Callie Garp Hello everyone and welcome to the third Fab Feminist Town Hall! As many of you know, April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month, and although there are many hashtags around feminism and intersectionality trending online and on social media right now, Sexual Assault isn’t always clearly and explicitly discussed. Considering the ethos of American politics, the messages and policies spread by the current administration and the timeliness of SAAM, we have a great opportunity to dig into what it means to do sexual assault activist work in this moment. I hope we can explore two aspects of this issue: first what are the major issues we see happening right now, and second what are some resources, projects and hopeful outcomes happening either tangentially or in direct response to these issues.
Let’s start out with a round of introductions! Please share with us a bit about yourself and describe your relationship to Sexual Assault Activism.
Jennifer MacMartin: Hi there! I am a senior sociology major and women’s and gender studies minor at California Polytechnic State University, in San Luis Obispo, California! I am currently a student assistant at my university’s sexual assault advocacy team, where we provide confidential crisis counseling, accompaniment (to SART exams, Title IX processes, police interviews, etc), advocacy throughout the Title IX process, and education to the campus regarding sexual assault, intimate partner violence, and stalking. Jennifer was our Fab Feminist of the Month in March 2016. Learn more about her here!
Jade Anna Hughes: Hi! I am a freelance writer and blogger, immigrant and mother of two daughters (and a baby on the way). I currently live in northern California, but grew up in the UK and France and spent over a decade in NYC before moving here. I was abused as a child by my mother’s second husband and although I have never hidden it, until recently I haven’t really talked about it either, although it has affected me in all of my relationships with men. While I haven’t been a full-blown activist per se, I have always been extremely vocal about feminism, and sexual assault and abuse either verbally or using the written word. Becoming a mother has pushed me to become more active in the arena.
Elizabeth Gallien: Hello. I am working toward a Masters in Social Work. In my undergrad, I obtained a double degree in English and Women’s Studies with minors in Comparative Ethnic Studies and Queer Studies. I have been working in the mental health and substance abuse field for the past two and a half years in Seattle, Washington. Currently, I work in a crisis facility where I provide peer support to those in mental health and substance abuse crises. This means that I often work with survivors of sexual assault, intimate partner violence, and trauma in general. As a therapist intern, I also provide counseling to children and families who have experienced trauma. As a survivor of sexual assault, it is something I still feel the effects of. I have not done a lot of activism surrounding sexual assault, though that is desperately needed, rather, I have spent time working with survivors in their healing process. I am also vocal in conversations about sexual assault and rape culture. Liz was our Fab Feminist of the Month in October 2016. Learn more about her here!
Alyssa Lentz: Hey there! I’m a photographer/artist/activist in Green Bay, Wisconsin. I recently launched a non-profit focused on: 1. Empowering survivors of sexual violence, and 2. Educating communities about consent, rape culture, and some of the mental health struggles that can accompany assault, and using creative mediums to accomplish both. I’m hoping to become an advocate here, as well as work on some local and national event organization. Though the memories of my personal experience with sexual violence are cloudy, I definitely deal with the aftereffects of it on a regular basis, which serves as one of my primary motivations for working in this area. Alyssa was a featured Feminist Mover, Maker and Shaker in early April 2017. Learn more about her here!
Darci McFarland: Hi everyone! I’m a feminist artist and activist currently living in Tulsa, Oklahoma. I have a Master’s degree in Women’s Studies and a Bachelor’s degree in Sociology, and I’m a Special Events Coordinator for Planned Parenthood. I’m also a sexual assault survivor, and I’m working on a book, Post-Traumatically Stressed Feminist, that gives a platform to feminists with PTSD to share poems, stories, and visual art about their lives and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder with the world.
Lisa A. Smith: Hi, I’m an artist, and writer, and have Complex PTSD. My relationship with activism has primarily been through writing, making art, and only recently have I started to march and see if I could move into something more collaborative. I have an MFA from SMFA and Tufts, that’s where I met Callie. My art practice focuses on life after trauma, and what that can look like; what can feel like; the reconciliation of embodiment and sexual trauma. I think where my activism starts, and at times ends, is with my personal mental health. I have only recently realized the extent of abuse that I have experienced, and how early it started. (This realization was part of my delay, I wasn’t sure if I should join the conversation, if I was ready, but I am). So for me I think my activism starts with education and therapy.
