Imagining Radical Accountability for Sexual Violence

By Guest Contributor

We will not engage in a “debate” about the college judicial process. We are not here to attack college administrators who are working within the confines of Title IX legislation to create as supportive and fair a process as they can. Despite administrators’ best intentions, the judicial process can be an extremely difficult process for a person to go through, especially someone who has experienced theft of agency through power-based interpersonal violence such as sexual assault. In addition, it is a process that seeks to clarify whether or not the incident in question “more likely than not” constituted a college policy violation. It does not determine whether or not someone was hurt, or whether or not the respondent used their privilege to create a power imbalance that harmed someone. Sometimes, those things occur at the same time as a policy violation. Sometimes they do not; sometimes they occur at the same time as a policy violation but there is not a preponderance of evidence to suggest it.

Power-based interpersonal violence like sexual assault occurs when one person exploits the power differential between themselves and others. Due to differing relationships with power related to race, class, gender, etc., this exploitation could be unconscious, automatic or consciously intentional. In order to understand sexual assault, we have to understand power, and in order to understand power, we have to understand the systems of oppression that inform power differentials in relationships. These systems include but are not limited to: racism, cis/hetero/sexism, ableism, classism and Islamophobia. This past year, the campus community as a whole has made stumbling vocal attempts to address and understand systems of power, and we have failed. We have failed because we refuse to acknowledge our own individual and personal accountability as actors and observers. We have failed because dominant campus culture sees acts of violence such as sexual assault and racial micro/macroaggressions as something that “rapists” and “racists” do, as acts that we could never be responsible for because we — at Middlebury — are “good people.” We fail to recognize the ways that “good people” consistently reinforce structures of violence and contribute to violence.

Speaking or acting on sexist, racist, ableist or other such oppressive and problematic assumptions is not always punishable by law or judicial processes. It is, however, always harmful. Does this mean we always need to resort to carceral or punitive measures to hold our community accountable? What if, instead of only framing sexual violence in terms of “crime” or “policy violation,” we recognize it as a failure of our community, our educations and our interpersonal communication? So few of us are given the tools we need to engage in not only safe relationships but also honest and fulfilling ones. These missing tools include engaging with and questioning what constitutes power, privilege and violence, and the way that these forces impact our relationships. Maybe, recognizing that our communities have failed us will help us understand why taking responsibility for our actions when someone is hurt is not necessarily a concession of guilt, but rather an acknowledgement of humanity.

Supporting survivors and being accountable for the well-being of our community at large means expanding and reframing conversations about power-based violence to think outside of judicial processes and to focus on community responsibilities to one another instead. To begin, we must acknowledge the way current campus conversations about diversity and inclusion are connected to the work of combatting sexual violence and supporting survivors. We will not and cannot powerfully combat sexual violence — which lives at the intersection of various systems of power and oppression — if we are unable to have meaningful, empathic and/or productive conversations about racism (and ableism, transphobia, sexism, Islamophobia, etc), both interpersonal and institutional, as they operate at Middlebury. Trauma as a result of multi-generational oppression and macro/microaggressions is as real as the trauma of sexual violence, and — for many survivors — they are inextricably linked to one another.

We want to expand the potentialities for how we as a community understand sexual violence at Middlebury. First, we must take the conversations about oppression and violence outside of The Campus. It is a limited form of engagement for what should be serious and mindful conversations. Pieces like “Reexamining Our Sexual Assault Investigative Process” and other recent op-eds rooted in privilege are triggering, derailing and exhausting for those who consistently have to deal with trauma or defending and debating their worth and presence at Middlebury. These op-eds attempt to disengage from and avoid the conversations about power, privilege and oppression that our community desperately needs.

Next, we must think about violence in the context of its location and the way that harm manifests in power-based violence, rather than only defining actions by legality/illegality. Our community would then focus more on how people are affected by violence and less on whether a policy was violated or not. This concept is as relevant to conversations about sexual violence as it is to those about political correctness and freedom of speech. Some tactics for harm-based interventions could borrow from restorative justice practices — informally or formally — in transformative or prevention work. The College’s PRISM project (of which Middlebury is a member of the advisory group) is beginning to research the possibilities for implementation on college campuses. Initiatives like Circles of Support and Accountability (support systems utilized by perpetrators returning to their communities after incarceration consisting of volunteers, trained staff and experts) are already used in Vermont’s criminal justice system, and — pending further research and activism — could be used for perpetrators found responsible returning to campus after suspension, or — informally — in social or organizational circles on campus. Other tactics could include an everyday ethic of taking responsibility for ourselves, our community and our mistakes, and of making a commitment to social justice education: individually, in friend groups and through initiatives like JusTalks and Green Dot.

We must lean into discomfort and reimagine a community that practices an ethic of radical accountability.

Molly McShane ’16 is from Washington, DC and Rebecca Coates-Finke ’16.5 is from Northampton, Mass.

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