Women’s Security in Activist Groups- Feminist and Women's Studies Association
Updated: Oct 12
Trigger warning- measures to prevent sexual assault
I have learnt that people who are politically conscious in one way are not necessarily socially conscious, or even friendly. Class activist circles can become old boys clubs, and peace camps can become safe havens for sexual harassers. Pollution pressure groups can make dirty remarks, and non-human animal liberation campaign materials can dehumanise women. Even humanitarian relief teams are routinely reminded how not to sexually exploit people. Activists in general can resist distance figures of authority, while coercion and dominance take place closer to home.
No, the end of capitalism/ war/ corporate power/ vivisection or earthquakes will not bring about gender inequality. Only feminism will do that. Saying otherwise undermines women and other minority voices. I know this to be the case, as I was staying in a camp when a woman was assaulted there. I have encountered much sexist behaviour in other groups too.
Survivors of sexual violence usually know their attacker. Worldwide 35% of women are believed to have experienced sexual and/ or domestic violence. These facts force us to consider how likely it is that there are both perpetrators and victims within our own activist milieu. I in no way suggest that everyone become a suspect, but rather that everyone takes initiative. Assuming violence is only committed by outsiders is similar to the militaristic narrative that evil can only be committed by opponents. In reality we each fight an internal battle between partnership and dominance, which is mirrored in the outside world. This is why it is so important that the means of a campaign are consistent with the aim.
The problem of the lecherous lefty is not unique; lefties are no worse than any other group of people. It is simply what I am familiar with. Non-harm is not ideological. What matters is power dynamics, and how they are acknowledged or addressed. This in turn influences how abuse is handled. This article makes suggestions for improving the way groups organise so as to keep everyone, but women in particular safe.
Nonviolence involves stopping other people experiencing or committing violence, as well as not being violent yourself. Attributing responsibility for abuse to the person who has been victimised is the epitome of individualism; like a pull-the-ladder-up neoliberalism- and no one wants to be accused of that!
I once worked in an organisation where the buck for cyber stalking was passed to a survivor because she ‘should not have given out her contact details.’ In a situation of unequal power dynamics the person under pressure may make such polite compromises to avoid escalation. I was also disappointed that when confronting the suspected perpetrator of the crime, I was interrupted by a colleague who took his side.
We can learn from the concept of community accountability to take collective responsibility for problems in a group we belong to. Individual behaviour is representative of wider patterns of gender and other inequality. An incident can be taken as a signal to consider which systems to put in place in order to prevent it happening again.
As Joreen commented in 1970, without an explicit social structure groups will form an implicit structure, representative of the patterns in society. Then it becomes possible for some people to dominate decision making. This can result in proposals put forward by women being pirated, underrated or interrupted. People should be made to feel able to challenge and critique.
With an enabling structure people would feel more empowered to disclose abuse, and confident it will be acted on. I was once in a public meeting which was so dominated by aggressive voices from a predictably limited cross section of society, that I felt the only way to participate was to leap on a statue and chant ‘love love love, peace peace peace.’… Thankfully I now know other ways. Read further about gender aware structures at Occupy Wall Street, Trident Ploughshare or The Green Party.
To begin with people need to be recognised for who they are, rather than as servants to a cause. Perhaps campaigns could show gratitude for contributions of domestic labour which keep them running, as well as public facing heroics. No one should be idolised beyond accountability. I have seen it where a camp or meeting kitchen is predominantly staffed by women, who carry this out alongside other activist and family responsibilities. Activists can also consider the requirements of people with caring commitments when scheduling events. Where this is not the case a counter culture becomes little more than a microcosm of wider society which prioritises an ‘economically productive’ show of strength above a show of compassion.
Gender mainstreaming is a formal commitment to care. It ensures the policies, work and internal operations of an organisation promote equality. This applies not only to diverse genders, but other identities at risk, such as age and ability. Some organisations employ Gender Advocates or Gender Impact Assessments to check commitments are being met. Gender mainstreaming does not only refer to violence; it attempts to change the power dynamics within which violence can more easily take place. One good practice is to have an equality and diversity policy. This diagram illustrates the idea.
