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America has a rape problem. For every 1,000 sexual assaults, only 310 are reported — and from the investigation stage to trial, only six rapists out of 1,000 will be incarcerated.
But America also has a prison problem. We spend close to $200 billion a year on imprisoning almost 2.3 million people at any one time — more per capita than any other country in the world. And African Americans and Latinos are heavily overrepresented in prison populations for reasons that can’t be boiled down to differences in crime rates. Most critically, imprisonment simply doesn’t work. It doesn’t prioritize helping victims heal, nor does it rehabilitate prisoners. Within three years of release, for example, two-thirds of ex-cons are rearrested.
So, if you don’t want to go to the cops in the aftermath of an assault — either because you doubt they’ll help or because you’re committed to finding alternatives, where do you turn?
Maybe you go to an organization like Support New York, a survivor support collective that grew out of punk and anarchist communities in NYC in the mid-2000s. In its own words, Support New York’s aim was “to empower survivors, to hold accountable those who have perpetuated harm, and to maintain a community dialogue about consent, mutual aid, transformative justice and our society’s narrow views of abuse.” At its peak, it comprised only 12 volunteer members, but it was still able to run more than a dozen intensive processes lasting six months to a year each.
On the survivor side of things, this meant direct support: believing them, prioritizing their wishes and helping them formulate a list of demands from the person who assaulted them in order to help them heal. Next, it involved running an accountability process with the assaulter — a course of readings, discussions and exercises, with the goal of helping them examine their harmful behaviors and to take responsibility for transforming them.
Sadly, Support New York is no longer around — it dissolved in 2015 when members burnt out or moved on, having been so engrossed in the work that they’d been unable to create the structures that allow organizations to live on in the absence of their founders. However, all of its alumni have remained involved in anti-violence work. Case in point: Colin Hagendorf, a writer, activist and adult punk rocker, has continued consulting on new processes since he left the collective, as well as spreading the collective’s now-public curriculum for running accountability processes.
In the context of heightened mainstream attention to sexual violence, the solutions proposed by groups like Support New York have never been more relevant. And so, I recently spoke to Hagendorf about the evolution of the collective, the current discourse around #MeToo and sexual assault and being a man engaged in anti-violence work. (Note: Hagendorf spoke to me as a past member of Support New York; therefore, his comments shouldn’t be read as official statements on behalf of the collective.)
To start, why attempt an accountability process after an assault? Why not simply go to the police?
Accountability around assault is inextricably tied to prison abolition work. It’s about acknowledging that punitive models like the judicial system in America aren’t healthy or functional, don’t lead to healing of the aggrieved party and don’t lead to any real reduction of recidivism on the part of the assaulter. Besides the lack of ability to rehabilitate people, the justice system also doesn’t respect or believe survivors. Going to the police in the aftermath of a rape can actually retraumatize someone.
If you think about sexual assault as being about power rather than being about sex, there’s a real removal of agency for the survivor. Their agency has been taken away, they’ve been forced into a situation where they don’t have a choice about what’s happening to their body. And a lot of times, the way a legal proceeding will play out continues to remove their agency.
So one of the big things about Support New York from the start was that it was survivor-focused. If a survivor didn’t want a process, we weren’t going to do a process. If someone came to us and said, “Hey, I’m not in touch with the survivor anymore. I just want to go through this accountability process so I can learn what I did and how to fix my behavior,” we’d try to find the time to work with them. But if we knew both parties and one of them said they didn’t want a process, then that was it. It’s not a tribunal where a wrong occurs, and we’re the ones who fix it. It’s all about restoring the agency of the survivor in very basic ways.
There’s this libertarian startup douche thing about making sex contracts, trying to figure out a formula for what is and isn’t assault. But it’s different every time. The same action may be assault to one person, but not another. Like, someone initiated sexual contact on a sleeping person who they’re in a relationship with. One person might say, “I hated that, don’t do that again,” and that’s it — the person didn’t call it assault and so there’s no point in trying to categorize it that way. But if that same occurrence happens and the person says it was assault, it has to be dealt with.
So if the survivor says they do want to have a process, we contact the perpetuator —
Why do you use the term “perpetuator” rather than “abuser”?
Because abuser wasn’t nuanced enough. We had to find language that would accommodate all these different things. We settled on “perpetuator” because we’re talking about someone who perpetuates harm, oppressive thinking and action. And we didn’t want to say “perpetrator” like the cops.
“Abuser” isn’t a bad term; it’s very accurate. But using “perpetuator” is about trust-building. They have to believe that in some way we have their interest in mind, too — and it’s true, we do. Calling someone an abuser isn’t an easy road to getting them to trust you to work with them.
So we met with the perpetuator for the first time, and they were allowed and encouraged to bring a friend. Because a lot of this is about building trust with the person that did the harm — to make them feel comfortable to be vulnerable and try to acknowledge what they did. So at the first meeting, we tried to be friendly. But if they weren’t willing to engage, there was sometimes a little more pressure put on. Most people seemed pretty willing, though. Even if they didn’t believe in the process, they at least believed in the false notion that if they completed it, it would absolve them in the eyes of everyone else.
