Expelling the boogeyman part 1

10 Oct 2014 21:08
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We must … be careful not to idealize community or to assume that turning away from the state will automatically replace punishment and separation with restoration and reconciliation [4].

Expelling Lily

I was the medical officer at an environmental justice training camp in the central Appalachians over a decade ago. Aware that camps full of young people are high-risk environments for sexual confusion and assault, I did 5-minute talks each morning and night about communication skills, recognizing discomfort, the role of alcohol, and coming to me or another advocate for help. Despite resistance from some campers, the organizers established an alcohol-free sleeping area and an alcohol-free fire circle.

After my first talk, one of the campers told me two campers told him "Lily" (a young woman camper) was in an "accountability process." They were passing word around the camp. I invited the concerned campers and Lily to tell me what happened, and the facts were not in dispute.

A year prior, Lily was "called out" by two women she sexually assaulted at drunken campouts. She didn't use threats or physical force, but both women had lasting feelings that something wasn't right. After the women realized their experiences were similar, they initiated the accountability process. Lily resisted seeing her harm at first, then agreed to seek sobriety, get counseling at her own expense, not hide or minimize what she did, and not go to any event attended by the women she hurt. This camp was her first political event since the beginning of the accountability process a year prior. She was sober, and no one at the camp had been harmed by her.

We made a mistake, then, because the three campers who knew about the accountability process wanted expulsion and I thought it was unfair. We decided to let the camp decide, but didn't give the camp all the information about what was happening.

That night at the evening fire, the situation was described matter-of-factly, but de-gendered. Here's what we told them: Someone in camp sexually assaulted two people while drunk over a year ago; abided by all conditions of the accountability process, and was in the camp and sober. Three people wo were not sexually assaulted by the person want the person to leave. What should we do?

The response quickly degenerated into men summoning the boogeyman. They imagined the unnamed Lily to be male,1 hiding behind bushes in the dark with a knife, waiting to ravish young, defenseless girls.

The men dominated the conversation, and concluded: We're here for the environment and don't want to be sidetracked by feminist bullcrap. Drop him off by the side of the road, make sure he's gone, and let him find his way home. They decided the boogeyman didn't need a beat-down if he left in the next ten minutes, but that they should post guards in the camp to beat him with baseball bats if he came back. They wanted someone to go with their boogeyman to make sure he was really gone.

At that point, Lily stood up and said, "Okay, I'll go home. The last year was really lonely and hard. I hoped to be able to get involved in this work again, but I guess it's not time yet." The group froze, and then a few of the most vocal men very quickly decided that she could stay. She was not, after all, the imaginary boogeyman, or even male.

She left anyway. It was 11pm. I made sure medical was covered while I was gone. I rode with her to a highway overpass and sat with her til she caught a ride in the morning. She felt herself a victim of injustice and was afraid she would never be allowed to return to environmental justice work no matter what she did. We talked about her responsibility to remember the hurt she caused because it was too easy for her to drink and cause harm when she felt like a victim.

The scope of the problem

Sexual assault has long been known to be common where youth with high ideals share mass-sleeping arrangements, where adrenaline and alcohol mix and new relationships are negotiated [1].

  • At least 1 in 4 college women has survived rape or attempted rape. 300,000 college women report surviving rape every year.
  • At least 80% of all sexual assaults are committed by an acquaintance.
  • 48.8% of college women who were victims of attacks that met the definition of rape did not consider what happened to them rape.
  • 74% of perpetrators and 55% of rape victims had been drinking alcohol prior to the assault.
  • In a survey of high school students, 56% of girls and 76% of boys believed forced sex was acceptable under some circumstances.
  • About 1 in 10 college men admit to acts meeting the legal definition of either rape or attempted rape.

Expelling Lily did not solve any of these problems; it only hid them. Nonetheless, time and again, we expel Lily. Why?

Denial, minimization, and blame

Let me start by taking expulsion as a good option. If we wanted to purge our 300-person environmental justice camp of everyone who had raped or attempted rape, we would have to hunt down and send home 30 people. We can turn to Lisak & Miller's paper "Repeat Rape and Multiple Offending Among Undetected Rapists" [3] for characteristics we can use to detect the 19 men in camp who were statistically likely to each commit an average of 5.8 unreported rapes:

  • They use alcohol deliberately to render victims more vulnerable.
  • They easily feel slighted by women, and carry grudges against them.
  • They view women as sexual objects to be conquered and coerced. They view sexual relations as "conquests," and all women as potential "targets" of conquests.
  • They also commit and valorize non-sexual interpersonal violence.
  • They are adept at identifying "likely" victims and testing their boundaries. They use sophisticated strategies to groom their victims for assault and to isolate them physically.

The five men who led the clamor for Lily's expulsion, then changed their minds upon discovering that she was female had previously forcefully argued that sober spaces at the camp were unnecessary. They were part of a hypermasculine subculture that drank heavily, bragged of sexual conquests, played white knight, and felt that discussions of sexual assault were a diversion from the real work of aggressive activism.

If the word "rape" is not used but rather the behaviors legally constituting rape or attempted rape are described, perpetrators will self-identify [5]. If expulsion were a solution, the inquisition could begin. I betcha I can predict five of the 30 campers who would be purged.

Along with ignoring, denying, and minimizing, blaming people who have been assaulted is a well-established way that assailants and abusers defend themselves, and that bystanders protect them [2]. Could shifting blame onto known assailants or abusers serve a similar function? How do groups decide who they defend and who they expel?

1. New York State Coalition Against Sexual Assault (n.d.), College Campuses and Sexual Assault; One in Four USA (n.d.), Sexual Assault Statistics.
2. Jacob Z Hess, Nicole E Allen, and Nathan R Todd (Jul 2011), Interpreting Community Accountability: Citizen Views of Responding to Domestic Violence (or Not). Qualitative Report 16(4):1096-1123.
3. David Lisak and Paul Miller (2002), Repeat Rape and Multiple Offending among Undetected Rapists. Violence and Victims, 17 (1), 73-84.
4. Julia C Opara (2011), Afterword: After the Juggernaut Crashes. Social Justice: A Journal of Crime, Conflict, & World Order 37(4):44-57.
5. JW White, KM Kadlec, and S Sechrist. (2006). Adolescent Sexual Aggression within Heterosexual Relationships. In HE Barbaree (Ed.) and Marshall, W. L. (Ed.). The Juvenile Sex Offender (2nd ed., pp. 128-147). New York: Guilford Press.

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