“Coming out” as an ally

*trigger warning, but little graphic content*

I am an ally who stands in solidarity with survivors of sexual assault. This has gotten me into some pretty serious “debates” — although none like the one that happened a few days ago. The following is a reflection about that experience, and conclusions that I feel comfortable drawing. I want to know why it is so difficult to call out rape culture when we see it happening; why people will post things on facebook that they would never say to a survivor of rape or sexual assault in person; and why we talk about consent and accountability in terms of small groups and intimate relationships, but less in terms of communities, networks and our online presences. These are all issues that I want to confront, especially the way facebook reinforces rape culture in various ways, not because facebook is flawed, but because in college, a social life is too often conflated with rape culture, and we represent that in our “public” profiles without thinking twice — because partying and weekend hook-ups are “normal” even if they are not consensual or particularly safe. Facebook is an incomplete view of a social life, but we rarely see what’s “outside of the frame” (#filmtheory) of a facebook album, the parts we aren’t proud of, the difficult moments, the post-hook-up remorse, etc.

I woke up a few days ago to a particularly nasty Facebook status, and ensuing debate, that boiled down to slut shaming/victim blaming. I was really angry. I wrote a lot of long replies (to which one person replied, TL;DR) full of statistics, well crafted arguments, sensitive language, carefully reasoned responses to why women drinking less won’t prevent rape. That drunk women are not “unprepared” or “asking for it,” that the survivor never asks to be raped or sexually assaulted, that violence against women is real and largely (but not exclusively) perpetuated by men, and that sexual violence against men is real, too. Then, I wrote a long blogpost explaining why every turn of phrase and argument that this person wrote was flawed — and I decided not to post it. I realize that that kind of anger won’t help. Verbally and factually decimating this person will only create greater hostilities, and everything to be said about why slut-shaming is counter-productive, wrong, ineffective and it’s own, special kind of violence has been said already, and said eloquently.

I am writing this based on a few grounding assumptions: that rape and sexual assault are wrong and overwhelmingly prevalent; that rape culture perpetuates these practices, and, in turn, these practices perpetuate rape culture; that the survivor of rape, sexual assault or sexual harassment is never “asking for it”; that violence against women hurts everyone. While one group of people is oppressed, no one is free. We (we, a collective, societal we) work really hard to maintain rape culture and associated expectations, reinforced basically every weekend on every college campus. And we will need to work even harder to break it apart.

As this conversation (read: argument; read: debate), unfolded I was increasingly dismayed. Partially because of the way one person was refusing to come around, and partially because it was difficult in the first place and even more difficult to keep posting. Woman after woman was liking my posts, and talking to me about it in separate chats, but none wanted to say anything. Why is it so hard to post about things that are so important? If I hadn’t posted on the original status (albeit, my post is what started this 2 hour long ordeal), I doubt whether anyone else would have. Why is calling out oppression such a difficult thing to do? Even more, why is it so hard to call out a man for being blatantly offensive and perpetuating rape culture? And why, when we do speak out, are we called “feminists” (as if that is an insult!) or “just another woman” or the classic, “you women need to calm down.” He didn’t say these things outright, but I know that they are part of the cultural cues that keep women (and allies) from speaking up.

If women were armed and wore jumpsuits to every social gathering, if we were always sober and showed no sign of curves, no collar bones nor ankles, rape and unwarranted, non-consensual sexual attention and acts would not go away. That is because oppression (and rape and sexual assault) happen as a result of conscious action. The only way to stop rape is to not rape people. And to encourage our friends and communities do the same. That also means that we cannot spend the rest of our days stigmatizing and ostracizing perpetrators of rape and sexual assault. Some of them are terrible people, but most are people who have done terrible things. And at the end of the day, they are going to be the people who decide that they aren’t going to rape another woman, or whistle at woman on the street or beat a woman. And when they do, I want to be among the people who welcomes them.

Today, I want to come forward as an active ally. That means being an active bystander at social gatherings, but it also means being a vigilant reader on my facebook page. Just like I will not let homophobic or racist posts go uncommented, neither will I leave posts (and memes, photo comments and the like) that perpetuate rape culture to sit there without discussion. Sometimes that will mean calling out my own friends for saying things that are oppressive. Or it will put me in a box with someone’s weird idea of a militant feminist.

I still don’t know why “she was never asking for it” is such a “radical” and “controversial” opinion to have. And I don’t know why it’s so scary and taboo to call out rape culture for what it is. I don’t know why other women refrained from commenting on that status, and the same goes for men who could have come forward as allies.

I want to use this (this experience and this blog post) as an opportunity to empower ourselves to start talking about these things, even when it’s uncomfortable or scary, even when we are scared or vulnerable, and especially in ways that will impact a larger community. I fully recognize that these conversations can be triggering, which is why as allies, it is especially important for us to take action.

But I also want to hold with us that the people making these comments are not unilaterally awful people who need to be reprimanded (although maybe some of them are). That is oppressive behavior, too. We have all grown up in a society that is oppressive in different ways, acting upon a multitude of marginalized groups. People who perpetuate oppression are themselves part of oppressive systems. That’s still never a reasonable excuse or explanation. My goal here is to move towards accountability instead of blame and value judgements. We’ve all internalized messages that we aren’t proud of. So let’s be patient as we start the slow process of speaking up, and leave behind the temptation of putting others down.

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