At the first proper process meeting, we’d get people to sign a contract saying that it was going to be guided primarily by the other person’s experience. Next, we’d have them tell us their account of what had happened. That would be the last time their account was ever brought up — but it felt important to do once.
Then the survivor makes a list of demands, and part of the process was about helping the person to willingly comply with them. A lot of times, if the person was a prominent activist, one demand was that they needed to step down from being the face of their organization, to not do any organizing work that put them in contact with volunteers. Like, you need to pull yourself out of situations where you have this bevy of idealistic 20-year-olds available to you.
People complied with stuff like that all the time. They changed the way their whole life was being organized in order to accommodate the needs and desires of someone they had harmed.
The process was either six months or a year, and it involved a lot of readings and writing exercises. There were some somatic exercises, too — learning how your emotions manifest in different parts of your body, then doing physical exercises to interact with those emotions.
The goal of the process was usually to have two letters written. One was a brief public statement about the abuse and the work that had been done in the process, just to have something on the record if this person tried to deny that they’d done harm. The other was a more detailed letter of apology to the survivor. We were always adamant that doing the process didn’t necessarily mean that you’ll be forgiven by this person. You can do all this work — and it might be really hard — and this person will still be mad at you. But you still have to do the work so you don’t do this kind of thing to anyone else.
How did you get into doing this work?
In 2004, there were these meetings in the back of a donut shop in the West Village. It was mostly people from New York who had grown up in the punk scene. They were about organizing resources for capital T, capital P “The Punks.” I was around 20 at the time, and I was one of the oldest people there.
My partner at the time had been assaulted in the lobby of our building by a stranger, and it was a super fucked up situation obviously. It was foiled before anything truly terrible happened — she started screaming and the super came out and chased the guy with a pipe wrench. But it was super traumatic and fucked both of us up, her in more immediate ways and me in ways that I didn’t realize until much later. Like, having that sense of safety ruined, being shown how dangerous the world can be, that’s a scary thing. And I have some childhood shit that I didn’t start thinking about until recently, so it’s also my own history that drew me to this kind of work.
My partner thought we should have these survivor support meetings, so we offered to have them at our apartment. I think there were two of those, where we talked about what we could do to make spaces safer and about setting up a survivors-only group therapy sesh. Then in 2005, some folks got together and started this collective to publish a zine about two abusers — the collective became Support New York. We were explicitly a survivor support collective at the time, which meant a lot of different things. A lot of the time, people just wanted to talk to us. There was one person who just wanted us to call them every day, so we’d call and say, “Hey, today’s gonna be alright.” I called this person every Tuesday for a year. We did all kinds of unconventional and very intimate stuff like that. We had a fund for people to get a bus ticket out of town if they needed to, or to pay for hospital bills.
In 2007, we were asked to do our first accountability process. It was a complete disaster. We didn’t know what we were doing, we had no boundaries and it dragged on for two years. We really let the survivor down in some deep, intense ways. That one was awful. She and I just made amends about a year ago, over this stuff that happened 10 years ago. The lasting harm that can be done when this work goes badly can be serious. It’s still worth idealistic kids trying to do it, but it’s high stakes.
But even though that process went badly, we started doing other ones. And the more we did processes, the more we realized there was stuff we could do to make them more likely to succeed. For us, success wasn’t resolution between the two parties; success was mitigation of future harm on the part of the person who caused the harm in the first place. We also realized there was stuff we could do to make things easier on the survivor. That’s where the first ideas for the curriculum came from. We learned a lot of lessons from making mistakes that were hard for people, and we wanted to pass these on to other people who were in a situation like us — we were mad, powerless and our friends were being assaulted by awful men. We did this for a decade, so maybe we can help by putting it down in writing to make it easier for others.
What would you say to someone who supports the idea that the criminal justice system is terrible but thinks that these kinds of accountability processes let people off easy?
There’s a diversity of tactics in how a community can deal with assault. I don’t know what to do with people who are serially violent, I don’t know how to fix them. I don’t have an answer to that. But while we were doing Support New York, there were other people breaking abusers’ hands with a hammer. And I’ve never been shy about that being a legitimate tactic. It’s just not something I’d participate in, because it would have jeopardized my ability to be trusted by perpetuators.
In any case, no punishment is adequate for that kind of harm. There’s not a punishment that works. So I’m not concerned with whether they “got off easy” or not. I’m concerned with whether the survivor has a space to heal and whether the perpetuator is likely to behave that way again.
What kinds of outcomes were you working toward and which were you trying to avoid?
The outcome that we wanted was that the person we worked with never assaulted someone again, and that they learn a thing or two about themselves and what their impact on other people can be.
There’s one person we worked with, he was being called out by a former partner as well as some people he’d been working with. He was very against doing a process with us, but he grudgingly participated for a few months. Then we made some progress, and he got deeply involved in it. He stepped down from organizing as the survivor and collective he’d been involved with had asked him, wrote a letter of apology to the survivor and wrote a public letter.
