Addressing issues of boundaries, violation and harassment in coliving

In this article, author Lucy McInally summarises a roundtable discussion on understanding and preventing sexual assault and harassment in coliving

Sexual assault is sadly still all to prevalent, and under-discussed. Approximately 85,000 women and 12,000 men (aged 16 – 59) experience rape, attempted rape or sexual assault by penetration in England and Wales alone every year. 

Around 15% of those who experience sexual violence report to the police, and approximately 90% of those who are raped know the perpetrator prior to the offence.[1] 

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    Sexual Assault in Coliving roundtable summary

    On 19th November 2020, Co-Liv, Conscious Coliving and …And So Forth hosted Sexual Assault: Addressing issues of boundaries, violation and harassment in coliving; a roundtable event which invited five panel members to help break the stigma surrounding the topic of sexual harassment and assault in coliving, and provide awareness, education and ultimately prevention. 

    Panel members included:

    Amanda founded Speaking the Unspeakable® to inspire the courage to meet our challenges and empower our lives through effective communication. Amanda has written about community accountability on sexual assault, and has co-created events which help communities to unpack rape culture, teach concepts of consent for healthy relating, allyship, bystander intervention and integration.

    Gaetan has been a part of Hmlet‘s founding team for the last 3 years, one of South East Asia’s pioneering and largest coliving operators. He is responsible for building the teams and processes that have helped close to 3000 members find homes and defined Hmlet’s community-centric member experience.

    Noah is a thought leader and experienced operator in the field of Community Development. Noah has spent the past 3 years as the Director of Operations for UP(st)ART, a pod-based coliving company in Los Angeles. UP(st)ART introduced pod-based coliving to the US market, creating hyper-affordable coliving communities, where people live, work, play and collaborate together.

    Liesel and Madison are the CTO and CEO from Leda Health respectively. They are sexual assault prevention advocates and technologists hoping to revolutionize the ways in which sexual assault is handled on a holistic scale. Leda Health, formerly known as MeToo Kits was co-founded by Liesel and Madison to create a system to solve how sexual assault is managed.

    Below is a summary of the roundtable discussion. You can also listen to a recording of the full discussion here

    The impact that incidents of sexual harassment and assault in coliving scenarios has on being a part of a community

    Amanda Rain (Founder of Speaking the Unspeakable®) said that when victims know their perpetrators they trust them, which can lead victims to blame themselves. Perpetrators tend to be charismatic individuals who community members often side with. 

    Amanda talked of a personal experience she had as a community member, when she went to a festival with a friend who was raped and did not report the crime to avoid negatively impacting their community. This broke Amanda’s heart; she stressed the importance of supporting victims. 

    Similarly, Gaetan de Dietrich (Hmlet) agreed that victims can feel unable to speak out when the consequences are breaking up a community. 

    Nonetheless, the duty of coliving operators involves implementing techniques to facilitate supporting a victim after they speak out. 

    Situations in coliving that lead to increased incidents of sexual harassment and assault

    Noah Adler said that: “Not once has a sentence that started with ‘we were out drinking’ ever turned into a conversation that was positive for me”. 

    Noah felt that a culture supporting excessive drinking is problematic.  

    Madison (CEO of Leda Health) is concerned that increased instances of sexual assault are caused by the lack of consequence for perpetrators, who feel that they can get away with the offence.

    Sexual assault and harassment in coliving
    “Not once has a sentence that started with ‘we were out drinking’ ever turned into a conversation that was positive for me” Noah Adler

    Denying that these incidents do occur from coliving operators will lead to increased cases. Individuals must be held accountable for their actions. 

    In Gaetan’s experience, one situation which may increase the risk factor of sexual assault is high turnover within a community, as potentially such places attract those who are predatory. 

    He furthermore observed that living situations in which there are large age differences between residents has greater potential to lead to predation, perhaps due to the potential for power imbalances. 

    Preventing incidents of sexual harassment and assault

    The panel discussed the importance of technology in preventing these incidents. At Up(st)ART, there is an awareness that individuals are always in public; Noah said that residents are made aware that their security cameras are in operation. “At Leda Health”.

    Madison said, “we built the first ever rape cam and we’re putting it out on college campuses…You know it’s there and if something happens, you can collect the evidence and be empowered to do this”. 

    Security cameras can help to prevent incidents
    Security cameras can help to prevent incidents

    Leda Health are also building an at-home sexual assault evidence collection kit, allowing victims to anonymously report incidents in their private space.

    Liesel (CTO of Leda Health) explained that technology is beneficial towards “increasing accessibility to reporting, resources, next steps and more information”. 

    The panel discussed how boundaries and a common language ought to be firmly established in communities. Noah believed that “the best communities are those where somebody comes up and puts their hand on somebody’s shoulder and somebody calls it out and says ‘that’s not ok, you need to ask in order for that to happen’.” 

    Noah stated that “predators will often push boundaries to see how far and if they can get away with it, and if, as a community, we push back and firmly establish those types of boundaries, then you can get a long way towards preventing some of these types of issues”. 

