From silence to action

Feminist Thought, Sexual Violence

One of the insidious things about rape culture is silence. Survivors of sexual assault remain silent, fearing retribution, shunning or disbelief. Community members remain silent unsure of how to respond. Is she lying? Is {insert celebrity or well-liked neighbor here} the type of person who would do something like that? The perpetrator is often silent. Sometimes because he scarcely believes he is guilty, or perhaps to keep a low profile in preparation for the next victim.

But just as there is silence, there is often sound. We hear the voices of perpetrators, maintaining innocence in some cases; claiming she deserved it in others. Voices of community members who support the offender and/or berate the survivor. Voices of advocates who offer comfort, righteous indignation and activism for survivors.

And sometimes we hear the voices of survivors, telling their own stories and demanding to be acknowledged. They do it for legal reasons. To agitate. For peace of mind. Or in the case of Tamara Green, to lend credibility to another survivor:

A lawyer told me I would be crazy to come out after 20 years and accuse him [Bill Cosby]. But I waited and waited to see who would back this girl up, and nobody else would. The Cosby team started smearing her, making her seem petty and loose and cheap.

I saw how nobody believed her. She had trusted him, and he had drugged her and then assaulted her, just like what happened to me. I saw that nobody was going to take him on, so I felt like it was my duty to risk my neck and stand [up] for all the other women who’ve been assaulted by him.

Read the Newsweek interview here.


Suggested reading: The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action by Audre Lorde. 

What do you want? #rapeculture #vaw

30 Day Blog Challenge, Personal Narrative, Sexual Violence

NaBloPoMo March 2013People who have witnessed the recent steps on my journey have sent me good wishes and hopes for the outcome I want. Truth be told, the healing, the outcome I wanted for myself, happened long ago. But I’ve started to talk publicly about it. And I recently told my ex my thoughts about our past. This has inspired the following question from many corners:

What do you want?

I want to agitate.
I want to make people feel uncomfortable.
I want to counter rape culture.
I want people to stop blaming victims.
I want to add my voice to the chorus of survivors.
I want partners to question their entitlement over another’s body.
I want people to talk. Especially men to their friends and brothers. To their sons and lovers.

Rape culture is allowed to fester, in part, because of our silence. So I am speaking up, speaking back. I want to speak more often and with more eloquence. I want to help survivors speak, too.

I want to make a difference.

Just asking. #rapeculture #vaw

30 Day Blog Challenge, Sexual Violence

Is it possible he really forgot?

It’s been twenty years. I’m the one who was traumatized. I’m the one who said nothing. Did nothing.

Well, that’s not really accurate.

I buried it. Allegedly got over it and got on with it. Honestly, I tucked it away from sight, but it was never very far. I carried it with me into each new year. Into every new relationship. It colored every subsequent encounter. Every single one.

So it leads me to wonder: is it possible for someone to inflict such harm upon another and not recognize it as such?

Apparently it is.

Justice, conflicted. | #vaw #abolition

30 Day Blog Challenge, Abolition & Justice, Feminist Thought, Sexual Violence

The defendants in the Steubenville rape trial were found guilty yesterday. My initial reaction was elation. Jane Doe was sexually assaulted, then publicly humiliated, and despite the attempt to cast her as consenting to the abuse, her violators did not get away it.

Only that’s not exactly true. The chain of complicity in this case is long and tightly woven with bystanders who refused to intervene, friends and acquaintances who felt the ongoing assault of another human was worthy of laughter and sport, and still others who felt the need to rally against Jane, for the sake of young men who ostensibly had the rest of their lives ahead of them.

These complicated factors aside, two people were found guilty, and for that I was glad.

But I was also conflicted.

They were going to jail. That was the solution, you see. The end of the road. You do the crime, you do the time, and all that. But I felt, in a word, unsatisfied with that outcome. I tweeted:

I shared my earlier musings on alternatives to prison and restorative justice. Then I tweeted this:

I sat with my thoughts and feelings on the matter as others began to engage. For instance:

I am glad there was a trial and guilty parties were found to be so. But I felt the resolution was not a good solution; it solves nothing at all except to remove the offenders from the community. And then what? How does healing begin? Is this truly justice? Does a punitive approach really challenge rape culture? What else can be done?

