Possibilities for creating a less sexually violent culture in the movement to end sexual violence

Policy
 
Rape culture is in the failure of schools and communities and families to provide adequate sexual education and in the abstinence only [sic] education that convinces us sex is not in fact about consent, but rather about secrecy and shame. Rape culture is in the way we still conceive of sex as a commodity-based transaction. Rape culture is in the way we are still taught that men control the terms of the transaction. Rape culture is in the boring porn videos that situate women as passive recipients of male desire. Rape culture is in the way we still refuse to believe that sex means mutual fulfillment and is a voluntary act for both parties involved.
— amyandronicus.tumblr.com
The law can’t define for you what a violation of your own body is or isn’t. It simply determines what is criminal, and very poorly.
— @allthepie

Sexual violence is a public health problem and a fundamental problem for feminism, in balancing intersectionality. How can we hold our friends, our family members, our communities, and ourselves accountable to prevent sexual violence, and to name sexual violence for what it is in order to create a less sexually violent culture?
What are the methods we can use to create space to discuss histories of sexual trauma, build a foundation for accountability, and enable conversations where we honor the diversity of experiences that survivors of sexual trauma bring to the movement to end sexual violence?

 

What are strategies that white survivors of sexual violence can use to respect and build solidarity with black survivors and other survivors of color, acknowledging that as white folx, our experiences are given primacy and taken more seriously as violations of our humanity?
How can we build an explicitly antiracist, antioppressive movement to end sexual violence given the profound entwinement of sexual violence, capitalism, global white supremacy, and ableism?

 

 

The failure of legalistic frameworks to hold rapists accountable

 
As mainstream society moves towards the recognition of sexual violence through further criminalization of particular acts, it’s tempting to view this increasing criminalization as evidence of a society more willing to condemn and end sexual violence. However, increasing rates of prosecution for sexual violence, longer sentences for perpetrators, and mandatory minimum sentences do not realistically represent liberatory moves toward ending sexual violence. Further criminalization of specific acts not only shunts people into the prison system, it subjects them to violence both at the hands of the state and while incarcerated or jailed, given that incarcerated people face disproportionate rates of sexual violence both from other incarcerated people and from prison staff in comparison to free people. If our goal is to create a less sexually violent culture that discourages sexual violence in the first place, how does subjecting people who have been convicted of sexual crimes to possible sexual violence themselves accomplish this? It simply does not. It accepts the punitive logic of the prison and passively (or actively) accepts violence as natural.
A 2010 article in the American Journal of Public Health suggests that mandatory minimum sentencing laws “are indicative of the government’s effort to be ‘tough on crime’. On the surface, they have intuitive appeal. Who would not want to take the toughest measures to protect children and families from someone who has committed a sexually based offense?” However, this intuitive appeal is one that rests on the acceptance and normalization of the carceral state. A carceral model that views increased policing, prosecution, and imprisonment as a “solution” to sexual violence is a purely retributive one rooted in the very logic of violence that facilitates sexual violence in the first place. If we are meaningfully committed to ending sexual violence, we must acknowledge that the carceral state and the prison-industrial complex are sites of immense violence (sexual, bodily, psychological, psychic, economic, and racial, among others). We must refuse to accept this violence as inevitable.
Mainstream legalistic frameworks that take a “hard-line stance” against sexual violence in many ways simply perpetuate the very ways of relating to one another that facilitate others’ dehumanization. This dehumanization is, I believe, central to the “phenomenon” of sexual violence, wherein people who have been taught through cultural messaging that they deserve or are entitled to access to another person’s body cannot fully understand the separate, full humanity of that person; this slippage into dehumanization facilitates sexual violence quite easily and contributes to the linked phenomenon wherein rapists, often cis men, do not “realize” that they have violated a partner’s consent because they have been trained to disregard the body language, nonverbal cues, and even explicit language of their sexual partners or of strangers on the street.
Mandatory minimum sentencing or longer sentencing for people convicted of sexual crimes reflects a similar impulse as heightened criminalization of certain sexual acts; the logic is that such sentences will deter potential offenders. There was much outcry after the Brock Turner case when Turner ended up spending only a few months in jail for raping a woman who gave an extensive, detailed account of his actions. While the impulse to decry this as a grotesque miscarriage of justice, we must consider the ways in which Turner’s punishment itself does little to serve justice to the person he raped.
If we are looking for justice — a true kind, or even of the kind that passes for true (retributive, punitive, and vengeance-based), it is not going to be found through the courts, or even through legal representation, nor especially through the carceral state. We need not stoop to citing the statistics on how few cases of sexual violence and violation even make it to the first step of a charge being brought against a rapist, abuser, or perpetrator (let alone that person being found guilty, let alone that person being held meaningfully accountable for their violence, let alone that person feeling remorse for what they’ve done) to show how little justice there is for survivors of sexual violence through normative legal means.
Moreover, further incarceration is not justice. Justice does not look like relatively short jail time; justice does not look like years of imprisonment. Justice does not look like more people shunted into the prison system. At the very, barest minimum, justice is the elimination of rape and assault and misogyny and transphobia and violence against women in all forms. Justice is financial accountability for abusers, perpetrators, and rapists, wherein they pay for the harm they’ve created by paying for survivors’ therapy bills, their transportation to and from court dates, their attorney’s fees, and for the time they take off from work.