Molly E Donlan: Hi everyone! I am an advocate and educator at a sexual assault support center in Maine. I’ve been providing sexual violence prevention education and awareness outreach since 2009 and I’ve been providing direct services to survivors of sexual violence since 2012. I spend the majority of my work week in schools teaching kids PreK-High School about consent, healthy relationships, and child sexual abuse awareness. The rest of my time is split between court advocacy, support line advocacy, community trainings for professionals, and support group facilitation. Creating safer spaces for survivors of sexual violence is something I am very passionate about.
Part One: Assessing the State of Sexual Assault in the United States
Callie Garp So, let’s start off our discussion with how we see the landscape of sexual assault in the United States. How has the Trump campaign and subsequent administration impacted that landscape?
Molly Donlan I feel very fortunate that I get to talk to kids about consent and sexual assault for a living, particularly middle school students who are VERY vocal about what they think of this stuff and seem to be a good gauge to see this landscape. I’ve noticed two things since the Trump campaign started: 1. I feel very discouraged about the landscape of sexual assault in the US right now, and 2. I feel very hopeful about where we are headed. My discouragement stems mostly from the fact that, since Trump joined the Presidential ballot, his name was brought up in every single class I taught on sexual assault. It has been incredibly disheartening to have to explain to 12/13 year old students that a man accused of sexual assault, who disregarded the importance of consent on tape, is now running our country. Fortunately, many of these students share the same outrage and disbelief that I do about Trump. Many of them are able to understand and vocalize that Trump has said and done things that are egregious, which gives me hope as these kids are the future of our country and hopefully many of them will continue to vocalize their values regarding consent. I feel for survivors of sexual violence during this time. Most of the survivors I’ve worked with over the past year have mentioned some form of impact from this election. Many have identified feeling extremely triggered and have a hard time escaping those triggers since Trump is mentioned practically everywhere you look.
Darci McFarland I agree with Molly - the landscape of sexual assault in the US is discouraging and the current leadership in our country is continuously triggering to sexual assault survivors. The Trump campaign and the vast majority of GOP politicians consistently normalize and legitimize sexual assault and sexual violence. Shaun King wrote an article about this recently. He says,
“Right now, we live in the age of the gross normalization of sexual assault and harassment — where you can, particularly if you are a rich white man, be accused of raping, groping, threatening or harassing women and still rise to the highest levels of government or media. Because we are in this moment, we have no sincere idea how this will impact society, but it is, without a doubt, detrimental to the safety and security of women in America and around the world.”
Numerous Republican politicians, nearly always straight, white men, refer to rape as a “Gift from God”, try to redefine rape and tell us our rapes were not “legitimate”, dismiss sexual assault survivors, and demonstrate over, and over again that they don’t understand, empathize with, or care about sexual assault survivors, their rights, their safety, or their mental or physical health care. Addicting Info has kindly compiled a list of “40 Egregious Rape Quotes from the GOP” in their “The Party of Rape Culture” article for everyone to keep in mind the next time we go to vote.
And GOP politicians don’t stop at dismissing rape survivors and perpetuating stereotypes and misinformation - they take it further by using us as props to propose discriminatory legislation at all levels of government. Their platform rejects the Obama administration’s “distortion of Title IX to micromanage” how colleges handle sexual assault cases. They want to cut funds for the Violence Against Women Act. They banish domestic violence survivors for calling the police on their abusers. Most recently, Karen Kipgen, the Page Program Supervisor at the Oklahoma Capitol sent out a discriminatory email to everyone at the Capitol saying the Pages were allowed to use the ladies restrooms because “there are cross-dressers in the building” in response to a group of LGBTQ youth who had come to the Capitol to educate their representatives on HIV/AIDS Awareness Day. Transphobia masked as concern for sexual violence while cutting programs that support folks suffering from PTSD and other mental illnesses. (We see right through you.)
