There are no absolute answers to the questions below. We offer these insights to help you make decisions that put the survivor’s needs first and work towards accountability.
If I’ve been harassed, assaulted or abused, what are my options?
Many people start by talking with a trusted friend. You can find a list of confidential community supports for women and gender non-conforming folks at www.octevaw-cocvff.ca, or download a community resource list here. Get a community resource list for men and boys here. Both lists include crisis lines, counselling, housing and legal advice. There are many ways to move forward, and the choice about how to do that rests with you. Survivors of gender-based violence are the experts in their own experiences.
If I know about sexual harassment, sexual assault or domestic abuse in my circles, should I contact the survivor if they haven’t reached out to me?
Checking in with someone can help break down isolation of being targeted, but make sure you don’t put them at risk by doing so. Can you approach them in a way that doesn’t tip off the abuser?
Ask yourself who is the best person to do the check-in – you might consider asking someone close to the survivor to check-in if you don’t have a strong relationship with that person. A good start is to simply state what you’ve observed and ask if they feel safe. Let them know you are available if they ever want support, and then let them decide what to do with your offer. Be willing to walk away if they don’t want your support at this time. Remain available if they choose to talk with you at a later time.
Should I let everyone in the community know about this person’s harmful behaviour? Should we kick him out of our organization or friend group?
No easy answer here. It’s most important to ask what the survivor needs in order to be safe and validated. What is necessary to make sure the harmful behaviour stops and won’t be repeated? Sometimes excluding a person who has harmed someone from the community simply sends them into the next community to potentially cause more harm, thus repeating the cycle of violence.
What’s the difference between conflict and violence? How do I know when a relationship is simply “unhealthy” and when it is abusive?
Every relationship involves conflict of some sort. However, when conflict comes with harm (physical, emotional, mental, financial, social) that is sustained across time within a pattern of power and control it crosses into the arena of abuse or violence. Ultimately it is the person suffering harm in the relationship who decides if the relationship is abusive. Checking in with the survivor (see above) can provide some extra perspective and support as they ask themselves if their relationship has elements of abuse.
If I’ve hurt someone, should I reach out to them if they haven’t reached out to me? What can I do to make it right?
We have received very strong feedback from some survivors and sexual violence advocates that reaching out to the survivor can be re-victimizing. Even if you are offering an apology or efforts to be accountable, you are inserting yourself into the survivor’s life again without and invitation or consent.
You don’t need to contact the survivor in order to work towards accountability within your community, take steps to educate yourself, and make changes in your life so that you don’t hurt anyone in the future.
On the other hand, if the person you hurt contacts you to request that you take responsibility for the harm you’ve caused in their life, you have an obligation to respond by putting their need to be safe and whole first.
If you are considering how to hold someone accountable for their harmful behaviour, consider
What can you do to make sure that the survivor(s) are not further disempowered?
How can you make sure the harmful behaviour doesn’t continue?
How can you find out what people need to get better? Consider that the survivor, the perpetrator, and affected community members all have different needs.
Holding someone accountable alone is very difficult. Who else needs to be involved? What resources will you need? How long will the process take?
Communities Against Rape and Abuse (CARA) offer accountability principles and case studies from an intersectional anti-oppression perspective in Taking Risks: Implementing Grassroots Community Accountability Strategies.
Vikki Reynolds' Resisting and Transforming Rape Culture: An activist stance for therapeutic work with men who have used violence is another key resource.