Prison Culture held these same reservations and offered a thoughtful response. A poignant excerpt:

Do we believe that these two young men are going to unlearn rape culture in prison? How about all of their friends who seem to believe that the young men were unjustly convicted? Who will intervene with them to help them unlearn rape culture? The vast majority of our resources have been diverted to criminal legal approaches while rape crisis centers are being defunded and don’t have the capacity to do any prevention work with young people. Some will say that it isn’t either/or; That we can focus on criminal legal remedies while also doing community-based intervention/prevention work to eradicate rape culture. Yet it’s been decades and we still haven’t found the proper balance. Our primary focus on a criminal legal approach has in fact seemed to crowd out other interventions. More importantly, it has let community members off the hook from taking responsibility to interrupt or intervene in preventing or calling out rape. The social problem becomes the criminal legal system’s responsibility to solve and not ours as community members.

I am a proponent of restorative and transformative justice because I believe that they offer the best prospects to eradicate violence. I believe that survivors of violence should be centered in all interventions. Let’s focus on listening to survivors and on really engaging their claims. I want spaces for authentic and survivor-directed healing. I believe that our communities often enable harm and that therefore they must be engaged in addressing these harms. I believe that prisons are constitutive of violence in and of themselves and therefore are not viable anti-violence tools. I believe that perpetrators of violent acts must understand the impact of the harms they cause. Let’s create a context within which we encourage perpetrators to assume actual responsibility for harm. Let’s provide them an opportunity to be transformed if they will accept it. Finally, perpetrators should be expected to actively participate in repairing the harm that they have caused to their victims and by extension to our communities.

Yes.

Read the whole piece here.

Yes, yes, yes. | #vaw #fem2

30 Day Blog Challenge, Sexual Violence

In rape culture, “no” is not always honored as “no.” No was an important aspect of my experience of sexual violence, because I had initially given consent. I said yes. The problem came when I changed my mind, and my “yes” became a “no.” I was alert, angry, and unambiguously vocal in my “no.” Sometimes the situation isn’t as clear.

In Steubenville, OH, two high school football stars were convicted of raping a teenage girl too drunk to give consent. She was too drunk to say yes or no. By taking advantage of her inability to respond, the perpetrators broke the law. This case and the discussion around it, has broadened the national discourse on sexual violence and rape culture. One idea getting more expansive coverage is the importance of “yes,” in sexual encounters rather than simply the absence or presence of “no.” Jessica Valenti asks,

If a woman doesn’t say “no” to sex—is that the same thing as saying “yes”?

She elaborates with more pointed questions:

Are all women really to be considered willing sexual participants unless otherwise stated? If we flirt with someone, or even kiss them, does that give them permission to do whatever else they want to our bodies until we strenuously object? 

With this framing, it’s clear that women are not in a perpetual state of consent. Therefore, assuming “yes” in absence of “no” is inadequate. Coercion is a very real part of rape culture. Sometimes partners acquiesce:

But acquiescence is not the same as active consent:

Writes Jessica,

The only way to know that sex is consensual is if there’s a freely and clearly given “yes.” This may sound radical to the uninitiated, but don’t we all want to make sure we’re only having sex with people who are actually interested? Ensuring enthusiastic consent requires only the most basic respect we all owe our partners in the first place: paying attention to how they’re doing, and asking them if we can’t tell.

In other words, only yes means yes.

NaBloPoMo March 2013

No means no* #NaBloPoMo #vaw #fem2

30 Day Blog Challenge, Sexual Violence

NaBloPoMo March 2013At times boundaries are rendered ambiguous, when in actuality, they’re sharply drawn. In rape culture, this means no is sometimes given an asterisk: No means no* when your partner says it three times. Or no means no* when your partner hits you in protest. No means no* when (fill in the blank).

No means no. It means no when it’s a stranger. It means no when it’s an acquaintance. It means no when it’s a family member. If it’s your spouse, significant other or otherwise longterm partner, it still means no.

Rape culture perpetuates the myth that perpetrators of sexual assault are always scary men with ski-masks and guns, hiding in the bushes for the easiest target. Or maybe they’re burglars who break in to steal your electronics and get the woman of the house as well. And on it goes. People who commit sexual assault come in all shapes, sizes, ages and circumstances. Statistics show that 73% of sexual assaults are committed by non-strangers.

Today I’m sharing an episode of The Cosby Show spinoff, A Different World. In it, Freddie falls for the handsome star athlete, Garth. Dwayne, who has reason to question Garth’s intentions, seeks guidance from a trusted mentor and tries to protect Freddie from Garth’s attempt at sexual assault. Media portrayals like this show that men can counter narratives of masculinity that imply potential partners must be coerced or forced into changing their no into a yes.*

Stories of Sexual Violence #NaBloPoMo #vaw #fem2

30 Day Blog Challenge, Personal Narrative, Sexual Violence

NaBloPoMo March 2013I am a survivor of sexual violence.

I’ve never stated it publicly, but I’ve hinted about it here and there. I’m tired of hinting.

It’s risky, claiming survivor status out loud. It’s old wounds ripped open and sprinkled with salt. Once-dried tears, bubbling up, spilling over. Heart racing. Doubts. Anger. It’s triggering. Digging into that history, thinking about it, remembering it, and sharing it is triggering.

One could reasonably wonder why do it?

I’ll tell you why: to counter rape culture.

Telling my story gives other survivors permission to tell theirs. It opens a channel for dialogue, healing and transformation. It creates a space for would-be perpetrators to see the effect of sexual violence and potentially make more loving choices. It adds to the public discourse about sexual violence, masculinity and shame. It gives survivors a face and a voice, when so often we are silent. And invisible…

Sexual assault happens over there, to other people. To someone. In reality, it’s probably happened to someone you know. It happened to me.

The person who violated me was someone I trusted. More than that, really. I loved him. He was a long-time intimate partner who did not respect my decision to say no.

I never expressed to him how broken that experience left me. And for a very long time – years – I didn’t realize the extent of the trauma. But over the past two years, I’ve been getting clear on why my story of sexual violence needs to be told. Through telling, I’ve learned about love and intimacy, most importantly, I’ve learned about myself.

I want to help other women and teenagers learn about love and intimacy and self through their stories as well. I’ll share more when the time is right.

Speak to me. #NaBloPoMo.

30 Day Blog Challenge, Feminist Thought, Personal Narrative, Sexual Violence

NaBloPoMo March 2013

Yesterday I touched on the risk of remaining silent. I have more thoughts on the topic, but I wanted to broach the other end of the continuum – speaking up. In this case, I don’t mean speaking out, per se, but rather truth-telling to yourself.

And of course I am afraid, because the transformation of silence
into language and action is an act of self-revelation,
and that always seems fraught with danger.
~Audre Lorde

Silence into Language
As a narrative inquirer, I investigate stories. I wonder what we can uncover when we treat stories as data; when we mine them and make sense of them. I encourage women to tell and delve into their own stories, to engage in deep reflection about the gems they unearth during this work. This is a liberating, yet potentially painful process.

I made brief mention of triggering. Studying your life reveals truths you had forgotten, weren’t expecting, or had even rejected. Suddenly, there they are, in bold relief, and you’re faced with a choice.

Language into Action
When I hit that moment of great revelation in my own investigation, I cried. These were the wrenching tears of a deeply wounded soul. My tears surprised me. I honestly didn’t know I harbored such profound hurt. But the crying and the subsequent feelings of relief did not mark the end of my work. They became the bridge to further learning and new steps.

I asked myself, now that I see this truth and better understand this part of my life, what will I do with this? What actions can I take to create a better outcome for me, or for others who may face similar circumstances? It wasn’t enough to give voice to my experience, I need/ed to use it.

If it’s true that past is prologue, studying my story gave me tools to construct a plot more to my liking. Rather than aimlessly bouncing to the next experience, I consciously authored next steps: learning vulnerability and inviting love.

And it was freeing. Scary. Difficult. Illuminating. Empowering. Risky. Painful. But freeing.

Speak.

My silences had not protected me.
Your silence will not protect you.

~Audre Lorde

The Risky Business of Silence #NaBloPoMo.

