Feminist men* of the internets: I hear you asking how you can help, how you can support survivors. This post was first composed after a certain famous abuser CBC host’s trial concluded; yet it feels relevant once again in this moment before the inauguration, as movements are gearing up to protect those directly affected. We cannot just call ourselves ‘feminist,’ collect the cookies, and say the work is done. The connections go so much deeper than that. For those who take seriously doing this work, the behind the scenes, meaningful, unrewarded, unproclaimed daily work of backing and supporting survivors, I hope the insights shared here, that I have learned by listening to many over many years, are helpful. If you find something here useful, please share.
We’ve just heard several women be incredibly brave by not hiding from abuse they have faced, naming it openly and with dignity. I’m going to go with the raw feelings that are circulating today in light of the Ghomeshi verdict. I actually feel quite peaceful as I’m writing this: curious about these feelings, and willing to be raw. To honour the bravery of these women who just faced down a courtroom to speak of something that was utterly not their fault, I am going to be very honest in today’s post: “so if men ask before sex, will we have solved patriarchy?”
I know this may sound simplistic. And of course I’m being a bit tongue in cheek. I appreciate the notes going around that ask people to keep in mind that this verdict and the media attention to it will mean survivors are re-experiencing all sorts of things today.
But it seems there is more to uncover and reconnect here. As usual, I’m puzzling this out, putting together things that are normally kept apart, and doing it out loud. I’m open to your thoughts.
Please keep in mind as you’re writing “I believe survivors” that there is so much more that is triggering about this day, more than the flashbacks we may be having to sexual assault.
There is so much more that is not being discussed that needs believing, that is tied in to sexual assault but not contained by it.
The ways we doubt women’s veracity about assault are exactly the same as the ways we doubt women’s veracity about all forms of gendered violence, which are all inextricably connected. Do you find yourself distancing from one aspect of gendered violence even as you’re willing to “believe” about sexual assault? We need to draw these connections in order to hold women’s bodies and spirits. Healing begins when someone bears witness.
Let’s make connections here. I want to use examples from my own life as well as things I have been learning by listening and reading, but I want to be clear this is not about me. Lived experience is analysis, is theory, is critique, and it can bring into relief the structures of violence we live in that are disguised.
Only some of the body sensations rising up today are about times I was touched in ways I didn’t want. Massive as that issue is, it’s strangely easier to talk about this one part of patriarchy than to face the bigger structures of which it is a part. Believing survivors of assault is vital, and it remains less than half of the issue of patriarchal violence, of the deeply intertwined things that need “I believe you” as a core response.
Let’s talk about all the faces of gendered violence and help women see them as all one, because whatever is not spoken of remains mired in implicit shame. Otherwise you’re saying “I believe you about this part of the gendered violence you experience… the rest, well…. that must have been your fault… or something… what’s for dinner.”
Assault is rendered more possible by other forms of sexism. Like so many women, part of the reason I was vulnerable to sexual assault and rape in my early teens through to early twenties was because I had been trained to be pliant and acquiescent by a male parent deeply steeped in patriarchal values. I had been literally terrorized into viewing my self-worth externally – by a man who never once touched me inappropriately. He just primed me to make myself accessible to those who would. Do women continue to have contact with men who have abused them? Damn right: if you were raised all of your life to view your own inherent worth and safety as dependent on someone else’s approval, to subsume your own experience and knowledge of yourself under someone else’s version of reality, you’d struggle with the same thing. I wasn’t restrained when I was sexually assaulted. I didn’t need to be; I had been trained from birth to dissociate and go along when a man wanted me to feel or think or move a certain way. We can overcome this harm and the fog and confusion, the delays in comprehension, it creates, but don’t fool yourself: growing up undermined by what Rebecca Solnit has called “this slippery slope of silencings” creates deep roots of self-doubt and lack of self-trust that take years and years of inner work to undo.
Assault is rendered more possible by sexism’s intersection with capitalism. Look at material access, as one piece of this picture. Part of the causes of rape – part of why they happened for me as for so many others – was because as a teen with no access to income and no safe home of my own I was seeking safe places to sleep when I ended up in unsafe situations. Men had access to me by virtue of having apartments and food that I did not have. I was raped while simply trying to find a place that didn’t have my scary dad in it where I could have a meal and a night’s rest in peace. Again, this is not about me: so many young women and girls find themselves in these situations. We need to see the patterns and believe women about all of it.
Assault is rendered more possible by mental health stigma and lack of support. Look at the impacts of patriarchal abuse and neglect on mental health and on the nervous system, which may not develop fully for those who grow up in abusive situations. Because of abuse and neglect at home I skipped developmental stages, which meant my body badly needed touch to feel ok. Not sex, just touch – being held. I didn’t understand this until many, many years later. Meanwhile, in the years when I was most vulnerable to physical invasion, I was assaulted at parties as a teen when I cuddled with guys. I cuddled with guys because I sought out physical touch that my nervous system needed and I had this strong need for touch because of developmental issues caused by patriarchal abuse at home. So though I was never touched inappropriately at home (lots of people are, just not me – we need to believe everyone about all of their experiences, no more shaming of victims), gendered violence I lived at home put me in the path of gendered violence in the world. Strikingly, in today’s verdict, we see ignorance of the ways violence impacts memory and awareness playing out in the courts and in the media. If you want to believe and support survivors, help put the pieces back together that get dis-membered by these kinds of erasure. As someone in my feed said when the Ghomeshi story first broke: survivors in your life are listening.
Assault is rendered more possible by viewing sexual women as less deserving of protection, legitimacy, dignity, for owning our own bodies. Look at the insane double standard women* still navigate in the politics of respectability: constrained by traditional mores that view our bodies as not our own, yet shamed if we do take the empowering step to reclaim our sexuality as our own. Socio-economic status combines with gender to bifurcate women into categories as ‘marriageble’ good girls or ‘available’ sexual objects. Look at the current criminalizing of sex work. Shaming has material consequences when you are not the ones with access to financial and social power. Men can abuse and keep their jobs, their social networks, their homes. Women can lose all of these things after abuse, because we have less ready access to them to begin with.
Assault is rendered more possible by racism. Look at the ways racism, heteronormativity, and gendered violence intersect. We cannot force people to separate out parts of their experience without doing additional harm to their psyche. In a class on Black feminist organizing recently I learned of the deeply silencing ways that police violence and a structurally racist system of incarceration and law forces Black women to not name violence they are experiencing lest the force of the racist state come down on their communities. Black queer and trans women in particular face levels of violence that are systemically erased and condoned. The legacy of myths formed during slavery carry forward into today’s myths that view Black women’s bodies as less deserving of protection, imagining they are somehow less capable of feeling pain, by hospitals, courts and cops. Assumptions about female fragility and deserving of protection somehow magically do not apply to Black women, such that even a girl as young as 12 can be sexualized and beaten by police while playing outside her house. Black women created Transformative Justice to find ways to grapple with gendered violence in ways that centred their experiences and knowledge, and to create community accountability outside a legal system which was never designed to protect them.
Assault is rendered possible by borders. Look at the ways assault is rendered possible by immigration laws that require women to stay with abusive partners in order to keep their status and prevent deportation. Or the ways physically crossing borders, moving through spaces such as airports, shape trans women’s access to safety. Or the ways dependence on a sponsoring employer creates impossible situations for racialized women domestic workers who could lose status and be deported if they report violence by a white male employer or supervisor.
Assault is rendered possible by colonization. Look at the long history of RCMP not only neglecting to take seriously Missing and Murdered Indigenous women, but actively assaulting Indigenous women themselves and getting away with it. Look at how the disruption of cultural continuity and families through laws that sought to dispossess Indigenous people of their land, through residential schools, through the 60s scoop, through continuing land theft, works to increase vulnerability. Race, class, gender, and colonial law work together and cannot be separated out.
