[Content Warning: harassment, assault, bad event safety handling]
When I was a teenager, a grown man exposed himself to me at a live action role-playing event.
The next day, the organizers of our local chapter asked me how I wanted him punished. I asked them to go easy on him. The world had already taught me to sympathize more with gross creeps than with victims, even when I was a victim.
He was temporarily banned from attending events.
I ran the first event he was eligible to attend after his ban was up. He got piss drunk and spent the night trying to break into another woman’s cabin. She was too scared to try to leave to get help.
The organizers shouldn’t have gone easy on him just because I felt guilty about holding him accountable. They should have seen his behavior towards me not just as a thing he did to me, but as clear evidence that he was a danger to the community, and banned him permanently.
It’s important for community leaders to understand that enforcing standards of conduct is not about resolving a conflict between an abuser and their victim. It’s about protecting the community from abuse.
A victim’s choice to forgive an abuser in your community does not change the fact that the abuser violated your community’s standards of behavior. It doesn’t erase the harm they caused to your community as a whole. It doesn’t mean that other people–including, potentially, their other victims–feel safe around them.
Wanting to give victims agency in how incidents are handled is laudable, but allowing their response drive how you as a community respond to the incident is misguided, and buys into the fallacy that harassment and abuse are private matters rather than community issues.
Treating harassment and abuse as a private matter doesn’t just endanger your community; it also erases the huge power differential between abusers and victims. There’s a reason labor laws don’t allow employees to opt out of being paid: employers would exploit their power to ‘volunteer’ their workers. Granting leniency or absolution to abusers who’ve been forgiven puts an enormous amount of pressure on victims to forgive, whether they want to or not. If they refuse, the public (including abusers, their friends, and whatever internet hate mob they can gin up) will hold victims personally responsible for any penalties you do impose.
Community leaders: If you want to ask victims in confidence how they’d like to see the incident handled, that’s a fine thing to include in an incident response process. But don’t pass the buck when it’s time to sanction an abuser. View their behavior as a community problem, make the decision that will keep your community safe, and take full responsibility for that decision, without so much as implying that the victim made the choice.