Here’s how we handle consent violations

What is a consent violation?

This question has captured the attention of our entire culture. Do we #believewomen? Do we trust, but verify? Do we trust in due process? Why is it that so many people are being accused of sexual misconduct, and so few things being done about it?

There’s a sad reason that this question remains unanswered. Our society simply does not understand consent. We know it’s not clothing. Is it a verbal “yes” before sex? But how many? And is it before sex, or before touching, or before something else? Can it be a nonverbal cue? Can I give it if I’m drunk? Does it require a contract? Is it a form you sign before surgery at a hospital? Can it be assigned to another person, like a parent making medical decisions for a child deemed too young to make their own? Is it possible for a mentally impaired person to consent? Or for a detainee to consent to someone in a position of power?  For someone under the age of 18 to consent at all?

How can we know when something has been violated when we don’t agree on what that something is?

You probably thought “yes” to some of these questions, and “no” to others. In our experience, everyone has a different response to this list of questions. How can we know when something has been violated when we don’t agree on what that something is?

The Organ House (OH!) community has addressed the question of “what is consent,” by clearly codifying & communicating our own consent culture. I would encourage every community to go through the process of writing down your consent policies and publishing it in a place that your members can reference. This is especially important for places like gyms, yoga studios, and dance studios where it’s normal for members and teachers to be in physical contact with each other.

I would encourage every community to go through the process of writing down your consent policies and publishing it in a place that your members can reference.

Our consent culture doc is a short, straightforward list of rules and examples that define how we expect our members to engage with others.  These policies are also stated in a phone call to every single individual who applies to our community. (Alternatively, you could print your own consent culture doc and have people initial each rule and sign, indicating that they have read and understand all points.) All applicants are given the opportunity to ask clarifying questions. If any applicant chooses to opt-out of agreeing to these terms, that’s fine — their application will be rejected and they will not be permitted to join our private group or attend our private events (but could choose to re-apply in the future.) We expect members who have opted-in to our policies to uphold these values at our events, at other private events, and in public. Doing something that conflicted with these values, whether knowingly or unknowingly, would be considered a consent violation in our community.
 

So what happens when the rules are broken?

This document proposes a sustainable, repeatable process for handling reports of consent violations in our volunteer-run community. We are publishing these resources in the hopes that other communities are able to use some of these ideas and resources, too. The output of this process is a decision on whether or not reported individuals are permitted in spaces we have promised to keep as safe as possible: our online groups and our private events.

Anyone is welcome to use and duplicate this information for your own organization. Please feel free to make copies of the linked Google Docs. Here is a Google Doc of this content, for easy duplicating and editing.

If you choose to instate your own consent violation policy, please be aware that these procedures are not a replacement for contacting legal authorities when appropriate.

If you need immediate help, you can call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1.800.656.HOPE(4673) from anywhere in the U.S., or call 202.544.3064 to reach the RAINN business office. FAQ about this hotline here: https://www.rainn.org/about-national-sexual-assault-telephone-hotline
 

What is a “report?”

A report is a first-hand statement about events that happened that involved you. A report is NOT a third party getting themselves involved. If a third party lets us know about something that concerned them, we need to speak with the person(s) affected before considering it a report. (This avoids confusion over kinky stuff like consensual non-consent, or an honest miscommunication between people who trust each other enough to handle it on their own.)

  • A person directly involved in a situation reports that situation to an admin of OH!
  • A person fills out the anonymous report form (Submitting this form will send an email to Kate Horowitz with your responses, but not include any identifying information about you.) Anyone can make a duplicate of this form and use it for your own organization.

 

Once a consent violation or a concern has been reported to us, or witnessed by us (admins of OH!), here is what will happen:

Admins remove reported individual(s) from this group, and send a notification to that person that we have a report and action is required on their part to hopefully resolve the situation and determine if they can be admitted back to group. At this stage, removal from the group is in no way a presumption of guilt.

