SF moves—finally—toward a survivor-centered policy on sexual assault

The Board of Supervisors Rules Committee approved Wednesday a plan for a new agency to oversee the city’s response to sexual assault and sexual harassment.

The legislation comes as a response to an April 25th hearing at which Sup. Hillary Ronen asked survivors to come forward to discuss how the current system has failed survivors time and time again.

Sup. Hillary Ronen wants to radically improve the way the city treats survivor of sexual violence

The new agency, the Office of Sexual Harassment and Assault Response and Prevention, passed unanimously and is headed to the Budget and Finance Committee then the full board for a vote.

When we discuss city departments’ failure in responding to sexual assault, we have to be clear on what that means in the context of survivor-centered, anti-rape work.

To be survivor-centered simply means to prioritize survivors’ wellbeing, as they communicate it, above all else, following their lead in their healing and justice process, as well as respecting them as experts in their own lives. To fail as a city and county in our response to sexual assault means that on the most basic level we have disregarded the humanity and dignity of survivors whose lives have been altered by egregious violence.

By all accounts, this is the case.

Survivors have been treated badly by city agencies, and in particular law enforcement agencies, for a long time. This is not news; the determination, self-advocacy, and frankly the connections of a few survivors who shared their stories despite the risk, is news. To mention their connections is not to belittle their story or suggest they are unimportant — they are deeply important — but it is to emphasize that following their assault, survivors have different access to and experience with city agencies based on their social location.

If white women are being treated badly by the police, can you imagine how horrifically queer/trans/disabled women of color are treated? For those of you wondering, men in San Francisco are assaulted too. Their stories matter. Statistically, however, we know women are assaulted more often and therefore come into contact with the Sexual Assault Response Team at a higher frequency.

SHARP would, under Ronen’s plan, be in charge of receiving and resolving survivors’ complaints about how city agencies responded to their assault, holding those city agencies accountable, and working with community-based organizations to expand their sexual violence prevention efforts.

Although seemingly similar to the Department of Police Accountability, a city agency that receives complaints about San Francisco police officers, SHARP would instead receive complaints regarding any city agency that is part of the Sexual Assault Response Team. SHARP’s scope would be much larger than that of the Department of Police Accountability and, as Ronen told me, it would serve as a forum for survivors to voice their complaints when they feel they have not been treated with respect, objectivity, and care.  

While resolutions for individual survivors is important, it should not stop there. Instead, we need an agency that will take action on these complaints to create policies that fundamentally alter the structures San Francisco has set up to support survivors. The overarching mission and goal of SHARP, as Ronen explains it, is that, “…we want sexual assault to be taken as seriously by the city departments that deal with sexual assault as any other crime and epidemic…This department is meant to look across city systems and departments and start moving us in a direction of making change that we have to make in order to treat this issue and this crime as serious as it is.”

Currently, there is no organization or agency that exists solely to advocate for Sexual Assault Response Team reform and survivor-centered policies, to manage the operations of this team, or to coordinate their resources. Of course, SART does work as a team to revisit which of their policies is or is not working for survivors, but there is an extent to what they can do in a team setting when all the participating agencies have different objectives, values, and relationships with one another.

The offices that are a part of this city-wide response include the District Attorney’s Office, the Victim Services Division of the District Attorney’s Office, the Medical Examiner’s Office, the Special Victims Unit of the Police Department, the Rape Treatment Center, the UCSF Trauma Recovery Center, and the Child and Adolescent Support Advocacy and Resource Center (CASARC).

More importantly, these agencies all have a varied approach to anti-rape work; law enforcement promotes legal justice, medical providers encourage survivors to receive medical care, and survivor advocates follow whatever a survivor decides to do, whether that be filing a police report, going to the hospital, or not. It can also create an aversion to macro-level advocacy that would infect micro-level relationships between SART members as well as the survivors they serve. This creates limitations around what participating SART agencies can do to advance survivor-centered policies when that simply isn’t everyone’s agenda.

SHARP’s agenda should, and would be, to be survivor-centered.

Ronen told me that, “we expect that all the staff of SHARP will be experienced and trained in sexual assault. The way that we start creating a culture that is survivor-first in San Francisco when dealing with sexual assault is we start by modeling that in the SHARP Department itself.” All anti-rape work should be survivor-centered and SHARP could be the survivor-centered, larger systems advocacy agency that SART is missing.

It is unclear as of now if SHARP would be a part of the Sexual Assault Response Team. An amendment to the legislation specified that SHARP will collaborate with SART as well as the Commission on the Status of Women. Whether SHARP is actually part of the Sexual Assault Response Team or not, the fact remains, we need a watchdog for survivors charged solely with acting on survivors’ wants, needs, and concerns, as they express them.

