Rape and the Occupy movement

Failure to take collective responsibility for rapes at camp sites springs from the ideological tension at the heart of the Occupy movement's twin emphases on autonomy and group action as 'the 99%'. An injection of feminist politics is sorely needed.
Maeve McKeown
14 December 2011

On October 26th a woman was raped at Occupy Glasgow and the previous week a woman was raped at Occupy Cleveland.  There has been relatively little reporting on these incidents, either in the news or among activists.  The incidents are a dreadful personal tragedy for the women involved, but what do they mean for the Occupy movement more generally?  In this article, I suggest there is a deep tension in the movement between collective politics and individual autonomy, and a serious lack of feminist understanding.

Collective Responsibility

Violence against women is a pervasive problem across society, and sadly, it doesn’t stop at the doors of activists.  What is different about rape occurring at occupations, however, is the fact that the activists have formed into groups, presumably taking some responsibility for each other.  In some ways the groups’ responses to what has happened to individuals who were under their care is as shocking and saddening as the incidents themselves. 

Both occupations sought to distance themselves from the women who were raped. Occupy Glasgow said that,

"Occupy Glasgow is shocked and deeply saddened about the alleged sexual assault on one of the individuals that have been co-inhabiting George Square with the separate Occupy Glasgow movement.

Since October 15, Occupy Glasgow have provided free food, shelter and clothing to some individuals who had none of their own and we immensely regret any harm that may have befallen one of these individuals.” (my emphasis)

Occupy Glasgow claimed the woman was part of a separate group, so not under their care.

The woman at Occupy Cleveland, a 19 year old with learning difficulties, was told by the organisers to share a tent with the man who raped her.  When questioned on this one of the organisers said, “your assignment would be your own choice of what you want to do.”  The reasoning behind this statement is that Occupy is a leaderless movement – nobody is officially told what they are supposed to do, so everything is in effect a personal choice.  This is true even for a young, novice activist with learning difficulties.  They also said, “this is all about personal decision and consent and we offer tents and that’s all.”

In other words, both occupations claimed it was the women’s personal responsibility that a) she was camping with them and b) she was raped; instead of recognising that the group had some responsibility for the women’s safety.  In one respect, this can be interpreted as victim-blaming.  Of course, if an adult joins an occupation it is their choice.  However, the establishment of camps sets up the expectation that participants will look out for each other and, at minimum, respect each other.  Probably the last thing the women were thinking was that they might be raped if they joined the occupations – they probably assumed the opposite, that there is safety in numbers - so to argue their it was their own choice to be there and that they bear the risks of sexual violence that arise from that is wrong.  That is not a risk they should have had to bear because it was not a foreseeable risk, and therefore not something they can be held responsible for. 

Moreover, the individualistic responses of the groups are illogical and incoherent because the Occupy groups can bear collective responsibility.  According to methodological individualists there is no such thing as collective responsibility.  Groups are simply the sum of individual actions.  This seems deeply counter-intuitive, however.  It means that corporations cannot bear responsibility for what they do, so BP could not be said to bear responsibility for the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.  It also means that states can’t bear responsibility for their wrongdoings. 

In the 70s and 80s, philosophers who sought a concept of collective responsibility were particularly concerned to find a way to avoid individuals failing to act when somebody needs help.  They were motivated by, amongst other incidents, the rape and murder of Kitty Genovese in New York in 1964, in which thirty-eight separate individuals were aware of what was happening and did nothing.  This is a classic example of the bystander effect - an emergency situation where no one helps the victim.  Philosophers argued that members of communities have a responsibility to look out for each other in order to prevent such harms befalling group members.  The question in the case at hand is whether the Occupy groups in which the rapes occurred can be held collectively responsible for the rape of women in their care.

