Tuesday, April 18, 2006

blogging against sexual violence #1

I lied.
I still have a ton of work to do, but my momentary return from my work-induced hiaitus will be a little less temporary. Because I started reading through the other posts in the Blog to Raise Awareness About Sexual Violence blogathon.
And I need to do this.
Three times. This is the first.

The first post I read was under "Stories About Survival," entitled Anonymous.
The content of this story was simply as follows:

i have been raped a lot.

And so that, I think, is where I will start this post. I wish so much that sentence wasn't so true for so many people. I wish so much that it wasn't true for anyone. But you can't wish away our rape culture. And you can't wish away people's experiences.

Last week here at Smith, a student organization I'm involved with, AWARE (Activist Women Advocating Rape Education), sponsored Sexual Abuse/Assault Awareness Week. (We don't have the resources or time to do the whole month, so we condense it into a week.)
We hung the Clothesline Project, which Smith has been participating in since 1994, and now includes well over 400 shirts.
We held a (poorly attended) student/faculty/administration panel, entitled The Importance of Discourse, meant in part to address the controversy around the Clothesline Project (which I will discuss shortly).
We sponsored a (poorly attended) "Wounded Heart Workshop," facilitated by a woman from the Everywoman's Center at UMass Amherst.
We held a (poorly attended) Take Back the Night march and speak-out/candlelight vigil.

And we encountered some pretty hefty resistance, not so much from the administration (this year), but from our fellow Smithies.
The Clothesline Project controversy centered around the location and prime visibility of the Project. We hung the CP around Seelye lawn, which is a central, largely unavoidable location on campus. We did this very intentionally. We could have displayed the CP in a room in the Campus Center, where people could choose to go in and look at the shirts or not. We did not choose that.
That is a form of silencing.

Many Smithies thought we should move the CP to an out-of-the-way room in the campus center. Their argument was actually almost compelling: seeing the shirts, reading the shirts, walking by the shirts every day on your way to class or the library can be really distracting and upsetting if you aren't ready or don't want to have to deal with your past experiences right then. Which I fully acknowledge. It was not easy for most of the members of AWARE to deal with it either, and we had to sit at an informational table for most of the day, help to hang and take down the shirts every day, and so forth. I understand that we, being members of AWARE, are in a different position, because we chose to be a part of an organization specifically targeting sexual violence issues, and we chose to be a part of SAAW. Other victims/survivors on Smith campus may not be able to make that choice, and they're partially right -- it may not be fair of us to, in a sense, make them deal with it if they're not willing or ready to do so.
But what's even less fair is that they were victimized in the first place. What's even less fair is that we need to put up the Clothesline Project at all. What's even less fair is that they're still not putting the blame for their discomfort/instability/inability to deal on their abusers, and are instead projecting their anger at a visibility/awareness campaign like CP.

And while Smith should have much, much, much more adequate resources to help victims/survivors deal with such issues, it does not (yet). But that doesn't mean that people don't need to be made aware of this. That doesn't mean that victims/survivors should be silenced because there aren't adequate resources for those who need them or because it makes never-victimized people uncomfortable.

But what people don't really address is the thing that is so deeply entrenched in this controversy surrounding the CP (and, later, the speak-out): Smith's very own rape culture.
So, so many people use the "even at Smith" rhetoric, implying that Smith, in its liberal, gay-loving, mostly-feminist bubble, is somehow immune to the social implications of the rest of the world. "Even at Smith, people get raped." "Even at Smith, there are (gasp) Republicans." "Even at Smith, students aren't always safe."
But the truth is: Smith is still a part of the larger culture, and as much of an oasis as it may seem to be, it's not immune from the patriarchal system in "the rest of the world." And while it may be true that Smith and Northampton are both much, much more liberal than your average Massachussets town, both -- yes, even Smith -- have their own unique rape culture.

Smith's rape culture is interesting, because Smith is a "women's" college. (I put "women's" in quotation marks because a lot of Smithies don't necessarily identify as women, and sure as hell don't fit into the social construction of what "women" are.) People assume that Smith is, then, a safe space for all kinds of more sensitive issues. And in a lot of ways, it is. Smith is probably the most gay-friendly (and, actually, at times, bordering on heterophobic) place I've ever been.
But when it comes to rape and sexual abuse...that liberal attitude seems to end.
Sure, the silencing is couched in rhetoric of "protecting victims" and "discomfort" with hearing people's stories, surrounded by phrases like, "Wouldn't you be more comfortable if..." and "Are you sure you want to be so public..." but silencing is silencing, even when couched in "good intentions."

