“It is very tempting to take the side of the perpetrator. All the perpetrator asks is that the bystander do nothing. He appeals to the universal desire to see, hear, and speak no evil. The victim, on the contrary, asks the bystander to share the burden of pain. The victim demands action, engagement, and remembering.”
Judith Herman, Trauma and Recovery
As the issue of sexual harassment and sexual exploitation receives overdue attention in the movement, one question I am asked is, “What about the abusive person? What are we to do with this person? Do they have to leave the movement?” This is often asked with great sympathy for the person who has finally been found out to be a sexual harasser/sexual exploiter.
There’s a certain irony in the question since the animal rights movement knows exactly what is needed when it is holding corporations and businesses and animal exploiters accountable: Stopping the action that is harmful. Not doing harmful actions again. Making restitution when the harmful action affected others. For instance, remember when McDonald’s turned out not to be frying their French fries in non-animal fat even though they had claimed this is what they were doing? They made restitution in the form of giving money to vegan organizations. That is one example of restitution.
But accountability looks a little different when we are dealing with individual acts of sexual harassment and sexual exploitation. How do we hold that person accountable? Twenty years ago I wrote a book for clergypeople on working with victims and perpetrators of domestic violence [http://fortresspress.com/product/woman-battering]. I found they had the hardest time holding perpetrators accountable, especially when the perpetrator used the language of the Christian tradition and asserted “repentance.” Also troubling was that clergypeople (and not just clergypeople) often have greater empathy for the abuser or perpetrator than the victim. In the animal rights movement, some of the perpetrators are leaders, and not only empathy, but expediency—how much they have contributed! How important their ideas are!—have worked against holding someone accountable.
Also true, as Judith Herman, an expert on sexual assault, explains: “Genuine contrition in a perpetrator is a rare miracle….In order to escape accountability for his crimes, the perpetrator does everything in his power to promote forgetting. Secrecy and silence are the perpetrator’s first line of defense. If secrecy fails, the perpetrator attacks the credibility of his victim. If he cannot silence her absolutely, he tries to make sure that no one listens. To this end, he marshalls an impressive array of arguments, from the most blatant denial to the most sophisticated and elegant rationalization. After every atrocity one can expect to hear the same predictable apologies: it never happened; the victim lies; the victim exaggerates; the victim brought it upon herself; and in any case it is time to forget the past and move on. The more powerful the perpetrator, the greater is his prerogative to name and define reality, and the more completely his arguments prevail.”
Someone who has been a sexual harasser/sexual exploiter needs to be accountable for their actions. This involves:
1) Taking responsibility for naming and telling the truth about what they did. No obfuscating language. No evasion. No misrepresentation. No manipulation. No denial.
2) Acknowledging the harm that has been done through deep and sincere regret for the damage done to the survivor, the organization, and the movement by the actions. This means developing empathy to understand the experience of the person(s) who were harmed.
3) Acceptance of full responsibility for causing and rectifying the situation. This means making the needed changes to stop being someone who abuses their power, and after changing, making restitution. What would restitution look like? For each situation, it may be different. The abuser who is litigious would drop suits against his accusers. The abuser who badmouthed or forced someone out of an organization or the movement would admit to this.
4) Stop all behavior that is controlling and sexually exploitative of another.
5) Acceptance of the consequences for having betrayed one’s position within the movement.
Friends and allies of the person who needs to be held accountable could play an important role here. First, do not protect this person from accountability.
Friends and allies could say, “I value our friendship enough to hold you accountable. Your behavior has been abusive. This is a problem. It is your responsibility to stop this abusive behavior. I believe that you are in control of your own behavior and I care enough about you to hold you accountable for it.” Friends and other activists in the movement need to be an ally of that part of the person that gravitates to change, not the part of the person who covers it up and wants business as usual.
Friends and allies should not protect this person from accountability nor minimize what was done. But that is precisely what the person may turn to them for: assistance in avoiding accountability. What appear to the abusive person’s needs (to continue with the status quo, to deny what has been done, to find new ways of gaining access to victims) is not the needs of our community (the need for safety for all, the need for justice, the need for the movement to include all who wish to be a part rather than letting victims drop out).
The friends and allies and the movement at large must develop as much empathy for the survivors as they have for the abuser. This would be a beginning.
I do not believe there is a place in the movement for those who refuse to be fully accountable for their unethical behavior.