Being anti-state does not equal being pro-freedom: Misogyny and the imagined “Circle of Protection” in progressive communities

This post is not intended to be a blind celebration of the police. Let’s not pretend as though the police are not largely representative of  white male power and authority. But that does not mean I am anti-criminalization or anti-state. As feminists and as women, we need the state on our side.

When I read two posts published recently, addressing “safe space” and misogyny in activist communities, specifically in the Occupy Vancouver community, I had high hopes. But that sentiment was quickly replaced by a sinking feeling. Building a safer space, according to these two pieces, “Safety Within Social Movements Is Everyone’s Responsibility” & “On Safer Spaces,” meant depending on the activist community to protect you. Specifically, women and other marginalized folks were meant to rely on a “Circle of Protection” to defend them from harassers and abusers.

It sounds nice in theory. As a young person, first delving into radical theory and, specifically, anarchism, I too dreamed of a utopian community that would defend their own. No need for the cops! Abusive and violent men would be shunned and ostracized by egalitarian communities – “kicked off the island,” one might say.

On one hand I was glad that activists were addressing the fact that oppressive structures and behaviours like racism and misogyny are often replicated in progressive spaces:

“The fluid community of Occupy Vancouver has been plagued by abuse, neutrality towards that abuse and even support of that abuse. Calls to “just let it go” or “move on” are demeaning to the safety of the women, people of color and other marginalized groups in our movement and will no longer be tolerated. “

But the solution troubled me. The suggestion that women in progressive movements should depend on a “Circle of Protection” that exists within those communities  is one that, from my perspective, misses the fact that women are often violated and assaulted by the very people who are meant to protect them. It is not uncommon for assault to go unreported in anarchist and activist communities specifically because women are discouraged from calling the cops, essentially leaving these men free from accountability.

When women are abused by those who claim to be their protectors and then are told not to involve the police because the police are the real oppressors, where do they go?

There have been numerous accounts of women being raped in situations and settings that are meant to be freeing or liberating. Festivals like Woodstock ’99 saw horrific accounts of women being gang raped while bystanders continued with their fun and dancing. Rainbow Gatherings, the hippie-peace-free-love ethos is pushed on women in order to pressure them into letting go of their boundaries (aka: letting douchey dreadlocked white dudes give them massages). There are many accounts of attempted (and, I’m sure, successful) rapes at these Gatherings. The entire “free love” movement of the 60s has been called out repeatedly by feminists who say that all it did was to apply “a new set of imperatives on women’s behavior, a compulsion to say yes that was as inhibiting as the injunction to say no.”

And even if we we don’t consider these events or movements to be necessarily activist movements, the point remains that self-described progressive communities have never protected women from abusive men. Often, a libertarian or anarchist ethos has been used to pressure women into accepting misogynistic treatment silently and peacefully.

Above all that, I just have a really big problem with discouraging women from involving the police when they’ve been victimized. Under reporting is a huge problem – many statistics say that between 75%-95% of rapes go unreported. We are all well aware that most women who experience domestic violence don’t report either. Basically, men who abuse think they will get away with it because they do, for the most part, get away with it.

Let me tell you a story about a self-proclaimed “progressive,” anti-cop community. During my mid-twenties urban-girl-has-quarter-life-crisis-that-leads-her-to-believe-she-must-live-in-a-tent phase, I moved to a small, rural, island community. These places are attractive to city folks who have fantasies that, somehow, these kinds of places have escaped hierarchy and are more liberated, community-minded, progressive, and peacey than cities are. That couldn’t be farther from the truth. In part, because these communities often hang on to these fantasies themselves.

In my experience, the “oh how wonderful that all the adults and the kids and the teenagers all go to the same parties – we’re breaking boundaries!” thing is less “good, clean, community fun” than it is “old drunk guy offering to drive young drunk girl home while everyone turns a blind eye or is too high to care”.

