This page is a list of resources to help those around survivors of gendered / raced harm begin or continue learning about good ways to respond.
As anyone who has begun the process of supporting survivors will no doubt have perceived, distinct bystander patterns emerge.
These same patterns are described in all of these resources, dating from the mid-1990s to the present day.
This post began as a collection of resources about gendered violence (and most of the posts still have this focus) but it has been expanding to capture the dynamics of bystander response in other forms of harm shaped by structural violence.
This consistent experience of bystander patterns across time and space suggests that the whiplash-quick social conditioning that makes it appear normal and natural to harm or discredit survivors the moment they speak up, and the question of how to perceive harm accurately, let alone protect survivors from it, is an old problem, one that communities and movements have been dealing with for a long time.
This list of resources can hopefully help bystanders, supporters, and pod members skip over common pitfalls and prevent some of the the anguish of reinventing the wheel.
In the end, though, in a culture that normalizes, disguises, and minimizes gendered and raced harm, choosing to centre, believe, and protect survivors is just that: a choice. Acting with integrity around these kinds of harm is not automatic; it must be decided and acted out as a conscious choice, moment by moment. It requires taking decisions that run counter to social conditioning.
No amount of reading can demonstrate how widespread and systemic and deeply-rooted this cultural conditioning into racism-and-sexism is. In a lot of ways, there are no words.
But if you are witnessing the fluid dynamics of bystander responses, or beginning to become aware of how deeply this brutal erasure runs in our culture, the readings and tools here can affirm that you and those who are supporting you are absolutely not imagining it.
The harm is enormous, so large and so deeply-rooted it is difficult to see – until you bump up against it and it bumps you back, hard.
a few excerpts from the links:
From Sprout Distro’s Betrayal Zine:
“This conspiracy of silence seeks not only to end a survivor’s struggle before it even begins, but also to provide the back drop for what will happen to the few survivors who refuse to be muzzled. For a survivor to speak openly of their experiences in such a climate can only be understood as an act of resistance, and as with all acts of resistance, repression is a likely outcome. This repression is more nuanced than the clubs of police officers or the guns of soldiers, though these too have been turned on survivors. The repressive forces are more likely to be mentally and emotionally devastating. Those who doubt the brutality of this internal repressive apparatus have likely never been on the receiving end.
The ‘communities’ that are so often turned to with the expectation of support are more often mobilized against the survivors on behalf of their perpetrators in a stunning counter attack. It’s difficult to properly illustrate what so many survivors have had to endure at the hands of their supposed comrades.
Perhaps a survivor gave no clue of abuse as they endured it, perhaps they consented to certain sexual activity but not all of it, perhaps they felt the need to disclose certain experiences and withhold others, perhaps they needed time to process their trauma and only revealed it gradually, perhaps they have their own issues with power or boundaries. What’s important is not the details themselves, but how they can be twisted, taken out of context, or else used to undermine a survivor’s credibility. Past histories, addictions, coping mechanisms, debts, insecurities, even a survivor’s political identity, all are fair game. When this strategy is successful, survivors are villainized and their attackers are recast as the victims of lies and manipulation.
But even if the apparent objective of discrediting a survivor in the eyes of community fails, the process itself can still be effective at forcing survivors out of that community. Knowing that simply walking into a space means that nearly everyone there has discussed your personal life at length creates a tremendous barrier, regardless of the conclusions people may have reached. Survivors may feel compelled to pre-empt this dynamic by engaging their critics. Often, this plays into demands for “proof” or details of assaults or abuse. The retraumatizing aspect of this is yet another further attack on the survivor, and often feeds rather than undermines the conflict.
As tensions grow, it begins to spill over into new arenas. Previously uninvolved parties […] become caught up in the mounting bedlam, and organizing becomes disrupted. Of course, at this point normalization has been broken, and the repressive apparatus no longer has anything to lose by not holding back. […] “These divisions are hurting us!” they cry. Of course, such divisions are never blamed on the perpetrator or their actions, but on the survivor for insisting that the trauma they’ve experienced cannot go unanswered.
They will often liken the survivor’s struggle to a ‘witch hunt,’ when they themselves share more in common with the executioners than with those who burn at the stake.”
“Based on experiences that I and my friends and colleagues have had, and on the research that I’ve done, that too much leeway is given to perpetrators, particularly when they are also talented writers and artists, particularly when they are also our friends. In fact, part of our rape culture is that, when a perpetrator is named, there is an immediate and vehement rush of friends and colleagues:
“So-and-so is a good man.”