Make sure people have signed up your vision. If you have idealistic principles of trust and tolerance be sure that others understand, since in an open group it can be difficult to ask troublesome people to leave. Remember that you can be welcoming without being completely open. For example, camp sites can be designed for accessibility and personal security. I have been in a situation before where I arrived at a camp and decided not to stay as I was alone, and the company had made me feel uncomfortable. A woman’s space could provide some piece of mind.
If someone shows signs of misogyny you could ask them to leave before anything goes drastically amiss. Once you have made this decision, be consistent. Write policies to safeguard children and vulnerable adults and ensure they are understandable and understood. Training about abuse can help bystanders gain the confidence to intervene safely. Have a system for recording incidents, dealing with complaints and information sharing. Keeping a record makes it easier to reflect on any patterns of problems in your organisation, and can be used for evidence. Vet people who you work with. Offer support, training and induction. In short, be as professional in what you do for the world as what you do for cash.
A code of conduct for behaviour (which could cover relationships), language and humour; or anti-bullying policy gives value to complaints. For example, I have not found it humorous to be pinched on a march, or invited to sit on someone’s lap on the way home. In addition, be approachable, build rapport, and provide opportunities for people to air their feelings. Be aware of cues which suggest how people feel.
Induct new people into your ways of working, so as they feel settled. If you work with people who it is worth being wary around, share this advice.
Furthermore, since a culture with less objectification of women is likely to be safer; a cultural code of conduct could encourage people to take responsibility for the media they consume and produce. Above all people should stop to think whether their actions could trigger survivor anxiety, or give abusers a false sense of entitlement.
Primary prevention is ‘a long term strategy preventing violence from ever happening by challenging attitudes, values and the structures that sustain inequality and violence.’ Creative Interventions, Generation Five and INCITE suggest everyone identify and respond to oppressive narratives within yourself and your circles. For example, through denying the existence or severity of a problem we are able to resist intervention. However, false rape claims to police are very rare.
When we receive a disclosure from an individual about any form of abuse it is our responsibility to act on it. It is for the survivor, not us to determine the severity of a situation. Abuse takes many forms other than physical harassment, including cyber stalking, emotional or financial coercion. When someone makes a disclosure, this is a very important piece of information to share. Do not say, as I have heard, that you ‘didn’t think it was important.’
We should avoid victim blaming, which gives legitimacy to perpetrators. This may take the form of a direct comment, such as ‘what did she expect’? However, it can also be subtle or unconscious. For example, I have heard people devote more time to telling a less powerful group how to stay safe, and less time, if any, to telling a more powerful group that they have an innate power to take responsibility. Another idea is to make the building or area a safer place to be in. Finally, please do not police whether member’s cloths are ‘feminist’ enough to be in your group. This is misogyny.
Where there is trouble, VAW, Creative Interventions and INCITE state it is most important that survivors have the power to define their needs and wants. Survivors need to tell their own stories, as they understand the situation best. Do not push victims to speak, but you may like to clarify and take notes.
Offer to help the survivor find a sexual assault referral centre or refuge. For a non-vulnerable adult it is their decision whether they would like social services or police to be informed about incidents, and usually chose not to. However, you can still ask such an agency or charity for general advice. However valid criticisms of state power and policing may be, sometimes we must join forces with our comrades in uniform to respond to a person’s immediate practical need! This demonstrates to you respect them, and have taken their welfare seriously.
To summarise, with rules there is less need to resort to the law. When mutually agreed they can protect our freedom from assertions of unjust power. Whenever you make a decision consider how it might affect the different sorts of people in your group, and their safety. Adopt safeguarding and conduct policies to guide your actions, and explain them at induction. Have an inclusive group structure. Let people know the ground rules. Respect survivors, and challenge oppressive narratives before oppression arises. Value care.