Anti-rape activism has become incredibly one-sided in the past few years, and I will not shut up about it anymore.
I cringe when someone calls me a "survivor," or as is more common, calls all rape/abuse victims "survivors." The use of "survivor" has been carefully promoted under the assumption that all rape/abuse victims will eventually come to their senses and "reclaim" their trauma.
Every other day, some news story about a brave rape survivor who became a prizewinning wrestler or created a brilliant piece of performance art or performed at the Oscars sweeps Facebook. These stories absolutely inspire and comfort rape victims, but they also tell those who aren't thriving that all rape/abuse victims have the ability to become renowned wrestlers or performers. Then they're asked by themselves and others, What's wrong with you? Why aren't you doing something productive with all that trauma?
What does this mean for victims who don't go on to create beautiful art or otherwise turn their trauma into something that other people find value in? What about the victims who are still in bed and can't seem to move on?
The "powerful and empowered survivor" narrative is the mirror image of what being a rape victim was like back when no one discussed rape or abuse in polite company. The morning after your husband beat your eye black, you covered it with makeup and put on a brave face. Today, after being raped or abused you apparently should still cover your wounds with makeup, but you also have to publicly announce how strong the abuse you suffered made you. In neither scenario is there room to sit and let the gravity of what someone else has done to you really land. In both scenarios, the spotlight is always on you, never the abuser.
I prefer the word "victim" because it places the focus back where it belongs: on the fucking rapist who turned me into a victim by raping me. I had no choice in that, and I don't have much choice about how I respond to it either. It's always been strange to me how proponents of survivor rhetoric so often push "survivor" as the most appropriate thing for all victims, going so far as to explain in-depth why calling yourself a victim is a no-no.
The hardest part for me about self-identifying as a victim is that it invites so many (often inappropriate) questions from people who have decided that survivor rhetoric is correct. These people have a lot to back them up, too; there are books, campaigns, zines galore, high-profile activists, and even the goddamn White House.
Talking and writing about this is physically painful. There's a knot in my stomach every time I open a draft of this article, not just because I'm talking or writing about rape, but because I can hear the backlash in my head already.
"You're putting yourself in the victim mindset."
"You're making yourself into a victim."
"You would have more confidence if you embraced yourself as a survivor." (I'd have more confidence if no men had ever raped me, but alright.)
These are all things that have been said directly to me.
I didn't know about survivor rhetoric until after I had just taken my first women's studies class at a community college, which was focused on (and I think maybe even called) "ending sexual violence." The program was considered by some of my radical friends to be "liberal," a word that tends to shut anything down if applied effectively enough. I had never considered the possibility of sexual violence not existing anymore until I took that class and my professor said there was a pretty simple solution: men need to stop raping women. (Of course anyone can rape anyone, but surely we can all agree that the degree to which men rape women is disproportionate to put it lightly.)
Our professor asked us to think about why so many men rape so many women and why so few of them are punished for it. We scratched the surface talking about the way women and our bodies are portrayed in media, the far-reaching influence of porn, and how women are socialized to be accommodating of men. To end sexual violence we need to fix these problems, which means naming them as problems in the first place.
I shared readings and lecture notes with anyone who would listen to me and I got feedback from radical friends that what we talked about in that class was too simplified, and more importantly it was a "carceral/punitive" approach to sexual violence (I was expected to believe that rapists going to prison is bad).
Enter "The Revolution Starts at Home."
The very first sentence of this (in)famous zine is "I am not proposing that sexual violence and domestic violence will no longer exist." Rape and abuse is inevitable? How is this radical? I kept reading and internalized my new way of thinking and speaking about rape. I didn't want to be a problematic liberal, and everyone I knew was raving about this zine (and later the book that came from it) so I too started to recommend it to people and said that it was amazing. During the three or four years I spent promoting survivor rhetoric and transformative justice I was secretly I was glad I didn't really have a "community" to call my own that would play out these "models of accountability."
I spent much of my free time looking for stories of accountability processes set up for rapists that didn't disgust me because I desperately wanted to believe in this system. I could never stomach the idea of a rapist going to a meeting once a week and promising to change being their only punishment, but if I found evidence that it sated a survivor it might be more palatable. It weirded me out that many of the accounts I found were not written by the survivor themselves but generally by whoever was designated the leader of the process. Even the most "survivor centered" accounts seemed more focused on promoting the efficacy of the accountability process above all else.
I wondered why so much of the work surrounding transformative justice focused on sexual or intimate partner violence. Where are the resources for resolving theft, property damage, rent disputes, custody, etc., using the transformative justice model? These things all happen regularly in radical communities (rent disputes especially!) so where are the zines about being accountable for them? What about child abuse, sexual or not? Where are the accountability processes for pedophiles? Why is the idea of solving child sexual abuse with an accountability circle off putting, but perfect for the rape of an adult woman?
I would guess because mandated reporting and CPS make it more difficult to shelter child rapists (although of course I know they often go unpunished).You definitely can't deal with a murderer in an accountability process because murders are brought to court without the victim's say so. Grown victims of sexual assault are the perfect group of people to push the survivor centered accountability process on. We can make the choice to not go to the police (and in radical communities this is not really a choice) and go with a community based process instead.
The excuse given for this is that we shouldn't be putting even more people into the prison industrial complex no matter what they've done. Since a conservative estimate puts only 2% of rapists in prison, frankly this is bullshit. We can't put rapists in prison no matter how hard we try, so telling victims of rape that they support the prison industrial complex by reporting rapists is nothing short of blaming rape victims for over incarceration.
Proponents of survivor rhetoric and transformative justice do not want us identifying as victims. When a victim of rape calls herself a victim of rape, she's reminding everyone that rape is horror and trauma, full stop.
She's reminding us that rape is not a temporary roadblock that eventually leads to great accomplishments. She's reminding us that rape is not character building. She's reminding us that someone violated her. Object, verb, subject. She's saying she might want to just fucking grieve for the part of herself that she feels someone took from her.
She is not weak for any of these things. She is strong as hell.
There is nothing that benefits rape culture and patriarchy more than a rape victim/survivor who moves on and gets productive. All of this is to say, please just let rape victims/survivors process and identify our shit in our own way. When you're talking or writing about rape and abuse, be careful with your language. The subject demands care, and that means thinking about the implications of everything you say.
I'm not weak for calling myself a victim, and I'm not necessarily strong just for writing this. I just am.