When I arrived on this island, I was told almost immediately, by several people, that there were no cops on the island for a reason. Not only did “we” not want them, but “we” didn’t need them. The “we” who were telling me this were, in large part, white men. These men also explained to me that there was no need for police on the island because “the community” would take care of its own. That “we” (again, the “we” = white men) would take care of abusive men by physically throwing them off the island and/or by insuring these misogynists knew they were not welcome. And yet, strangely, there were still stories of assault and abuse on the island. Many of these men still lived and partied in this community while many others turned a blind eye. No one wanted to upset the fantasy, which also meant that a lot of oppressive behaviour and abuse went unaddressed.

The truth was that many in the community believed themselves to be above the law and/or wanted to avoid the law because they were doing illegal things. They weren’t about protecting women, they were about protecting themselves.

We heard rumours about teenage girls being violated at parties and hit on by 50 year old men. And yet no one was being kicked off the island. And still, according the white men, “we” still didn’t need cops sniffing around on the island.

Eventually, when I left an abusive relationship, I called the cops. And, strange thing – people stopped speaking to me. They stopped making eye contact with me. I was being ostracized. Not the abusive man. Nope. He was still at all those parties, driving home drunk with teenage girls in his truck. I was uninvited. I was longer welcome on the island.

The men who had explained to me that “we” didn’t need cops because “we” lived in a progressive community wherein “we” took care of one another turned out to be either the abusers or the ones who protected the abusers. It was a greater crime to go to the police than it was to abuse women.

And therein lies my concern with “Circles of Protection”. I simply don’t trust a “Circle” of anarchists or radicals to protect me. If I am assaulted I want to not only be able to call the cops and expect them to address the issue, but I want to be encouraged and supported in doing that. Not shamed for “going to the man”. I want the state on my side. I need the state on my side.

In one of the posts I reference above “On Safer Spaces,” the author writes that this “Circle of Protection” is based on four goals:

1.Empowerment – To trust in our possibilities, in our concepts and our own definitions. We must build this power because we come from dis-empowered positions.

2.Autonomy – The refusal to rely on existing structures to act from our own positions of empowerment outside of institutions entrenched in oppressive power structures. Building our own methods and structures so that we are creating the world we want now.

3.Self-Defense – Our inherent right to defend ourselves from aggressors/abusers.

4.Safety/Safer Spaces – A space where emotional, physical and spiritual well-being are respected. When these are challenged, we are able to maintain our autonomy and right to self-defense so that we may act to make our spaces safer.

Let me just start by saying this. I do not want to have to defend myself from my abuser. I simply don’t want to be abused. I want existing structures and institutions to understand power and the dynamics and gendered nature of abuse and assault and to address that via legislation. I do not want, in any way, to have to rely on some self-declared “Circle of Protection” that may or may not include abusers, to defend me.

Having the “right to self-defense” and having “autonomy” in a space that discourages state intervention or criminalization of abusers does not feel safe to me. To me, making progressive change and creating an equitable society must move beyond individualism, which is what this statement seems to represent. Maintaining my autonomy means that my government, the government that is meant to represent me, creates laws that protect me.

I appreciate the goal of creating a equitable society but I also believe that the only people in society who have the freedom to reject the state and to denounce the criminalization of abusers are people who already have a huge level of privilege and who already feel safe in progressive communities. If you walk around this world feeling free, then it’s easy to say that you don’t need the protection of the state and that you don’t need the law. If you already have power and privilege it’s easy to argue that you can protect yourself, that you don’t need the police to protect you.

Michael Laxer wrote, in a similar vein:

“Rules and law protect regular and innocent people. They are safeguards against arbitrary actions by corporations, governments or self-appointed vanguards and we should not get rid of them. Our forebears on the left died to create the context in which we now work and joining the right in trying to rip it down will help no one.”

In other words, structure and law is not the enemy. Those who oppose the state and who are opposed to criminalization in it’s entirety* are fooling themselves if they think this is a progressive move. Wonder why the far right is anti-state? Because without it, the privileged and the powerful would have even more freedom to reign without restriction.

Ostracizing abusive men from progressive communities doesn’t work because progressive communities are full of abusive men (just like everywhere else in this world). Feminists have fought for decades to get legislation that protects their rights – and we are supposed to give this up in favour of relying on activist men to protect us?? I don’t think so. You don’t get to protect your weed crop at my expense, my hippie friend. Your illegal activity does not take precedence over my right not to be abused.

