Empathy, Compassion and Accountability: Finding a Middle Ground to End Sexual and Domestic Violence

by Viviana Arcia, ’13

Disclaimer: Women are more likely to be survivors of sexual violence than are men. As such, I will refer to perpetrators by male pronouns and survivors by female pronouns. However, domestic violence and sexual assault affects men, women, transgender, and gender non-conforming people. 

The recent article on sexual assault on campus has brought an often taboo subject back into campus dialogue. And, like almost every time the subject is back in public consciousness, two opposing and fiercely vocal sides begin heated and passionate debates, often failing to openly take in what the other says and feels, more often than not failing to reach a comfortable middle ground.

As an advocate for survivors of rape and domestic violence for four years and as someone who is close friends with numerous survivors, I myself have very often been dragged into these debates and, in the meantime, made enemies, gained allies, and learned difficult but ultimately fulfilling lessons in engaging “the other side.” Two very important lessons I’ve learned and would hope that others who engage in these discussions do as well is the idea of empathy and compassion.

One in three women will be raped or abused and one in six men will have been survivors of sexual assault/abuse in their lifetime. As such, you are guaranteed to have met a survivor, although most won’t readily identify as such. However, these statistics have failed to affect much of Stanford’s campus culture regarding rape and domestic violence, and it is this culture which I believe holds the most power in reducing the number of violent acts that we perpetrate against each other.

One way to effect change in this lethargic, misinformed and, at times, defensive campus of ours is through learning compassion and empathy, for both survivors and perpetrators. And as a radical feminist who was often on the defensive, ready to aggressively engage with anyone who disagreed with my feminist and activist views, it has taken me much self-reflection, practice, and, most importantly, patience, to learn that until one is open to engage both sides in a non-aggressive or combative way, very little will change.

Compassion and empathy towards survivors means learning to put oneself in the shoes of these individuals, imagining or visualizing ourselves going through what they’ve experienced. It involves the conscious realization that we often project onto them feelings or ideas we have developed and to instead work towards understanding their feelings and perspectives, using that to orient how we behave towards them. It’s often very difficult for us to actually empathize with survivors, mostly as a result of our preconceived notions of ourselves and how we think we would react if we were ever in a position where we could be raped or where a partner would physically or emotionally abuse us. This phenomenon, referred to as the just world theory, allows us to rationalize when rape or domestic abuse happens by convincing ourselves that if we only follow delineated steps and are vigilant of our surroundings and behavior, we will not be victims. We will not be weak. Worldviews such as these prevent us from truly being empathetic to those who have undergone these experiences.

However, as someone who directly works with survivors in crisis, both at Stanford and in a San Francisco domestic violence agency, I’ve learned a difficult truth. In order to truly end violence, one needs not only compassion towards survivors, but compassion toward perpetrators. And for me, compassion means accountability. This factor, as difficult as it may be for those of us who are close or friends with both survivors and perpetrators of violence, is central to ending violence. As has been reported time and time again, most men are not rapists or perpetrators of domestic violence and abuse. It is only a subset who repeatedly rape and abuse, and much of why they continue is because few hold them accountable.

So how does this compassionate accountability look like? For starters, it means understanding that people who commit violence or are abusive were not born that way. Instead, they are products of their own personal histories and a culture that gives them permission to replicate inequalities and unequal balances of power in their intimate relationships. By failing to hold perpetrators accountable and speaking out against their views and behaviors, we too are giving them permission to continue. Having the compassion to understand this, we should then be willing to interrupt these acts as bystanders and support processes that allows for transformation. This requires:

Acknowledging the harm done.

Acknowledging its negative effects on individuals and the community.

Acknowledging the explicit and implicit ways we as bystanders have contributed to the behavior.

Acknowledging its connections to other unequal practices like racism, homophobia, ableism, and classism.

Engaging in practices that prevent further violence and support liberation.

This last one is especially important and perhaps the easiest to do, especially at Stanford. Even simple acts like not laughing or actively responding to sexist jokes or jokes about rape, not playing music by known perpetrators like Chris Brown at parties, being active bystanders at social events, and even peacefully confronting friends about problematic or abusive behavior, encouraging them to change their behavior through therapy, counseling, and contemplation. Small acts like these can go a long way towards transforming campus behavior. Standing up to friends is a very difficult thing. It requires a critical and unflinching look not only at someone we care deeply about but also at ourselves. Do we want to contribute to a culture of violence, aggression, and abuse or do we want to interrupt these behaviors and allow for ones which heal and liberate?

I say all of this as a continued defender, advocate and loyal ally of survivors of rape and domestic violence and as someone who has made an unwavering commitment to nonviolence for the rest of my life. It’s imperative, now more than ever, to begin the journey of holding ourselves and each other accountable.


