Being Labeled A ‘Bad Survivor’ Showed Me That Callout Culture Needs To Change

By Erika Haberman

Credit: Flickr/Gene Han
Callouts are often misused to attack marginalized people — most often trans women.

Last summer I was sexually assaulted by one of my closest friends. I was dealing with a lot of trauma at the time, and they volunteered to come take care of me. But they showed up drunk, and in my fragile emotional state I was unable to stand up for myself. They did things to me without ever asking consent, using me for their own pleasure and ignoring my needs. For a host of reasons related to trauma and our victim-blaming culture, I wasn’t immediately aware that my boundaries had been crossed, so I didn’t think much of it afterwards and I continued being their close friend. It wasn’t until months later after I started talking to other people who had had similar experiences with them that I came to understand what had happened to me as assault.

As I began to come forward with what had happened — with the hopes of raising awareness about my assailant’s violence as a means of protecting others — I quickly found myself exiled from my community. Despite my efforts to protect others, according to some people in the social justice and activist spaces I was a part of, I’d not gone far enough; for not wanting to ruin my assailant’s life by exacting violence against them or running them out of town, I was quickly labeled a “bad survivor.”

What happened to me painfully illustrates the harm that can be caused under the guise of “callout culture.”

The vast majority of the radical and queer communities — myself included — do not believe in the prison system. We understand that the criminal “justice” system is really just a racist profit machine that has no intention of rehabilitating offenders. Further, my assailant is transgender. As a transgender woman who’s already experienced firsthand the kind of violence that trans people face in jail, I was unwilling to involve the police in the wake of my assault.

As a result, I sought to enter into a transformative justice process with my assailant. I understood that they were raised in an extremely conservative Christian homeschooling setting and had never received any kind of affirmative-consent-based education — they likely had no clue of the ways in which they were being violent. I knew that if they could come to understand the ways in which their behavior was harmful, then they could do the work necessary to hold themselves accountable and become a better person. However, after two months of attempting to get in touch with my assailant, I was ultimately unsuccessful in getting them to meet with me, and so I eventually gave up and took a different approach.

For not wanting to ruin my assailant’s life by exacting violence against them or running them out of town, I was quickly labeled a “bad survivor.”

I wrote a long private Facebook post naming them and detailing what they had done to me. I needed to be able to tell my story and speak my truth — and that is what I did. However, I did not want my story to turn into a witch-hunt against a trans-femme person, and I said so explicitly. I didn’t need or want for them to be run out of town or for physical harm to come to them. The only things I needed and asked for were for people to hear my story and to not invite both of us to the same event. I had said my piece and was ready to move on. However, that was not to be.

Less than an hour after I told my story, a prominent member of the local queer community — with whom I was Facebook friends but barely knew — hijacked my story and made their own public callout of my assailant. In it they called for people to beat up my assailant, going against all of my explicitly stated wishes. Their goal was to run my assailant out of town. This was theoretically to keep them from hurting more people, but the more I spoke to the person who’d posted the callout, the more I realized that they simply wanted to shove my assailant somewhere else so that their behavior wouldn’t be our community’s problem anymore. This person even went so far as to say to the world that I was being morally and tactically reprehensible for refusing to condone violence.

A few weeks later, the poster of this callout messaged me with a plot to cause physical harm to my assailant, and condemned me when I told them I was not at all OK with this. They told me that I was being unfair to them by burdening them with my refusal to allow violence to be done. It was through my refusal to condone violence against my assailant that I came to feel like a pariah in my own town. I was given cold stares when I was seen in public and made to feel unwelcome at local events.

The pushback I received — all for being a “bad survivor” — was ultimately one of the major factors that contributed to me deciding to move away. In the end, I came to be much more traumatized by the way the so-called radical queer community — with all their rhetoric about supporting survivors — treated me for how I chose to be a survivor than I ever was from my actual assault.

My experience is just one example of what is a much wider problem — the way in which queer and radical communities over-rely on callout culture. Callout culture is the prominent way in which social media is utilized to publicly name and shame people who are abusive or otherwise dangerous.

Callouts are not in and of themselves a bad thing. For example, in the wake of the fascist rally in Charlottesville that led to the murder of of counter-protester Heather Heyer, Twitter user @YesYoureRacist publicly identified and doxxed the Neo-Nazis who attended — causing them public humiliation and real-world consequences for their abominable actions. This kind of callout is clearly justified; fascists should — and indeed must—be publicly named so that people can know to avoid them and ensure their bigotry doesn’t go unpunished. This piece is not a blanket condemnation of publicly speaking out against dangerous people; I merely wish to critique the way in which callouts are utilized as the first and only means for dealing with interpersonal conflict.