Another of the survivor’s demands was that he inform anyone he might be doing activist work with, or living with in the future, that he had this history. So let’s say this guy was trying to move into a house — he had to say he had this history of abuse, that he’d worked for a year to try to rectify it and that his housemates could contact us about it. He was so invested in doing stuff right that he was giving out these letters all over the fucking place.
I remember I got this email from him five years after the process was done, and he was in Barcelona staying with some people and couldn’t find any copies of the Spanish language version — he had translated it — of the letter. He was only staying for two days so he didn’t think he’d have time to find it, and he didn’t know what to do. Years had gone by and we hadn’t heard anything bad about him, so we just told him it was okay. I was frankly shocked he was still sharing it with people that many years later, because it seems like the kind of thing where at some point, you’re going to stop giving this to every single person.
Conversely, the perpetuator in the first process we ever did is still violent toward women. He got called out during #MeToo. In the way of many abusive men, he has a history of ingratiating himself with communities and writing exploitative work about them. A truly terrible person. That’s the bad outcome — when somebody you think did the work and is going to be okay has secretly still been abusive to women.
It’s easy for me to get hung up on the times that weren’t fruitful. It’s hard to talk about success. In fact, I hate to use that word around this stuff, because it’s all a fucking bummer — we’re doing it in the first place because someone sexually assaulted someone else. But for every awful process that we quit or that ended badly, there were a few that were really life-changing for the people involved. Even some of the processes that failed, they at least created a space for the survivor to feel powerful. Even if the person didn’t complete it, the survivor gets to feel like they got the perpetuator to do this thing.
How do you think the current conversations around assault and harassment could be deepened?
The entire thing about how these poor men’s lives have been ruined is a waste of everyone’s time. None of their lives have been ruined — I wish they had been.
Right, I’ve known serial creeps who at least did lose their jobs, but less than a year later, they’re back in the same spaces and doing fine.
Yeah, it seems like these guys end up doing fine. The Alamo Drafthouse guy who assaulted my friend in a bar and then ambushed her on television while she was talking about her experience, he’s working at Alamo Drafthouse again. He got fired for what, two years? Boo hoo. Do you know how long sexual trauma lasts? I don’t care if their career went down the drain forever. That’s a good outcome. Maybe other people will be scared to do that shit in the future. That’s not to say people with a deep interest in healing themselves and the harm they’ve caused shouldn’t be given empathy, but I haven’t seen that from any of these prominent men.
I watched the conversation around sexual assault change as the mainstream seemed to be catching up to what folks in the underground were doing. So the most fruitful thing we can do with #MeToo is think about and respect where it came from — so many of these conversations have been happening in marginalized communities for so long already. Like, this was a movement started by a black woman, and we should be listening to marginalized people’s voices in general.
Another thing is that part of what makes assault and accountability issues so hard is that people are so quick to treat them as private issues. Like, “it’s none of my business what happens in the confines of a relationship.” But we’re starting to realize that these things have an impact outside the private. If women are being routinely dehumanized, they’re not going to be as effective as workers because they’re dealing with trauma. Black folks have lower life expectancies that are related to raised cortisol levels at all times because of fears of violent reprisal for just being alive in America. So we’re starting to recognize that these things that seem to just be private mental health issues have material impacts on the world.
Finally, how did being a man affect your feelings about the work?
At the time, I wasn’t thinking about it too hard. I was the only cis man in the collective. That was another reason I ended up on a lot of the accountability processes, because they were like, “We gotta put the dude on there so the guy doesn’t think it’s just a bunch of ladies yelling at him.”
Regardless of my feelings about my identity, I was socialized male and inarguably received an incredible amount of privilege as a young person. So I had to deal with some of my own shit, because anybody socialized male in America has some deeply-held, fucked-up toxic beliefs and practices. I was lucky in that I fell in with a bunch of older dykes when I was a teenager who became the people I looked up to the most in the world.
That really helped me as a teen, but even with that upbringing, I definitely did things as a teenager that weren’t quite assault but crossing boundaries. And I held onto some bad beliefs into my 20s. I still have to deal with gendered power dynamics. What working with Support New York did was give me the ability to look at that critically, so that when a current partner says that the way we’re experiencing conflict is based on a gendered dynamic, I don’t feel defensive, I say, “That’s something to look into.”
It’s important to take assault seriously, obviously, and it’s also important to realize that the perpetuators of assault aren’t cartoonish villains. Men, I’ll say with 100 percent certainty that you know someone who has perpetuated abuse, and that person might be you. So if men are dedicated to dismantling the structures that are harmful to women, it’s important to turn the gaze inward.
I’m still not done. I’m 35, and I’m still taking apart the ways that my masculine socialization harmed me and put me in a position to, at best, disregard, and at worst, actively harm people around me. I don’t think that’s an anti-man sentiment; I think that’s an anti-society sentiment. I don’t think men are inherently bad or evil. I have many close male friends who I love dearly. But I think men are taught to put their emotions outside their body in a way that’s often harmful to others. That’s why doing the work to undo that is so important. It’s really hard, but it’s also really gratifying.