Confronting Sexual Assault: Transformative Justice on the Ground in Philadelphia

illustration of 3 children creating a transformative justice poster

Credit: Jenna Peters-Golden

Lee was all too familiar with the impact sexual assault can have on lives, communities, and social justice organizing. After being sexually assaulted by a prominent anti-poverty organizer, Lee felt confused and betrayed. He stepped back from the campaign the two of them had been working on together and began to avoid the organizer as much as possible. It was months before he told anyone about the assault.

Eventually, he joined a support group for survivors of sexual violence, and began to work through some of the numbness, shame, and fear that had developed after the assault. As he began to confront these feelings, what emerged from within him was a deep well of grief and anger. It became more and more difficult to see the organizer at community meetings or friends’ parties. He started getting angry with his housemates for inviting the organizer to events at the house, even though they had no knowledge of the assault. Much of his anger stemmed from the lack of repercussions facing the organizer, as well as the lack of power he had to protect himself from the organizer’s ongoing presence in his life.

Lee knew that he did not want to report the sexual assault to the police, for a whole long list of reasons. He would lose control of his story if he reported it; he would be forced to tell the details of what happened to the police and to testify in court; a number of painful details about his own life and history might emerge; and he would almost definitely lose the case. But more importantly, the idea of pressing charges felt like its own tragedy. He had become politicized in the anti-police brutality movement and was now involved in prison abolition organizing. Lee’s sense of justice, what would make him feel like the anti-poverty organizer had faced his due, had nothing to do with courts or cops or prisons. Finally, no matter the verdict, he didn’t believe a court case would make the organizer change. Lee wanted him to somehow understand the harm he had done, take responsibility for it, and transform whatever it was inside him that had made him do it. But Lee didn’t want to be the one to push the organizer to change—he couldn’t even bear to be in the same room with him. And so he just tried to forget the incident had ever happened.

Lee’s story—which we are sharing with his permission, having changed his name and identifying details—evokes the frustratingly limited options available to survivors of sexual assault in most U.S. cities and the urgency of creating new systems. This is a helpful starting point to begin discussing transformative justice approaches for addressing sexual assault.

What would happen if our responses to sexual assault came from a vision of the world we want to live in? A scattering of groups, including UBUNTU in Durham, Safe OUTside the System Collective in Brooklyn, Young Women’s Empowerment Project in Chicago, Community United Against Violence in San Francisco, and others across the United States and Canada, are working to create community accountability and support networks based not on the punitive and coercive methods of the criminal justice system but rather on principles of care and harm reduction.

In Pennsylvania, two organizations involved in this work are Philly Stands Up and the Philly Survivor Support Collective, groups that trace their roots back to 2004, when a group called Philly’s Pissed formed out of a burning rage at the lack of options for survivors of sexual assault in their communities. {{{subscriber|2.00}}} Based in West Philadelphia, both groups work in collaboration to shift cultural responses to sexual assault, bring healing and accountability to the fore, and challenge the punitive response of the state. Faced with a criminal legal system that routinely disempowers survivors and an exploding U.S. prison population, it is clear that we are in dire need of alternatives to prevent, confront, and heal from sexual assault and intimate partner violence.

One way to move away from the punitive methods of the criminal legal system is to turn toward the idea of community accountability. Our work is about realizing the potential carried by our families, communities, and networks to address violence without relying upon the police, courts, prisons, or other state and nonprofit systems. We did not invent this strategy; many of our guiding principles have been made possible by indigenous communities’ responses to violence, both historically and contemporaneously, as well as INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence’s groundbreaking efforts to document community accountability models.

Instead of interrogating and victim-blaming the survivor, then punishing and demonizing the person who perpetrated assault, we envision and construct systems of community accountability that are grounded in safety, self-determination, healing, and the human potential to change. Central to this generative project is an understanding that instances of sexual violence occur within larger systems of structural violence and oppression. We must confront each individual act of sexual violence within its systemic context. At the same time, we must build alliances with movements both in Philadelphia and beyond to end all forms of interpersonal and state violence. We call this work transformative justice, and we practice it as part of an inspiring movement that is germinating throughout North America.