    An operator can prevent incidents of sexual harassment and assault by doing their research to ensure that repeat offenders are prevented from coming into the space. 

    There is also a need for a zero tolerance policy which, if an incident of sexual harassment or assault occurs, the victim is believed and the perpetrator removed. Considering the perspective of an individual, Amanda recommended Gavin de Becker’s The Gift of Fear, which highlights the importance of intuition. 

    “In Western culture, we are trained out of listening to our intuition”, she said, “even if it does not make sense to our rational mind, we should listen to that voice, follow and refine it”. Furthermore, Amanda advocated for self-defence training, as it decreases vulnerability and accessibility in individuals, a trait that perpetrators are looking for to isolate a target. 

    The panelists encouraged victims to speak out about their experiences of sexual assault if they wish to, so that they are supported and there will be consequences for the perpetrators. 

    Implementing policies in coliving communities for instances of sexual harassment and assault

    When developing Up(st)ART’s Discriminatory Harassment and Sexual Misconduct Policy, Noah undertook thorough research using university policies as case studies. Up(st)ART’s online reporting platform is anonymous and, when a report is made, it is then investigated. 

    They have a stance of believing the victim, though for the sake of rigour will check security cameras and interview those involved. The goal then becomes removing the perpetrator from the community. Victims are encouraged to report the incident to the police, in case the perpetrator refuses to leave. In Noah’s experience, “99% of the time that someone reports something to me, what they are reporting is credible and it leads us to ask someone to leave our community”. 

    Gaetan shared that when an incident is reported at Hmlet it is immediately escalated to the highest echelon of community management. Their aim is also to remove the perpetrator and support the victim. A thorough report is created for their records. Gaetan warned: “delaying corrective action on a situation that happens in one of your spaces…will come back and haunt you, or damage the community”. 

    The importance of training for residents or staff members to prevent incidents of sexual harassment and assault

    Amanda organises community responses to sexual assault on topics including unpacking rape culture, teaching concepts of consent for healthy relating, allyship, bystander intervention and integration. 

    Rape culture is built on assumptions that certain behaviours, in terms of touch and proximity, for example, are acceptable for everyone. Additionally, rape culture is not just about sex, but is  also about power and control. 

    The solution is building a culture of consent, Amanda said, “it’s about honouring someone’s sovereignty, personal choice, sense of agency, and respecting each other”. She advised communities to bring in expertise and organisations that specialises in this type of training for community staff and residents. 

    Uncertainties surrounding the topic of sexual harassment and assault

    Panelists were asked whether there is anything on this topic that they still feel uncertain about. One panelist shared uncertainty over when flirtatious behaviours required intervention, or were acceptable. 

    Noah argued strongly against the latter, and said that calling out these behaviours is the right thing to do, and will enable individuals to feel empowered. 

    One of the panellists noted that many people were unsure whether or not they were victims of sexual assault or harassment when incidents were perceived to be “small”. 

    Another panellist stressed the importance of having a clear and timely process of accountability for perpetrators, making the point that a lack of clarity about accountability processes was part of what contributes to rape culture. She said that all too often cases are dragged out, subjecting the victim to a great deal of stress, and acting as a deterrent for other victims to come forward. 

    Advice to share with coliving operators

    Both Noah and Gaetan agreed that coliving operators must develop a policy and process in place, to manage incidents of sexual harassment and assault, particularly if the community is expanding. 

    This policy must protect the victim. Amanda advised that policy documents should clearly define sexual assault. Finally, Madison and Liesel advocated for leaders in a community who must be informed, approachable and trusting. 

    Coliving sexual harassment policy
    Developing a sexual harassment policy is essential

    Concluding remarks

    Overall, the panel encouraged breaking the stigma through open discussion of sexual harassment and assault. 

    There is a myth of false reporting. Research shows that the vast majority of reports of sexual assault and rape are true, thus coliving communities should operate on a basis of believing and supporting victims, aiming to remove perpetrators  from the community. 

    Additionally, operators must implement the tools to prevent these incidents from occurring, such as a zero tolerance policy of inappropriate behaviours, and careful selection of members into the community.  If legal obligations prevent curation of new members, sharing community values (including zero tolerance policies on harassment) with prospective new members may enable self-selection of suitable candidates.

    Furthermore, installing technology may prevent these incidents from occurring, including security cameras and software which enable victims to report incidents anonymously and safely. 

    If an incident occurs, community members and managers must support the victim, and be trained to handle these situations. 

    The event was a positive start to breaking down the stigma surrounding the topic of sexual harassment and assault in coliving. The organisers will continue to advocate for this, and plan further events and resources on this important topic

    You can listen to a recording of the full discussion here

    [1] An Overview of Sexual Offending in England and Wales (January 2013), the first ever joint official statistics bulletin on sexual violence released by the Ministry of Justice (MoJ), Office for National Statistics (ONS) and Home Office.

    This article has been authored for you by:

    Interior designer and collaborative design researcher. Founder of …And So Forth, a marketing agency providing creative solutions to startup businesses. Lucy developed co-design methods to provide health & social care and architectural solutions to living well in older age.

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