Nikki Reimer — Hold Your Fucking Communities Accountable

Hold Your Fucking Communities Accountable:

Defining and creating safer spaces for women, trans, non-binary individuals, and people of colour in literary writing communities

by Nikki Reimer

Note on the text and content warning: This essay is adapted from two talks I gave in fall 2016 with the same title. The first talk was presented at the Canadian Creative Writers and Writing Programs (CCWWP) Relational Innovations: Creative Writing as Social Practice Symposium at TIA House on Oct. 1, 2016. The second talk was an expanded version of the first talk, presented at the Speaking Her Mind conference at the University of Calgary on Oct. 22, 2016.

I’m going to be discussing violence and sexual violence. The word “fuck” and variations on it will appear a minimum of eight times.

I’ll open with a poem by my friend ryan fitzpatrick, reproduced here with his permission. This poem was published in Prism Magazine, Summer 2016 54.4.

 

“Hold Your Fucking Metaphors Accountable”

 

In his essay “Two Dots over a Vowel,” Christian Bök

makes this analogy: lyric poetry is to William Tell

as conceptual poetry is to William Burroughs killing

his wife. Did I get that right? I stopped reading there.

 

But Burroughs kills the self in order to become an

author, right? Is that right? Except Burroughs has to

kill his wife to become an author? I think that’s what

I’m reading? What kind of fucking garbage is this?

 

Danielle and Mercedes both told me Althusser killed

his wife, too. Pat Lowther murdered by her husband.

Theresa Hak Kyung Cha raped and killed by a security

guard. How do you measure when a career starts?

 

In the future, the ultimate expression of love will be

a man tattooing a lover’s name on the inside walls of

his heart, set to explode at any thought of harming the

other. Like a body admitting its structural position.

 

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Joan Vollmer, killed by William Burroughs

 

I believe that we currently live in a rape culture, and that the stated and unstated values of the rape culture permeate our thoughts, institutions, decisions, judgements, and literary and cultural communities.

 

Rape culture is real

In her book Asking For It: The Alarming Rise of Rape Culture – And What We Can Do About It, Kate Harding writes:

Rape culture manifests in myriad ways [ … ] but its most devilish trick is to make the average, non-criminal person identify with the person accused, rather than the person reporting a crime. Rape culture encourages us to scrutinize victims’ stories for any evidence that they brought violence on themselves – and always to imagine ourselves in the terrifying role of Good Man, Falsely Accused, before we “rush to judgement.”

I want to argue, based on experiences that I and my friends and colleagues have had, and on the research that I’ve done, that too much leeway is given to perpetrators, particularly when they are also talented writers and artists, particularly when they are also our friends. In fact, part of our rape culture is that, when a perpetrator is named, there is an immediate and vehement rush of friends and colleagues:

“So-and-so is a good man.”
“So-and-so is no rapist.”
“So-and-so has always treated me with respect.”

I’m going to tell you some personal stories and anecdotes. I want you to sit with your first reactions to them. I want you to consider your own structural position, and think about what positions of power and privilege you might occupy in your own communities.

2009 was the first time that I witnessed one member of my writing community accuse another member of my writing community of sexual assault. Or maybe it wasn’t the first time. But it was an incident that has lodged in my mind, as it marked a response and a positioning that I have since reconsidered.

I thought the accuser was exaggerating.

I thought the words she used in her group email to castigate the person who had abused her trust and touched her without her consent were too harsh. I questioned whether the incident, as she reported it back to the community, could really properly be termed an assault.

I thought her tone seemed off. I thought perhaps she misinterpreted the situation. I recounted how much time I had spent with the person in question, and that he had never made me feel uncomfortable or unsafe.

In summary, my reaction was typical of the way in which many liberals and leftists react when their friends are accused of “horrible things” — violence ranging from racist comments to rape.

I have over 1,000 Facebook friends; roughly half are writers, and I’ve met less than half of those people in person. I hear stories on Facebook, on Twitter, in message threads and in direct messages, about cis-gendered, straight men who have various amounts of cultural capital. These men push or break boundaries. They use their power to get sex from women. They use their power to keep quiet the fact that they have assaulted women. They stalk, they beat, they rape, and they threaten death. They abuse the power that they have over women in teacher-student relationships, in mentor-mentee relationships, and in employer-employee relationships. I’m using the word women here because that’s how the people in the stories I have been told identify, but I think it’s safe to assume that transgender and non-binary people are treated badly far more often than cisgender people; certainly, they tell us so in their own stories.