When I am assaulted I will call the cops, not the anarchists.


*edited on May 5, 2012 for clarity



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All the abusive men I’ve known seemed super nice at first

It’s true. I’ve known more than one abusive man in my day. Some I knew intimately and some were only acquaintances. You know, just friends of friends. Some men still think it’s ok to maintain friendships with abusive men dontchaknow. At a certain point someone might accidentally let it slip that so-and-so, you know, that guy we party with, you know, maybe tormented or threatened or tried to strangle his girlfriend, and funny thing! I wouldn’t want to hang out with those dudes anymore. How awkward for everyone. “Meghan, Meghan – we don’t acknowledge those things.” “Hey! Buddy never abused me so who knows, right? His girlfriend is probably lying about that abuse.” If you don’t see it with your own eyes you should just assume it isn’t happening and go on with your life, yes? OH those ladies and their nutty stories.

But I digress. My friend Easily Riled wrote a post about the Bedford decision and some of the rhetoric coming from those who advocate for the decriminalization of pimps and johns. She pointed out that:

“The appeal judges decided that the Communicating law did not violate the Charter rights of prostituted people sex workers, and represented a reasonable limit on rights to expression.  Because as we know, it is difficult to tell–no matter how much time you have to “screen” some guy– when he’s going to go off on you. Women in prostitution have told us many stories about going with men they knew, regular ‘clients’, men the met and talked with for an hour or so in the bar, men referred to them by trusted friends– who, when alone with them, became violent. And, you know, women often MARRY men who turn out to be abusive– five minutes on a street corner isn’t going to make a difference–he always decides how to behave, she will never have  that control. In theory, then, the communicating law can be used against the men who buy sex.”

One of the more common arguments for the decriminalization of johns is that if buying sex in the street is completely legalized, prostituted women will have more time to asses a client before getting into a car or going to a room with him.

This argument has been refuted by many, including Janine Benedet, who acted as co-counsel for the Women’s Coalition for the Abolition of Prostitution during the Bedford trial, who noted in a recent talk that the 27 year old man who murdered Nicole Parisien was seemingly, just a “regular” guy. Andrew Evans was a rugby player and former peer counselor. Benedet noted that he found Parisien through an ad on Craigslist and met her at an apartment of her choosing – an apartment that was being used as a brothel in Kitsilano.

Are these the “safe” indoor brothels people are advocating for? I imagine that Parisien thought this man was “safe”. Turns out he wasn’t. Turns out that being indoors, being able to suss out clientele first didn’t stop Evans from becoming violent when he couldn’t maintain an erection. Benedet added:

“This is a good example of the male sexual entitlement that is quite evident in prostitution. When she didn’t give him what he wanted he turned to violence and she was dead very, very quickly. There was no time for anybody to intervene. A good reminder that just putting things in a brothel or in a woman’s own apartment doesn’t stop this kind of violence.”

So Evans may be spending his life in jail but Parisien no longer has a life.

Devastatingly, these stories are not uncommon – there is something about men who buy sex who seem to think that the women they buy are disposable. Male entitlement is tied to prostitution. Men who buy sex think they are entitled. They believe that their pleasure is more important than women’s lives, women’s health, women’s well-being. Do you think that the man I saw the other day while waiting for the bus at Main and Cordova, who stopped his black SUV at the corner and dropped off a woman limping in platform shoes, steadying herself with a cane, cares about her life? Do you think he wants her life to get better? I doubt it. I doubt any man who buys sex wants the lives of prostituted women to get better. If their lives were better there would be no one left to give him blow jobs on his lunch break.

These are the men we are talking about decriminalizing. Not some imaginary “nice john.” What “nice man” wants women to remain so poor that they have no choice but to service him? What “nice man” kills a woman because he can’t maintain an erection? And what “nice man” thinks he deserves this – that he is owed, nay, is entitled to a blow job? Because he is a man. It is his right. Women are his right. Access to women, 24/7, is his right. That’s what we are talking about when we talk about decriminalizing pimps and johns.

