Accountability as Community-Wide Job
The first night I met Sarah Wahoff I was at an all-local showcase at a cute house in St. Louis, Missouri. They played last, sitting comfortably in an armchair in the living room, cuddled up with their guitar. After about two songs, they laughed and said “I’m not going to pretend I’m not crying right now. I’m not going to pretend I don’t feel things.” They indeed were crying. Prior to their set they talked to me about how they collect a myriad of leaves and acorns, and showed me one that they had on the dashboard of their car. In a sigh they told me it had been a hard day for them. Their music was equally as intimate as the moment of vulnerability they had just shared. I stood at the back of the room, leaning against the door jam, drowning in feeling. Their set left me vulnerable and powerful.
Sarah’s music incorporates the intimacy of private moments with the struggle of taking up space comfortably. Their voice and acoustic guitar is often quiet, like they’re sharing a secret. Lyrics, if there are any, are muffled to the point where the melody is the only thing able to made out. They currently don’t have anything recorded, outside of a stack session done at the college radio station at Washington University at St. Louis, but they are starting the process of recording a full length.
Fast forward and we are out to lunch. We order our food, and bond over our matching drink: chai tea latte with almond milk. Leading up to meeting, Sarah had added me to a few different facebook groups that were dedicated to both creating a sense of community and safety. The one I was most interested in discussing was a group dedicated to actively participating in dismantling rape culture in the St. Louis music scene.
The start of this small bunch of people-- twelve to fifteen at the first meeting-- was a response to the growing number of known abusers in the city still booking and playing shows. A good portion of the community knew about their transgressions and yet still showed up, supported, and protected these people. As a result, a chain reaction of one-on-one conversations began that built into a network of people all in agreeance: something had to be done. What’s important to note about this experience is it is, unfortunately, somewhat commonplace. What Sarah and other members are seeking to do is build a tight-knit group of allies that are willing to talk about the nature of abuse and its effects, both individually and to the community, with the goal that St. Louis will not only protect it’s victims but become safer; starting with accountability.
“You can’t standardize it” Sarah says, referencing the accountability process. “Accountability is 100% reliant on each specific case and victim and their wants/needs”. An aspect that often gets overlooked; the victims’ agency was already taken away. Ultimately, it is up to the community to uphold the victims’ wants and needs and return their agency to them.
When talking about what accountability looks like, to Sarah, there are two parts:
First, the abuser needs to acknowledge and address what they have done. They need to seek to understand how their actions were not only violent towards an individual by taking away their agency in the given situation, but also how their actions were a violation of their community and its trust. Additionally, perpetrators need to seek out conversations about their behavior with those in their community who are willing, and take their concerns to heart.
Second, community members with the capacity to, should extend their emotional labor in order to support the victim and hold the abuser accountable. Sarah feels that ultimately it is more about the community's effort than about the abuser, because the whole community should function as an active participant in the accountability process, while also ensuring the victim is safe.
For numerous reasons, this is not something everyone agrees with. An approach to handling abusers, which I have heard referred to as “The Garden of Eden Mentality”, is essentially the out-of-sight, out-of-mind approach. For Sarah, though, that doesn’t seem productive. “If your actions aren’t making people feel safer, then what is the point of doing those things? Even if it makes you feel better by doing it, it might not be the right thing to do.”
In response to this approach, Sarah commented that often it can be hard to hold an abuser accountable in a more active way, due to fear of being labeled an apologist for simply speaking to them about their behaviors and transgressions. The debate between approaches is sometimes referred to as performative justice v. restorative justice. Sarah falls on the restorative side, but acknowledges that since each and every accountability process needs to be done with the consent of the victim, such an approach may not always be appropriate.
“Each situation is different, so there aren’t any guidelines.” They tell me and we agree that this conversation is ongoing, and it needs to be, much like any accountability process. It’s the reason Sarah sought out a community that would talk about the nuances of abuse with them, and how, as a community, they can come together on the same page and uplift and prioritize the comfort of survivors.
“But that’s my opinion. I don’t [always] know what’s best, no one does.” Sarah remarks while laughing into the sleeve of their sweater.
“No space is safe.” Sarah told me. “I’m always struggling with how can I make a space safe, because no space is inherently safe. It’s the people there that either are or aren’t.” It’s something they spent some time discussing in the group, as well: what power do you really have at an event? The answer: quite a lot. It’s in the details. Often, we gloss over the nature of disclaimers on event pages. “The rhetoric is actually really important.” Sarah pointed out the slight, but significant, difference between “no abusers” versus “no alleged abusers”. The issue with some disclaimers is that some are reactive, instead of proactive. For example, “if something happens come talk to me” is reactive, because it works to solve the problem after the fact. Disclaimers serve to prevent problems from arising and to ensure that no matter what, the space will be safe to those that are there, so a reactive approach isn’t adequate. Often disclaimers rely on an issue to happen in front of the eyes of the person who wrote them in order to be taken seriously. Disclaimers like this are often ignoring the most important part: the violence that has already been committed prior to the given event.
As illustrated earlier, weaponizing their vulnerability seems to come easy to Sarah. They want to both have hard discussions to progress community conversations forward, and want their music to create a space for those that have been through trauma. Their art succeeds in that regard.
“The album I’m working on right now is about finding my own ability to give myself permission and about my self reliance and the journey to get to the point to where I am brave enough to talk about my abuse, recovery, and how accountability looks to me. There is always this subtle defiance in my work where I don’t belong to anybody. Nobody owns me. My body is not for anybody. As a born female body, I have been made to feel like I always belong to somebody and that I always need permission from somebody else to do something. It’s really about finding my power and helping other people find theirs.”
When I asked Sarah how they use their platform as an artist to talk about these things they said, “I need to be writing stuff that will get stuck in peoples heads; that will make them think, cry, and realize what they’ve done wrong. The things I write, I think are honest about my own faults. If you’re angry enough about anything—I’m angry enough about this—then you need to use your platform to talk about this stuff.”