Around the time of the most recent spate of gendered violences reported in and around Melbourne in June, things started to feel…troubled. The sensation was familiar but difficult to place. Perhaps the word ‘sensation’ isn’t terribly precise; it wasn’t quite vivid or specific enough to be déjá vu, nor did it engage any of the corporeal modes of perception that so often trigger memory. It was just this…atmosphere.
Over the last few weeks, as I’ve watched with a confusing mix of hope and horror as Dr Christine Blasey Ford attempted to bring US Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh to accountability for sexual assault, the feeling surged again. It hasn’t subsided.
It’s as though there’s a particular electromagnetic frequency that accompanies what I finally understood to be the origin point of this feeling. It’s detectable to those of us who’ve experienced it before, if not quite describable.
When I began to try to name it, I did so with people I knew had experienced it before. ‘Can you feel that?’
Grimly, they could. We spoke about it with sharp analysis and tender hearts. Knowing that I wasn’t the only one—that others could detect it, too—made it really feel like a ‘thing’, and not just some weird, pessimistic time I was having. I’m given to those—we’re done for as a species, it’s a sunset, not a sunrise, etc—and so I try to own my dismals and keep them on the right side of conspiracy theory.
That frequency? It’s the one that starts vibing when you realise that you’re being _____ (abused, manipulated, perpetrated against, harmed, other: insert all that apply), and that you must begin to move away from the person or people responsible for it. Let’s call it ‘exit time’.
Exit time is a moment—once-off or recurring, over months, years, a lifetime. It’s experienced in so many different ways and under such variable circumstances. My understanding of our intersectional personal contexts tells me that it’s an utterly individual experience. My understanding of systems of oppression tell me that it’s a collective experience. Maybe this goes some way to explain why it’s so damned shifty, so difficult to pin down with language.
It could also be a consequence of the machinations of abuse itself. Silence. Fear. Doubt. The erasure or scrambling of self that occurs when you bear the prolonged effects of anything that falls on the continuum of harm, from harassment and casual micro aggression to more criminalised forms of violence: sexual, physical, psychological, financial. The static that interrupts the frequency, making you wonder whether this is really happening.
There were a few things that contributed to me picking up the frequency this time. Some of them were hyperlocal—watching my queer or kinky or otherwise-politicised communities grapple with call-outs and ‘accountability’ over foul play, or my sex-working community in their own dealings with assault at work or stalking in their personal lives. Others hit the national news—Qi Yu, Eurydice Dixon, Laa Chol, the woman pulled into the car at Lygon and Grattan in Carlton. Others still didn’t hit the news at all. On a global scale: #MeToo, Christine Blasey Ford, the implementation of paid DV leave in New Zealand, our renewed investment in grappling with ‘patriarchy‘, and the proposition that the sludge at the very bottom of the well of oppression, the root cause of all evil, is something called ‘toxic masculinity’.
I have definitely been hesitant to call this exit time. There are some dialectical reasons, like the fact that I’m 34 years old and haven’t quite had enough lifetime to know whether this is something that happens cyclically as we ride the ‘waves’ of feminism, or whether we’re really at a critical swell. Or the fact that the #MeToo, in its whiteness, its celebrity, its hashtags, and its failure to keep Louis C.K. down for more than a few months hardly signals the beginning of the end of gendered harassment or sexual assault. I honestly don’t know whether this is it, or whether I just happen to know a lot more lesbian separatists than I used to.
My most deep-seated hesitation to call time, though, is because I know what happens next. I’ve been here, we’ve been here. Exit time is danger time.
The point at which a person declares a boundary around or an intention to leave an ongoing violent or abusive dynamic is statistically the period of their highest risk for being physically harmed or killed. The backlash against the boundary creates a level of danger that didn’t exist when the victim refrained from naming or overtly resisting their abuse.
If this is it, we’re in trouble. If this is exit time, it follows that women[i] are at a heightened risk of harm. And if that’s the case, what’s our plan?