Forging Paths to Safety, Justice, and Healing

Applying a transformative justice approach to the issue of sexual assault means working to support individual survivors while building real options for safety, justice, and healing outside of punitive and disciplinary state systems. Efforts to create alternative systems such as this are underway from North Carolina to California. Here in Pennsylvania, the Philly Survivor Support Collective is working to create and maintain systems of support and accountability wholly outside the framework of the criminal legal system.

Our commitment to transformative justice comes out of a recognition that the criminal legal system dehumanizes and disempowers all survivors, in addition to increasing the amount of violence in all of our lives. This negative impact is most acute for survivors and communities who are already disproportionately targeted by state violence, including communities of color and indigenous communities, and survivors who are sex workers, incarcerated, and/or transgender. We believe that efforts to transform our communities must be grounded both in the present moment—in the form of ensuring survivor safety and prioritizing survivors’ self-directed healing—as well as in the long haul: working toward a vision of the world we want. In order for the movement to end sexual assault to be led by those most directly affected, we must build our capacity to support each other’s healing, ensuring that as survivors, we are able to bring the fullness of our wisdom and experience to the work.

For many people, it is difficult to even conceive of a way of responding to violence—whether sexual assault or other kinds—that does not rely on the courts, police, or prisons. We are eager to share a description of our work in Philly with the hope that it will encourage others to join in the growing movement to create alternative approaches to addressing harm.

On an individual level, our work is always directed by the survivor. Our role is to listen to them, meet them where they’re at, offer emotional support and resources, and create solutions together. We ask survivors if they have initial priorities that they want to focus on as a first step; after they identify these, we creatively plan together how to address them. These often include immediate health or safety needs, such as emotional support, medical care, counseling, strategizing to engage the support of people close to them, acupuncture, child care, safety planning, travel to get away from a harmful situation or to be near loved ones or concrete resources, or any number of other needs.

After these urgent needs are met, we stay present with survivors as they begin to explore options for accountability, justice, and healing. Transformative justice offers a lens through which survivors can examine the underlying conditions where the violence occurred, and identify what change they might want from the person who harmed them, their community, or the broader world. Survivors might pursue individual or collective paths to healing, might make demands for accountability or transformation from the communities or organizations where the assault occurred, and might make demands of the person who harmed them or leave that person aside altogether. During this process, we work to transform the community, people, or institutions that surround the survivors, increasing the capacity of the community to be responsive to the survivors’ needs.

Each situation we take on offers its own challenges, which are also possibilities for growth and transformation. If a survivor chooses to make demands for accountability from the person who caused harm, we may assist the survivor in engaging the support of friends or community members to communicate these demands, or in facilitating an accountability process with Philly Stands Up. If the person who caused the harm is still in the survivor’s life or community, we can work with the survivor to create a safety plan or ask for certain shared-space policies.

illustration of prisoners circling a prison block

Credit: Evan Bissell (

Safety planning is a tool often used by survivors who are in a relationship with an abusive partner, to minimize potential harm and to have a plan to draw upon quickly if they need to leave. Shared-space policies are commitments made by loved ones, community members, or organizations to take certain actions, as determined by the survivor, in the event that the survivor is put in the position of sharing space with a person who has harmed them. These policies can act as one alternative to a restraining order. The action requested by the survivor might be to ask a person who has caused harm to leave spaces where the survivor is present until that person has demonstrated a behavior change, or to have support teams on hand that can offer solidarity, support and safety to the survivor when the person who caused harm is present. Another option survivors might pursue is identifying harmful practices or attitudes endemic within their community or the larger culture that contributed to instances of sexual violence, such as victim-blaming, silencing, sexism, racism, transphobia, transmisogyny, classism, ableism, criminalization of sex work, and many others, and calling upon people to work collectively to eradicate these attitudes.