“So-and-so is no rapist.”
“So-and-so has always treated me with respect.”
I’m going to tell you some personal stories and anecdotes. I want you to sit with your first reactions to them. I want you to consider your own structural position, and think about what positions of power and privilege you might occupy in your own communities.
2009 was the first time that I witnessed one member of my writing community accuse another member of my writing community of sexual assault. Or maybe it wasn’t the first time. But it was an incident that has lodged in my mind, as it marked a response and a positioning that I have since reconsidered.
I thought the accuser was exaggerating.
I thought the words she used in her group email to castigate the person who had abused her trust and touched her without her consent were too harsh. I questioned whether the incident, as she reported it back to the community, could really properly be termed an assault.
I thought her tone seemed off. I thought perhaps she misinterpreted the situation. I recounted how much time I had spent with the person in question, and that he had never made me feel uncomfortable or unsafe.
In summary, my reaction was typical of the way in which many liberals and leftists react when their friends are accused of “horrible things” — violence ranging from racist comments to rape.
[…] Over the past several years, I have personally heard countless stories. I have no reason not to believe what is told to me, privately and in confidence.
What has changed for me since the first story I heard back in 2009 about a former friend of mine, in addition to the fact that I’m older, hopefully wiser, and certainly better able to parse the cultures around me, is also that I came to understand how people are treated when they come forward and name their accusers. It is ironic that one of the victim-blaming tropes, from Cosby to Trump, to your favourite local award-winning writer or musician, is that accusers must be after fame. When in reality, as Harding and other feminist thinkers have elucidated, the fame that survivors achieve is the fame of being slut-shamed, threatened, insulted, and disbelieved in public and in the court system. every single time we talk about abuse and assault, those of us who are speaking out face verbal abuse and assault, and our conversations are often completely derailed.
Accountability is not when a writer — who more than any other professional or artist knows the power of words and has the ability to be very precise in their choice of words — pretends that those same words don’t have the power to harm and the power to influence, reinforce and reify cultural mores and values.
It’s not good enough to pretend that a violent metaphor that reinforces the relative lack of value of certain bodies is “just a metaphor.” It’s not good enough to cry assault when what is happening to you is that you are being challenged on the violence of your ideas. It is vitally important that there be community responses. It can’t continue to be up to the victims to fix the problem.”
From Stories Like Passwords:
“We consistently fail young women — all women — by tacitly relying on them to learn from each other, or from their experiences, which of the people in their communities they can and cannot trust. We ask them to police their own peers, but quietly, through back channels, without disturbing the important people while they’re talking. We wait for the victims of abuse to be the ones to take power away from their abusers, instead of working actively to ensure that these motherfuckers never get that far in the first place.”
From The Cardigan (useful for recognizing narcissistic-patterned psychological abuse):
“He keeps changing the answer to the question of what poly means specifically to him. He also tells you that he hates making compromises, and that someone shouldn’t have to give up something or someone they want because their partner is insecure. A sick feeling brews in the pit of your stomach […]
Certainly users of actual narcotics know deep in their guts that they’re making a mistake. But nobody thinks moving to Portland is a mistake, so you went.
You call your best friend from Portland and tell her you don’t feel safe. Emotionally safe. Every day, you cry for safety and security and you ask him for it and it never comes. There is some sort of Teflon coating around his ability to love you, something off-kilter that you can’t readily describe or recognize.
Though he says he’s not pining for the other woman a thousand times, you are a girl with girl intuition, and your spidey-sense goes berserk where she’s concerned. You know he isn’t being upfront with you about her, though he insists he is. And when you met her, she seems nice enough, but something feels strange about their interactions, and later, he looks at you with disappointment in his eyes and tells you that she thought you were “marking your territory” on him, and, devastated, you ask if that’s a bad thing, and apparently it is, and now he’s saying that your feelings are wrong, only he’s not saying that at all. He is confusing you on purpose. He is shaking you up. He is making you doubt yourself.”
From Experts in the Field
“I don’t wish anyone harm—quite the opposite. What I wish is not to be silenced. Because everyone I love—my friends, my family, my wonderful life partner, now my own children—are all victims of these men as long as I remain so. These are men who abused and disrespected me, who took advantage of their positions to exploit me, in institutions of higher learning where their gender and power let them control the narrative […] and where they were allowed to respond to my own resistance with dismissiveness—even patronizing and bemused dismissiveness.