In undertaking an exercise like this—drawing a parallel between individual and collective experiences of gendered violence / misogyny / sexual harassment / abuse in order to look for some strategies for moving away from it—there must be consideration of scale. I will not claim that there is an easy one-for-one here, in either the problematising or the envisioning-solutions, in no small part because nothing about any of our discussion about gendered violence or abuse is easy, un-troubled, or encased in some purity of theory.
The conversation about how severe an offence needs to be in order to be named or escaped from is already taking place (just ask Germaine). Men’s Rights Activists (MRAs) counter feminist discussions of intimate violence with their own statistics about the effects of both ‘toxic masculinity’ and ‘reverse misogyny’, perhaps in an attempt to diminish our perception of the scale of actual misogyny. While the character and context of an offence is certainly an essential consideration of the nuance of any process of justice or accountability around harm, a preoccupation with it is ultimately a distraction from my purposes here.
Patriarchy’s reign has had women trapped in a cycle of coercion, abuse, manipulation and harm that runs deep into our collective histories, and I, like many survivors of that violence before me, am wondering whether we’ll live through an attempt to truly end it.
I am under no illusion that all women would have an equal chance of survival. Patriarchy and colonialism wrap around one another so inextricably as to be at times indistinguishable from one another, and it’s a challenge to extract oneself from one without getting caught in the tendrils of the other. Until feminist movement integrates and stands for #literallyallwomen, collective exit is relegated to the realm of theory, locking out the people most vulnerable to gendered violence.
When men who do harm—regardless of its scale or their awareness of it—can feel its victim begin to move away, they are likely to react. This is almost always what happens when someone who has previously held power and control begins to feel it slipping, and it is a common experience shared by survivors of abuse in diverse dynamics of power and control. When our compliance is consistently tacit, they are not required to build tools for processing our non-compliance.
But it isn’t just ‘men who do harm’ who are reacting to the boundary women seem to be setting up in unprecedented numbers. As #NotAllMen aspired to be the disambiguation of #MeToo, purporting to help us all distinguish between the ‘bad blokes’ who do harm and the ‘good blokes’ who too suffer the effects of toxic masculinity (finally—just the labour-saving device we needed!), it became clear that there’s another, equally insidious reaction to women’s clear statement that both structural and interpersonal misogyny are pervasive and abusive. Here we have another faction of angry men for us to attempt to get out from under. #NotAllMen could have signified allyship, or identified a group of people who believed us enough to centre our stories, to resist with us. In practice, it seems to have given us more to fear, growing the ranks of MRAs and perpetuating their insistence that they can somehow shirk responsibility for patriarchal privilege on account of their self-perceived lack of benefit from it.
Every time I read ‘I don’t believe in rape culture’ from a man in the comments, I think ‘I really need to take a refresher self-defence class’.
The things we do at exit time are largely determined by factors like the nature of the harm we’ve experienced, the resources and infrastructure that we either possess or have in proximity, our relationships to law enforcement or judicial process, the presence of dependents or other kinship structures affected by the harm being caused, whether or not the person causing the harm is able to be safely engaged, and, of course, whether or not anyone believes us enough to support us, and how that bears upon whether or not we believe ourselves. They are also determined by our fitness to undertake the actions that we believe will lead us towards safety or de-escalation—particularly in light of the mental, emotional and physical strain of bearing ongoing harm—and the health of the communities in (or away from) which we conduct our interventions or escapes.
In the months since I began to think of this moment as marking our collective exit, I’ve struggled with taking stock of the tools we have available to actually make it happen. This is perhaps a tragic moment in the history of human civilisation to be faced with executing such a bold move. In so many ways, our collective capability for complex and creative action around harm is nascent. Our processes—on both institutional and community levels—are flawed. Our tools are blunt. We are only just learning to wield them, to feel their weight in the hand, the way they move with our will. To feel what they can create, purposefully or incidentally.
