My argument: let’s distribute the burden of correcting and preventing sexual misconduct through collective effort, not letting the burdens and costs fall overwhelmingly on those who have experienced it.
CW: sexual assault/harassment
I work at CEA but write this in an individual capacity. Views expressed here are my own, not CEA's.
I encourage you to reach out to me individually on Twitter (@emmalrichter) if you want to discuss what I raise in this post. I’d love to engage with the variety of potential responses to what I’ve written and would love to know why you upvote or downvote it.
Intro and Context
Some of you already know that I’m a survivor. I was sexually assaulted, harassed, or abused in independent situations at the ages of 16, 17, 18, and 20. I am intentionally open and vocal about what I’ve gone through, including a PTSD diagnosis a few years ago.
Recent events in the EA community have reminded me that the mistreatment of people through sexual or romantic means occurs here (as it does everywhere). Last week at EAG, I received a Swapcard message that proposed a non-platonic interaction under the guise of professional interaction. I went to an afterparty where someone I had just met—literally introduced to me moments before—put their hand on the small of my back and grabbed and held onto my arm multiple times. These might seem like minor annoyances, but I have heard and experienced that these kinds of small moments happen often to women in EA. These kinds of experiences undermine my own feelings of comfort and value in the community.
This might be anecdata, as some people say, and I know obtaining robust data on these issues has its own challenges  Nonetheless, my experience and those of other women in EA indicate that there’s enough of a problem to consider doing more.
I’m writing this post for a few reasons:
- I want to draw attention to the suffering of women here in the community.
- I want to convey the costs placed on survivors seeking justice and trying to prevent further harm to others.
- I want to share just how taxing it can be for survivors to work on these problems on their own, both due to the inherent pain of reliving experiences and the arduousness of most justice processes.
Above all, I want to make this request of our community: let’s distribute the burden of correcting and preventing sexual misconduct as fairly as we can, not letting the burdens and costs fall overwhelmingly on those who have experienced it. They have suffered so much already—they have suffered enough. I hope we can be as agentic and proactive in this domain as we strive to be in other areas of study and work.
Here are sub-arguments that I’ll explore below:
- Before placing the burden of explanation on the survivor, we can employ other methods to learn about this constellation of social issues. We can listen to survivors more effectively and incorporate the feedback of those who want to share while also finding other resources to chart paths forward.
- Good intentions can still lead to negative outcomes. This can apply to both bystanders who refrain from engaging with the subject out of the intention of not making things worse and might also apply to those who perpetrate harmful behaviors (as I discuss in my own experience further down).
Why write about the meta-level attitude and approach when I could have written something proposing object-level solutions?
Because how we approach finding object-level solutions will affect the quality of those solutions—particularly for those who are most affected by these problems. I don’t feel informed enough to propose institutional reforms or particular policies (though I intend to reflect on these questions and research them). I do feel informed enough to address a particular failure mode I hope we can avoid.
Relevant Forum statements
A few Forum comments motivated me to write this post, so I’ll briefly explain their points and how I encountered them.
In his recent apology, Owen wrote: “If there’s anyone else whom I’ve ever made feel uncomfortable or pressured, I’d love to hear about it — I think I might benefit most from a conversation, but I’d also welcome anonymous feedback.”
While I appreciate the impulse to learn from a mistake, this comment felt like it missed the mood to me; it seems to underestimate or not fully imagine the costly work a survivor would do in reaching out to the person that had harmed them.
As laurapomarius put it:
“I'm not sure my anger is appropriate here, but I've been in similar situations as this woman. If one of these people asked me for a conversation about their behaviour, I imagine being impressed/glad by them wanting to change but also feeling a bit like, 'You already made me feel shitty, and now it's my job to make sure you don't do this again?” (emphasis my own).