We held our Take Back the Night speak-out on the steps outside the campus center. We had a microphone, a (rather large and intimidating) speaker, and a podium. After the woman from the Everywoman's Center spoke, people - as happens in a speak-out - got up to tell their stories or just talk about sexual assault abstractly.
I thought the speak-out went really well. It was a decent enough turnout -- up to maybe 50 people at the peak time (people would stop to listen on their way to the library or wherever). I spoke, for the first time ever at a speak-out. It was empowering, and moving, and powerful, and everything a speak-out is supposed to be.
When I got home later that night, I saw a thread started on our campus message board.
I reproduce it (mostly) in full:

So, I totally support the openness and availability of resources to sexually offended students. Although I myself am really uncomfortable hearing about personal stories, I think its great that people are willing to share and be open about experiences to help others.
HOWEVER...tonight, I was walking to the lib from Henshaw Ave and when I got to the other side of the CC, there was a mic set up and women were speaking about experiences. Awesome idea, but I think the choice of placement was poor. I was extremely uncomfortable listening to this horrible and depressing story as I walked from the doors of the CC almost all the way to the doors of Neilson. I just wanted to make it known that although I'm in full support of talking about problems and experiences, I was not prepared to listen to these personal and extremely upsetting stories while on a walk to do work.
So, please, CC or whomever set up the area that it was held in, please make it in a more private place, aka not on the steps of the CC where I felt rude in just walking up the stairs. Thanks and definitely keep up the awareness- just be more sensitive to the community as a whole. Please don't take any of this the wrong way- its in good intention...

News Flash: Saying that you're not silencing victims/survivors as you do something that silences victims/survivors does not negate you silencing victims/survivors.

(Not to mention...what if it was my story that made her so "uncomfortable"? While I might get defensive about it, say something like "Well it made me uncomfortable to be abused," the fact is: I'm not going to be as willing to share my story now. Because chances are, if it was my story she heard, or if she even heard my story, it would have made her uncomfortable. And even though I acknowledge that as a mechanism for silencing victims/survivors...it doesn't take away the power of the mechanism.)

As infuriating as this was, mainly because of the "good intentions" rhetoric, it wasn't the worst.
This was:
There seems to be an awful lot of "abuse survivors" and rape victims at Smith. Does the place attract people who have had such experiences or is there maybe a little false memory syndrome going on here? I mean, look at the number of people in the student body who are making these claims. It just doesn't sound statistically credible.

As much as I hate the "even at Smith" line...I was not expecting this here, at a place where so many of the students call themselves (or don't, but are) feminists.

Because the thing about Smith's rape culture is: it doesn't fit in with our otherwise smash-the-patriarchy attitude. For example, Smith is just about the queerest campus on the East Coast. One of the responses to the thread is as follows:
How is saying: "I approve of this, but it makes me uncomfortable. So please just do it where I don't have to see it or know about it." any different from "It's ok to be gay, just as long as you don't talk about it or show it in front of me."?
The latter would never fly at Smith. Almost every single Smithie, queer or not, would jump on that person as soon as something like that came out of hir mouth.
But when that same rhetoric is applied to sexual violence...somehow it's ok. Somehow, it's ok to silence victims of sexual violence, where it's not ok to silence queers.

What is it about sexual violence that makes it so much easier to silence at a place like Smith? What is it about rape, about sexual abuse, that makes people who call themselves feminists, who call themselves liberals, who call themselves openminded and enlightened, so absolutely uncomfortable? Obviously, it's not a fun thing to talk about. It's not supposed to be.

But if you don't talk about it, and if you don't make people talk about it or at least think about it, nothing's ever going to change. Sexual violence is so, so easy to ignore for so many people. I don't know how, but most people manage to look at a rape victim, say, "Oh, that's too bad," and move on with their lives and never think about it again. But that rape victim might never move on, and she will almost definitely think about it again...and again...and again.

And somehow, people are ok with being apathetic about sexual violence, or only caring when it's convenient. Somehow, people aren't outraged all the time. Somehow, they'll put more energy into being angry about being made "uncomfortable" over a speak-out or a display, into being angry about something that might actually raise awareness and eventually help stop sexual violence -- way more energy than they will put into being angry about the fact that these people have stories to tell in the first place.

And to me, that seems like something much more worth your anger.

1 comment:

midwesterntransport said...

goddamn right, jen.

i'm a smith alum, and while i never went to tbtn while there, i was really, really glad that it was happening.

some folks just don't get that their attitudes contribute to folks feeling like they can't share their stories. it's not, you know, "polite" or "appropriate."

i have a friend who openly discusses her assault, who never flinches at talking about what happened to her, because she feels that if she's open, other people will be, too. and she refuses to be silenced or made to feel inappropriate for bringing it up.

she's pretty amazing.