It is important not to place the burden for ending sexual assault on survivors. We must fight the idea that the survivor of a sexual assault is responsible for transforming the person who harmed them or preventing that person from sexually assaulting someone else. Our work is founded in the transformative justice principle that we are all responsible for addressing the root causes of sexual assault, and that together, we hold the power to transform our communities.

Toward a Non-Punitive Accountability

It can be a harrowing process to let ourselves open up to the hope that someone who has perpetrated assault can truly be accountable, especially given the shortage of models of justice that are not entrenched in retribution, dehumanization, and incarceration. Transformative justice processes—like those that Philly Stands Up facilitates with people who have perpetrated assault—are fundamentally about altering our ideas about what seems possible, reminding us that we can no longer afford to dismiss people who harm others as inescapably violent. Our accountability processes are inspired by our faith that we really can dream up and practice methods for confronting sexual violence that move us toward safer, more self-determined communities, as well as gnaw at the structural underpinnings fostering cultures of violence.

Our interventions are rooted in the safety, healing, and demands of the survivor, but often go beyond these foundations to ask how we can identify and transform the patterns of behavior that enabled the assault in the first place. As we work to shift accountability away from the survivor and onto the person who perpetrated assault, we have to define what accountability means in each unique situation. The contours of each process look quite different from one another, but they share the same core objectives. Over the course of weeks, months, or years, our weekly meetings strive to push the person who perpetrated assault to recognize the harm they have done (regardless of their intentions), acknowledge the harm’s impact, make appropriate restitution, and develop skills for transforming attitudes and behaviors that are harmful to self or others.

Whenever possible, an intervention treats as its grounding document a list of demands from the survivor that have been shared with us by the survivor directly or through the survivor support collective. These demands can range from “do not share space with the survivor” to “compose a letter of apology” to “disclose to your current and all future partners.” The demand list guides us throughout an intervention and offers a tangible checklist we can use to measure our progress.

Frequently, though, our processes are forced to reckon with issues unprompted by a survivor’s demands. When a person who has just been called out for sexual assault first comes to us—either on their own volition or due to community pressure—their life is often in shambles. Before we can start recounting specific violent incidents or reading over a demand list, we have to make sure that they have secure housing, a decent job, and a steady diet. It is not unusual for us to help them obtain a suitable therapist or assist them in reaching out to their loved ones for support and guidance. These tasks are critical for most any transformative justice process, as they enable the capacity for change by collaboratively cultivating tools for finding balance and grounding. Through this methodology, we not only build trust and model interdependence, we also work toward eliminating a mainspring of sexual assault—instability and insecurity.

Often the most difficult challenge facing an intervention is earning “buy in” from the person who perpetrated assault. Because we reject the forceful violence intrinsic to the criminal legal system’s interventions into sexual assault—such as forced “rehabilitation,” incarceration, or, so frequently, inaction—we are forced to devise creative techniques to consensually pull someone into a process. Although we sometimes have to rely upon the use of community leverage to persuade someone to work with us, we make every effort to draw someone in by helping them acknowledge their own call to change.

It is critical to tailor an accountability process in such a way as to make the person we are working with understand that they need the process. Of course, this acknowledgement can only arise in a trusting and comfortable atmosphere. For this reason we keep our meetings small and intimate, with two members present for each intervention. Often we meet in public spaces like a park or a train station so as to avoid making the person who perpetrated assault feel cornered or attacked. And we collaboratively design a process around their needs and abilities. During one intervention, any given meeting might have involved visual activities like sketching and mapping, breathing exercises, or poetry. These strategies reflect an ongoing balancing act as we strive to make the person who perpetrated assault feel safe enough to respect the process and be vulnerable, while still being open to the challenges we are posing.