When there is harm caused between individuals at the grass roots—particularly when it occurs within spaces where social justice is on the agenda, or disadvantage or disenfranchisement has created a sense of collective ‘otherness’—we have tried to take matters into our own hands. Our attempts to engage in ‘community accountability’ can be as simple as a name-and-shame call-out (and its subsequent and seemingly inevitable fall-out), or as complex as to engage third-party mediators, community assemblies, or other more formal instances of ‘community court’. These so rarely seem to produce lasting effects beyond the rupture of those communities, the social or physical isolation of the accused and / or the accuser, and the temporary corralling of both parties in physical and digital space, as policed by appointed (but not always well-qualified) community members. They also so often collapse under the weight of the need to produce a singular truth about either the validity of the accusation or the essential character of either or both parties—a task which is often inherently complex, and perhaps even preclusive of justice.
Those processes tend to mirror the problematics of those that occur on more institutional levels. There could be no better example than Ford vs Kavanaugh. In the weeks before Kavanaugh was woefully sworn in, we were made painfully aware of how damaging such a process can be for the accuser (and for all those with whom her trauma resonates), as well as how its protocols can be readily leveraged to continue the perpetration of harm, both by the accused himself and by the toxic masculine culture which pervades the institutions that have housed him. They operate on the basis that there is exactly one liar and one truth-teller in the case and have, with flagrant displays of gaslighting and victim-blaming from the US’s executive and legislative branches, installed a living portrait of the deepest misogynistic entitlement to their federal court. We will now utter the phrase ‘Supreme Court Justice Kavanaugh’ with the same defeat, disbelief and discord which accompanies ‘President Trump’.
I have never spoken with a person on whose behalf such a process was conducted who felt as though they had been delivered what they considered to be justice. I don’t believe that this never happens, but I do believe that it is far less often the case. Dr. Ford now finds herself in that minority, and I find myself both more enraged and more afraid.
When it was my exit time, I found myself scrambling for practice-wisdom to integrate into some sort of ad-hoc strategy that could help me navigate the lack of access to conventional avenues for intervention—one that integrated my personal values around what I would have, at that time, called ‘conflict’. A friend linked me to the Creative Interventions Toolkit, a 600-some-page document outlining tools for community-level intervention into interpersonal violence, and some of the theory that informs them, in language intended to be accessible and digestible for laypeople.
It cost me $40 to print out at Officeworks, which I was able to afford. It was written in English, which I could read and comprehend. I carried it and a pink highlighter hidden from view under a blanket in the boot of my car those months, getting it out in rare moments of calm to glean what I could from its steady, thorough, and mantra-like framework, which centralises the survivor’s process whilst taking care to attempt to effectively engage—rather than ostracise or banish—the ‘person doing harm’.
Creative Interventions views institutions like the police, the prison-industrial complex, the judicial system, and social and health services as secondary structures, useful insofar as they work in accordance with or complementary to the community’s process. It aims to take matters into the hands of the community, which they characterise as capable of being quicker, more relevant and more effective than the parties engaged in more traditional models of response and prevention. This is a direct response to the police violence, high rates of incarceration, poor health outcomes, and other institutional injustices experienced by the American communities of colour by whom the Toolkit was created, but its relevance extends far beyond them.
What strikes me about frameworks like these—those that are often based on approaches of restorative and / or transformative justice, which are distinct from what I’ve described above as ‘community accountability’—is that they sit with the complexity and contradictory experiences so often present in interpersonal violence, sexual assault, ongoing casual misogyny, and the rest of the suite of gendered harms. They aim to do this without dropping the survivor, without short-changing them or their experience of justice-seeking, without the trial-by-fire of popular opinion, and with an understanding that preserving our communities is pro-survival; dividing them means we stay locked down and locked into the systems of oppression in which we exist. They don’t presume that an act of violence needs to be ‘proven’ (or proven to be criminal) in order warrant intervention. They also insist that solutions engage the community as a whole, dividing the labour to cover the complex ground of supporting the survivor, stopping the abuse, engaging the person accused of doing it, and ensuring ongoing community-wide conversation and education around matters like consent, boundaries, self-awareness, and anger management. Its creators identify this work as a necessary foundation for effective political and social survival and resistance via the creation of healthy communities.[ii]
These sets of practice wisdom also affirm the ways in which all members of communities are situated within and affected by power structures like racism, poverty, misogyny, sexism, ableism and transphobia. (I note now that ‘whorephobia’ is not included in the list of defined keywords in the CI Toolkit—though it was a component of my experience of exit time, I overlooked the omission at the time.) It doesn’t deny that men can be negatively impacted by patriarchy, but it remains realistic about the types of harm experienced by both the victors and the victims of its structural effects and aims to address each differently.
