Words like these: reflections on writing & thinking about sexual violence

TW: sexual violence

I write about sexual violence a lot. This is a post about the experience of dedicating so many words to rape and other forms of violation. This is a home for the unfinished/unfinishable thoughts I have between writing.

A dark cloud of words
The first and heaviest difficulty of writing about sexual violence is that it hurts people. My words can be reminders of things people don’t want to remember. I understand why. I’m sorry.
For some, my words are an inconvenience. Press release upon press release. Lawyers and PR machines. They use all the words they have to cling to their power. I use mine as memorials for the resistances I’ve known.
My silence has never protected me. My words are vulnerable too. I’m reminded of this whenever I use the word ‘allegedly’ to describe something I know to be true.
Wordless feelings
I’ve been interviewing women about sex and consent for my Master’s research. A lot of this has been hard because, while rape and sex are not the same thing, many of our introductions to sexuality involve violation. It’s a really confusing space to work in, conceptually, because there’s a myriad of ways to be violated and so many of those do not immediately lead us to the words: #MeToo. Sometimes, all we have is confusion or shame or feeling like everything is out of control. Some things are difficult to name. Some feelings have no words. Labels like ‘rape’, ‘abuse’ and ‘sexual assault’ get stuck at the back of our throats.
Or words that don’t feel quite right
Another challenge I’ve faced when writing about sexual violence is figuring how to write about people who’ve been violated in a way which doesn’t reproduce the ‘spectacle’ narrative. Part of the stigma of sexual violence is the idea that something about your identity is changed and that you’re damaged forever. The labels ‘survivor’ and ‘victim’ reproduce this. The word ‘survivor’ has so much pressure of being resilient attached to it – it’s like saying you were supposed to be destroyed by this thing but you overcame it. ‘Victim’ on the other hand, has connotation of weakness – you are allowing this thing to destroy you or this thing destroyed you and now you’re not as valuable. I respect everyone’s choice to identify as one or the other, but what happens when you don’t want to identify as either? There should be a space for that somewhere. Why should we have to define ourselves based on someone else’s actions anyway? Writing about victims, survivors, victim-survivors and victims/survivors feels like reducing a person to that experience. I’m still looking for words that don’t have this effect.
Words coming up short
Sometimes it feels like one’s value for speaking out about experiencing sexual violence is based on the strength projected onto them. When people speak about horrible things they’ve experienced, and others respond commending their strength, it feels shallow: like a non-engagement with the reality of the person’s experience. It feels like people can just post “Wow, you’re so strong” and go – but speaking up about a violation doesn’t mean the pain is over, or that you no longer need support.
A lot of times, to get to the admirable strength stage, there have been many weeks/months of terror, anxiety, shame, self-blame where you weren’t strong and there was no support. It would be so radical if we could create cultures where people who are violated struggle to blame themselves, rather than being so ashamed they are terrified to speak honestly about the pain. People shouldn’t only be recognized when they post a status, especially when the grieving stage of violation is so everyday. A commitment to supporting each other offline is super important. We need to be prepared to be the first person someone opens up to. We need to be a culture that is a safe landing space for people with unfathomable pain.
On Rage
“I have tried to learn my anger’s usefulness to me as well as its limitations” – Audre Lorde
In my writing, I have learned to negotiate with my anger, especially so that the people whose stories I am trying to amplify aren’t drowned out by my feelings. This is usually hard, because there’s a lot of rage, because there’s a lot of injustice. Ultimately, the responsibility of the writing weighs more than the rage.
Sometimes, seeing people angry about sexual violence has been affirming. Other times, it’s felt disempowering – especially when it seems like the violation become a spectacle. It is sometimes tiring to hear the chorus: “How could this happen?”. When do we stop asking how, and answering the question? What do we do with all of this rage?