I am a believer of the notion that we are forever students. From birth to death, we learn new things, revise things we already knew, and sometimes dispose of knowledge that is no longer true or useful. So, I am comfortable in admitting that there is a particular aspect of sexuality — sexual violence — about which I am woefully ignorant, but constantly learning. Even with a PhD, prior research on sexualities, and teaching and advocacy experience on sexual violence, I am no expert on the subject.
I conceive of myself as an advocate for survivors of sexual violence. I have lost count of the number of friends, colleagues, family, and even strangers who have disclosed that they were raped, sexually assaulted, and/or sexually harassed. With each disclosure, I do my best to affirm that:
- I believe them, in light of the norm of not believing survivors.
- the perpetrator’s actions were immoral, illegal, and inhumane, in light of the norm of victim-blaming.
- I am available to support survivors in whatever way possible. For the most part, this means helping to direct them to the party who is qualified to deal with certain issues (e.g., law enforcement, healthcare, counseling).
But, this happens alongside regulating my own emotions, for I often feel the urge to release a cry of hurt, disappointment, and helplessness. Foolishly, I feel as though I have let survivors down, as though I could have single-handedly prevented the sexual violence they faced. I suppose it is sympathy gone a little too far.
All of that is to say that I am not a survivor of sexual violence. I have not been the victim of repeated sexual harassment, nor an instance of sexual assault or rape. But, I am tempted to put my intellectual energy to work to find those instances where, on a small scale, I was or could have been victimized:
The fellow camper who peeped over the bathroom stall wall to watch me pee. The fourth-grade classmate who, upon staying the night, unbuttoned my shorts and fondled me while I pretended to be sleeping — after we consensually experimented with our new-found sexualities. The numerous times friends or strangers have visually ogled, or even fondled, my chest in disbelief that men can have breasts. The numerous times a fellow gay bar patron has grabbed either my butt or genitals or both. The first boyfriend, 24 to my 18 years of age, who (unsuccessfully) attempted to have condomless sex with me on his friends’ living room floor. The other sexual partners who (unsuccessfully) pressured me to have sex without a condom. Or, the guy who successfully did penetrate me without a condom after I stated very clearly that penetration was off-limits. The fellow academic summer program participant who pressured me to drink more at the bar, even after I clearly declined, (I presume) to get me drunk enough to have sex. The friend and colleague who felt me up in front of my faculty adviser at an academic conference on sexualities.
Now having written that list of experiences, I feel a bit queasy. But, I still refrain from labeling myself as a victim or survivor of sexual violence. I worry doing so trivializes the experiences of people, particularly women and children, who have actually been raped or sexually assaulted. Maybe I hold too limited of a concepualization of sexual violence, erasing men’s experiences, erasing same-sex sexual violence, or allow any degree of my own interest in the other person involved deny the non-consensual aspects. Maybe I fear what follows thinking of myself as a victim of sexual violence.
For now, I am sticking by my initial point: I do not want to trivialize others’ experiences by thinking of my own as comparable. That “sympathy gone a little to far” when I hear of others’ experiences has never felt like empathy, nor the triggered emotional reaction of someone who has faced sexual violence themselves. I do not know, however, what to do with the queasiness I just felt in reflecting on my experiences, however I may classify them. And, in the midst of telling my partner about this post, I stopped midway to run upstairs trying to fight back the tears. I felt like a fraud as he hugged and comforted me.
At the time of writing this post, I have just watched The Invisible War and prepare for my upcoming lecture on sexual violence in my gender and sexualities course. Though I stand by the importance of teaching about sexual violence, I feel a fair amount of anxiety about what to teach and how to teach. I am hesitant as a cis man, and as a non-survivor. Who I am to teach on a subject that overwhelmingly affects ciswomen and trans* people? How could I do the subject justice, not teaching it too abstractly as a matter for academic pontification nor so personally that it may be triggering for survivors in the classroom? Most importantly, how do I navigate what students say, from the disclosing of survivors’ stories to other students’ victim-blaming?
The most important lesson I convey is that we must think of sexual violence as a systemic problem that can only properly be addressed at the societal and community levels. Social institutions like colleges and the military are often complicit in, and even promote, sexual violence. It is dangerous to maintain an individualistic focus, wherein an otherwise good guy goes too far but will never assault or harass anyone again. It is dangerous to assume all instances of sexual assault and harassment are properly reported and pursued to bring justice to victims.
I also advance a perspective on sexual violence that reflects my intellectual emphasis on intersections among systems of oppression. Too often, we think of a young heterosexual cisgender man without disabilities who rapes or harasses a young heterosexual cisgender woman without disabilities of his same race/ethnicity. We think of sexual violence as purely a manifestation of sexism and misogyny. That erases the ways in which sexual violence occurs as expressions of racism, homophobia, transphobia, biphobia, classism, xenophobia, ableism, ageism, fatphobia, and xenophobia. And, indirectly, it reinforces the underlying assumption that sexual violence is about sexual desire, rather than power. It erases the way these systems of oppression intersect in and as sexual violence, for example, the history and contemporary practice of white men who rape and sexually harass women of color.
Well, I will admit that this post did not unfold as I had initially planned — probably unsurprisingly around my personal reflection. I suppose it is fair to say that my understanding of sexual violence, personally and academically, is an evolving matter. I am certain I will continue to write about it as it unfolds. Maybe others will find this useful; maybe I am not as full of shit as I feel right now.