Content note: the following post discusses intimate and sexual abuse in general terms.
In the UK alone, almost a million women experience domestic violence every year, and over 400,000 are sexually assaulted. One in five women aged 16-59 have experienced sexual violence over the course of their adult lives. Given the prevalence of abusive behaviour, it shouldn’t be a surprise that even in groups, organisations and movements supposedly built around ideals of freedom and liberation, this sort of violence still goes on. If we’re going to build a real movement against the existing state of things, this is something we have to address.
As anarchists we of course believe everyone should be able to live free from sexual violence. We want a society where all our relationships with others, intimate or otherwise, are based on mutual consent and free from violent coercion. We also believe the movements we build to overthrow the existing order need to prefigure the society we want to create. Putting this into practice means we need to organise not just against the ruling class, but inside our own movements against those who perpetrate, cover up or collude in abusive behaviour. With this in mind, last Sunday we held our first ever Red and Black Reading Group session on this topic. The text we chose, The Revolution Starts at Home: Confronting Partner Violence in Activist Communities, deals with the subject in a series of essays written by survivors of abuse and the individuals and groups who have supported their struggles for justice and accountability.
This is not an easy book to read. The experiences recounted in the first few essays focussing on the stories of survivors of sexual, physical and emotional abuse are upsetting to say the least. But in spite of this, it’s an incredibly important book. Not only because these are stories that need to be told, in a society which is quick to dismiss the voices of survivors of sexual violence, but for the insights the authors offer into struggling collectively to end abusive behaviour. At over a hundred pages, it covers a lot of ground, from guidelines for consensual sex to interviews with community organisers to advice on leading anti-abuse struggles within activist circles. I won’t be able to do any justice to the breadth of material presented in this collection in just one blog post, so I won’t try. Instead, I want to focus on just a few points related to practical organising questions that we discussed in detail. If this piques your interest, I highly recommend reading the text as a whole.
Dealing with denial: holding abusers to account
The articles in this collection provide ample examples of the strategies used by perpetrators of abuse to avoid being held to account. A common one is denial. By their very nature, accusations of intimate violence are often difficult to prove beyond all doubt, and if the abuser denies that it ever took place, it’s often down to one person’s word against another’s. We talked about strategies to get people to cooperate with an accountability process in these circumstances, from reaching out to friends and family, to mounting social pressure, to political arguments for accountability. We also discussed what can be done to keep survivors of abuse safe even when their abuser completely refuses to be held responsible, including examples from the book such as “community restraining orders”, where a group of people collectively assert someone’s right to space away from their abuser and make it clear that they will respond together if the survivor feels this has been violated.
Organise and escalate: from the workplace to the home
One thing that particularly struck us as we made our way through the stories, essays, poems and other articles contained in The Revolution Starts at Home was the parallels that kept coming up between organising against abusive behaviour in our private lives and models of revolutionary workplace organising (such as those developed by the IWW and the UK-based Solidarity Federation). In a sense, this shouldn’t be a surprise: the personal is political, after all, and our private lives are no less dominated by the hierarchical, oppressive organisation of capitalist society than our jobs are. It makes sense that some of the same general strategies can be useful. Specifically things like forming an organising collective, one-on-one meetings with individuals, focusing on winning specific demands, and escalating from moral pressure to direct action, all point to common tactics and strategies that we can put to use in both types of struggle.
Dealing with the state: police, courts and the legal system
Whilst we want to create structures that can ensure accountability and community-based justice in for anyone facing abuse or intimate violence, we aren’t there yet, and so many survivors end up turning to the state. The Revolution Starts at Home includes several perspectives on this issue. We discussed the reasons people turn to the police or the courts for help, what they can offer survivors that alternatives can’t, and how we can support people going through the legal system, which itself is often a traumatic process.
Women only: privilege, oppression, and safety
Women-only-spaces have been a key part of the feminist movement for decades, and have played a major role in advancing the cause of women’s liberation and in fighting against the sexual and domestic abuse of women by men. However, the accounts in The Revolution Starts at Home paint a somewhat complex picture of these and similar groups. We discussed how these groups are a vital haven and source of strength for individuals dealing with abuse, but can leave, for example, transgender people cut off from that much needed support. Furthermore, simply restricting access to a space on the basis of gender (or sexuality, or any other category) does not guarantee people’s safety. We need to be careful to not let our guard down, and remember that it isn’t just people in positions of relative social privilege that are capable of being abusive.
Those are some of our thoughts on the issues brought up by this text. Feel free to leave your own thoughts, responses, criticism, questions etc. in the comments below.