Viviana Arcia is a senior at Stanford majoring in Feminist Studies and Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity. She has been working as a survivor advocate within the violence against women movement for four years and is currently a domestic violence crisis line counselor at the San Francisco-based organization WOMAN Inc. 

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8 thoughts on “Empathy, Compassion and Accountability: Finding a Middle Ground to End Sexual and Domestic Violence

  1. Unlearn Your Privilege says:

    Honestly, I think this article is fucking stupid.

    I agree insofar as I think that understanding the culture that actively produces rapists is central to the disassembly of those sex and gender dynamics and to the eventual institution of a culture that discourages violence against women, and the sexualization thereof. I agree that not all men are even close to rapists, and I believe that the 2-dimensional demonization of rapists is counter-productive — but I think that because it serves to legitimize “nice guy” rape, because sexual partners will pressure the other into an action, perhaps even ignoring their partner’s explicit non-consent, and then when confronted being like, omg, I didn’t even hit you or anything! I bought you flowers! because a Vagina is a vending machine, and if you put enough nice tokens in sex should come out? Should the victim have to scream? Should the victim have to repeatedly deny advances? I believe kind of “most men don’t rape, we should be compassionate” rhetoric puts the onus entirely on the victim to have to be the one to make things awkward in a sense, and it puts the responsibility of not being raped back on to the victim.

    This, for me, is especially since so so few rapes are false accusations, and the vast majority of rapes and sexual assaults go unreported because of precisely this attempt at a “fair and balanced” understanding of rape, which ridiculously asserts that there should be as much consideration of the perpetrator as the victim. Though they should not be unilaterally condemned, I think there is a critical imbalance in the sympathy given to perpetrators versus the victims given the statistics on how rapes are actually committed.

    And I think that skew in perception is the mode by which the culture that propagates injustice is engendered and maintained. I think it is a systematic undervaluing of the victim’s personhood that in and of itself creates prejudice under the guise of being “fair and balanced”

    It is exactly this mind set of compassion for the perpetrators that lends credence to the tactics of slut shaming, “she was asking for it” mentalities. Or the Stubenville “those poor boys whose lives were ruined by the rape they committed.” Seriously, bitch please. Those boys committed rape, and that action does not deserve compassion.

    As a self-avowed postmodernist, I vehemently acknowledge that each person is a product of there surroundings, that both moral sensibilities and even character are not as innate, as essential as we would like to believe. While there can be sympathy for individuals, there cannot be sympathy for their actions.

    The action of rape is wrong, the act of having sex without consent no matter how much you believe he or she wanted it, no matter how much you think she or he didn’t say it explicitly enough. I can appreciate the difficulties and grey areas that are involved in rape, but someone who commits a sexual assault is not any more worthy of our compassion than someone who would commit a more “legitimate” violent crime, like murder.

    There is no middle ground. And I believe the assertion that there is is only a hair away from victim blaming.

    Moreover, as a radical feminist, I thought the author would be more comfortable with the insufficiency of lived experience. Though perhaps there are some “overzealous activists” out there, perhaps we should be more concerned with those who willfully ignore sexist and racist practices in their own life shielded by accusations of unshaven, angry feminists. This is a silencing tactic, and I think this rhetoric of compassion masks that very well, perhaps even unintentionally. But I think we ultimately need to be much more concerned with the fact that people are being sexually assaulted than that rapists are misunderstood. And we do not need to have compassion for rapists to communicate this, we do not have to temper justice so that it is palatable.

    Or maybe it’s ok to placate people’s prejudices? To have sympathy for them? Maybe it’s ok, as long as the water fountain is separate but equal.

    And sometimes it’s hard to confront peoples implicit biases without pissing them off, but I don’t think that means that we shouldn’t. I don’t think it means we should be more sensitive to the insecurities and control issues that drive people to rape. I don’t think it means that I should worry about being pleasant so that I am heard. I think the onus is on those people who say, but I have a gay/black/female friend to really try to unlearn their privilege. To really look at their actions, and how those function in societal macro-dynamics to perpetuate the subjugation of disenfranchised groups. To examine how looking the hyper sexualization of breasts, however “natural” a person thinks it is, is actually a culturally contingent practice that contributes to the mistreatment of women, the poor, the non-white.

    When someone is raped, we do not need to address both sides of why the rapist shouldn’t rape and also what the victim could have done differently; when talking about prejudices, we do not need to address both how activists could be more pleasant and how bigots could be less bigoted. These are not equal truths, the former example being much more clear cut than the latter. One of them is a violent behavior. One of them bears the burden of blame and responsibility.

    If you really believe that the perpetrators deserve equal consideration, I think you need to re-evaluate.

  2. Anonymous says:

    Had some good points. However, although it would be a little more difficult to write, please don’t use gender-specific pronouns in the future. It simply continues the misconception that only women are survivors, men perpetrators, etc, despite your note at the beginning. I mean, imagine if I wrote an article about Computer Science and said “although some CS majors are female, transgender, or gender non-conforming, most are male, so for the purpose of this article I’m going to use male pronouns to refer to coders.”