Next, admins schedule a call with the reported person(s) and 2 or more Organ House admins. We will try to schedule the first call with the person(s) making the report, and later calls with those reported. We will talk with all people involved individually.

If needed, we may schedule additional calls with the original reporter(s) for clarifying information.

Based on the information we gather from the reporter(s) and the person(s) reported, we will make a decision about whether the actions violate our consent culture or otherwise cause harm and discord to this community. Our goals here are, in order:

  1. Prevent continued damage to the reporting party
  2. Prevent damage to other community members in the future.
  3. Be fair to all involved.

Notably, we are not attempting to ensure that the parties at hand reconcile. We are not in the business of rehabilitation, though it’s nice when that happens and we can point people to professionals who specialize in that. We cannot take on the responsibility of getting a victim redress or reprisal. We are here to keep our members safe, to help the community grow and to hold everyone accountable for their actions, fairly.

If we feel that our policies have been violated, we’ll try to determine whether or not the person(s) reported intended to violate those rules, understand that this is a problem, and are willing and capable of learning how to change to prevent something like this from happening again.

  • If so, we’ll attempt to work with them toward that goal.
  • If not,  they will be banned from our private online community and private events.

A key goal throughout this process is to ensure that any person who feels that they have had their consent violated or have been made to feel uncomfortable has a space to speak about it, and knows that their safety is important and valued.  In our experience, a few key things keep this cycle going:

  • Reporters need to know that they’re not “rocking the boat” by speaking about something that made them feel uncomfortable.  In some systems, people won’t report incidents because they “don’t want to get anyone kicked out over this,” and it’s important to be able to talk about those issues openly.
  • Reporters need to know that they can be as confidential as they want to be, and that they have control over how public (or not) their report is.
  • Reporters need to know that they can talk about how an incident made them feel, regardless of who is involved; no one should feel like they can’t say something because “I’m new, and this person has been around for years.”

 

Technically, the rules weren’t broken, but I still feel hurt. What do I do?

Our consent culture outlines the minimum requirements for remaining a member in good standing in our group. Nobody should be left feeling violated by another member of our community.

Sometimes, we don’t get reports. We get whispers. Mostly, because there’s someone pushing the limits but not quite breaking the rules, and folks do not want to cause drama or get someone else in trouble. They feel uncertain of their own experience. Here, we have a policy that we call the “signal-to-noise ratio.” If we hear one whisper about you, we are going to keep our eyes and ears open for more, but assume nothing more about you. If we hear a few more whispers, you’re on our radar and we are going to be having a conversation about why you’re on our radar.

Our consent culture outlines the minimum requirements for remaining a member in good standing in our group. Nobody should be left feeling violated in any way by another member of our community. If one of our members has caused you to feel hurt, violated, or unsafe, please talk to us. It can be healing just to talk to someone about how you feel.
 

Can I make an anonymous report?

Yes. We do require that reports be first-hand reports, and not come through a friend or other 3rd party. However, you can fill out this form (http://bit.ly/OHreports) to provide us with an anonymous first-hand report.

If you would like to receive updates from us about what actions we take, you can choose to elect a trusted friend to receive updates on your behalf. This way, we will not know your identity, but we can still convey important updates to this person who can pass them along to you. We will ask the person you elect if they are comfortable being in that situation, and ask them to please respect the privacy of all involved by only passing updates along to you.
 

What exactly happens once I make a report?

We will reach out to very soon to schedule a time to talk on the phone. When possible, we like to have more than one organizer on these intake calls, to make sure that we don’t miss any details or misunderstand anything.

We will never ask you to explain your actions, or put you on the defensive. We want to hear your account of what happened, and we want to understand your experience of those events. How did this affect you when it happened? How is it affecting you now?

We’ll ask you to set aside about 30-45 minutes in a location where you can speak freely, and tell us what happened. We will listen, and we will take notes for our own reference. We may ask a few clarifying questions, such as “do you know this person’s name” or “could you describe this person to me” to make sure we correctly understand what you say. We will never ask you to explain your actions, or put you on the defensive. We want to hear your account of what happened, and we want to understand your experience of those events. How did this affect you when it happened? How is it affecting you now?