As an accountability process slowly gains traction, we begin to identify harmful patterns of behavior as potential sites of transformation. Facilitating the recognition of deep-seated and destructive cycles of behavior can be one of the most trying elements of an intervention. Most often, this requires naming and unpacking the ways that various privileges and internalized oppressions play out in relationships. For instance, we may have to unravel how ableism was at work in an able-bodied person’s repeated coercion of her partner to have sex during flare-ups from an autoimmune disorder. Or we may have to map out how a cisgendered man’s patriarchal socialization contributed to a general imbalance of control in a heterosexual relationship. In a similar fashion, our interventions frequently scrutinize how oppressive race and class dynamics contribute to a relationship atmosphere ripe for sexual assault. As facilitators, this is often the most hazardous ground to cross. Acting as both witness and mentor to a transformative justice process is alternately frustrating and enlivening, appalling and regenerative.

It is critical to note that our work is not about “curing” the person who perpetrated assault. A lifelong and cross-generational project rooted not in that person’s rehabilitation, nor in the restoration of the community that existed pre-assault, transformative justice is, rather, a consistent movement toward community safety and individual/collective transformation.

Saiyed and Grant

Credit: Sofia Saiyed and Anna Grant.

By way of illustration, our intervention with Jesse (again, a pseudonym) lasted two years, and continues with occasional check-ins. At the beginning of his process, Jesse showed up to meetings recalcitrant and invulnerable. Certain that he had done nothing harmful, he argued that his ex-partner—the survivor in this situation—was getting revenge on him by “misrepresenting” as assault an incident that was in actuality a simple issue of poor communication. In order to sustain the process and keep him coming to meetings, we put the assault in question on the back burner for the first six months, dedicating our time together to building trust and helping him secure a new home. Slowly, as facilitators, we began to identify his harmful patterns of behavior—including pent-up anger, narcissism, and an inability to communicate his needs. Correspondingly, we set about cultivating relevant tools, such as empathy-building, anger management, communicating in stressful contexts, and establishing consent during sex. By the time Jesse was amenable to discussing the specific incidents of assault, we had already developed a wide set of tools for empathizing with the experience of the survivor, identifying his destructive actions, and practicing a different course of action in a similar context. Many months later, when Jesse had met the survivor’s demands, indicated his capacity for healthy relationships, and demonstrated a command over his own damaging behavior, we began transitioning out of the process. Yet even now, with the intervention no longer active, our check-ins with Jesse confirm that he is pressing on with the critical work of self-transformation, effectively keeping the accountability process alive.

Seven years out, it still feels as though we are reaching through the dark nearly as often as we are coming up against familiar scenarios. As one small piece of a growing movement, we know it is only through our risks and mistakes that we can collectively forge creative responses to violence.

(To return to the Winter 2012 Table of Contents, click here.) Also, don’t miss the seven freely accessible online exclusives associated with this special issue on restorative justice — to read them, click here.

Bench Ansfield is an organizer with Philly Stands Up and Philly BDS. Timothy Colman is an organizer with the Philly Survivor Support Collective, a former member of Philly’s Pissed, and a contributor to The Revolution Starts at Home: Confronting Intimate Violence Within Activist Communities (South End Press, 2011). If you are interested in learning more or donating to support their work, please visit:

Source Citation

Ansfield, Bench and Timothy Colman. 2012. Confronting Sexual Assault: Transformative Justice on the Ground in Philadelphia. Tikkun 27(1): 41.

tags: Activism, Gender & Sexuality, Justice & Prisons   
Tip Jar Email Bookmark and Share RSS Print
Get Tikkun by Email -- FREE

COMMENT POLICY Please read our comments policy. We invite constructive disagreement but do not accept personal attacks and hateful comments. We reserve the right to block hecklers who repost comments that have been deleted. We do have automated spam filters that sometimes miscategorize legitimate comments as spam. If you don't see your comment within ten minutes, please click here to contact us. Due to our small staff it may take up to 48 hours to get your comment posted.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *