This month marks my tenth year anniversary as a campus-based sexual assault survivor advocate. As I now formally transition out of this role, I’ve been thinking a lot about the work I’ve done these past ten years. Of course, the backdrop of recent media frenzy and public response to rapes in Steubenville and India, have added to this need to make sense of what I’ve been doing this past decade.
I have no delusions: these years as an advocate, I have been actively participating in and reinforcing the systems that perpetuate violence against women. I profit on sexual violence. Rape has been my job security.
We expect and accept that women and girls will be raped, brutalized, and sexually victimized. And so we are prepared. We’ve created an entire industry to respond to sexual victimization. Unfortunately, in our attempts to respond to victimization, we further victimize. In responding to oppression, we oppress.
Like other forms of domination and oppression, rape culture appropriates, polices, defines, all those in it. As soon as a victim comes forward, she (yes, I’m using she) is subjected to unbelievable scrutiny. Through the navigation of the various support services and reporting options available, a victim realizes that there are many rules that police “victimhood”: Victims should not ask questions. Victims should not challenge or critique systems in place to “help”. Victims should graciously accept what options, accommodations, sanctions, charges (or lack thereof) are offered.. Victims should not wear flashy or sexy clothes (what legitimate rape victim would, right?). Victims should not be too emotional. Victims should not be too emotionless. Victims cannot be sexual. Victims should be thankful to us for being sensitive, helpful, responsive, empowering. If these rules aren’t followed, then all bets are off. The victim loses that privileged (strange but true) status of “victim/survivor” and becomes an entitled, angry, revengeful bitch. Either way, it’s lose-lose.
The “business” of rape culture allows us—as first-responders, allies, advocates—to presume that we are doing something about the violence. We offer rape kits, support groups, 24-hr crisis lines, protection orders, campus housing & academic accommodations, campus disciplinary hearings, support groups, response teams… Ironically, in the process of doing, we do little but maintain status quo. Through these processes intended to support victims, victims are repeatedly rendered silent, faceless, nameless–become Jane Doe.
This is why I’m here, right? The job of the advocate is to advocate for the victim, support and empower her. Yes! I also wonder how much my role actually empowers… For example, the advocate rhetoric I’ve used these past ten years frustrates and offends me. Meant to counter other messages constantly bombarding victims, these messages (“you are not alone”, “it was not your fault”, “you are empowered”) fall pathetically short of subverting rape culture. In fact, they reinforce it. These advocate proclamations do not allow for the honest exploration of a victim’s whole self and her own power. Or the responsibility that comes with that power. Solidly positioned in opposition to “rape culture” (that thing out there), I have not allowed or encouraged victims to think for one moment that they had some responsibility in what happened for fear of victim-blaming. Instead, I stubbornly repeat over and over again that “it was not your fault.” In doing so, I eradicate all power victims held and hold. In essence, I help to re-define that person as just a victim. (Note that I am using “victim” as opposed to “survivor”—more rhetoric that drives me crazy in its denial that after all, this person was victimized. I rarely feel the power that this term presumes to bestow on its subject. It just feels like an empty gesture to me.)
The problem is that while all this attention is paid to sexual victimization (and hence, victims), sexual perpetration gets paid virtually none. So, while victims are placed under a microscope (“why was she wearing that?” “why did she go to his room?” “she shouldn’t have been so drunk”, “I should have known better”…), perpetrators remain invisible. Their lives go unphased, uninterrupted. Their criminal behavior goes unquestioned. They slip away, under the invisible drape of privilege just as all those positioned as dominant do. The same way that whiteness slips away in discussions of race, the same way maleness slips away in conversations about gender, the same way that heterosexuality slips away from discussions on sexual orientation. The dominant continues to dominate by slipping away, unnoticed. Unpoliced. In this case, literally.
My advocacy work has taught me so many things. Among them, I’ve realized that we are complicit in the very things we work to resist. We always are because we are participating. But if I can remain aware of the ways in which I am complicit, I can create change. I can say to a survivor, “it was not fault” and know that what I’m saying is not fully empowering but also know that it is so important to say; so I can say the words with that understanding and feeling. I can see myself as both part of the violence and as an advocate against it. And for me, this paradox has served as a critical factor in my work; when that fact fades, I know I’ve not been as effective. I hope that as we continue to talk and debate about ways to resist rape culture, we can also create safe spaces to talk about ways we participate in it, even in our passionate resistance to it.
Don’t get me wrong: I know that advocacy makes a difference. I know how important it is. I just don’t want us to compromise our work by being self-righteous in our arguments about dismantling rape culture as if it is something that is outside of ourselves. We owe it to ourselves and those we serve to do better than that.