I recognize that the feedback and input of those who have suffered from sexual misconduct prove necessary in remedying many of these situations. Someone might have to report and describe their experience to seek consequences for the perpetrator, someone might have to help non-survivors understand the emotional experience, and others might need to weigh in on the design and success of potential solutions.
I want to advocate, however, that we should not automatically place the burden of explaining or remedying the harmful situation on the person who experienced the harm. We have many tools and means of learning at our disposal. We don’t need to place the rather torturous choice on a survivor to either stay silent on their experience and risk it happening again or do the painful labor of inculcating a perpetrator in an effort to prevent further harm.
These thoughts led me to the question at the core of this post: whose responsibility is it to remedy situations in which community members have been significantly harmed? Do we want to place that responsibility on those who have suffered, or can we work on other solutions as a community?
Pandora’s comment on Owen’s apology made me think about this point. They noted that Owen had potentially not learned about gender or power dynamics prior to the incidents and then asked:
“Then the question becomes, why had he not learned these things?”
I know many people in the community are aware of power dynamics, and Julia Wise wrote a Forum post that outlined many of these as they apply in the EA sphere. I don’t know how many people read it or changed their thinking because of it. Even more so, what would push our community to create further resources that can help people be more aware of the negative impact they can have on others? I would love to see not just survivors recognize these harms and work on addressing these issues.
My feelings and arguments above are rooted in painful experiences from my own life. I have spent hundreds of hours of my time and energy trying to correct the harms that others committed against me. I’m angry about it. It hurts. It hurts how I was harmed—PTSD, with its sleeplessness, panic attacks, and hyper-alertness, is obviously not fun—and I would venture that the experiences damaged my cognition and memory for years. The toll of engaging in justice processes and trying to prevent further harm drove me into many deep depressions over the years.
I have sympathy for those who perpetrate unintended harm. This was the case in one experience in my own life, that a loving boyfriend assaulted me in an act of poor judgment and selfishness. I have sympathy for the deep shame and guilt he went through after the fact—though it feels unacceptable to say that. He hurt me and he also deeply cared for me; these two truths coexisted, even if they weren’t comprehensible to those around me. I sympathize with the multifaceted nature of human behavior and emotions.
In that particular situation, he and I spent months after the incident trying to figure out why it happened, what to do after the fact, and how to discuss it with our community. One way I justified my continued contact with him—both to myself and others—was that I was helping him learn and holding him accountable for what he did. I was determined to make sure he learned from what he’d done, determined to ensure he didn’t do it to anyone else. I wrote long letters detailing my emotions. I shared research from psychologists, therapists, and restorative justice practitioners. I put in so much labor trying to control the outcomes of a situation I didn’t want to experience in the first place.
I was foolish to do so. I was 18, so I’ve forgiven myself—but I was foolish. Only after years of reflection did I understand the tradeoff I had made between my time and energy and his understanding of what he had done wrong. Engaging with him so intensely cost my health—physical, mental, emotional, and social. I became withdrawn from friends and family and had panic attacks regularly. I fell into one of the worst depressions of my life. I chose to suffer for what I thought was a noble cause—helping him learn and grow so he wouldn’t repeat his behaviors—but I came close to losing myself.
This has been the case for me when I’ve pursued other forms of justice in the other situations where I was harmed. For example, I reported a professor who sexually harassed and assaulted me in college. I had to see him every day for four months, having panic attacks regularly throughout that time. Seeing him and talking about the situation drove me to tears most days—while I was trying to finish an honors thesis, protect my hard-earned 4.0 GPA, and work three jobs. I reported the situation to the appropriate institutional office; while this did lead to official sanctions that limited his role at the university, it required me to explain the situation in detail over and over to a number of people I had never met before. I was required to detail a timeline of all the times he’d flirted with me, what he had said, the ways he had touched me inappropriately, and the comments he’d made towards me that made my skin crawl. Some mentors and professors at the time were mad on my behalf, knowing that I cared so deeply about my education—and instead, had to devote time and energy to this horrible situation if I wanted certain outcomes.