Over the past several years, I have personally heard countless stories. I have no reason not to believe what is told to me, privately and in confidence.

What has changed for me since the first story I heard back in 2009 about a former friend of mine, in addition to the fact that I’m older, hopefully wiser, and certainly better able to parse the cultures around me, is also that I came to understand how people are treated when they come forward and name their accusers. It is ironic that one of the victim-blaming tropes, from Cosby to Trump, to your favourite local award-winning writer or musician, is that accusers must be after fame. When in reality, as Harding and other feminist thinkers have elucidated, the fame that survivors achieve is the fame of being slut-shamed, threatened, insulted, and disbelieved in public and in the court system.

#ibelieveyou … now what?

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It is important to emphasize that we do have to be careful when we talk about the stories of victims, because sometimes the details might out the victim. That’s a real safety issue. We have to ask permission from the people who have been harmed before we who have not been harmed speak. Their safety is paramount.

We also have to be careful when we talk about perpetrators, because the technicalities of our justice system apparently mean that a person can be sued for describing something that occurred, something that actually, physically happened and left physical, emotional and psychic scars and bruises, but something that hasn’t been proven in court, either because it hasn’t gone to court, or because of legal technicalities.

Recently, in a social media thread that centred on victim blaming, I posted a link to a webpage on sexual assault statistics in Canada. I was trying to bring data into the discussion. Someone in the thread responded with a link to an Ontario lawyer’s website article which was titled “Sexual abuse survivors beware – the defamation risk”, which I can only interpret as an attempt to silence me.

I do like the #ibelieveyou campaign, but I also worry that it can be easy PR for organizations. They can be seen to be supporting survivors without actually making systemic and structural changes that would help them, and more importantly, making changes that will help us shift this rape culture and make it harder for abuse to continue and abusers to keep working in our communities.

I’ll also note that when the first #ibelieveyou sponsored post came up in my Facebook feed, the very first comment was written by someone who appeared to be a cisgender man. He said, “we have to be careful who we believe,” and told us a story about a relative whose life was ruined by a false accusation.

In fact, every single time we talk about abuse and assault, those of us who are speaking out face verbal abuse and assault, and our conversations are often completely derailed by questions like:

What about male survivors?

And:

What about men whose lives have been ruined by false accusations?

According to various statistics, the rate of false accusations ranges somewhere between 2% to 6%.

I have every sympathy for male survivors of sexual violence, but they are not brought up in conversation by people who care about them other than when they can be used as a redirection or a distraction. And I don’t lack sympathy for victims of crime, but we certainly don’t argue passionately about the ruined lives of people who are falsely accused of armed robbery or falsely accused of insurance fraud or falsely accused of insider trading.

 

Rape culture is intersectional

Periodically, I get worked up into a state of rage over the injustices that I see perpetuated and systematically inculcated around me. After one such occasion, I posted online that I had unfriended three men, former friends/acquaintances, after I learned that they had assaulted women that I know. Today that number can be counted on two hands.

Posting such an inflammatory statement wasn’t overly smart because of course it led to a rush of people asking for names. And I thought, wait, these aren’t my stories. A survivor can of course decide themselves that they don’t want anonymity, but sharing details of abuse is risky because it can reveal who the survivor is. Some people use this information to harm or smear the victim, and some people run right to the perpetrator and tell them what is being said about them.

Naming names is both highly necessary and highly problematic.

There have been many discussions online and in groups recently about the idea of the list, i.e., a list of perpetrators. There have been communities torn apart by rumours of lists. People have been threatened, legally and otherwise, based on rumours of potential lists. On the other side, there are people I know who’ve missed out on important information about who might be dangerous, simply because they weren’t in the right place at the right time to hear the news. The question I have repeatedly asked is: how do we keep each other safe?

Let’s unpack that.

If we can only rely on the “gossip network” and the backchannel to know who is safe and who is not, how do we ensure that the message reaches every ear? Does this game of telephone that we call the “gossip network” — and I do believe it’s necessary, but does it risk replicating already existing power structures? Is it the women of colour who don’t get the message?

We need to also ask: whose safety is a priority?

I didn’t have an answer. But this essay is my attempt to fumble towards an answer, as well as an attempt to challenge my communities to try to find this answer together.

