I'm going to get this conversation going with a highly controversial statement: SEXUAL ASSAULT IS BAD. There. I await the multitude of indignant counterpoints that will surely follow this assertion.
We're all in agreement that sexual assault is bad? Hmm. Okay.
So why did we even have a sexual assault awareness month? Why dedicate a month to raising awareness of something that even the most sheltered among us has known about from a young age, have been warned of, feared? Something that by adulthood we have all seen splashed luridly across media reports, stumbled upon in books and movies and TV shows as plot devices of terror or tragedy? Something we have all felt the tremors of third-hand, or second-hand, or first-hand?
Can we possibly be lacking in awareness of something that looms so large?
Well.. maybe. The problem we have with sexual assault is not that too few people condemn it. The problem is that no one seems to think they are accountable for ending it. The more loudly we shout against it, the further it floats from our ability to practically address it. The more it becomes untouchable, unchangeable.
Sexual assault is everyone’s problem, everyone’s responsibility. Assailants are not fairytale monsters that come from the shadows. They are members of our communities, if not members of our families. It’s true that we need more accountability to be placed on the perpetrators of sexual assault, not less. We don’t need to be among those making excuses. But maybe we get closer to accountability by better understanding the complicity of social forces, of culture, of reinforcement of norms and behaviors that can lead a person to do what we would rather just label unthinkable. Otherwise, we risk turning the problem into one of battling absolute evil, something abstract and eternal.
And if we must resist the convenience of making assailants absolute evil, we must also resist the convenience of simplifying the diversity of survivors' experiences and identities into a single narrative of utter tragedy and destruction. Though it may seem like focusing on the most horrific consequences is the only way to push back against the widespread culture of victim-blaming and minimizing, narrowing the stories we tell so that they only look one way makes it harder for those who fall outside that description to be understood and believed.
Sexual assault is already a daunting enough thing to fight. To fight against it while also taking on a fight against all the systems and structures that reinforce and perpetuate sexual violence seems impossibly difficult. But to fight against sexual assault without taking on its roots is just... impossible.
We can only do this work by making the most of what exists in our flawed world and faulty systems. But we can only do this work well by keeping a bigger picture in view. When it comes to sexual assault, we must push the limits of our awareness and our framework.
Because I am not alone in this work, I reached out to other staff members to see what they feel is missing from the conversation on sexual assault. Where is our awareness really lacking?
Rochelle, also an NVRDC case manager, points out how we must broaden our understanding of sexual assault to reflect the experiences of survivors:
“It's easy for us to say that when a person rapes someone, especially a stranger, that that is sexual assault and bad. But, what about when one person is intoxicated and the other interprets their actions as consent? What about when two people have had sex before but, this time, one person didn't want to? What about when someone grabs another person without their consent? Those don't fit into our common interpretation of rape, but certainly are varying forms of sexual assault. In order to put effective policies into place, we have to break away from our narrow misconception of what sexual assault is, lest we want to continue passing policies that only apply to the survivors that fit within our narrow definition. This starts from listening to and believing survivors themselves. Because, in the end, we have to remember that these policies are meant for them and any future survivors.”
An NVRDC staff attorney had a frank discussion with me about one big taboo in sexual assault advocacy: the possibility that some assailants didn’t intend to hurt someone but lacked enough understanding of consent and communication to do the right thing. It’s a delicate or even scary conversation to have because of how readily that kind of discourse gets appropriated for purposes of victim-blaming or rape apologism. Yet, if we accept the premise that intent matters more than impact, we give predators much more room to operate---and miss an important way to reduce harm:
“I feel like I’m not representing our field well when I’m saying this, but I think there are situations where communication is genuinely murky, and if we could normalize clear communication we might actually make strides towards reducing sexual assault. But in our culture sex is this mysterious or even shameful thing that is supposed to just happen without anyone ever saying anything, and it makes it seem so weird and out of place to actually verbalize what you do and don’t want. I don’t like the idea that that’s impossible and I don’t like the idea that where we’re at currently is okay. I think we have to take some kind of ownership over the way that what we’ve accepted as ‘normal’ in how we communicate about sex adds to the problem.”
And another fellow case manager, Jess, offers a powerful cautionary to those of us in the field:
“Awareness can often end up being just a buzzword. Ending a phenomenon as complex as sexual assault, and working with survivors of such day in and day out, requires a lot of self-awareness, internal reflection, and a willingness to acknowledge when we are wrong; to be called out on our own implicit biases and internalized oppressive behaviors and outlooks. We have to be willing to admit that we do not always know all of the answers, and that sometimes we contribute to the very problem that we are trying to solve with our micro-actions and aggressions. We have to be willing to examine how we contribute to those systems and actively work towards undoing them, and the actions that build them up. And that is uncomfortable. It doesn't feel good to examine the ways in which you are oppressive or unintentionally retraumatizing. But it's crucial to do this self reflection. It's crucial to building a movement that is accountable to itself and to what it stands against.
We, as advocates and activists, are equally capable of perpetuating violence or violent actions. Language can be violent, excluding people is violent, letting certain populations be an afterthought is violence. We have to be willing to unpack these happenings within our own movement if we ever really want to end sexual assault. Even when it's uncomfortable for us to be self-aware. Especially then.”