Storytelling

In a review for The Baffler, Amber A’Lee Frost takes a recent anthology on college sexual assault as a jumping off point to touch upon some concerning weaknesses in “the conversation” about sexual assault. Frost’s piece addresses a few issues I want to emphasize.

First, focusing on campus sexual assault without mentioning, as Frost puts it, the existence of “an outside world that’s even less safe” than campus is a problem. It’s one that stems from the class bias that comes with a focus on college campuses, particularly elite university campuses. Life at these institutions is far from representative of the average college student’s experience, much less the average sexual assault survivor’s. And there’s nothing wrong with that! But if we want to improve women’s conditions in society at large – and I believe we do – feminist movements on campus need to perpetually push back against this distorted focus, as the media, courts, police, etc will always privilege certain voices over others – this much we know.

I say ‘we’ because I’m part of these movements – on my campus as both a mentor to undergraduates and someone dealing with a university that’s inadequately addressing sexual harassment and assault  (boy could I tell you some horror stories). While we have the most power to force change in our own institutions, we need a more effective strategy of leveraging the spotlight on campuses to agitate for more resources in society at large for addressing sexual assault. That means increasing the options available to those who have been raped or assaulted other than going to the police (who are a source of violence against women in a number of ways), arguing for universal health care, rolling back the attack on women’s reproductive rights, and fighting for affordable housing so people can more easily leave those abusing them.

Second, the packaging and delivery of survivors’ stories deserves criticism. I don’t mean criticism of survivors but of the publications profiting off their pain. Frost writes expertly on this and its connection to the economics of the online publishing industry, and her piece made me think of this one from last year. It’s about how some women can only get published by writing about their trauma. As a young woman toying around with writing myself, it’s clear I could get published writing about being sexually assaulted. But that would entail committing myself to a future where anyone can learn intimate details of my life with a quick Google search rather than when I’m ready to tell them. I admire anyone who writes such stories but I can’t help wanting to burn down the outlets that greedily churn that shit out for clicks without concern for the women offering up their trauma.

Which brings up a related point: that the debate around sexual assault is overwhelmingly about stories from survivors can be both a) an improvement from when we ignored this problem completely as a society and b) a serious issue when it comes to my dude’s eternal question: what is to be done? As Frost writes “while these acts of public testimony are crucial, and therapeutic, for survivors, readers of We Believe You are curiously left asking much the same question that one of the victims here raises: ‘What am I supposed to do?'” She describes the anthology as leaving its reader directionless, and my years as a feminist in Boston – a college campus-centric city if there ever was one – feel similar. A lot of smart people write about why it is that a focus on the individual rises to the fore in the age of neoliberalism, which can accommodate – and sell! – individuals’ stories but not structural change, so I won’t try my hand at it. Instead, I’ll point out that this focus on the individual is pervasive when it comes to just about any feminist issue: abortion? Shout it! Sex work? Tell us whether you feel empowered!

I don’t want to disparage the people who support these strategies – fighting stigmas is good and I support them as people – but I am concerned with the strategic power of a focus on stories. I think it’s a shaky foundation for a movement. If all is predicated on what survivors want, what do we do when survivors disagree? It’s a bizarre parallel to the essentialized view of oppressed groups I wrote about the other day, where differential claims within “the black community” or “the trans community” become impossible to parse. I agree that it’s unproductive to judge the way any particular individual handles their assault; where I disagree is with the idea that this means we can’t discuss the efficacy of movements against sexual assault and the solutions they propose. It’s exactly this sort of critical analysis that Frost is doing in her review. People interpret their experiences differently, be these experiences as a woman, a person of color, a rape survivor, any combination of these identities, or anything else. What we as a movement must do is analyze the problems we’re facing and work out the best way forward.

A good friend of mine, one of the hardest working feminist organizers I know, has lately taken to saying that it’s wrong to say there is a feminist movement today, because there isn’t. I think she’s referring to the absence of collective feminist struggle – we have feminists, but not a feminist movement. I don’t think she’s entirely wrong. I don’t know what we do about that – I’m thinking out loud here – but we need to take her provocation, and Frost’s, seriously.

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