A group of women participants in the Occupy Wall Street movement have founded a “women only” tent as part of the encampment in order to provide a safe space. “This is all about safety in numbers,” said one 24-year-old female protestor, in reference to the emerging reports of sexual assault complaints and arrests at the encampment. The concept of a “women only” space is not a new one (some rape crisis centers are “women-only zones”), but the need for such a solution at Occupy locations is disheartening.
Notice that I did not say that such a solution is frivolous, silly, or unnecessary. If anything, the demonstrable need for such enclaves is chillingly real. What disheartens me is that the problem of sexual violence reveals an unfortunate lack of feminist direction in the Occupy movement.
This vital, dynamic movement is at risk for being misunderstood as a purely economic complaint, including by its own members. If the agenda of the movement is reduced to a grievance against income inequality, then the movement restricts itself to a materialistic cause: “We don’t have as much stuff as they have.” Income equality simply must not, ever, be the leading concern of the Occupiers. Rather, human equality, in all its forms, must be our collective goal. The equality of races, of classes, and of women and men—these must be the unanimous principles of any progressive movement, even before the specific topics of the social action are delineated.
To put it bluntly, any community in which sexual violence occurs cannot claim to be a community of true equality among persons. Sexual assault is not a symptom of individual pathology, douchebag masculinity run amok, hormones, missed relationship signals, or a few stray creeps in the mix. Sexual assault is the symptom of social inequality, the direct product of pervasive cultural norms that establish hierarchies of privilege and power. This is true regardless whether victims of such assaults are female or male, and reports indicate that there have been both. That does not mean that an entire movement earns guilt for the crimes of a few, but it does mean an entire movement earns responsibility for it—the ability to respond.
Sadly, the responses have been generally poor. Some Occupiers have deflected the problem of sexual assault with lackadaisical naiveté: “Oh, we have security teams to deal with issues like this” and “we handle it internally” and even discouraging police reports. Well, no, security teams are meant to help prevent such atrocities. But once they occur, these traumas are crimes, not conflicts between protestors that call for mediators and counselors. To openly discourage Survivors from filing reports is a pro-abuser, anti-Survivor stance, and the Survivors know it. The response of a group who truly grasps gender equality will unify in a robust effort to identify perpetrators and assist in the provision of legal consequences, as well as fully supporting each individual Survivor’s personal choices.
It remains difficult for the non-protesting public to take seriously our grievances against human inequality when sexual assaults happen at all, but sadly they do. Where we have a chance to redeem ourselves, though, is in the unified agreement, without reluctance, that we do not conceal these assaults (since doing so shields perpetrators and further disempowers Survivors). Furthermore, we must include gender violence as one of the issues that offends us, since gender violence is the red flag of social inequality in multiple fronts.
A movement that strives for the equality of all must, by definition, be a safe movement for women, not just as participants, but as very evident leaders.