Ronen said she has yet to hear from a survivor who has had a positive experience with city agencies following their assault. She emphasizes that we have not been treating survivors with the respect they deserve. To address this, SHARP will be responsible for looking at situations where survivors were treated disrespectfully and look at what systems need to be changed in order to ensure that it does not happen again.

Coming from a background in rape crisis counseling based in San Francisco, I can tell you that not only have we as a city disrespected survivors and disregarded their trauma but, specifically in local law enforcement agencies, we have focused on the perpetrators in the aftermath of the assault.

By pushing survivors’ well-being aside in the name of catching the perpetrator, we in fact become perpetrator-centered. Sadly, this is not unique to San Francisco, but we can be unique in moving the needle forward and rethinking what it means to serve survivors after their assault.

To do so, we must remember that higher arrest and conviction rates do not speak to how survivors are treated in the criminal justice process and that how we treat survivors is of the utmost importance in the movement to end sexual violence. Nor should we convince ourselves that legal justice is the only way for survivors to seek justice; rather, it is this most popularized mode of justice which promotes, benefits, and ultimately perpetuates the prison industrial complex and the cycle of violence.

When asked how we will measure the success of this new office, Ronen said she hopes that we start to hear more positive stories about survivors’ experiences with city agencies and that we see an increase in survivors accessing city services available to them. She explained that, “…if we see an increase after a year, after two years, in survivors who are comfortable interacting with city institutions, as opposed to only engaging community-based organizations, then that will be one indication that we have reformed systems within the city that makes survivors feel comfortable enough to access those systems and services.”

There is a catch-22 in that the same survivors who don’t feel safe accessing other city agencies may feel the same discomfort utilizing SHARP. The staff of SHARP must be cognizant of how accessible they truly are. They must constantly ask themselves which communities would feel uneasy using their services and then work tirelessly to increase their accountability to that community. Even more importantly, the staff of SHARP should reflect the communities they serve and their language access needs. SHARP should establish office hours, not only in City Hall, but in satellite offices around San Francisco – in the Bayview – Hunters Point, the Mission. SHARP staff should work to make these office hours widely known and to create transparency around their and the Sexual Assault Response Team’s work.

SHARP shouldn’t be an outlet used only by survivors who feel safe interacting with city officials. To assume that city agencies and other government entities are on your side is white privilege; for many people and survivors of color, their lived experience is that city and state institutions are not there to advocate for them. If not properly executed, this agency could be another vehicle for white supremacy in the anti-rape movement. 

Sexual violence is an epidemic, a public health crisis, that cannot be addressed by one office in one major city. Yet, Ronen emphasized that, “…this is such an incredible epidemic that if we really created systems that are survivor-centered, that are survivor-first, that are trauma-informed, that dealt with harm reduction policies…we can start reducing the epidemic. That is the ultimate goal, but we have such a long way to go before we get there.”

Unfortunately, we are all responsible for building and perpetuating our rape culture and therefore hold a major piece as individuals in reducing the epidemic of sexual violence. Our rape culture is one that socially and institutionally puts survivors on trial and protects perpetrators and perpetrator-like attitude. This means we all must hold ourselves accountable to breaking down this culture and replacing it with one of equality and consent.

It also means that rebuilding our response structures isn’t enough. In fact, SHARP’s work would be rendered meaningless unless it is coupled with sexual violence prevention efforts. Deep-rooted, radical, social change (and radical change is what is necessary to end rape) is born in rooms filled with community-based, anti-sexual violence organizations. Particularly in San Francisco, there are organizations who have been doing this work for twenty, thirty, forty years. Ronen said that she envisions SHARP spending half their time receiving and resolving complaints and the other half working with community-based organizations to expand their prevention efforts. Still, she said she hopes that SHARP’s preventative work will eventually grow larger than that of resolving complains, for, “…as we make progress in making departments better that side of the work theoretically should be less and less.”

Ending sexual violence in our city, in our country, and our world, requires building community and forging the connections broken by oppression. Community-based organizations who have been doing this work for decades bring this fundamental piece to sexual violence prevention; SHARP should set up the structures for local anti-rape activists to be successful and to amplify the voices of folks who have been on the ground supporting survivors in the community.

The work is just beginning. As Ronen described it, “we need to start with making sure that we have the best cutting edge, survivor-centered system in San Francisco and that is what the SHARP office will start to accomplish.”

Addressing the ways in which the city responds to sexual assault is just one component of how we work to end sexual violence as a community. There is no doubt we need SART reform in San Francisco, but so do counties across the Bay Area and across the country. We also need robust prevention efforts and we need people on the frontlines of rape crisis work supporting survivors. We all bring a different piece to the movement to end sexual violence but we all must remember one thing: to be survivor-centered.