In this case, the tradeoff was not about this professor learning or understanding what he had done. I tried to set up a mediated dialogue with him on the subject, and he refused to engage. He had no interest in learning and didn’t think he’d done anything wrong. The tradeoff here was between my educational experience and health on the one hand, the potential safety of other young women and the broader culture at the university on the other. A more effective institutional policy or process could have prevented this tradeoff and avoided these risks.
Improving the tradeoff
The realistic tradeoffs as a survivor of sexual harassment or assault often push the survivor to choose an ideal, like justice or safety for others, at the expense of their time, energy, and health. While reeling from the harm of the situation, the person experiencing the harm might engage in a process that hurts them in an effort to ensure their safety, protect other potential victims, educate the perpetrator, or signal that the perpetrator’s actions were harmful.
I see these tradeoffs operating in our community right now. Certain gender demographics are more at risk of harm. We have many people who genuinely want to understand how to address these situations, but maybe they haven’t experienced these issues themselves, or they have a hard time understanding the experiences of those who have. We have people who earnestly want to know what to do to help improve the situation, but they might ask questions in ways that inadvertently hurt people who have experienced these harms.
I want to advocate for a third way, a potential way around the tradeoffs I’ve described that I think bystanders and the community at large can work towards. I advocate for not fully placing the burden of education and improvement of community norms on those who have experienced sexual harassment or gender discrimination within the community. I ask that we approach these issues the way we approach other community issues, recognizing that the behavior of a small number of bad actors must be absorbed and corrected by more responsible actors within the community. In allocating collective effort to this issue, I hope we can create protective norms, practices, or processes that take care of those affected and encourage the kind of behaviors we want in the future.
The main goal of this post is to prompt a shift in our attitudes towards these subjects, but I’ll provide more concrete points for those who wonder what to do in response:
- Approach conversations with those who might have a personal perspective on this subject with care, compassion, and gentleness.
- Some women have experienced sexual misconduct and might find the question jarring if it’s coming from someone they don’t know very well or without conversation surrounding the question. Others may have experienced sexual misconduct and have no difficulty discussing the subject. Others might be annoyed by the assumption that being female means they’re an expert or authority on this subject.
- While being female does correlate with a higher likelihood of having experienced sexual misconduct, men and people of other genders also suffer from these issues.
- Sometimes how you ask a question or raise a subject, especially when the topic emotionally affects an individual, can have a significant effect on their ability to engage in the conversation. (I am one of these people when it comes to this topic!)
- If someone seems upset or doesn’t want to discuss it, respect that choice.
- An example of language to raise the subject that feels kind and gentle: “I’m concerned about the situation that was shared recently on the Forum. I’m curious if you have any thoughts on that? I know it’s a hard subject, totally fine if you’d rather not discuss it, just thought you might have some good insights.”
- Set a timer and spend fifteen minutes thinking about this subject. What are concrete actions that might help the situation? How can you find out more about the topic? Some of Clearer Thinking’s tools like the Decision Advisor could help push your thinking and brainstorming. Consider how you approach other kinds of human suffering and apply the strengths of those approaches to this issue.
We’re a community based in altruism, in being generous and caring about the well-being of all people. We should take responsibility for the harm people experience in this community and take responsibility for preventing it when we can. Especially where we can do more, we shouldn’t let the survivors of misconduct among us shoulder the burden of improving things.
I don't like how Forum acknowledgments can feel name-droppy sometimes, so going to thank a few people for their help with their initials. Big love to RB, RR, MD, FL, and SH for their support, edits, thoughts, and encouragement.
Separately, I’m interested in writing a post clarifying why it’s hard gathering good data on this and the mechanisms that can suppress people’s willingness to share their experiences. Please reach out to me if you have input on this or questions.
I use the word survivor to define anyone who’s experienced sexual harassment, assault, or intimidation.