By Alice Swift
For the last five years, the left-wing political community of Birmingham has been involved in a community accountability process that takes collective responsibility against sexual violence. Alice Swift shares her reflections on that process.
This is the first in a series of articles reflecting on the community accountability process. Please note that this article contains candid discussion of sexual violence throughout.
Initially when I was told by the victim about X raping her multiple times I was shocked but I wasn’t surprised. It made sense and filled a lot of gaps.
My Experience of Rape in Relation to this Case
The years preceding this case I had spent a lot of time exploring my experience of rape at the age of 18 and the subsequent reactions and fall-out of friends and family. In 2012 I started to be open about my experience to friends in Birmingham. In the summer of 2012 X and another friend were the first people in Birmingham (aside from my partner at the time) I told about my experience. Unlike my partner, X had a really strange reaction and tried to change the subject as quickly as possible. He often did this if he didn’t want to talk about something but I felt particularly let down by his reaction on this occasion. In hindsight I recognise that my disclosure to him was shortly after the victim had left Birmingham after months of sexual abuse from him.
I reported my case to the police in the spring of 2013 and experienced a very long and drawn out ineffectual investigation. I also spoke to many friends about it and with each new person I spoke to I felt my burden lessen. Some people were initially confused at my openness with regards to my experience because I explicitly told them I didn’t mind if they told others. This was contrary to how we often share experiences of rape and sexual assault in demanding our close friends keep this horrific secret to themselves and that they can’t disclose it to other people. People then often feel alone in dealing with this burden and some share it with intimate others to help them process it. Before long whispers and rumours are spread and people can see it as ‘gossip’ which is easily dismissed as such. People get hurt when these rumours travel around and friendships break or are damaged. As I will go into detail later, one of the things I thought that worked well about this process is that the victim and her support group in Germany very deliberately took a different tack with sharing the information so it explicitly wouldn’t fall fowl of the ways in which information about rape and sexual assault is usually inadvertently disseminated among networks.
In being very open about my experiences I ended up in a situation where a number of female comrades opened up about their experiences of rape and sexual assault too. I was glad we could talk openly about it but I felt unable to deal with the quantity of women who had disclosed their experiences to me. With one such case I felt like I dealt with it very badly. I was beginning to be open about my experiences and delving into an area of my psyche I had tried to confine to a box buried inside myself. I opened it up at a time when I was also grieving the suicide of a friend and trying to undertake the final year of my undergraduate degree at university. I felt completely unequipped to support all my female friends at the same time as dealing with my issues. All combined amounted to me taking a leave of absence from my final year.
Collective Response to a Collective Problem
One of the things that I felt was so good about this process was the innately collective way it had been designed. It started a collective conversation about rape and sexual assault in our community and wider society that allowed for a collective response. Unlike all the previous confidential one-on-one conversations I’d had with people beforehand this facilitated a completely collective response where we were all seemingly talking about it at the same time. I no longer felt alone in my experiences of rape nor did I feel alone in helping (and often failing) to support others with their experience of it.
X’s Political Behaviour Related to His Sexual Behaviour
The victim told me when I was in Germany staying with her in the summer of 2015. My initial reaction was one of deep anger and sadness. X was considered a leader of our movement and in a high position of power. I always had had a funny relationship with him. He let me into some secrets but kept a lot of things from me. He openly ridiculed his position of power in our organisation and yet at the same time, behind closed doors, also seemed to relish it and use it to a strategic advantage. We were both strategic thinkers and we would often clash on tactics and strategy. He seemed to enjoy many of these debates but when all was said and done he needed to get his way, and he most often did.
When I first met him in 2010 he actively courted me into the movement. He flattered me and (as I recognise in hindsight) groomed me to become a movement actor. He seemed to recognise my passion for justice and determination but also recognised the more negative desires at the time; to feel popular and liked. He saw that I made my own mind up on things but that only suited him when I agreed with him. Once I had figuratively ‘risen up the ranks’ of the organisation (or at least had a track record of acting in his favour) I was allowed more into the ‘inner circle’ of decision making in the organisation. Publicly our organisation presented itself as a ‘flat’ or ‘horizontal’ body of free-flowing university student activists but out of sight of our large meetings X would have a cadre or ‘vanguard’ as he liked to call it where it was agreed beforehand what outcomes he wanted and how we ought to act in order to produce them.
He was always known as being somewhat of a maverick. I at the time had an (ableist) saying that ‘he was an environmentalist before he was a mentalist!’ Not just in our organisation but socially too he would encourage quite reckless and quite risk taking behaviour, some of which was fun and some of which was definitely very worrying. He seemed to go out of his way to get an adrenaline hit and would encourage or coerce others to do the same. Many of the actions he proposed for us as a movement on campus were risky. Some were politically effective and worth it but other things seemed to be ridiculous or even outright dangerous, disregarding others in the movement. He had the ability to make others do things they might not otherwise have done. He very much recognised his ability to do this. He would often have quite outrageous ideas and plans for actions, some which went well and many that did not. It often felt like it was the women of the movement that had to come in and clean up after the mess he created. In many respects this process has felt like a continuation of this.
