A small pilot program at the nonprofit NYC Anti Violence Project, which typically serves LGBTQ survivors of violence, has shown promise by providing a space for people who have been perpetrators of sexual violence and want to change their behavior. The initiative, called “Transform,” is a voluntary group for queer people who believe they have violated boundaries in a sexual relationship or are unsure if they have caused harm.
The first 15-week group ran from February to July 2019 and was set to recur this summer, but was delayed because of the pandemic. While the pilot program had only three participants, this summer’s planned programming, which was cancelled due to the coronavirus, made room for up to 10 people, according to Darlene Torres, Deputy Director of Client Services at the Anti-Violence Project (AVP) and also the facilitator of the Transform group.
She says the work is an extension of AVP’s goal of supporting survivors of sexual violence. AVP had received requests for years from queer survivors of violence for programming to address sexual violence within the community, Torres says.
“We were hearing more survivors calling us and asking for these kinds of groups but, we weren’t running them,” she says. “We have always known that people can experience violence and also be the same folks that actually cause harm as well,” she says. “We really wanted to shape all of this work really in a holistic way, understanding that the folks that we were working with would be survivors of some kind of violence, and holding that throughout all the group sessions, while holding them accountable for the harm that they caused to people or a person,” she adds.
There’s broad evidence that education can reduce sexual assault, and the CDC promotes education, including “social-emotional learning” as a strategy for preventing sexual assault. While most studies of preventive programs focus on heterosexual men, there is growing support for preventive programs and restorative justice healing curcles geared to LGBTQ perpetrators of sexual violence. A policy brief from UCLA’s Center For Women advised implementing restorative justice on college campuses in Title IX cases to limit police contact with gender non-conforming and non-white people.
Queer people are more vulnerable to assault, as well. A 2010 survey conducted by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention found that LGBTQ people experience higher lifetime rates of rape, physical violence or stalking compared to heterosexual people.
But queer folks face more barriers to support. According to a report from the National Sexual Violence Research Center, LGBTQ survivors face barriers to services after an assault due to homophobia and transphobia.
Rates of reporting to the police, already low for sexual assault and intimate partner violence across the board, are even lower for LGBTQ people. In 2016, 39 percent of LGBTQ people who experienced intimate partner violence interacted with police afterward, according to a report from the National Coalition of Anti Violence Programs, although this number includes involuntary interactions resulting from bystanders calling the police.
The report concluded that “Mainstream domestic violence services and institutional remedies, such as protective orders, emergency shelter, emergency medical services, and law enforcement responses are often unsafe or inaccessible for LGBTQ communities, particularly LGBTQ people who are immigrants, people of color, and people with disabilities.”
And when reports are made, they are not always taken seriously. A 2014 survey from Lambda Legal found that among respondents who had reported a sexual assault to the police, 39 percent did not have the complaint fully addressed.
Torres says that AVP’s space was helpful in providing a space for people who have caused harm to unpack prior trauma.
“It was amazing, to be honest,” she says. “It pushed our edges, our learning curve, around what does it mean to meet someone where they’re at.”
Participants were found partially through sending out flyers and reaching out to the organization’s support groups for survivors of violence. She says that the space was important because some people had been ostracized from communities due to the harm they caused.
“People have been ostracized from movements, communities, organizations that they were getting services from,” she says. “They couldn’t talk about what happened. To have a space where they could talk to each other and express what’s going on in the moment they said was invaluable.”
In addition to providing a circle where respondents could process their feelings, Torres says classes consisted of conversations about consent, toxic behavior and ways for participants to be held accountable.
The “Transform” program points to a need among organizations serving queer people to address sexual violence outside the criminal justice system. “In Power,” a sexual harm response program at Howard Brown Health in Illinois, bills itself as “the first holistic LGBTQ-specific sexual assault response program in the nation,” it offers STI testing and bystander trainings. In Power launched its wraparound services in 2016. Paige Baker-Braxton, the Program Manager at In Power, says that she initially thought the program would reach only 30 people in the first year, when it reached 330.
Baker-Braxton says traditional sexual assault programs rely on the legal system, but less than 10 percent of people who come to In-Power choose to report their assault to the police. When police are involved, the organization sends people to accompany the survivor.
The organization doesn’t have a formal transformative justice or community accountability component yet, she says. But many of employees at the center’s Broadway Youth Center are trained to deal with assault when it happens between queer community members.
“Sometimes the person who causes harm might be from community as well,” she says, and employees need to navigate those complexities while acknowledging an historically fraught relationship between queer people and the police. The National Sexual Violence Research Center has also prepared a guide for transformative prevention programming for LGBTQ people for people who want to do work responding to sexual violence within communities.
Torres says there has been wide interest in the program from word of mouth since the program ended. While “Transform” will run again, Torres says, it will do so without the funding stream from RALIANCE, a coalition of domestic violence prevention organizations that had awarded AVP with $46,000 for one year of programming. A spokesperson for RALIANCE said the grant program, “was designed to drive innovation, seed new initiatives to advance prevention, and create models and programs that could be replicated in other communities.” The coalition says while the funding was only for a year, other grantees have been able to sustain programming with other funding after their grants terminate.
AVP found the pilot successful enough that they have begun to integrate it into other aspects of their work and find other sources of funding to allow it to continue. “We believe that this work is vital,” she says.
Roshan Abraham is Next City's 2020 Equitable Cities Fellow.