In the Genovese case the individuals in the vicinity were random and had no connections to each other. It is highly contested whether such aggregates can bear any responsibility for the harms that befall the victims.  By contrast, the occupations are groups.  Among theorists of collective responsibility there is a considerable degree of consensus about when “conglomerate” groups can bear responsibility qua group. According to Peter French’s influential distinction between aggregate and conglomerate collectivities, a conglomerate collectivity is a group that has a decision-making structure, an enforced code of conduct for individuals that doesn’t apply outside the group, and an identity that is more than the sum of individual members (if people leave or join the group, the identity of the group remains the same).  These types of groups can bear collective responsibility, e.g. corporations or states.

The Occupy groups meet these standards.  They have internal decision-making structures – general meetings.  They have codes of conduct for members.  And, they have identities that are more than the sum of the individual members – Occupy Glasgow will be Occupy Glasgow if some members leave or if new people join. In other words, the Occupy groups can plausibly be said to bear collective responsibility for their members. 

To say that these groups can bear collective responsibility is not necessarily to blame them for the rapes occurring. However, it does mean that they should have accepted that for harm to befall a group member means that the group is at least partly responsible. In light of this, the responses of both occupations to the rapes are particularly shocking. Despite the fact that the occupations act as groups, speak as groups, and exist as groups, the women who were raped are on their own. I’m sure that the groups are happy to claim the women’s positive contributions as part of the group effort: for example, if one of the women had organised a successful flashmob the group would be happy to claim it as part of Occupy Glasgow or Cleveland.  Once something bad happens to a member, however, it has nothing to do with the group; if a woman has been raped it is her own fault for being there in the first place.  In Glasgow, they claimed she wasn’t really part of the group anyway; in Cleveland, a 19-year old apparently should not have done what the organisers told her she ought to do.

Acting as a group means taking responsibility for the good and the bad, not claiming that bad things are a question of personal responsibility of the victims.  Moreover, if the groups want to make it about personal responsibility, why bring the victims in at all?  The group could have supported the victims and shunned the rapists. 

In my view, there is a serious problem here.  The inability of the Occupy groups to recognise their collective responsibility for members is symptomatic of a deeper ideological problem.

Autonomy, Security and Vulnerable People

The groups' emphasis on personal choice implicitly assumes that people are autonomous. Is this true? Are people autonomous?  Some are, most aren’t. Many people are dependent: children are dependent, the elderly are dependent, many adults are dependent through disability, mental or physical ill-health; and most adults will go through some phases of dependency over the course of their lifetime. 

There are degrees of non-autonomy. Dependency is at the extreme end. Vulnerability is also on that scale. Many groups in society are vulnerable due to prejudice, ignorance, oppression and domination by more powerful groups.  Women are vulnerable in this way. To be clear, it’s not that women are incapable of achieving autonomy, of course they are; it’s that the social conditions of sexist societies constrain their autonomy. The constraints on women’s autonomy are external, not internal, and it is these external conditions that generate women’s vulnerability. 

Many people have overlapping vulnerabilities.  For example, the woman at Occupy Glasgow was pregnant, and the woman at Occupy Cleveland was a 19 year old who attends a high school for teenagers with learning difficulties.  It’s not about placing people in boxes according to their objectively defined vulnerabilities, “you are a woman, you go here”.  It’s about being sensitive to the multiplicity of individuals’ circumstances and needs.

Starting from the assumption that people are autonomous obscures the fact that most people aren’t.  Autonomy for all might be a goal, but it does not accord with reality. In its crudest forms, liberalism and other political theories that prioritise autonomy, start from the viewpoint of the privileged and generalise from that viewpoint, and in so doing occlude difference.  For a movement that claims to speak for the 99%, it is not good enough to only speak for, and provide a space for, autonomous people.  If you are going to provide a space for “the 99%”, it must be recognized that many people have vulnerabilities, which generate different needs. 