30 Day Blog Challenge, Feminist Thought, Personal Narrative, Sexual Violence

NaBloPoMo March 2013

I have come to believe over and over again that what is most important to me must be spoken, made verbal and shared, even at the risk of having it bruised or misunderstood. That speaking profits me, beyond any other effect. ~Audre Lorde

For years I’ve carried a story untold. Two decades. Thank goddess I finally realized the untelling was its own telling; my silence its own story. Like an ill-trained architect, my silence designed a life that might not have been. And I suppose it had my permission – my silence was consent. But as of late I have been telling the story, rereading it and writing a new ending…building a brand new life.

Silence wasn’t a strategy. Not a conscious one, in any event. I didn’t know I needed to tell it. I didn’t know there was even a story; that there was anything worthy of telling. So I didn’t. I didn’t share it with anyone.

Not even me.

I carried a story untold, never bothering to see if the heroine, teenager that she was, needed to share her version of events. I never checked to see if she wanted to claim her space. Lift her voice. I gave her shelter, but no platform. I thought nothing of it, and without so much as gut check, I muted her.

And with each passing year, her story was reduced to a chapter, a vignette, a scene, a beat. A moment that no longer mattered because it was all those years ago, and here we are in a new time, and space, with new characters. No need for digging up the old untold.

Lies.

What are the words you do not yet have? What do you need to say? What are the tyrannies you swallow day by day and attempt to make your own, until you will sicken and die of them, still in silence? ~Audre Lorde

There is a risk in the telling, yes, but the greater risk is in the untelling. In the silence. In the denial of your story. In the casual disregard of your truth. Voicing your story does not have to mean telling it out there to them, but at the very least, you owe it your life to tell it in here, to you. What truths are hidden in your silences? What love is lost? What life is secreted away, literally buried alive? Can you save it? (Tell it). What is the story that remains hidden so far in you that you barely recognize or remember it? (Tell it).

Funny thing about a story untold. We deny it audience, yet it finds one anyway. We hear echoes of characters past in the voices around us today. We recognize the scenery in our present circumstances. We don’t quite understand why the script, the players, seem familiar. It’s untold story, demanding recognition. When if we could just tell it and see it for what it is, we could get on with the very important business of writing the life we really want.

And of course I’m not promising that telling is easy. Sometimes storytelling is a dangerous, triggering business. But you are the author of your life. Name your reality. Share your story.

And then? Keep writing the rest.

Nuance and Gray Areas

Politics, News & Notable, Sexual Violence

I appreciate this piece from Linda on The Feminist Wire. Especially this section where she rejects the rape/not rape binary to make room for complexity:

Dear President Obama,

I appreciate your statement that rape is rape. I really do. Your intent, I am sure, is to reject the idea that there might be legitimate rapes and illegitimate rapes. But, alas, there are complexities to rape, just as there are complexities to life. There are (sometimes) gradations, ambiguities, complications, and varied amounts and forms of culpability. My boyfriend was not a monster. I know what monsters are, having unfortunately been trapped and caught by one when I was nine. That sort of thing changes your sense of humanity, the world, your future, your life. But at 16, I was not attracted to monsters. Alas, I was attracted to assholes. My boyfriend at the time was an asshole. He might have initiated sex with me when I was awake, after all. He could have tried for a two-way encounter, an embrace, the physical correlate to a conversation between equals, but that is not what he desired, apparently. He wanted to have sex with a jellyfish. I have never understood the attraction of this.

But I would not actually call it a rape, straight up.

While I personally would not categorize perpetrators as assholes vs. monsters, I think it’s important for survivors of sexual assault to decide if their experience merits one label (rape) or another (something else).  And as she goes on to explain, this decision does not then make space to call some rapes legitimate and others illegitimate. It does make space to investigate the behavior of all parties, to understand intent, culpability, consent, or lack thereof.

So I am not suggesting we reintroduce the word “legitimate” in order to be able to characterize such complex forms of sexual violations.  That word adds nothing useful to our comprehension of coercion, manipulation, or the many forms that violation can take. But in order to begin to bring forward the experiences of sexual violence as victims experience them, we will need to allow for variable, even uncertain and ambiguous, formulations, and judgments that may not rise to the level of courtroom adjudication of guilt. If we want to listen to survivors, we will need to  prepare ourselves to hear about the gray areas.

Read the rest here.