 

Rape culture is institutional

Emma Healey discusses how stories of violence open doors to more stories of violence. In her essay “Stories like passwords,” which was published on the blog The Hairpin in 2014, she writes of dating her professor, and the boundary violations that occurred in the context of that relationship.

Late in the essay, Healey writes:

We consistently fail young women — all women — by tacitly relying on them to learn from each other, or from their experiences, which of the people in their communities they can and cannot trust. We ask them to police their own peers, but quietly, through back channels, without disturbing the important people while they’re talking. We wait for the victims of abuse to be the ones to take power away from their abusers, instead of working actively to ensure that these motherfuckers never get that far in the first place.

I believe that the backlash, the silencing and the harassment I’ve been describing occurs because people are afraid of admitting their own vulnerability to abuse, and because people are afraid of losing power, access to power, and opportunities, be those publishing contracts, grants, awards, jobs, and so on.

 

What does accountability look like?

In the shorter version of this talk that I gave, I was asked: so, what do we do?

My response was and is that there is no blanket response or answer to how we handle abuse within our communities. There are many excellent agencies that one can turn to for counselling and advice, including, locally, the Calgary Sexual Health Centre and Calgary Communities Against Sexual Abuse. If people who have been abusive are willing to work on their behavior, there are social agencies where they can get counselling as well.

I think accountability has to be defined locally and that it might look different depending on who is involved. It’s hard work. But the fact that it’s hard and murky doesn’t mean that we should not proceed, uncertain though we may feel.

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I’m heartened by the grassroots social media campaigns that have sprung up every time a case of abuse makes the news or that jerk to the south opens his mouth. Hashtags like #believewomen, #beenrapedneverreported, #notokay, #yesallwomen, #ibelieveyou, and so on, are vital. The stories behind them need to be told. The power of social media is that it can unite people towards social awareness and understanding, and it can be used to challenge the rape culture myths that permeate our communities.

And I’m of the opinion that more dialogue and more women, transgender, binary individuals, and all survivors speaking their minds is good for the culture at large.

However:

Accountability is not when we excuse the professor who sleeps with his students, plural, because he was “going through a really hard time in his life.”

Accountability is not when we lionize writers, musicians, and artists, living and dead, without also being truthful about who they’ve harmed, and who has had to suffer in the wake of their careers.

Accountability is not when a writer — who more than any other professional or artist knows the power of words and has the ability to be very precise in their choice of words — pretends that those same words don’t have the power to harm and the power to influence, reinforce and reify cultural mores and values.

It’s not good enough to pretend that a violent metaphor that reinforces the relative lack of value of certain bodies is “just a metaphor.” It’s not good enough to cry assault when what is happening to you is that you are being challenged on the violence of your ideas.

If you are a man of a certain age, with a certain job, pulling a certain salary, and your response to women talking about systemic issues is,

“I don’t think this is a problem because no one has told me about it,”

or,

“I have married friends with children who began their relationship as teacher-student and therefore you, young woman, are trying to kill romance,” you are part of the problem.

This is a response that I’ve seen multiples times, by the way.

Accountability is not sharing and posting and tweeting “believe women” campaigns, but then questioning and victim-blaming when the people accused are your friends.

I have not always responded perfectly when I have learned that my friends are abusers. I’ve blocked people online or frozen them out, rather than confront them. Sometimes that is the right approach for one’s feeling of safety or for one’s mental health. But there are other times where it’s appropriate to call in and ask for accountability.

 

Conclusion

So, what do we do? How do we hold our abusers, and our communities, accountable? I don’t have an answer; I don’t think there is one answer. I want us all to keep asking the question. I think we have to collectively decide that we won’t allow rape culture to be business as usual. Maybe that means not publishing people, not giving them awards, asking them to leave groups or power positions in our communities. Maybe sometimes it’s ok to stand beside someone and work with them on their change and their accountability, but we have to be careful that this option doesn’t become another silencing mechanism for victims and survivors. Forgiveness is great, but not every survivor has to forgive. And I think it is vitally important that there be community responses. It can’t continue to be up to the victims to fix the problem.

In closing, I want you to think about how power operates in your own circles, your own institutions and workplaces. How can you make space for people with less power than yourself to be listened to, respected and protected? How can you stop apologizing and covering up for the abusers in your community?

HOLD YOUR FUCKEN ANALOGIES ACCOUNTABLE

HOLD YOUR FUCKEN METAPHORS ACCOUNTABLE

DEAR POET: HOLD YOUR FUCKEN WORDS ACCOUNTABLE

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