When Religious Leaders Transgress: Putting CAFS to Task

In a previous blog post I talked about how we, as mortals, might benefit from applying some kink theory and concepts to our interactions with the Gods in the form of RACK because of the power differential generally inherent to our beings. I also plugged a theory by the much-maligned (and rightly so, for the most part) Maymay, concerning why it is better to conceive of consent and consent violations in terms of a felt sense rather than the way it is commonly understood – that is, through a contractual, permissory, framework.

I say this because a leader in the polytheist community has recently been accused of some very serious consent violations by a number of people, and it just so happens that I’ve been on good terms with this person for a few years now and consider them an acquaintance of mine. I will not name names, because this post isn’t about that particular situation per se, but rather about what to do in general, especially when applying the consent-as-felt-sense theory for the first time in such a serious situation. Because it’s one thing to situate a felt-sense of violation if someone says something that ignores the boundaries of someone else, for example; but it’s another thing entirely when talking about accusations of assault.

But I am imperfect; I have my biases. And my biases tend toward the preservation of what little community I have more than being willing to fracture it at the slightest provocation.

What to do, then?

CAFS theory/practice was formed by an anarchist and designed to function within an anarchist framework – that is, without police to perform arrests, without courts to mete out guilt or innocence, without prisons to punish the guilty, and without institutional stigma against those who have committed acts of violation and seek rehabilitation and readmission into the wider community.

Obviously, we don’t live in an anarchist world. Smaller groups of us often do, though, and usually unintentionally, and so CAFS can only currently function on the smaller scales of physical, proximal, communities where there is more accountability. So, pretty much the opposite environment than social media, where these accusations were made, and increasingly, tend to be made, and where “accountability” is at the whim of the mob.

But specifically, what to do when it’s a leader who  is being blamed for these consent violations? Well, anarchist frameworks don’t really have leaders (and I try to avoid situations that need leaders and spokespeople like the plague for this very reason), so already it’s beginning to look like the real question is, can CAFS even be applied here? When there is power involved – and someone who is a religious leader and mouthpiece for the Gods most definitely holds power over their followers and layfolk – how do we mitigate this? How do we hold space for the aggrieved and aggressor alike without doing injustice to either of them? (Because contrary to social-media mob-fueled SJW logic, aggressors don’t suddenly become subhuman the instant someone says they’ve done something. However, I would also argue that sometimes, you really just reap what you sow if someone’s had enough.)

Also, how do we take action when there’s no “proof”? Can it be “proved” that someone has been wronged? CAFS says not always, and I agree. In the past, I’ve personally been asked for concrete evidence of my mistreatment from my abuser that I wasn’t able to provide, and then promptly had my claims thrown out the window, allowing the abuser to return to their status quo with conscience intact.

But CAFS, being a new way to conceive of consent violations that doesn’t rely on contractual or permissory framings, puts feelings over legalistic notions of “evidence”. It goes even beyond the concept that consent can be revoked at any time for any reason, because revoking consent is still a contractual rhetorical device. CAFS allows consent to exist beyond the simple spectrum of yes/no: it is a felt sense in the same way that smell or touch or proprioception are. It allows the possibility of an experience to be simultaneously pleasant and violating, of an experience to be desired without consent given, of an experience to be unpleasant or distressing without the consent contract ever being broken, of an experience that, in retrospect, was actually sort of unexpectedly traumatizing, and so on. It breaks down rigid and alienating categories of violations by type and severity, and it eliminates prerequisite conditions to be met, such as foreknowledge or malicious intent.

If our concern is with not violating a person, rather than not violating a rule, then “a violation” is defined by what happens when a person processes and continually re-processes their feelings about an experience. Likewise, if our concern is about behaving ethically and with integrity, rather than making sure we are not held accountable for coercive actions, then we should respect consent as an experience people have, not a commitment people make.

Consent does not equal permission; it is a felt sense.

Here, I believe, the answer lies. Under the best circumstances, CAFS would allow someone to make a claim against someone else and have that claim be valid because it is about someone verbalizing feelings, not describing a broken social contract, the latter of which requires proof and like hell does the former.

Obviously, religions aren’t intimate relationships, though they can be, especially when religions such as ours are small and generally close-knit, and when our religious leaders are only an email or chat box away.

If Andy says “yes” to sex with Bob but still winds up feeling like his boundaries were violated, Bob bears no responsibility for Andy’s discomfort as long as Bob stuck to their agreement. Bob can be a nice guy and help Andy process his feelings, if he wants, or he can be a dick and just tell Andy it’s not his problem. Later, Andy can choose not to play with Bob again because he had a bad time, but he is not “allowed” to call Bob a violator—Andy would be making a “false accusation”—because Bob didn’t break any rules.

The problem with this model is that it is fundamentally legalistic. It’s all about whether or not permission to perform an act was obtained; it asks nothing about peoples’ experiences after they say “yes.” Instead, the Consent-as-Permission model asks questions like, “What counts as a ‘yes’?”, “Under what circumstances is a ‘yes’ inadmissible?”, and “In the case of a dispute, what kinds of documentation are required to prove the presence or absence of a ‘yes’?”

[…]

Regardless of how we tweak it, the consent-as-permission model retains a focus on the experience of the person receiving permission, not the person who is or is not consenting. Such a system encourages us to design “consent contracts,” negotiated agreements about what behaviors are permissible in what situations. In such a system, the most rational thing to do is also the least ethical: prioritize avoiding accountability for acts of violation over respecting another person’s consent.

Again, because I think CAFS has applications beyond just sex (since most things in life we consent to aren’t sexual encounters), I’ve replaced all quoted instances of “rape” and “rapist” with something more broadly applicable.

When a consent violation is framed as a piece of one’s identity rather than as an act one committed, the possibility that one could “be a violator” is simply unconscionable for most people to stomach. Their terror at this prospect spurs them to justify or excuse their behavior. We’re going to have to come to grips with what it means to violate others in a way our justifiable fear of “being violators” has so far prevented us from doing.

 

Movements have been dismantled, organizations crumbled, and otherwise heroic people completely discredited because of this. Many babies and much bathwater, and all because of our collective inability to deal with consent violations beyond an all-or-nothing (legalistic!) way.

So what do we do when a religious leader is accused of abusing some of their followers? How do we heal? What to we do with the violators? Can CAFS theory be put to practice in a community that is not proximal, that is top-down, and that has an internal agenda beyond mere cohesion (ie. serving Gods)?

I think this is for those communities and those victims to sort out for themselves – overarching rules are quite antiethical to CAFS, after all. But what CAFS does give us, though, is the tools to unequivocally validate the feelings of those who have experienced a violation, whether explicable or not. And if we can come to understand that at some point in our lives, we all will eventually come to violate someone else’s felt sense of consent, then it might be easier to avoid crucifying would-be aggressors and instead work on building communities that respect feelings at least as much as we respect rules.

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