Accountability has three distinct goals which are frequently in active tension with one another. Trying to accomplish all three goals in a single accountability process frequently results in not fully accomplishing any of them.
I propose an alternative model in which each goal is served by a separate process. This model gives each goal the focus it deserves and reduces the tension between goals.
The first goal is to support and heal the person who experienced harm. Like restorative justice processes, the Support process centers the needs and desires of the person who experienced harm. Rather than seeking “objective” truth, this process fully accepts the emotional truth of what they experienced and how they were harmed.
The second goal is to assist the person who caused harm in making whatever changes they need to make. This process is centered on the person who caused harm and is based on a quasi-objective assessment of their culpability.
The third goal is to protect our people from future harm. It centers the needs of the kink world at large and/or specific kink communities. This process focuses on a quasi-objective assessment of the likelihood that the person who caused harm will continue to cause harm.
Our accountability processes often fail to meet their goals and sometimes cause further harm. One reason is that we are trying to do three different things in one process.
An obvious problem with the single process model is that it’s hard for a one process to maintain focus on three different goals. But there’s a much deeper problem: the three goals implicitly rely on different visions of truth and justice, which are sometimes in conflict with each other.
Here are three examples that illustrate the types of conflicts that can arise between the three goals in the real world. Each of these examples creates severe challenges for a single process model but is well-suited to resolution by the three goals model. These are all real-world examples—I am familiar with more than one incident that approximately matches each of these examples.
Alex was unexpectedly triggered by a consensual act performed by Blake.
Alex experienced harm as a result of Blake’s actions and needs support and healing. Regardless of whether Alex blames Blake (I’m familiar with cases that went both ways), Blake is not culpable and nothing needs to be done to protect our people from Blake.
Remember this example: we’ll return to it later.
Chris reported that Drew told Emerson about Chris’ history of consent violations. Chris considered this a consent violation and reported experiencing harm as a result of it.
In this case, Drew did not violate Chris’ consent and has no culpability even though Chris experienced genuine harm as a result of Drew’s intentional actions. Furthermore, action probably needs to be taken to protect our people from Chris, not Drew.
Frankie reported that on their first date, Gentry behaved in a way that clearly constituted rape. They reported that they enjoyed the experience, had subsequently been happily partnered with Gentry for many years, and wanted no action taken.
Frankie’s emotional truth is valid: they experienced no harm. Nonetheless, Gentry is deeply culpable and our people likely need to be protected from them.
The Support process relies on emotional truth rather than “objective” truth, and focuses on the needs of a single person. Consequently, it should almost always be separate from the Change and Protect processes, which seek something closer to “objective” truth and have a much broader focus.
Consider example one, where Alex experienced significant harm as a consequence of a consensual act by Blake. If Alex blames Blake and wants them to be punished, it will be hard for one person to fully validate Alex’s experience of what happened while simultaneously determining that Blake did nothing wrong and does not need to make changes.
The Change and Protect processes, however, are frequently compatible. Both seek to understand culpability and both are focused on the person who caused harm, even though they serve distinct goals. It is often appropriate for them to be closely coordinated.
Whenever possible, all three processes should be coordinated and share some degree of information. There is, however, a hierarchy of interaction.
The Support process should operate mostly independently of the other two: the degree of support, validation, and healing offered to the person who was harmed should in no way be conditioned on what the Change and Protect processes conclude about culpability and future action.
On the other hand, the Change and Protect processes should always be informed by the Support process and should give significant weight to the needs and desires of the person who was harmed.
In the abstract, every serious or complex instance of harm should be addressed by three full processes. In the real world, there are many reasons why some of the processes may not occur or may terminate prematurely. To take a few examples:
The Support process is completely centered on the person who was harmed. It seeks to support and heal them and to advocate for them in the other processes if they don’t wish to participate directly.
The basis of this process is acceptance of the person’s emotional reality: they experienced what they say they experienced and they suffered the harm they say they suffered. If they experienced a non-consensual kiss as rape, then they experienced rape and they need healing commensurate with that experience.
It is entirely appropriate to accept someone’s emotional truth and support their healing even if you disagree with their version of what “objectively” happened. “Objective” facts belong to the other processes: the Support process is solely about emotional truth and healing.
Remember that people who have been harmed may initially minimize the harm they experienced. As they progress on their healing journey, the severity of harm they report experiencing may change. This is a common experience and does not indicate that they are lying or unreliable. Minimizing and denying harm is a common and effective coping mechanism.
It is also important that the person harmed does not rely on the support process as their only means of healing. The support process supports healing, but cannot guide it or take responsibility for it. If severe harm is experienced or if pre-existing, underlying severe harm is compounded by the current harm, successful healing will almost certainly require therapy.
The people administering the Support process must be realistic about their own abilities and limitations: well-meaning amateurs can cause substantial damage by undertaking professional work without professional expertise.
The Change process is based on the concept of culpability, which we’ll define as being at fault through some form of malice or negligence. Culpability does not mean being imperfect, but rather doing something a reasonable person would not have done. Returning to example one, Blake was not culpable for harming Alex: their actions were consensual, reasonable, and appropriate.
Responsibility is broader than culpability. Even though Blake was not culpable, they still have a responsibility to apologize and help take care of Alex, because they were an active participant in the harm that occurred.
The Change process supports the person who caused harm in achieving five outcomes:
Understanding the degree of harm is an important consideration in this process but is not the primary driver of it. A person may be severely culpable in an incident that caused no harm, or they may have caused substantial harm without being in any way culpable for that harm.
The process must be collaborative. The Protect process can occur without any participation by the person who caused harm, but change is only possible when someone genuinely wants to change. It is very common, however, for people to react defensively when they first hear someone experienced harm with them. The critical question is whether they are able to engage openly and in good faith within a reasonable amount of time.
Depending on circumstances, some of these questions might be important to the Change process:
The Protect process focuses on reducing the risk of similar harm occurring in the future. It is often primarily focused on the person who caused harm, although it may be appropriate to also consider broader issues. For example, a specific incident may raise broader questions about how an organization vets instructors, or how a venue trains its dungeon monitors.
It will typically be appropriate to consider:
A fundamental challenge for the Protect process is that our people are highly fragmented. There is no kink high council that can issue and enforce edicts, and there is usually no single venue that has a monopoly on kink in a given area. This means the Protect process will issue recommendations which different venues and organizations can choose to follow or ignore. Ideally, relevant organizations and venues would be directly involved in the process.
It may be appropriate for venues and organizations to make admission or membership conditional on adhering to the recommendations of a Protect process.
Appropriate remedies vary depending on the specifics of the situation, but common options include:
Remedies may feel punitive, but they should not be punitive: the goal is to prevent harm, not to seek retribution.