Then, we’ll let you know about all of the options and resources we are aware of that we think may be applicable for you. We’ll explain these and let you take the time you need to decide what course of action you need to feel safe, well, and whole again. An apology? File a police report? Mediation? Distance from this person at events? No action required? Whatever you need, we will do our best to help provide it.

We’ll also ask you how much information you’d like to have from us as we move through next steps with the person or persons being reported.  Would you like us to provide you with updates and if so, would you like those via text, email, a phone call, etc. If your needs are simply “I don’t ever want to be bothered by this / think about this again,” then we will simply address the report it in a way that we think is appropriate to the situation and inform you of that outcome.
 

What happens if someone makes a report about one of the admins?

The same process described above, with two changes. That admin will not be included in the intake call or any other conversations about the situation, other than the call we would schedule with them as we would schedule with any reported party. Also, we will not immediately remove that admin from the online group unless a final decision was reached that this person should be removed permanently. This is a technical constraint for us; removing them and re-adding them could greatly complicate our ability to stay organized. However, this person would not attend any of our private events until we reached a resolution.
 

What happens if someone reports me?

Immediately after our call with the reporter, we will remove you from our private group, and inform you that we have a report and action is required on your part to resolve the situation and determine if you can be readmitted. We’ll set up a time for a call between our admins and you.

This call will be respectful, non-judgemental, and we will listen to your experience and make sure you feel heard.

Our first goal is to gain alignment on the events — the nouns and verbs, without the adverbs and adjectives that define someone’s experience of those events. Do you agree with the events as they have been explained to us?

This call will be respectful, non-judgemental, and we will listen to your experience and make sure you feel heard. Our first goal is to gain alignment on the events — the nouns and verbs, without the adverbs and adjectives that define someone’s experience of those events.

If we don’t all agree on the events that took place, we may schedule additional calls with the original reporter(s) for clarifying information.  If you and the reporter mutually agree on the events, then we listen to your experience of those events — how did you feel at the time, how do you feel now, and how is this impacting you?

Our secondary goal is to provide a nurturing environment that permits people to learn from their mistakes. Is there a version of events where all parties involved can understand each other? Where is the disconnect between your experiences of these events happening, and can this be resolved in a way that satisfies everyone? If so, we will do our best to mediate that resolution.

Our primary goal is always the health and safety of our community. We will take action based on the severity of the events and whether or not we believe your actions violated our consent culture.
 

I’ve been banned from your events, but I’m not a bad person and I think you are wrong.

I get it — the situation sucks, and you’re mad. First, we know you’re not a bad person. Nobody is a “bad” person and there are very few “good” people; we’re all just people doing the best we can. (Even Mother Teresa probably kissed a few babies without their explicit consent.) But us admins are also just people, and we’re also doing the best we can. We guarantee that if we’ve already gone through this entire process and found no way to resolve it without removing you from the group, we are not revisiting that decision. We’re okay with a slight margin of error on who we remove from the group. Maybe we are wrong sometimes, and maybe we didn’t find the truth of the situation. But we can’t take that risk. We have zero margin for error for allowing people who cause harm and discord to our community to stay. Our consent culture is also the minimum requirements for staying in this group. We are a private group and being a member is a privilege, not a right. If you’ve been removed, that decision is final.

 

Boilerplate message to reported person when an incident is reported

Feel free to use this for your own organization:

Hi name, this is your name from your organization. We’ve receive a report from the event/class  on date that involve you, so I’d like to schedule a time that we can talk on the phone for about 30-45 sometime this week. I’ve temporarily removed you from the group/organization (a standard thing we do in these situations) until we have a chance to talk and reach a resolution. While we take these situations very seriously, I don’t want you to panic. We’ll talk through everything together, get your views on what happened, and make sure you feel heard. Would [date & time] work for you?
 

Have questions? Need help creating something like this for your community? Email us at hello@organhouse.org!