I am sure that there are certainly many people in queer and radical communities reading this right now who are angry at me for daring to criticize callout culture — it has become a third rail in large parts of these communities. I have seen people who do what I am doing now get viciously attacked and publicly condemned for speaking out; when someone I knew was anonymously soliciting submissions for a zine critiquing callout culture, there was even a public campaign to figure out who they were in order to dox them. In fact, my fear of a coordinated violent backlash in response to me writing this has made me feel unsafe attaching my name to this article; I am publishing this under a pseudonym.

The ugly reality is that callouts are often misused to attack marginalized people — most often trans women. Such toxic callouts often offer little to no explanation of what exactly the person being called out did beyond “this person is abusive and if you associate with them you are too.”

Further, the demands made in order for the person being accused of abuse to be held “accountable” are also often incredibly unreasonable. In just the past year alone, I have seen a demand that an accused abuser never reach out to anyone for support. I have seen coordinated efforts demanding that a poor trans woman accused of abuse leave their state and not go to any of six other specific states — which just happened to most of the states where it’s even marginally safe to be a trans woman. I’ve seen groups demand that no one associate with anyone who is even just acquaintances with a person vaguely being accused of abusive. In one instance I have even seen the specific demand that a trans woman accused of abuse commit suicide. Beyond just having abhorrent demands, these callouts replicate the same logic of exile and isolation that underlies the prison-industrial complex that the communities that engage in callouts claim to be opposed to.

The ugly reality is that callouts are often misused to attack marginalized people — most often trans women.

The result of these toxic callouts is a culture of fear; people are scared to refute a callout or even associate with anyone who has been called out for fear of being labeled an abuse apologist — or even an abuser themselves. Thus many trans women — who are already abandoned by society writ large — come to find themselves also exiled from the queer community on the word of rumors.

To be sure, mainstream society has a serious problem with not believing survivors, so it’s completely understandable that radical and queer communities center themselves on believing those who said they’ve been abused or assaulted. I myself am grateful for the ways in which the abuse I’ve survived has been validated by these communities. Yet these issues are deeply nuanced, and we must keep in mind that not all claims of abuse are true. As Porpentine Charity Heartscape writes in her influential article “Hot Allostatic Load,” “escaping from abuse is the most certain way to become painted as an abuser, and being an abuser is the most sure way to be believed.”

The truth is that some abusive people within queer and radical communities will make false claims of abuse against their victims; they bastardize the motto of “believe survivors” for their own sinister ends. Until we invite a nuanced understanding of this toxic dynamic, we will continue to play into the hands of abusers and cause further harm to the true survivors. This is the danger inherent in the way that callout culture has become the first and only means of dealing with interpersonal conflict within queer and radical communities. The fact is that callouts — even genuine and detailed ones—aren’t always necessary, as I experienced firsthand.

Before I moved away from the town where I was traumatized, I reached out to my assailant one last time to attempt to have the conversation I wanted to have originally. As time had passed since I initially reached out to try to talk to them — allowing for them to be able to do their own self-reflection — this time they were receptive and willing to meet up. I walked into the meeting planning on explaining the ways in which their behaviors harmed people and what I needed of them to finally begin an accountability process. Yet before I could even utter those words, they confessed that they recognized the ways in which their behavior had been harmful; they had already done all of the things that I was going to ask them to do in order to hold themselves accountable — in fact they had done even more than I was going to ask of them.

The result of these toxic callouts is a culture of fear.

They had truly become a different person—one who was open to my words and reacted positively to me talking about how they had hurt me. As a result, we were able to address the harm that had been caused and heal together. I can honestly say that I forgive them for the ways in which they hurt me.

By contrast, using callout culture against my assailant didn’t bring anyone any sort of healing or closure — it merely ushered in more pain and isolation. It was only by waiting the time required for a transformative justice framework to be successful that my assailant could improve themselves as a person, I could heal myself as a survivor, and further harm against other people could be prevented.

Obviously my story and solution are unique and will not work for everyone. But if there’s a chance a survivor is able to communicate their truth and their perpetrator is willing to hold themselves accountable, then my experience provides a blueprint for a better way to deal with abuse. There are certainly many other ways out there to deal with interpersonal violence, but until we stop viewing callouts as the only way to handle harm we will never find these paths. And that just causes everyone to suffer more than they need to.

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