I’ve known a number of abusive men in my lifetime. And you’d never know by looking at them. You probably wouldn’t even know it by talking to them for five or ten minutes (although you do begin to recognize certain traits in certain kinds of abusers – but the smart ones know how to hide it). Sometimes women don’t find out that their partners are abusive until they become pregnant. I can pretty much guarantee that if I had A) gone through with my pregnancy, and B) stayed with the man who impregnated me, the abuse would have escalated. Sometimes women only find out their partners are abusive once their partners get drunk. And hey, sometimes we even get clues early on but sometimes we don’t know they’re clues. Or maybe we’ll ignore the clue. Or maybe the abuser will manipulate us into thinking we are crazy or mess with our heads so that we no longer trust our own instincts. Or maybe we’ll leave. But the idea that women can somehow predict which men are abusive (whether it is verbal, emotional, or physical – and often all these forms of abuse work in congruence) and then avoid said abuse is bunko.

The abusive man is often quite a popular dude. He is often a pillar in his community. He is often charming and intelligent. I know tons of these guys. They are still invited to parties, to meetings, to community gatherings. The women they tormented are not, of course. Those women are not to be trusted. Those women must hide out or feel ashamed or are ostracized. Or they simply remain silent, never saying a thing. Women who name their abusers don’t always get support and, in fact, they often get the opposite of support. Often they are blamed or they are not believed.

So I’m not convinced that talking to a man through a car window, or over email, or even over the phone will tell a woman whether or not this man might become violent or whether he might call her names or whether he will degrade her. We do know that, whoever these men are, even if they aren’t physically violent, they believe that women exist on this earth in order to provide men with sexual pleasure. It is also clear that men who buy sex from prostituted women are often violent, are often abusive, and are often murderers. Sometimes they are “non-violent” misogynists. But not always. We also know that regardless of whether or not a woman has had the opportunity to chat with a man for five or ten minutes, she will at some point be alone in a car or in a hotel room or in an alley with him, and he may or may not have displayed his violent tendencies within the first five minutes of meeting.

What I’m addressing here is of course the idea that decriminalizing johns will make prostitution safer. Or rather, that it will make johns safer. Because that’s what were really talking about, right? Violent, sexist men? We aren’t really saying that women can somehow predict or avoid violence. We’re saying we need to stop violent men. We’re saying we need to stop normalizing sexist behaviour. We need to stop reinforcing the idea that men have the right to access female bodies 24/7.

In a past relationship I told a man that what he was doing constituted verbal and emotional abuse and that he had no right to treat me in that way – I told him I didn’t deserve to be treated in that way. And you know what he said to me? “It was your choice to stay”. And do you know what that means? Do you know what he meant when he said that? He was telling me it was my fault. He was telling me that there was nothing he could do to change and that since I had “chosen” to stay, I must either be ok or somehow deserve that abusive treatment. That since I chose to live in the same house as him and knew that his behaviour was abusive, it was ok for him to continue to treat me in that way because, in the end, it was my responsibility to stop that abuse from happening. Not his. Of course I did leave eventually but I’ll never forget the feeling of being blamed for my own abuse. Of making it about “my choice”.

This isn’t the only time this has happened. Another time I told some people about a man who was their friend who had been abusive to me throughout our relationship. I had already left him at this point. Do you know what they said to me? “Well, you chose to stay, didn’t you?”

OH choice. Magical, magical choice. If you “choose” to put yourself in a position to be abused, according to our f**ked up culture, it’s your fault. So if women do a bad job of  sussing out johns before getting into cars with them, and those johns turn out to be violent, who is to blame?

The answer is obvious, but based on some of the rhetoric coming from those who advocate only for a harm reduction model and from those who want johns to be decriminalized, you wouldn’t know it. There is NO reason to protect these men. There are many reasons to protect prostituted women. These women, most certainly, need to be decriminalized so that they can safely go to the cops if they need to. These women, most certainly, need other options. They need to not have to service misogynists or get into cars with them or go to brothels or hotel rooms with them in order to survive. But decriminalizing johns isn’t going to make those men any safer. It certainly isn’t going to convince them not to abuse women and it certainly isn’t going to convince them that they don’t have the god given right to a blow job at any given moment, so long as they can pay.

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