[Content Note: talking about talking about sexual assault][not a typo]
A few years ago I was an extremely active member of a martial arts studio. Martial arts has risks, and this school chose to take more than the bare minimum- sparring involved head shots and take downs. I was willing to accept the risks of this with most people at the dojo, because I knew they were acting with my safety in mind and the risks were worth the benefits, but there was one guy, Snotlout, who did not pass that test.
Where most people will aim to hit near your face, so a mistake means you get a tap, Snotlout aimed to hit you, and the failure mode was hitting your face really hard. He took blind kicks at full power and blamed you for not getting out of the way. He once flipped a child flat on their back and his first concern was letting us know how lightly he had touched them.
The school wouldn’t kick him out, wouldn’t even really place restrictions on him. When I complained to the de facto leadership it was always redirected to what I could do to take care of myself, but when I did so (e.g. insisting on slow motion sparring), I got push back from other de facto leadership. No one would kick him out or place the necessarily level of restrictions on him, apparently out of fear those restrictions might drive him to leave. If I really pushed, the people who would talk to me about it would say that they or someone they loved was that dangerous when they came in, and they wanted to give that guy the same chance. Which is a beautiful thought, except that I know at least three people for whom he was a contributing factor in leaving the school. Where was the inclusivity for us?*
Last year Seattle Effective Altruists had a member who brought up sexual assault a lot, in ways that made it clear it was personally relevant to her. This made me really uncomfortable, but I was aware of how often rape victims are silenced and how damaging that is, so I didn’t say anything. What occurred to me much later was that statistically there was at least one other victim of sexual assault in room, probably more, and they might find also find it uncomfortable.** The choice wasn’t “do I silence this rape victim or not?”, it was “who do I make/let be uncomfortable?”, even if I didn’t know who the other person was. Obviously a trauma victim discussing work with personal meaning to them is in no way equivalent to a jackass endangering people’s safety in order to prove how awesome he is, but that is part of my point: even actions with very good motivations have costs.
Back to martial arts. Notice that I said de facto leadership? The problem wasn’t that someone calculated Snotlout vs. [me, the two people I know about, and unknown number of others he drove away] and chose him. It was that no one did the calculation and no one was responsible for making sure it was done. There wasn’t even anyone I could negotiate with to ensure my personal safety; a plan I worked out with one senior student would be publicly ridiculed by another.*** No one had ownership of student safety so there was no one to turn a pile of individual complaints into “wow, that guy is dangerous and we should do something”. To this day I’m not sure why “we have to be welcoming” meant “you have to let him hit you in the face over and over”, and everyone I asked described it as a decision made by someone else. I don’t even think this worked out particularly well for that guy, because while no one was willing to restrict him, a lot of people would have been happier if he just left, and it showed up in petty things like him never quite getting added to the parking mailing list. Eventually, after driving out who knows how many people, he screwed up so badly the school had to put severe restrictions on him. He never came back.
Back to EA. My eventual solution to the “how to talk about rape” problem was to simultaneously ask the woman to tone down the sexual assault talk in meetings where it wasn’t relevant and host her own meeting on the topic. Unfortunately she left for other reasons before I could implement this. But if I’d had the chance, it only would have worked because I was empowered as an organizer to do both of those things. If I’d approached her as a peer, the request to limit talk about sexual assault would have had less heft, and a dedicated meeting would have been a suggestion, not an offer. But it probably wouldn’t even have gone that far, because it wouldn’t have felt like my place to do it. That leaves the hypothetical assault victim that didn’t want to constantly hear about rape to defend themselves by approaching her directly, and possibly requiring they disclose their history to see results, which they shouldn’t have to do. In order to be truly welcoming to them**** , someone had to proactively make the space safe.
There have been other, less fraught trade offs. One person’s friendly debate is another’s attack, and a third person’s derail. I think one of my major contributions to the group has been not the decisions we made on these (although those were awesome), but that we made decisions at all, and worked out how to implement them.
If you are an organizer, for EA or something else, these are my recommendations:
- Have a small, identifiable group with whom the buck ultimately stops. Individual meetings in Seattle are run mostly on a who-is-excited-about-this system, but there are three people explicitly in charge of the administrative stuff, including disputes.
- Make explicit decisions about your norms, share them, and enforce them.
- Explicit is not the same as fixed. I’m extremely excited about our plans to experiment with different norms at specific meetings, even if some of the norms would make me miserable as a participant. Not every meeting needs to be for every person.
- There’s a fine line between overpreparing and sticking your head in the sand until something blows up. Some of our best decisions are “let X keep going unless Y happens, and then figure out a plan.”
*See also: Geek Social Fallacy #1.
**Much later still I would learn I was right.
***10 minutes before the same guy started quoting The Gift of Fear on listening to your instincts, and specifically leaving situations where you felt afraid. I walked out.
****Or people who were uncomfortable talking about sexual assault for other reasons, or people who just wanted to talk about the planned topic.