The actions that he took in combination with his position of power in the group created an air of martyrdom around him. It seemed he would sacrifice everything for the cause: his freedom (when he went to prison), his health, his grades. He earned a lot of respect for doing this but was also highly conscious of it. He often declared publicly that he didn’t want people to look after him or he was undeserving when the movement coalesced around his imprisonment or his suspension from the student union. Yet out of sight he required a well developed body of people around him to support him, enabling him to take a highly prominent and leading role in our movement.
Over time I became more openly critical about his behaviour and I could see the way in which he instrumentalised people in our movement. People were valuable to him in what they could do for the movement and how manipulated by him they could be. As I became more open with my criticism of him he became increasingly confrontational and angry towards me. He would on occasion, shout at me in front of others to delegitimise my points. He saw my open constructive criticism of him and the movement as a danger to the success of the movement and over time shut me out of the ‘inner circle’ I had been part of before. I remember one conversation with him where he got really angry with me for talking about some of the problems of our movement to some of the first year ‘new recruits.’ He was really concerned that I would ‘put people off’ and ‘demobilise’ people by being openly critical. He was fixated on maintaining a distinction between the way we appeared to new people and the broader student population with the way we operated behind the scenes.
When the victim told me about her experience I saw the relationship between the way he behaved towards activists in the movement and the way he had behaved towards her.
The Dissemination of the Letter
She told me about the plan for disseminating the information of his abuse to the community in Birmingham and that a number of people who had already been told about it had refused to help in this task. I was shocked at some of their reactions and disbelief and I committed to help in the furthering of the process into Birmingham as best I could.
With the victim’s consent I talked to my partner at the time and he decided to help in the dissemination of information in Birmingham too.
Me and my partner met with four other people in Birmingham that had been told previously. We discussed at length the dissemination of the letter the victim and her support group had written. I was appalled to see that one person begun line-by-line critiquing the contents of the letter like it was an academic essay and entirely unreasonable and then refusing to help in any part of the process. They declared they would have nothing to do with this process and five years on they haven’t despite maintaining an uncritical friendship with X.
Thus the task of telling over a hundred people in Birmingham and nationally and giving them a copy of the letter initially fell to four people. We deliberately wanted as many people as possible who were to be informed to be told in the shortest amount of time possible as this was part of our clear collective approach. As discussed earlier we didn’t want people to be alone in their pain and shock over this information. Rather, we actively wanted to encourage conversation between people about it and to share in the grief that they felt.
I remember me and my partner spending days cycling around Birmingham having many difficult conversations with people one after another and witnessing people’s initial reactions. Thankfully as more people were told, more people stepped up to the task of responsibly informing people face-to-face as the dissemination of the letter snowballed. I am very glad that these conversations were deliberately done on a face-to-face basis as it allowed us to be there to support people initially, answer questions and actively challenge a number of initially problematic reactions.
I found different people’s initial reactions varied but fell into distinct and predictable categories.
These included: disbelief, anger, sadness, wanting to know as much detail as possible, looking back on their relationship with X to see if they had witnessed abusive behaviour like this or not.
I felt like my own self-exploration regarding rape and mine and other women’s experience of it helped a great deal in dealing with people’s reactions.
• Recognising that the majority of my female friends had experienced at least one sexual encounter that had amounted to rape.
• That the majority of women in society had experienced rape or sexual assault.
• Rapists weren’t usually strangers lurking down dark alleys but people known to the victim and in relationships or partnerships with the victim.
• It wasn’t just ‘a few bad apples’ among men that raped women.
• The vast majority of men did not recognise these particular sexual experiences as rape even when confronted by the victim.
• Many men saw their raping of a woman as part of the ‘normal’ societal script with regards to heterosexual sex.
• This amounted to a widespread societal problem actively perpetuated by structures in our society.
• My experience of reporting my experience of rape to the police was at best ineffectual and at worst legitimated the actions of my rapist and his apologisers.
• Out of the few women who report their experiences of rape to the police, fewer still end up going to court and far fewer still end up in guilty convictions where a jury can prove guilt ‘beyond reasonable doubt’ in a case that is usually one word against another, often with little evidence.
• Many survivors don’t actually want to see their rapist contained in a prison for a period of time learning nothing and not developing themselves or not feeling empathy towards their victim.
• Many female survivors I have spoken to wanted their rapist to:
◦ Recognise what they have done amounts to rape and sexual violence
◦ Take ownership over it
◦ Empathise with their victim
◦ Atone, learn and positively develop as a result
◦ Ensure they never commit rape or sexual violence again.
• Our criminal justice system is broken when dealing with instances of sexual violence. It does not serve the interests of survivors or amount to any accountability, justice or learning for the perpetrator or wider society.