The first step in dealing with difference is recognizing it. Then, once it is recognized, finding ways to accommodate it. Women’s vulnerability to sexual violence needs to be recognized in order to find measures to mitigate it. It’s not about patronizing women and ensuring that the “autonomous men” protect the “vulnerable women”, it is the social conditions that need to be addressed and mitigated. It could be argued that it is overly demanding of fleeting protest camps to mitigate the threat of violence against women. But the converse is that if they fail to do so, they are not representing the 99%.  It’s simply another case of the privileged claiming to speak, and act, on behalf of everyone else. 

It is not realistic to assume that once people join an “autonomous zone” that individuals will shed decades of socialization in sexist norms and suddenly treat each other equally. It’s essential, in that case, to come up with a viable alternative for security, which treats people’s vulnerability seriously. Anti-state activists have obvious and valid complaints against the police.  But hating the police is not the same as hating security. Vulnerable people require some form of security; an all-out rejection of security leaves the vulnerable even more vulnerable.  Of course, the need for security can be hard to see from the viewpoint of male privilege and the belief that you can protect yourself.  It’s not so easy when you’re a woman, you’re pregnant or have learning difficulties, and are sleeping in a tent in a city centre or park.

Interestingly, both Occupy Glasgow and Occupy Cleveland have said that they are “working with the police”.  The police (rightly) have a terrible rep among activists in the UK.  They are brutal, unaccountable, have done morally outrageous things like allowing undercover agents to have relationships with activists, beating people nearly to death etc.  It’s also true that the police protect the interests of private property (i.e. the interests of a few rich people against the great unwashed masses).  But they also serve another function.  That is, to protect individual members of society from each other.

I’m not going to eulogise the police here.  Clearly when it comes to rape, the track record of the police and the criminal justice system in both the UK and US is abominable.  But if you ask the majority of women (anarcha-feminists excluded) if they would want to live in a society with no police force, I would hazard a guess that they would say no.  The police at least provide some sense of security against the threat of violence from male spouses, family members, friends, acquaintances, strangers and activists; and a very distant glimmer of hope that you might get justice. This is not to say that society could not find a better way to organize security than a police force.  Maybe it could, maybe it couldn’t.  But as long as patriarchy rules, some form of protection is needed.  A “Safer Spaces Policy” isn’t going to cut it.  Relying on comrades for protection, if the actions of Occupy Glasgow and Cleveland are anything to go by, is not very reassuring.

It’s not just about security and “protecting the vulnerable”, however.  It’s about creating a culture where rape and sexual assault will not be tolerated; ensuring men don’t rape.  Misogynistic power relations need to be understood and interrupted.  The men involved in the Occupy movement, or men who join the camps however fleetingly, need to know that rape and sexual assault or harassment will absolutely not be tolerated.  They will be immediately evicted from the camps if they harass women, and handed in to the police if they rape or assault a woman.  Security is only one side of the coin when it comes to preventing rape; the more important side is men not raping.

There is a tension in the Occupy movement between speaking as a collective – “we are the 99%” – and emphasising individual autonomy.  If you speak as a “we”, you are speaking as a group.  The group needs to provide security for its group members and foster a culture of equality and intolerance of persecution of oppressed social groups.  The fact that the occupations act as groups but then stress individual autonomy when the group fails in its responsibilities highlights this internal ideological tension.  The occupy movement needs to decide what it is – are the camps “collectives”, or simply aggregates of individuals?  If it is the former, they need to take some responsibility and provide security for group members and change their internal cultures.  If it is the latter, they will only be safe for already autonomous individuals and cannot hope to speak on behalf of the 99%.

What next?

The Occupy movement needs a serious injection of feminist politics.  This doesn’t mean having a token female facilitator at meetings or patting one’s self on the back for listening to a woman speak until she has finished; it means recognising that women have different needs that need to be met and finding practical and viable ways of meeting those needs.  The fact that there has been scant discussion of these rapes and what to do about it highlights the fact that, even among activists, violence against women is not taken as seriously as it should be.  The Occupy movement needs to wake up to this problem and do something about it.