 

Self-policing sexual predation

As folks within the movement to end sexual violence, we often possess a heightened vocabulary to discuss and deconstruct the raced, gendered, abled asymmetries of power that enable and produce sexual violence. Because of this, conversations within the movement run the risk of remaining inaccessible to those outside the movement. Additionally, the critical language of feminist anti-violence has been taken up and deployed against feminists online; anti-feminists and neo-fascists online increasingly use, for example, the word “triggered” as a source of comedy to mock what they see as feminists’ overly sensitive analysis of trauma and language use in online spaces.
But why should folks committed to ending sexual violence have to engage in the uncompensated intellectual labor of explaining to those who lack this vocabulary the ways in which their words and actions may be upholding or perpetuating a sexually violent culture? This burden is of course especially oppressive for folks of color who are regularly asked to perform such uncompensated labor simply by existing in a white supremacist society – so to ask them to call out words and actions that uphold a sexually violent culture is doubly exploitative of their time, energy, and humanity.
However, for folks within the movement with the ability and energy to do so – often more privileged folks and especially white, cis, abled folks – it is our obligation to call in our fellow white folks, and perhaps most especially our family members who exhibit or voice thoughts and actions that uphold a sexually violent culture.
Some examples: When older men act in sexually predatory ways toward younger women, we need to name their behavior for what it is, despite how uncomfortable it may make us or how it may alienate us from them.
When women and femme friends deride others for their sexual decisions, we must remind them that everyone is free to make choices with their sexual lives that do not harm or threaten the safety and autonomy of others.
When friends consume sexist mainstream media, we must encourage them to stop purchasing or implicitly supporting those media (and refuse to consume such media ourselves!).
And perhaps most difficulty, when an acquaintance or family member is accused of sexual assault, we must put aside our impulses to defend rapists and disbelieve those who tell us they’ve been sexually assaulted or raped, recognizing that the very fact of sexual violence is what causes folks to falsely accuse others of rape or sexual violence in the first place. Again, we don’t need to stoop to citing the vanishingly small number of false rape accusations to know that when someone says another person has violated their sexual autonomy, they are telling the truth.
Thanks to incredible work within the movement to end sexual violence, more and more folks are sharing their experiences of violence; this should not be perceived as a wave of fresh accusations but rather as a cultural shift toward, ideally, an environment of greater openness toward discussing sexual misconduct and violation.
The reality is that marginalized folks face violences, small and large, every single day. These small violences are things like observing misogynistic advertising in public; facing sexism in the classroom by not being called on as frequently as masculine folks are; being catcalled in the street by strangers and fearing for their safety; confronting insidious racial microaggressions from acquaintances, colleagues, teachers, employers, and even friends; being unable to access certain spaces because of their inaccessible design, largely invisible to abled folks. The psychic, emotional, and physical tolls of these small violences start for some people as children, not just in adulthood. These violences accumulate exponentially, not just cumulatively.

 

Healing, accountability, and discomfort

Discussing sexual trauma is difficult. It is difficult for the person who discloses and it is difficult, albeit differently, for the person who hears this disclosure. A central element to building a less sexually violent world is creating space to discuss sexual trauma in a setting that acknowledges the discomfort, fear, retraumatization, and pain that can arise from these conversations.
Despite the discomfort to many non-survivors in listening to or bearing witness to these conversations, especially conversations that may involve close friends or family members, we must recognize that survivors’ needs come first. Survivors are leading, and will continue to lead, these conversations; this is imperative in building a less sexually violent world wherein we center the experiences of folks who have experienced violence of all kinds. As white survivors, it is especially important for us to be conscious of the ways in which our experiences are given primacy because of our whiteness; the same holds for abled and cisgender survivors. The staggering disparity in rates of sexual violence towards trans women of color in particular in relation to that of white cis women reminds us unless our movement strives to be intersectional, it will only replicate the very violences that facilitate TWOC’s vulnerability and victimization in the first place.

 

Specific tools for building the anti-racist, anti-oppressive movement to end sexual violence

What are concrete steps we can take to foster a less sexually violent culture as a foundation for building the world we want to see?
We can start by giving our money to domestic violence, rape prevention, rape crisis, and abortion access organizations immediately, and monthly.
We can start by valuing people outside of their ability to provide us sexual gratification, and instead simply for their inherent worth as people.
We can start by treating masturbation as valid an experience as penetrative sex.
We can start by managing our rejection when turned down, because we value ourselves outside of our attractiveness to others and recognize that others’ rejection of us is not a reflection on our worth.
We can start by not touching strangers without asking them, and respecting their responses when we do ask.
We can start by reading the writing and listening to the speaking of non-binary folks, trans folks, and women.
We can start by speaking less on issues of sexual violence when we have nothing to contribute but a turn as devil’s advocate.
We can start by assuming our women colleagues are as competent as we are, regardless of our own gender.
We can start by withholding commentary on others’ clothing choices, especially women and femme folks’.
We can start by calling out men’s critical commentary about women’s sexual autonomy.
We can start by refusing to be silent when folks utter transphobic comments, even small ones.
We can start by believing people when they disclose abuse and sexual violence.
We can start by refusing to consume media that ascribes to biologically essential differences between genders and that reinforces sexism and ableism.
We can start by refusing to consume mainstream pornography.
We can start by educating ourselves on the history of sexual violence against women of color.
We can start by building meaningful anti-capitalist interpersonal relationships with others that exist and flourish outside of mere gratification.

 


AnnaLise Bender Brown.jpg
AnnaLise Bender-Brown is a 25-year-old writer, law student, and aspiring feminist film critic. She grew up in Washington state with stints in southern California, Oregon, and France. She cares deeply about sexual violence and prison abolition. In her spare time, she bikes, eats baked goods, co-edits a tiny feminist zine, and sings bad covers of Robyn songs.

 

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