Monday, April 28, 2008

Sexual Assault Awareness Month

April is (at this point, was) Sexual Assault Awareness Month - something I'm rather embarrassed to admit I didn't realize until this past Saturday, when I was a guest at the Tau Chapter (Union College) of the Lambda Pi Chi Sorority's annual domestic violence and rape awareness banquet.

This year's theme was "Out of the Silence, Finding Our Voices", and guest speakers included visiting professor of sociology Linda Relyea speaking on relationship red flags and the difficulties and dangers in leaving abusers, Luz Marquez from the National Organization of Sisters of Color Ending Sexual Assault, who spoke about their work modifying the Violence Against Women Act to be inclusive of cultural differences in approaching healing to violence, and UPenn's Dr. Salamishah Tillet, who shared bits of A Long Walk Home: A Story of a Rape Survivor, her own narrative of moving from rape victim to rape survivor.

The event itself was structured well, moving from personal accounts of rape and violence to a larger overview - a hook that then led to education, and a major emphasis of the last speaker (Professor Relyea) was in making sure the target girls in the audience, girls in the 18-25 age group, understood the warning signs (red flags) of violence and shied away/extracted themselves from those situations. Being not in that target age group, my attention started to drift and I found myself refocusing on earlier speakers comments, especially those in the narrative provided by Dr. Tillet.

Years ago, I did the occasional domestic violence awareness talk, and almost always looped it into the sex education courses I taught. One of the things I struggled with was how to refer to those who had experienced assault. Rape/DV victim seemed, in itself, a victimizing word - reminding someone over and over of their loss of agency, their status of a harmed, violated being; it seemed to emphasize submissiveness. At the same time, survivor seemed to be a flip side of that coin, seeming to emphasize success and healing that might not have actually taken place. There are interesting parallels that can be drawn here between victim/survivor and Erving Goffman's ideas of the discredited and discreditable in his seminal work Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity; that those who have experienced a trauma have two processing routes. There is the immediate and self-conscious, what Goffman calls the discredited, where the person assumes that the trauma they have received is evident and available to everyone, and a more delayed and suppressed response that assumes no one knows what has happened (Goffman's discreditable). In both cases, how a person interacts with the world after their trauma changes based on what they assume the world sees, but for the discredited it is because they assume everyone knows, while the discreditable is wrestling with an internal actual change that does not match the personae shown to the public.

I never did find that healthy balance between the two tensions, of victim or survivor, and learned to simply follow the lead of those I was speaking to, or to use the as neutral as I could conceive of term "someone who had been raped/experienced DV" - a phrase I felt acknowledged a change in how someone might view their own self-identity without casting their entirety into a role defined by trauma.

But as interesting and academic as those thoughts might be, they don't actually deal directly with one of the biggest problems behind rape and DV - silence born of shame. And we can again go back to Goffman's stigma for this: we have become something other than we, and those we know, see as us, and because of the general prohibition about sex in our society, combined with Puritanical attitudes that shame women for being sexual creatures (the good ol' Madonna/Whore dichotomy), that change is viewed as bad, negative. Tarnishing and tainting. (A problem that exists for men, too, only instead of dealing with the Madonna/Whore dichotomy, they have a questioning of masculinity issue.) The traumatized person has to mediate between a new self and their old self, and the fact that what has happened to them is often, by social conditioning, seen as something that either faults or contaminates them. And so you stay silent, you suffer, you repress. You attempt to hold on to that damaged identity, reconstruct it, ignore the fraying edges, deny. You find excuses - it's my fault, if only I was a better person, if I hadn't... if I wasn't...

And to be very honest, I'm not sure how we erase the shame and stigma that so often comes along with rape and domestic violence. Certainly the standard response is to talk about it, share stories, force people to listen and learn and understand. But I'm not convinced that works as well as we would hope; in fact, sometimes I think that those who are able to do so almost work to increase the shame and stigma felt by those who, for whatever reason, feel unable to speak out, speak up, share themselves. But an interesting suggestion raised itself over at, of all places, a website devoted to snarking romance books. A reader wrote in for recommendations for a friend's mother, trapped in a domestic violence situation. The abused woman reads romance novels, and the concerned friend was hoping to start passing her books with themes that have an abused woman successfully leaving the abuser, pulling her life together, and falling happily in love, and into a healthy relationship. The idea is almost beautiful in its simplicity: indoctrinate someone via their recreational reading that the situation they are in is not only unhealthy/bad/abusive, but not permanent, not something that she has to settle for, and that it is possible to both leave and happily move on.

It got me thinking about a story I used to tell, when doing that DV/rape education, about a woman whose music was the impetuous for her own leaving an almost decade long abusive situation. Instead of finding strength in romance novels, she found strength in the lyrics from one of her favourite bands. That song went through my head a lot on Saturday evening, as speakers talked about how you reach the point of knowing, how one day you do just wake up and say "screw it, there can't be anything worse than this, I'm going." And so I wonder, how much power and effect does media have, or could/can have in situations like this (and others)? Can we habituate people to realize that their situation is untenable? Would a multi-pronged push at both genders, targeting abuser and abused, work to train people to change behaviour? I don't know - I'm not sure it could work, effectively, as counter-programming to all the things in society that have been linked to increases in abuse and violence, from war to declining economic realities.

That said, it's interesting, and perhaps works as an accompaniment to people refusing to be silenced and shamed for trauma that is most definitely, firmly, cannot argue the point, not their fault.

The numbers of people who experience sexual assault vary, but you can't argue that it's a grim statistic no matter how you look at it. Every two minutes, someone in the United States is assaulted. Now expand that to North America. The world.

We have to find a way to break the silence.
-Kelly Hills


Andie said...

I've got a suggestion. In many cities, including here in Albany, there is an annual "Take Back the Night" march that raises awareness for sexual assault. Typically it involves speeches by survivors, tables hosted by local organizations packed with whistles and t-shirts and various flotsam & jetsam, and a march through the city followed by a candlelight vigil. It's generally in April (Sexual Assault Awareness Month). and unfortunately has already occurred, but please keep it in mind for future years!

Kelly Hills said...

Yeah, I used to participate in Take Back the Night when I lived in Seattle, and I know tomorrow is a nationwide Report It Now event. I wonder, though, how effective those events are for creating space for people who've experienced the trauma of abuse to feel comfortable breaking their own silence? It seems like it could create a situation where people who are not comfortable in speaking up/out would be made moreso for their lack of ability to speak up.