So far I have only addressed the attacks in Glasgow and Cleveland, but there have been other reported rapes in the Occupy movement.  A known sex offender has been arrested for the rape of a 14-year-old girl at Occupy Dallas.  A woman was raped and robbed at Occupy Baltimore.  Occupy Baltimore distributed leaflets encouraging members not to report sexual assaults to the police but to report it to the group instead.  There have been accusations of sexual assaults at Zuccotti Park, and at Occupy Portland and Oakland.  These rapes are not unfortunate one-off incidents: they represent a systematic failure. 

Interestingly, Occupy LSX’s new venture, The Bank of Ideas, is non-residential and has a ban on drugs and alcohol.  Obviously, the physical presence of the Occupy protests over the long-term in city centres is part of what’s made them so visible and important.  However, if it puts vulnerable people in danger then I would suggest this tactic needs some reconsideration.  Non-residential protests don’t put women at risk in the same way.  In light of this, I think the non-residential Bank of Ideas is a step in the right direction. 

To anticipate some criticisms, let me clarify a few points.  Firstly, I’m not saying inclusion is the be-all and end-all of all protest movements.  I’m saying that for a movement that claims to speak on behalf of the 99% it is crucial.  If the Occupy movement is claiming to speak for the 99%, they need to recognise the multifarious needs of different types of people, and to cater for them.  It’s no good saying “We are the 99%” but we exclude disabled people.  Or “We are the 99%” but if you’re a woman you’re responsible for your own safety.  We might be “the 99%” economically (and even that is a dubious claim), but we are not all white, male, heterosexual, able-bodied men; most of us aren’t and we need our differing needs met if we are going to camp outside together.

Another criticism will be how can I possibly suggest the police have any good qualities whatsoever.  They are our oppressors!  To reiterate, I’m not saying the police per se are good, I’m saying institutional security in some form is essential as long as social inequalities and oppression exist.  I’m also arguing that collectivities ought to provide security for their members; which in the case of states is the police force, in the case of occupations it still needs to be worked out.

Finally, it could be argued that I haven’t really recommended anything apart from injecting feminist politics into the movement, which potentially means shutting the residential camps down.  I don’t mean to put a dampener on the future of long-term direct action.  The wave of resistance that has emerged across the globe this year has been an inspiration.  The point I wish to make, however, is that if you’re going to have live-in protests, it is essential to ensure that members of the group are not endangered by that protest.  Steps must be taken to prevent sexual violence in the camps, and members of the groups need to take responsibility for each other and make amends when collective responsibility fails.  Otherwise other forms of protest should be taken up instead.  In this respect, here are a few concrete suggestions:

  • If the camps want to continue, all the Occupy groups should set up working groups to research how past and existing communes have gone about providing security, and how they have or have not been successful in that. 
  • Instead of handing out leaflets telling women not to report their attackers, how about handing out leaflets to men saying that if they rape or sexually assault someone they will immediately be handed-in to the police, because all members of the movement are equal and deserve equal respect.
  • In terms of tackling the internal culture of the camps, they could consider trialling the feminist consciousness-raising approach with mixed groups to discuss sexist and misogynist attitudes within the camps.
  • A final suggestion is that Occupy Glasgow and Occupy Cleveland, who have failed their group members so spectacularly, ought to provide formal apologies to the victims.

Like I have argued above, this spate of rapes and sexual violence that has plagued the Occupy movement is not a case of unfortunate isolatable incidents.  It is a systematic failure.  It is a failure to recognise women’s needs, a failure to have learnt anything from the feminist movement, a failure to recognise vulnerability and non-autonomy, and a failure to accept collective responsibility.  All this can be traced to the inner tension between collective politics and individual autonomy.  The short-term solution is to stop camping, or to provide effective security and make sure men know they will be arrested immediately if they sexually assault someone; the long-term solution is to work out what this movement is really about.

More Analysis

Online debates

This article was first published on New Left Project.

Who is bankrolling Britain's democracy? Which groups shape the stories we see in the press; which voices are silenced, and why? Sign up here to find out.


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData