I am a survivor advocate. I am rape culture.

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.

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Feminism is exhausting. Sometimes, I wish I could turn it off, choose when and where to be a feminist. I’d love to be able to watch trash T.V. in peace! Unfortunately, this is not how a worldview works. We carry it with us into every decision we make, every thought we have, everything we do. And it’s exhausting.

At times, it can also be paralyzing. Feminism has left me feeling unable to make the “right” decision, scared to take action for fear of not getting it “right”. The thing is, there is no “right”. There will always be gaps and blindspots because there is always power, privilege, and oppression at play. But to do nothing, paralyzed with fear of making things worse, is ultimately failing at feminism and results in maintaining the status quo.

I’m curious at ways in which feminists do feminism. At strategies of change employed. Feminism is as diverse as any other political movement; within feminism there are immense and ongoing tensions, debates, critiques. Engaging these tensions is key to shared understanding and coalition building, and ultimately creating positive social change. It’s the way in which these tensions are engaged that determine the effect: do we create opportunities for dialogue or do we reinforce patterns of domination?

In my experience, often times these tensions are engaged with fists raised, guns blazing. In fact, at times it feels this is the nature of feminism: to deconstruct, analyze to death, intellectually annihilate. As a feminist, I often feel so empassioned about an injustice that I heed feminism’s charge and launch into an all-out preach-down. “Preach-down” because the speak is condescending, one person talking down to the other. “How can you do that? Don’t you know…?”

On the campus where I work, the University of Cincinnati, there was a feminist art exhibition several days ago entitled, “Re-envisioning the Female Body.” In response to the activist art, there was a counter-demonstration organized by “Feminists at UC Against Re-envisioning the Female Body.” The point of the counter-demonstration was to essentially engage the tensions of feminist activism, to raise concerns about the exhibit and subsequently, create dialogue. As a feminist that works in a campus-based women’s center, I have to say, all of this feminist organizing has been dreamy. Feminism complicated?!!? Feminism centered on campus (literally and symbolically)?!!? Amazing.

Interestingly, what promised to be a space for dialogue quickly devolved into a silencing mechanism. The “preach-down” effect kicked in and the result was a distraction from the very real tensions–tensions worth paying attention to–that catalyzed the counter-protest to begin with. There was a failed opportunity for coalition building.

We forget the power of listening to each other. To enter into dialogue, engage tensions, and build coalitions, we must beginning not by preaching, but by listening.

I know how hard this can be. As a professional advocate, I’ve been challenged to advocate for systemic change with colleagues who might share very different–sometime opposing–perspectives. If I approached every issue with my fists raised, I am convinced I would get little accomplished. I’ve learned this the hard way: what results is defensiveness and a digging-in-of-the-heels . To prevent my deployment of a “preach-down”, I often have to bite my tongue. But I do try my best to understand the other’s perspective, not make assumptions, and clearly communicate my concerns.

About a year ago, I was in a room with several administrators trying to coordinate care for a student who had been sexually assaulted by another student. One administrator questioned, “I’m not sure that I buy that just being in the same room with him would be upsetting.” I could feel my face turning red, my heartbeat racing. I was furious! We were talking about the impact of a rapist having ongoing access to the survivor–of course that would be “upsetting”, to say the least! As much I was inclined to do a “preach-down”, I knew that to best advocate for the survivor, I had to find a way to engage in dialogue with this person. My goal was to come to a shared understanding so to best support the survivor. Honestly, I’m not sure exactly what I said but I attempted something along the lines of “I’m not sure what you mean…” More importantly, I know what I didn’t say, because I spent a lot of energy on controlling myself. And a lot of energy on listening.

Of course, we can’t end there. We have to act. I’m ashamed to admit that I sometimes hide behind “listening” as an excuse to not act or speak out. I try to convince myself of this particularly when I am scared to act, paralyzed by my own fear of screwing up. And my body tells me—just as it did in that room with my fellow administrator—when I must act. And when I do, I try my best to be as effective as possible by building coalitions (whether with another person, group, organization). I find that listening allows me to best articulate my points and ultimately, accomplish the change I am working toward.

I challenge the belief that activism is solely defined by action; whoever yells the loudest and does the most is The Activist. I believe that this definition neglects the power of coalition building which requires a different kind of engaging tensions–the kind that is dependent on authentic dialogue. It seems to be that feminist activists should know this and practice it. With a shared value of voice and inclusiveness, we should know to begin by listening to each other.