My exit didn’t really look much like the models in the Creative Interventions Toolkit. Maybe because I didn’t get to finish highlighting the manual before my path out was determined, maybe because the more accessible tools at the time were things like whore magic and Tarot wisdom and some friends who’d had previous experience with other frameworks (you do what you know).
Or maybe it’s because, despite the barriers that preclude me (and many of my queer, trans, sex working, migrant, and otherwise state-fearing counterparts) from the go-to methods generally accessible to white people experiencing violence, we just aren’t there yet. It’s not because we don’t have the energy, money, or time. It’s because we haven’t committed (or been forced to commit) enough of those resources to developing our own more precise tools. It’s because we still hold onto the luxury of considering this work to be someone else’s work. Because we have yet to call it a day on the experts, authorities, processes and structures that are sanctioned to be handling this for us, but which fail us an overwhelming majority of the time. That have become one answer to the question ‘why she didn’t report it?’
It’s because we still think that this is someone else’s work.
Inclusion in the ‘we’ I refer to here is a privilege. The communities of colour in which resources like Creative Interventions were conceived cannot rely on this being someone else’s work. The need to move away from top-down interventions and their carceral risk necessitates conception of community-level strategies that source solutions from within the skillsets already held by its members or develop those skills when they are in unsatisfactory supply. There can be no illusion here that intervention into interpersonal violence is labour that must (or often even could, with safety) be referred out.
It is a classically colonial mindset that sets up the sorts of structures which position non-community members as authorities on community matters, and discourage or even abolish alternative processes, wisdoms or knowledge sets. This is where I begin to doubt myself as I imagine those two vines, patriarchy and colonialism, growing up and up in their infinite tangle. Here colonialism begins to look more like the trellis, allowing that thorny vine of patriarchy to climb up and up. If we are to develop interventions to gendered violence that move beyond mere replication of colonial systems of crime and punishment in a localised social sphere, it is time to down the master’s tools and sharpen the ones we already hold within.
You do what you have to do at exit time and I, like every survivor, deserved to be centred in the development of my strategy. I don’t know that I’d have taken more ‘restorative’ or ‘transformative’ options over the ones that could see me out as quickly and safely as possible. But I’d have loved to have felt as though I had the choice—or better yet, to be able to have both.
Gala Vanting is a writer, educator, and advocate for a safer, saner sexual culture living and working on stolen Gadigal land. http://galavanting.info/
[i] I use the term ‘woman’ throughout with an acknowledgement that the burden of this violence rests upon a diverse cohort of cis and trans women, genderqueer and non-binary people, and those who are read or live as ‘not-men’ or ‘not-men-enough’. This simplification is intended to limit the scope of the work to one axis of gendered power, not to erase the many other intersections that are harmed by gendered violence. Further discussion about interpersonal violence within LGBTIQ+ communities and between bodies marked by power differentials is needed, but is not my primary focus here.
[ii] For a more in-depth look at some of these US-based approaches to community interventions to interpersonal violence, see Lauren Caulfield’s Churchill Fellowship research conducted in her visits to several host organisations and projects here: https://www.churchilltrust.com.au/media/fellows/Caulfield_L_2013_Community_based_safety_proejcts_to_combat_gender_violence.pdf