If in the past decade I have seemed cool or distant, like someone who doesn’t need or want the literary community, such as it is, after having declined fellowship offers, invitations to speak or to attend writing conferences or even (in one case) turned down a job, please understand it hasn’t been personal. I haven’t had much interest in attending these conferences, retreats, residencies, readings, or celebrations. Aside from the obvious reasons why, I don’t know what stories—true and untrue—people have heard about me. Something I’ve learned about narcissistic people, through these experiences, is that if they can’t control you, they’ll try to control the way people see you.
While he was courting me, this first teacher above showed me more than one letter he’d written to the then-chair of the English Department—letters in which he carefully explained a current student or colleague’s infatuation with him, and described the steps he’d taken to try to de-escalate the passion. Such a responsible employee. At the time, I thought he was simply being a charming braggart, trying to show me how beloved and wanted he was. Years later, when it was all over, and after talking to some of the very people described in these letters, I considered that there may have been something else going on, too: Wasn’t he covering his tracks?
And then there’s the fact that off the page, women do talk. In my experience, in personal conversation and over email, it just takes slowly testing whether a woman is trustworthy, whether she more or less shares the same values. […] A suggestion here, an eyeroll there, a laugh, a toss of the hand, and you know you can trust her; then you really talk. Who hasn’t felt this? The exquisite relief.”
From Baby, I’m a Manarchist:
“Rich identified himself as a feminist. […] Rich must understand that he is responsible for his actions; he must own them. Apologizing is never enough, and will never be enough. Taking ownership is not enough either but it is an essential first step. If Rich was truly committed to change within himself and to enacting change in the communities of which he is a member, he would take ownership for his actions without being prompted to do so. Rich poses as an activist, as a radical, as a feminist, and as an ally.
[…] I am not going to be the one to leave. I have spent the last six months avoiding Rich. I skip shows that I know he is going to be at. If there is a party that he might attend, I call ahead to find out whether he is expected to be there. If people are not sure whether he is going to show up or not, I don’t go. This has to stop.”
“I was thinking about what it might mean to ‘bear witness.’
I wonder if one of the things about the Bystander Effect is basically a shock to one’s worldview. And turning away from a shocking reality in front of you is the easiest thing that you can do to preserve your world.
And the effect on a victim of having others turn away from their reality is gaslighting: the victim might doubt their reality really happened.
Meanwhile, bearing witness online means being able to acknowledge someone’s reality–this thing really happened to someone–and be able to share (via social media) that acknowledgment.
It becomes world-affirming rather than world-destroying.
Some of the abusive social media messages trolls are sending me (in the wake of the media attention on the assault) come in the form of direct messages: no one else can see them.
It is an isolating experience. I could delete them with or without reading them (perhaps as if they never happened) but then that might contribute to a feeling as if I imagined it all. Gaslighting.
But when a friend said that she was willing to see the messages–to bear witness to them–it pierced through the isolation. I felt like my reality was now affirmed, that the abuse is real.
Thank you for the support that you continue to provide bearing witness and affirming that all this is really happening.”
Why Does He Do That (especially the chapters on ‘abusers and their allies’ and on the cultural context for entitlement)
Incite! community accountability process
Sprout Distro’s Betrayal Zine
The Revolution Starts at Home: Confronting Intimate Violence within Activist Communities (see section 4 describing bystander dynamics)
Rock Dove Collective, Dealing with Conflict
Did you find this info useful? If you’d like to help us build a safer world for survivors, please share!
See the original viral post The Opposite of Rape Culture is Nurturance Culture
If you realize you have harmed someone in this way, and you need to take ownership and begin to fix what you have done, here is how to practice accountability in a healthy, responsible way: Own, Apologize, Repair: Coming Back to Integrity
For more on working with internalized shame, reducing the barriers to accountability after harm, here is a piece that looks at how you can heal the inner fear of being ‘not good enough‘
Do you love speculative fiction and social justice? I’ve written a speculative fiction novella that explores the transformations our planet is undergoing and the undoing of cultures of domination. Cipher is currently exploring agents and publishers. Help finding its wings is welcome! Learn more about Cipher here.
Gratitude to Chach M. Heart and to the rest of the Badassery group, and to my pod, for sharing resources as we all learn together. <3<3<3