Commentary Violence

“I Can’t Forget What Happened, But No One Else Remembers”

Soraya Chemaly

"We want to build a national monument to survivors, because we want to live in a country that holds public and supportive space for survivors to heal," adds co-founder of FORCE, Hannah Brancato, "Because we want to live in a country that believes rape can and must end."

These words are the full text of a poem by an anonymous rape survivor. Last week, they were floated in the Reflecting Pool, with symbolic resonance, between the Lincoln and Washington Memorial in Washington, DC. The letters were put into the pool yesterday afternoon by the guerilla art movement FORCE: Upsetting Rape Culture. Over the course of several weeks, the FORCE team created giant, red styrofoam letters in order to assemble the words. The simple poem illustrates verbally and graphically the isolating and silencing experience of rape in the United States. No need to go into the facts again. There’s an epidemic of rape in the United States and globally.

It was beautiful and haunting to those who saw it.  I was there and spoke to people who, casually sightseeing, stopped to talk and think about what we were quietly doing on a sunny, cold day on the Mall. Along with Holly Kearl, the founder of StopStreetHarassment, I ended up helping FORCE mount the poem on the steps of the Memorial.  How does this help anything? Why would anyone do this?

And then the newspapers were filled with news of Reeva Steenkamp’s death. She was the woman shot by Oscar Pistorius.  It was an act of small-arms-in-the-home domestic violence that resulted in her death. To read the news reports you’d easily lose this central fact in stories filled with “paralympic athlete,” “bikini-clad, vamping photo spreads.”  That and the message that, despite past incidences of violence, as was the case with Katrina Perkins and Jovan Belcher, many people on editorial boards really wants us to know that “they had a healthy, fabulous, relationship.

The news of this murder surfaced on the same day as the V-Day One Billion Rising global strike against violence against women.  In my lifetime there have not been many transnational strikes for women’s rights. I went because women and men who defend their rights chose to transcend difference and speak peacefully with one voice. The global diversity of participants spoke directly to how the manner forms of violence against women are broad and manifest themselves differently in different contexts. Their root cause—brutal physical domination that is the core of patriarchy—is the thread that binds them. But, there is also one other – the degree to which it is hard to face, digest and deal with. It’s sad, grim and depressing. But ignoring and sugar coating the reality only perpetuates it.

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FORCE doesn’t just want us to openly confront and dismantle this culture. They want to create safe public spaces where survivors of violence can find affirmation and healing. FORCE is dedicated to changing the national conversation around violence against women, specifically, sexualized violence.

“We built this temporary monument as a call to create a permanent monument to survivors of rape and abuse in the United States.  It is the first of many actions and the beginning of a larger campaign,” explains Rebecca Nagle, one of the founders of FORCE.

The floating poem is the latest in a series of actions undertaken by the group. You might recall their recent  panty prank “PINK loves CONSENT,”  a fake website pretending to be Victoria’s Secret. The site was filled with underwear printed with consent-themed slogans like “ASK FIRST” and “NO MEANS NO”.

Last Fall, the group projected RAPE is RAPE unto the US Capitol Building.  The group exists, as they put it, “to upset the culture of rape and promote a culture of consent” and they are doing a good and creative job that captures the public imagination. And with a seriously difficult topic. 

“We want to build a national monument to survivors, because we want to live in a country that holds public and supportive space for survivors to heal,” adds co-founder of FORCE, Hannah Brancato, “Because we want to live in a country that believes rape can and must end.”

Some think that people like Rebecca Nagle, Hanna Brancato, Holly Kearl – people who attended VDay events around the world – and I are deluded in believing that this can happen.  I think they’re part of the problem and we need to stay focused. No matter how long it may take. Setting aside a moment to dance or to create art (a luxury and privilege to be sure) puts aside in favor of common humanity, ever so briefly, the sad and persistent brutality at the heart of rape and domestic abuse violence. Art doesn’t just reflect culture, it presages change.  

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Commentary Violence

The Patriarchy’s Perfect Weapon: ‘But What If She’s Lying?’

Andrea Grimes

Nowhere in this country do we have an apparatus that is set up to believe those among us who are sexually harassed, abused, raped, when we tell our stories. There is no perfect case. But there is patriarchy.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: But what if she’s lying?

That’s the gist of yet another take on yet another high-profile rape case, this time in the Daily Beast, whose writer Cathy Young trotted it out as the least counterintuitive of all possible premises when it comes to sexual violence.

This time, “she” is Columbia University student Emma Sulkowicz, who has been physically carrying a dorm room mattress around campus in protest of her college’s handling (or lack thereof) of the rape case she brought against a Columbia senior. But “she” could be any number of other women, at any number of other American universities, who have had the courage to come forward to recount stories of sexual violence and seek redress from the collegiate entities that, ostensibly, are meant to ensure safety on campus—only to have their stories doubted because, well, doubt is the default when it comes to the way people hear stories of sexual violence. Because it is entirely too easy to suggest that if “she” were telling the truth, “she” would have done x, or y, or z, to prove that something really happened.

Of course, “she” needn’t be “she.” She might be he, or they. But one thing is consistent: Nowhere in this country do we have an apparatus that is set up to believe those among us who are sexually harassed, abused, raped, when we tell our stories.

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Instead, we nitpick and hand-wring and wait and wait and wait for that perfect case, as if finding just the right scenario is the only thing gumming up the ever-so-slowly turning wheels of American justice. Oh sure, when we find that perfect case, we’ll be more than willing to rally behind a survivor. It’s really just that simple! Don’t get all bent out of shape about it!

The right case. The one where the cops were called immediately (but not too soon, you don’t want it to look like this is a set-up). The one where a completely sober victim (a white, cisgender woman who has never before had penetrative sex) consented quickly to a rape kit (but not too eagerly or too reluctantly, with just the right air of damaged comportment appropriate to a real rape victim). The one with the right kind of physical evidence (real rape victims immediately bag and label their clothing, and are careful to preserve bodily fluids and fingerprints with the skills of a CSI forensics expert). The one with records of text messages and, ideally, a phone recording in which the accused rapist admits wrongdoing (victims should, of course, take care not to be too confrontational in obtaining these messages, because crazy bitches are always asking for it.) The one without a promising athletic career at stake (won’t someone, anyone, think about the football program!?). The one with this, the one with that, the one with …

There is no perfect case.

But there is patriarchy. A perfect, many-armed monster, which lives and thrives in this perfect universe of its own design. And it wields the perfect weapon: rape culture.

The longer we wait for the perfect case to try in the court of public opinion, the more opportunities this many-armed monster has to craft its ongoing attack on justice, to perpetuate a culture of shame and skepticism that silences those who would challenge it.

The monster is smart, and it knows where and when to hide and when to strike. Of course it does. The world is its playground, its lair, a welcoming cavern outfitted with comforting amenities like the phrase, But what if she’s lying.

They say the greatest trick the devil ever pulled is convincing the world he doesn’t exist; so too, this many-armed monster rarely manifests with gnashing teeth and bloody claws. Rather, the monster looks a bit like a beloved American film director with quirky views on modern romance. It looks like a goofy, all-American dad. It looks like a sports star.

The monster moves with a kind of vicious grace, countering every attack with cool, collected reserve. Just, you know, asking honest, innocent questions: Why was she wearing that skirt? What was she doing out so late? Didn’t he find her attractive? Wasn’t he aroused? But wasn’t he already in prison? Why did they have so much to drink? Why did they keep dating? What’s up with those text messages?

Couldn’t it all just have been … a misunderstanding?

We excuse, or even perhaps like, imperfection in our accused rapists. The monster offers us so many rejoinders to smooth out their stories, a call-and-response to any survivor’s attempt to define the terms of their own experience. Maybe they were just a little confused? Isn’t it easy to misinterpret signals in the bedroom? Couldn’t it just have been an awkward, bumbling attempt at romance? Don’t we all know that the human libido is an unpredictable thing?

From our victims, though, we demand perfection. We offer empowering language to them—we offer them terms like “survivor,” a good, strong word that hisses and strikes at the monster. It is one that I myself claim, perhaps in an effort to appear … more perfect. Less cowed by the monster. Less willing to succumb to its brutal grip.

But there are also, indeed, rape victims. Not just rape survivors, not just those of us who have experienced sexual violence and abuse and come out on the other side with the word “survival” on our lips.

There are those among us who do not survive, either in the literal or figurative sense of the word, the violence done to them. People who are irreparably bruised and broken by rape and abuse and harassment and sexual assault, and who are silenced and condemned by this many-armed, all-powerful beast of patriarchy. Those people need not be “survivors” to be loved and respected and believed.

There are no perfect victims. There are no perfect survivors. But the monster wants us to keep looking, to interrogate them rather than focusing our attention on perpetrators. This sends a message—nothing subtle about it—that to speak is to be at risk of awakening this monster’s ire when they don’t present the perfect case.

And of course, they—we—never do present the perfect case. This is the cruel catch: The monster has us on a quest for a reward we can never find. That’s what I mean when I say we are battling a beast that is both in and of this perfectly constructed universe, who wields the perfect weapon of doubt. The more we fruitlessly look for that perfect case, the less we look for ways to best that beast, who thrives on the search itself, a villain who is perfectly skilled in the art of finding new, exculpatory questions, who grows stronger every time we wonder: But what if she’s lying?

We must stop looking for that perfect case; we must stop trying to appease those who would demand it. We must believe survivors. We must trust their stories. Maybe that seems like a small step. An obvious step. But it is a tremendous intervention.

Then, and only then, might the scales of justice tip anywhere near a balance.

Commentary Race

Major Anti-Rape Group Praises DNA Ruling, But What About its Impact on People of Color?

Wagatwe Wanjuki

Earlier this month, the Supreme Court ruled that police officers can collect DNA samples from people who have been arrested for (but not convicted of) a serious crime. Many rape survivors rejoiced. But I was not one of them.

When it was announced earlier this month that the Supreme Court had ruled, in Maryland v. King, that police officers can collect DNA samples from people who have been arrested for (but not convicted of) a serious crime, many rape survivors rejoiced.

I was not one of them.

Scott Berkowitz, the president and founder of the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN), praised the decision. As the Huffington Post reported:

“We’re very pleased that the court recognized the importance of DNA and decided that, like fingerprints, it can be collected from arrestees without violating any privacy rights,” he said. “Out of every 100 rapes in this country, only three rapists will spend a day behind bars. To make matters worse, rapists tend to be serial criminals, so every one left on the streets is likely to commit still more attacks. DNA is a tool we could not afford to lose.”

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Berkowitz might have been pleased upon hearing of the ruling, but I was not. Here’s what I immediately felt when I found out: frustration at the further eradication of my right to privacy, fear of what this ruling will mean for people of color, and disappointment that people who I thought were my allies were praising such a ruling.

As someone who has used RAINN’s services in the past, I felt slightly betrayed by their unequivocal support of this ruling. But then I look at the organization’s founder, an older white man, and wonder: Do the concerns of people like me, and our communities, matter to the major anti-sexual violence organizations?

I know firsthand the unique challenges that survivors of color face in a racist society. I’ve used my experience to become an activist who has fought for improved policies for rape survivors on college campuses and increased accountability in fighting rape culture in media. Unfortunately, along the way I have found that the “mainstream” narratives surrounding the needs of survivors often lack an intersectional approach. I previously wrote about the near-erasure of survivors of color’s stories in the media, and it looks like the erasure continues.

There has been some coverage about the implications of this ruling for communities of color. As Jason Silverstein wrote in The Nation:

Because people of color are disproportionately stopped, searched and arrested, they will disproportionately bear the burden of this genetic dragnet. And because DNA samples can be used to establish family relationships, it has the potential to widen the surveillance to entire communities.

We already see the consequences of giving police officers wider discretion in policies designed to reduce crime: billions of dollars wasted on racially biased marijuana arrests, thousands of racially targeted stop-and-frisks, and people pulled over to the side of the road for “driving while Black.”

The reason why so few rapists go to jail is not due to lack of a comprehensive DNA database. It’s because rape culture is alive and well in the court systems. The police officers that now have the right to take my DNA even if I’m being wrongly arrested are the same people who refused to enforce a restraining order against my rapist. The backlog of rape evidence collection kits continue to be a serious problem. Victim-blaming defenses are often used in court—and win.

These issues will not be fixed by invading the privacy of millions of innocent people.

This is why intersectionality in the anti-sexual violence movement is of the utmost importance. One of the most important things I thought about in the aftermath of violence was regaining some sort of control over my life. How can I do that when I know that people like me continue to be unfairly violated, monitored, and over-policed, while major organizations like RAINN are celebrating what made it possible?