CONTENT WARNING: This post deals with discussion of sexual assault, stalking, and harassment.
I think about compassion within the framework of abuse and racism a lot.
If we choose to live our lives with the core values of love and justice and community then we do so with the intention of providing everyone with compassion and forgiveness, and assuming positive intent in the actions of the people around us. This sounds good in theory, but it becomes easily used against us within abusive or racist dynamics as a tool to shame us when we demand accountability, especially when the concepts are misused by people who corrupt them for their own benefits.
I ran into this lately when I tried to ask for accountability in a community I recently decided I needed to walk away from.
Several years ago I had been sexually assaulted by a member of the community. I brought up my sexual assault to a member of the community’s leadership, Niki, not knowing that she had a personal relationship with my rapist. After Niki asked for more and more evidence, including police reports, photographs of my injuries, and copies of medical records, including letters from therapists documenting the damage that was done to me, she passed it all on to my rapist, and permanently banned me from the community.
The ban was later commuted to three months after a public outcry from community members at my treatment. The outcry didn’t prevent or undo the damage though, as my rapist and his friends began a harassment and threat campaign that spanned four years. It didn’t undo the damage to my reputation within the community, or make it any safer for me to be a member of the community.
For four years, my family and I received mailed letters, emails, phone calls, and text messages from spoofed numbers and fake addresses detailing gruesome acts that they would like to commit against myself or my children. Sometimes these threats included quotes from the police report, messages I had exchanged with friends (later found out to have been sourced via a keylogger on my personal computer), or photos I had sent the community leader to back up my report.
While all this was happening, I was warned several times by community leaders to be quiet about it. One of them called herself a friend, and frequently listened to me express frustration with how I felt as if I couldn’t speak within the group as others could, and how anything I said was immediately dismissed. I wasn’t allowed the same voice as anyone else, and this meant that I had to push harder and harder to be heard, while the leadership team consistently and publicly dismissed me as a troublemaker and as loud and annoying, while accepting my ideas for consent policies, community accountability, and transparency in group decisions as brilliant when they came from white voices.
I was repeatedly told to have compassion for the leadership team. They’re volunteers. They’re going through their own struggles. They don’t know what they’re doing. They’re not experts. It doesn’t matter that I have years and years and years of experience with community leadership and am sitting here with literal textbooks explaining concepts, I should have compassion for their inability to hear me, because well, you know, Niki has a hard time with you. You can’t force it. You have to give her time.
I have to give the woman who leaked information to my rapist that lead to years of harassment and threats time to get used to the idea of me, the victim of her harmful behavior, asking for accountability from the community’s leadership team.
I have to give the community time to adjust to the idea of BIPOC being allowed to have voices.
During these conversations phrases like “assume positive intent” and “have compassion” were frequently weaponized against me. The expectation was that I, the victim, had to repeatedly give space and have compassion for the perpetrator.
This is not how compassion works. This is how centering the perpetrator works. This is ignoring the needs of the victim while centering the needs of the perpetrator. This is centering white woman tears.
I do believe that a well functioning community should have options for rehabilitation. In my case, I asked for an apology. I asked for the person who leaked the information to step down from a leadership position and to be barred from holding one in the future. I asked for education on sexual assault and on being an outcry witness and how to support victims of sexual assault as community leaders. I asked for bias training for anyone holding current or future leadership roles. This was compassion. This was acknowledgement that Niki maybe didn’t realize the scope of what she had done, and that she had the potential to grow and learn and do better. This was rehabilitation in that it was accepting the consequences for her actions, and learning about how she could do better in the future.
I was ultimately denied my request for accountability, and I was told to have compassion for Niki. As this was really hard for her, and she felt really bad that I was hurting, just not bad enough to make amends, or admit she was wrong, or actually admit any responsibility.