There is no way any of us can separate these out, the other forms of gendered violence and neglect people experience, and assault, even though these acts may be carried out by different people. We live inside a system and we need to see ourselves as whole in a system that wants to separate us out into parts. These experiences can’t be separated out without doing violence to women’s wholeness, to women’s psyches. There is no way to say ‘yes, that instance of invasion with that teenage boy or that 30 year old man was where the problem begins and ends’ without somehow erasing the fact that the rest of the gendered violence and neglect women live in – limited financial access, limited access to space, and, as we see, limited recourse to legal protection – are part and parcel with this picture.
Cosby didn’t just rape his many victims; he also silenced them, gaslit them, shamed them, and was a gatekeeper to a world of power. Ghomeshi didn’t just punch women in the head in a vacuum; he operated in a system in which men reward and recognize one another and do not see women as equals, which has material consequences for our access to social capital, income, opportunities for personal and professional growth. These are all patriarchy and they are all connected. If you insist that you “believe survivors” about assault but you separate out that instance of invasion from the larger fabric of daily life of which it is a part, you are re-enacting a fragmentation of our experience and thought. We need to be whole, and so the ways you think and speak about us needs to be willing to view wholeness in our stories, too.
You can learn to ask ‘do you want me to touch you here’ before you touch, and still be patronizing, controlling, or neglectful to women you get close to.
Anything that is not named openly, accepted openly, and made to be one fabric is going to suggest parts of our stories are not nameable, or that people should feel shame – secrets and erasure are all there is to shame. When I see “I believe you” popping up all over and then realize it only means “about assault” I wonder, oh, is that all? What about believing women about gendered violence and neglect, period?
So for those facing borders, for those facing colonial police and militaries, for those facing theft of land, for those rebuilding their cultural knowledge and languages, for those who parent solo, for those who parent in chosen families, for those who choose sex work and for those who enter it for lack of choice, I believe you. For those facing a court system and policing and prison that never did view you or your men as worthy of protection, I believe you. For those in immigration detention whose only crime was movement, I believe you. For those whose knowledge, experience, and realities have been denied and turned around on them by men and by institutions that back those men, I believe you. For those who have had our best qualities mirrored back to us as weaknesses, who are just reclaiming our true selves, I believe you. For those who have borne the other impacts of half-grown men who live for sex, including neglect of child rearing or of being a truly present partner, I believe you. For those who at the hands of emotionally stunted men have been beaten, controlled financially and emotionally, or terrorized, for those who were neglected by fathers or partners who were too busy out playing to bother parenting, for those who have been and are being attacked, screamed at, denied basic access to food, shelter, physical safety, we see you and we believe you, too.
Being a safe man is about so much more than recognizing and ‘believing’ assault happens. It is about believing the whole picture, not just this one part of the violence that is patriarchy.
You can’t just wear a white ribbon, or advocate for equal hiring practices at your job, and think you’re a feminist. There is so much more to unlearn.
Learn accountability. Learn healing touch. Learn how to believe more deeply than you ever thought possible, doing the work to step out of the narratives that make you unable to hear or see what is right in front of you. Learn how to help create shelters and safety so that women who come close to you can heal with you from the shellshock and fragmentation that is existing in this world.
We can and are healing ourselves. But harm is relational and so is healing. Half of this healing has to come from you.
On a different day I’ll want to think again about transforming the way we approach justice. But this one day it is fitting to just be pissed.
If you’d like to help us build a safer world for survivors, please share!
See the original viral post The Opposite of Rape Culture is Nurturance Culture
See more of Puung’s art here: http://www.grafolio.com/illustration/146448
*All references to gender in this post are intended in a trans-inclusive way. I want to recognize that human beings’ lived experience of gender is much more complex than an either/or set of boxes can capture. When I speak of ‘men’ and ‘masculinity’ I am referring to masculine-identified people, including, as appropriate, aspects of the self for those who only partially identify in this way. Open to feedback and always happy to further nuance this analysis, feel free to get in touch. 🙂
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