TheBody: Confronting Sexual Assault in the HIV Movement: Interview With Mandisa Moore-O’Neal

Young black man being counseled by an older black woman with her hand on his shoulder.

CHLP Executive Director spoke with Michael Chancley in an interview for TheBody about what it means to be vulnerable, held accountable, and transformative-minded when addressing sexual assault within the HIV movement.

Read the interview below or at TheBody.


Confronting Sexual Assault in the HIV Movement: Interview With Mandisa Moore-O’Neal

Sep 7, 2023
By Michael Chancley Jr., M.S.W.

Last Fall, Mandisa Moore-O’Neal―the executive director of the Center for HIV Law and Policy―spoke to TheBody about using a Black feminist framework and abolitionist politics within the HIV movement to create conflict transformation―which involves moving through conflict. It means acknowledging that not all conflict can be resolved but that it is possible to focus on healing and safety while avoiding punitive measures that fail to adequately address the harms that were caused.

With that conversation in mind, TheBody recently spoke with Moore-O’Neal again in response to an article—“It’s Time for a #MeToo Revolution in HIV Advocacy”―that addresses the harms that have been done to advocates within the HIV field by people who were supposed to be their allies.

With an eye on transformation and healing justice, Moore-O’Neal told TheBody what it means to be vulnerable, held accountable, and transformative-minded when addressing abuse within the HIV movement.

Michael Chancley Jr., M.S.W.: During a recent Twitter discussion on sexual assault and harassment within the HIV movement, you responded, “We [the HIV movement] allow so much harm in the name of a ‘united front’ but the gag is: 1. We’re not united, and 2. Addressing these things makes our movement so much better. We have so much work to do.” How do we begin to address the harms and abuse committed within the HIV movement if people are afraid to discuss it?

Mandisa Moore-O’Neal: So the first thing that we have to do is name what happened. And I’m not even talking about this incident because there are so many incidents in so many other places where “naming what happened” applies. And that’s challenging because we are unclear about what words mean.

Chancley Jr.: For example?

Moore-O’Neal: I think a lot of the times we say “accountability” and we actually mean punishment. I’ve heard people say, “That man needs to be held accountable.” And when I ask, “What does that mean?” They respond with something punitive. But if we’re actually invested in accountability, we need to be clear about what that means. And if you want punishment―say you want punishment and don’t call it accountability.

But the thing about accountability is that it requires more than just the two people involved in the situation and makes us all ask: “Has this person done this before? [If so], how many people knew about it before that person was hired? If people knew he had a particular history, how many of us saw this and looked the other way? Was our response or lack of a response tied to social capital? (Meaning funding opportunities or wanting someone to be a partner in a project.)

That’s what accountability does, which is difficult to accomplish because it offers us all a chance to acknowledge that we may have played [an indirect] role [in what happened]. And it offers us a chance to repair, which means one has to be willing to admit, “I heard some things. But I also know that he knows people that fund me. So I stayed out of it.” That’s what accountability makes all of us do.

Chancley Jr.: In a subsequent tweet, you wrote: “These responses [asking what a victim ‘did to encourage’ unwanted sexual advances] indicate just how far we have to go to [actually achieve] HIV justice, because not only is it victim blaming, but where else does that ‘You encouraged it’ mindset play out?” Could you please expound on where else “You encouraged it” mindsets play out in the HIV movement?

Moore-O’Neal: That mindset is used to blame people who seroconvert. And what’s hard about it is it doesn’t always show up [with hostility or telling someone], “You’re the reason why you got HIV.” It’s more subtle: “You were wild and out at that time in your life,” or, “You don’t always use condoms.” [It’s similar to] people who say, “I got HIV or gonorrhea, and it’s nobody’s fault but my own.” Instead of looking at [systemic failures], they internalize the blame and stigma. But if we really want to end this epidemic like we say we do, we have to confront those messages.

Chancley Jr.: It’s complicated. Looking at transformational justice makes me think about prison abolition. But whenever abolitionism is discussed, people often suggest that, “Without prison, we can’t hold those who commit sexual violence accountable.” How do you respond to that?

Moore-O’Neal: People love to ask me, “How can you support women’s rights and be against prisons?” And my answer is, “The rapists were never in jail. So we don’t have to worry about them being freed from jail.” For example, less than 1% of rapes lead to felony convictions. And that’s after making it as far as a prosecution. So this idea that our prisons are filled with people who commit sexual violence is incorrect.

But we still have to deal with sexual violence. And the largest agents of sexual violence in some people’s lives are law enforcement.

Chancley Jr.: Can you expand on that?

Moore-O’Neal: Look at someone on the streets who may or may not be engaged in sex work but who gets picked up by the police. It’s common for a law enforcement officer to [tell people in these situations], “If you suck my dick, I’m not gonna arrest you.” And getting arrested is the last thing anyone needs, so many will do anything to avoid that arrest. And that cop knows it.

So my question for people who are invested in addressing sexual violence is, “What are you doing to defund the main agents of sexual violence in people’s lives―who are often law enforcement?” That question shifts the conversation in a way that can be uncomfortable. But at the end of the day, it’s not like we have built the structures to prevent and/or address sexual violence.

Chancley Jr.: That’s true, whether we’re talking about what happens to people in HIV movements when they are sexually harassed or assaulted by someone with more power than they have or people who may or may not be sex workers and the police. What’s the solution?

Moore-O’Neal: We need more interventions to say, “This is not OK.” Step one [in achieving that] is believing people when they come forward as opposed to undermining them. Step two is holding people accountable, which means consequences.

Chancley Jr.: For example?

Moore-O’Neal: If you are in a position of leadership and you sexually harass or sexually assault someone, you do not deserve to continue in that position of leadership. Otherwise, we are continuing to platform you [and enable you] to harm people. It is really that simple.

Chancley Jr.: Saying that changes the power dynamic.

Moore-O’Neal: Exactly. Right now, I’m thinking of that quote―every woman knows someone who’s been assaulted. But does no man know an assaulter? That doesn’t add up. One of the barriers [in this situation] is that folks don’t want to engage in accountability because they think, “Well, I’ve done something and it’s gonna come back on me.” As opposed to, “This an opportunity to support this person and for others to support me and be in alignment with my values.”

Chancley Jr.: How can we empower survivors of assault and help them feel safe so that they can participate in holding those who caused them harm accountable?

Moore-O’Neal: I struggle with whether it’s possible to ever feel safe in an inherently violent world. But I think there are things we can do to improve people’s feelings of safety. But we can’t predicate our work on whether somebody feels absolutely safe. And I think that’s part of the problem; I see folks who actually have the capacity to do things use [the impossibility of creating] a 100% safety guarantee as a reason not to act. And that’s just a way of being stagnant. And that takes me back to creating space with healing justice on the front end instead of voyeuristic spaces—where folks know if they show vulnerability, it will be shared by everyone.

So it’s not a focus group in which we’re tokenizing people or looking at someone bleeding. We often expect people to cut their arms and bleed, knowing we don’t have a receptacle to catch that blood. Or after people share traumatic things, people say, “Thank you for sharing your story,” and then we move on.

Bringing a healing justice framework into our work [means] we stop seeing [trauma] as a cute afterthought, we stop denigrating the accuser―which happens like clockwork, depending on that accuser’s proximity to whiteness―and we confront white supremacy.

Editor’s note: Because the function of white supremacy is to say, “It has always been this way,” rather than questioning, “Why did we ever agree to this?” And to Moore-O’Neal’s point, “How do we make it better?”