answer about how I’d act if someone I cared about had raped someone. There are too many variables. Obviously if anyone came to me seeking absolution, I would tell them that is not something I can give. But, if I decided that I was OK continuing the relationship then I would tell him that he needed to respect people’s boundaries around him, that some people would never be OK with him, and that he needed to find a way of being that wouldn’t pressure other people and their boundaries (and he would have to be on board with that for me to continue the relationship). I would respect other people’s boundaries around him, and try to ensure that I didn’t put direct or indirect pressure on them.
I feel incredibly lucky, ten years down the track, that I have never had to respond to intimate violence from a man I cared about. But I have seen the harm that women do to survivors of violence in defence of men they care about. I’ve seen manipulative men get women to do their dirty work. I’ve seen the way ‘he’s changed’ has been used by other women to pressure both direct survivors, and women who are uncomfortable with abusive men more generally. I hope I have learned enough to recognise those roles and refuse them.
Do we actually believe that people can change? If so, how do we want them to show us they’ve changed? Is absolution possible? Who decides the answers to these questions?
In reverse order, groups that have genuine collective decision making processes can make group answers to these questions. Otherwise the decisions can only be individual.
Absolution is a religious idea that is not compatible with liberation. Whatever we have done, we have done. Nothing and no-one can stop us from being the person who has done the worst actions we have taken.
Abusive men show me that they’ve changed when they stop hurting women and don’t use intimediaries to do their dirty work. If an abusive man was OK with people talking about their abuse, was OK with people not being OK with it, and understood that responses to their abuse cannot be all about them, but about the people they hurt, then I’d probably be willing to believe that he’d changed.
And yes – I do think people can change. I think feminists have to believe in the possibility of abusive men changing otherwise there’s no hope but a separatist commune.
But I won’t stake anything on that belief, not anyone’s safety, or comfort, or boundaries. I don’t like the odds. Nobody knows how to stop someone from abusing their power, and most attempts to do so are failures (that’s from friends who have worked in the field and reviewed the research).
I know this post sounds despairing. Believe me when I say none of the ways that abusive men I’ve known have responded to being challenged has given me any reason to hope.
But still I hope. And it is that hope that lead me to write this post. That hope that makes me believe that it is worth writing about my experiences and more and less harmful ways of dealing with abusive men.
In recognition that we are part of the same struggle,
* I haven’t read the book The Revolution Starts at Home yet, but I have read the zine (warning that link is a pdf) and recommend it, even though as this post probably shows I am deeply unsure about any way forward. I should point out that one of the problems with the post I am responding to that other people have discussed is the way it renders invisible the work of WoC dealing with issues that you say feminists don’t deal with.