    • Agreed completely – thanks for raising this point, this sensitivity to male survivors needs to be more rigorously enforced in our conversations

      • jlandrith says:

        As a male survivor, I found the disclaimer statement extremely minimizing and entirely distracting from the article. If the point is to fight sexual violence – then do actually do that. Stop enforcing gender based hierarchies through written and spoken word. That is a a GIANT PART of the problem. I never reported my rape and never will – because I’m constantly told that it only happens to women. Why keep reinforcing that ugly and silencing stereotype?

  3. Moderate. says:

    Im a bit disappointed, in that I’m really not seeing much middle ground here. The premise of the article seems to be that you need to think about/understand the perspectives of all who are involved, but the only actual discussion of the perpetrator’s POV is a relatively academic/abstracted point about sociological causality–interesting, worth discussing, but unless you’re arguing that fixing that is how we change things (are you?) then it seems more of a minor consideration.

    The more serious omission, to my mind, is the perspective of the very high percentage of the population who will never be directly involved in an incident like the ones being discussed, who abhor violence in general and sexual violence in particular, but who have differing opinions about what should be done/what the issues are.

    I would definitely place myself in that category–white male middle class in long term very equal and non-abusive relationship. Yes, 1/3 of women report having been assaulted in their lifetime. I dont mean to be an asshole, but I have a hard time with that statistic. Not because I find it impossible that it is that high, but because it just seems like bad science to me.

    The operational definition of the study (im assuming) you’re citing defines sexual assault as “Sexual assault in this section refers to nonconsensual physical contact of a sexual nature or forced display of genitals in order to sexually arouse another.” Sounds good, until you think to the last all campus party you went to. Practically everyone on the dance floor could claim this, regardless of the intentions of those around them. I think that grouping together “he raped me” and “he touched me when I told him not to” with someone going “Well, he bumped into me, and I guess I felt pretty uncomfortable at the time” weakens the argument. It’s like putting people who got drunk and peed on the sex offender list–the weight of it is diluted.

    Another position that I dont think gets given due consideration by those in the activist community around campus & elsewhere is the standard of proof. I have on multiple occasions seen people trying to engage in a very legitimate discussion about the exchange of civil liberties for security shot down and dragged in the mud by overzealous activists because it is just too easy to label them as defending rapists.

    Could go on, but won’t. I guess what Im trying to say is that I agree with what I think your title says. These conversations need to be had, and they need to be had in a way that respects the fact that there are legitimate downsides to policies that might seem to the activist communities as no-brainers. But the article lets this ideal down.

    • Yuppers says:

      “I have on multiple occasions seen people trying to engage in a very legitimate discussion about the exchange of civil liberties for security shot down and dragged in the mud by overzealous activists.”

      Agree completely.

      Last year one of my female peers told me (a male) that my views on rape were “disgusting.” The only time I ever talked with her about anything related to rape was a couple weeks earlier when I told her my opinion on how the ARP threatens justice and how the statistics campus authorities use to defend the POE standard were unscientific. And yet, somehow this translated into me condoning rape, or siding with the perpetrators. I didn’t defend myself, because there was nothing to gain- I was at that point forever a rapist sympathizer in her eyes.

      Another activist had this to say to me regarding my stance on the ARP: “Oh my God. I can’t believe you think…. Oh my God. That’s SO wrong. How could you?”

      Typical activism. All talk. No substance. And when there is substance, it’s likely forged.

    • esqg says:

      I have to say I love that “activist communities” are big enough, or have a big enough reputation, that we are thought of as holding some kind of majority opinion. I’m too used to my opinion being unheard of or completely ignored.

      To engage more seriously though, firstly if you set your standard of what sexual assault is “legitimate”, you still end up with very high numbers. But that idea of “legitimacy” is usually determined unfairly.

      To your last sentence: one of the things I think many wilfully misunderstand about activists is that we are not always agitating for policies. We’re not always advocating for the government to do something. Often we are advocating for you to do something, to do things in your daily life. Or for you to support others in their efforts.

      I would want each and every person to think about their own individual impacts on reducing or enabling sexual assault. To use the example you brought up, when you personally see sexual displays on the dance floor, take a look around and see if someone is pushing a little farther, making someone uncomfortable, and think about what you should do, especially if you know either person. Also think about the reasons that someone might do that, or might assault someone more violently.

      Finally, the argument “society thinks of some forms of sexual assault as perfectly normal” against “sexual assault happens all the time” is circular. Sexy dance parties are great, but it is precisely because there is so much more public emphasis on sexuality there, that there should also be more conscious awareness of when that can become sexual assault, and when to look for it.

  4. Erika says:

    Great article, Viviana! I think it is absolutely imperative that we adopt this mindset not only towards sexual assault/rape, but to so many other situations as well.

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