One of the most difficult things for me personally has been the reaction of some of the people in the community.
One of the hardest things about coming forward as a victim of sexual violence is the fear over not being believed. We live in a society that often doesn’t recognise rape as rape and blames the victim for ‘bringing it on themselves.’ I was really heartened with the beginnings of the process in Birmingham that the vast majority of people informed believed the victim.
One person however simply refused to believe the victim and I have really struggled with their reaction. Like is often the case in apologising for the perpetrator, they have seemed to engage in a great deal of cognitive and emotional acrobatics to determine all manner of reasons why the victim would speak publicly rather than entertain the idea that he actually raped her.
I have a level of empathy for people who have simply refused to be involved in the process because of how emotionally difficult it is or because they chose to focus their time elsewhere but I have sometimes struggled with this lack of engagement.
I have got very frustrated with people who have said that there should have been no process at all or have seen it as too harsh for X. I believe this shows a lack of empathy for the victim and other victims of sexual assault, effectively arguing that perpetrators should have little or no accountability for their actions.
Aged 18-19 when I told my friends about my experience of rape many downplayed my experience, apologised for the perpetrator and/or put a degree of blame on me. Despite all the problematic reactions of a number of people in this process had I am really heartened by the crew of people who took great positions (even if it took some a while to get there!) and have really come together around this. It may be a level of trauma bonding but I have been very glad that the majority of my valued friendships survived this and were indeed strengthened by this including my relationship with the victim. I have felt glad for her that she has felt able to come back to visit Birmingham and has had supportive friends in that community. I hope that will continue.
As often happens, as this case and process unfolded other women came forward about their experiences of rape and sexual assault from other men in the community. A number of us created a support group around one victim and attempted to reproduce the process used in this case for them. As things were running in parallel, people involved with this second case found it very difficult to maintain the work required, along with other reasons. It is sad to say but this process around a second case fell apart and that makes me sad.
One critique that I have reflected on with regards to the huge amount of collective and individual effort put in to this case is that under capitalist restrictions of our time there is simply not enough time, energy and people to replicate this process for every single person affected by rape and sexual assault. It is not scalable. Although I am very glad that this process went ahead I recognise it is an exception and not the rule in terms of collective ways of dealing with rape and sexual assault.
Similarities with Other Cases
In the years before the Birmingham process many in the left in the UK watched the terrible handling of allegations of rape by the Marxist-Leninist vanguardist party the Socialist Workers Party (SWP). I spent a time reading and researching this case for an essay I wrote during the final year of my undergraduate and attributed it to their very hierarchical ‘democratic centralist’ organisational form. This case in the SWP led many within the organisation to leave en mass, including many who’d been in the party for decades and had stuck with the party through a number of other controversies. These people were sick and tired of the injustice of the handling and cover-up from their party.
Me and a couple of comrades from Birmingham went to a discussion on leftist approaches to dealing with rape and sexual assault at the annual Historical Materialism Conference in London in autumn 2016. We were met with a group of people who had left the SWP over the handling of their case (and others). Despite coming from social movement organisations that had different structures I was struck by how similar our experiences and analysis of our respective cases were when compared to one another. Here were two men in positions of power within their respective organisations believing they could deny the bodily autonomy of women in their organisations with impunity. In both cases their apologists were more concerned with the political fall-out of their actions coming to light than justice for their victims. In both cases the men were quick to play the victim when they alone were the ones who had chosen their actions to severely harm others.
My Role in the Contact Group
In autumn 2015 I agreed to be part of the working group tasked with being the ones in contact with the perpetrator and hold him to account. When I put myself forward for this I had believed it would be a lifelong task, that it would be unlikely that the perpetrator would make any positive steps quickly. So long as we both should live I was committed to holding him to account.
This work has not been easy. I was especially anxious before the initial face-to-face meeting we organised with the perpetrator. However once I overcame that mental hurdle it became easier to see him and along with others from the group, I did a further two times.
I did not write the Contact Group Reflections but the text represents many of my thoughts about it very well. It is worth saying that the only reason I believed he had any involvement with us was over fear of being named publicly. On no occasion did he show any recognition for the immense harm he caused the victim and the wider community. I believe he regrets his behaviour only in so much as it amounted to a period of time where he was unable to manipulate and control through means that weren’t physically violent and showed a lack of control to himself. I believe he only regretted it because of the negative effect the process has had on his life.
The work in this group was emotionally difficult. Throughout its course two people left because of this and various other reasons and were replaced with two new people from the community involved in the process. I believe the expectations were high for the work required and I don’t feel like I met them or contributed as much as other people in the group. However I certainly tried my best and that was all I could do.
I am glad this process happened. It is far better that it happened than it didn’t. I along with many others learnt a great deal. My hope now is that some of the things we learnt can help inform other processes in the future.
For further information on the community accountability process please visit: https://commacct.uber.space/