Jade Hughes I agree with both Molly and Darci, and can also add that I personally find this landscape of sexual assault and the normalizing of it completely triggering. We have recently seen a young, rich, white college student basically receive a slap on the wrist for assaulting a young woman, a president who has admitted on tape that he doesn’t require consent to grab a woman (and that’s not even starting on all of the other allegations that surround him), a prominent TV host who has a string of sexual harassment allegations hovering over his head, but who just seems to be able to laugh them away, amongst so many others. Everywhere I look I feel like sexual assault is being normalized and glazed over. What worries me a lot is that this environment makes it harder and harder for women to speak up and talk about what has happened to them, because whenever we see yet another dismissal of rape and another crime go applauded rather than punished, it creates an extra circle of fear and shame, and the feeling that no one will believe us anyway, so what’s the point?
Callie Garp Are some communities more vulnerable to that impact?
Jade Hughes Yes, absolutely. I think there is a lot of focus on sexual assault within more privileged communities, while others get consistently pushed aside, for example, in immigrant communities, women are more afraid to report assault to the authorities as they are worried about their immigration status (or lack thereof). With immigration on the forefront of the current administration’s agenda, I can only imagine this getting worse rather than better.
Alyssa Lentz I completely agree, and Jade makes a great point about privilege. Native American women also experience sexual violence at a completely disproportionate rate. The numbers are both frightening and disturbing - a 2010 study showed that 56% of Native American women had been victims of sexual violence in their lifetimes, with the majority of offenders being white males - yet it’s a largely ignored issue. While there have been policy changes, it’s completely shameful that we hear nothing of this from our government. The LGBTQIA+ community is another that is more susceptible to sexual violence, primarily due to stigmatization and hypersexualitzation. Like Darci said previously, people who identify as trans are especially vulnerable to prejudice and violence, but are often less inclined to report their assault for fear of mistreatment, discrimination, or disbelief. Within our political arena, I think many have a tendency to disregard any narrative that is unfamiliar - meaning that anything a privileged white male can’t relate to is immediately discredited. This creates a cycle: the stories of these survivors are invalidated or ignored by those in power, the offender is absolved, and the vulnerability of their community is reinforced because no action was taken to protect them, leaving them open to further violence.
Molly Donlan Jade and Alyssa, you both make good points about privilege and vulnerability when it comes to reporting sexual assault. It’s important to remember that anyone can be a victim of sexual assault--regardless of race, gender identity, ethnicity, age, ability, etc. There’s often a misconception that sexual assault is about sex or attraction when in reality sexual assault happens because one person wants more power and control and they get that power by taking away another person’s choice about what happens to their body. There is a reluctance to talk about older adults and individuals with disabilities as being highly vulnerable to sexually violent acts because we don’t often see these groups as sexual beings. When, as a society, we are uncomfortable talking about these groups having consensual sex, it makes the idea of talking about sexual violence with these groups of people increasingly difficult. National studies estimate that almost 80% of people with disabilities are sexually assaulted on more than one occasion and 50% of those experienced more than 10 victimizations. Anywhere between 40%-97% of sexual assaults against individuals with disabilities go unreported, making awareness of sexual violence perpetrated against individuals with disabilities especially important.
Callie Garp How do you define and understand rape culture? Do you think we are living in a rape culture in the United States?
Lisa Smith Sigh. The landscape of sexual assault in the U.S. is a rape culture, and the current administration including the long campaign are evidence of this. Rape culture is normalizing violence and assault, against women, but also frankly anyone society has victimized and said, “Well what do you expect, when …” Rape culture perpetuates this idea that rape, incest/molestation, sexism, assault, abuse, are all rites of passage to make a “Strong Female Character.” Rape culture romanticizes suffering, while minimizing it at the same time. Rape culture is contradictory, because while in media those who are abusers are often presented by the creators (authors, screenwriters, directors) for being problems of society, often these abusers are celebrated and empathized by the public over those characters who are the victims of the abusers.
Example: Breaking Bad, I cannot tell you how many people I have heard say that Skylar was terrible to Walt. Do I have to say more in this group? I love this show, it is a great story of hubris, a beautiful exploration in masculinity, the complexities of addiction and trauma recovery, and the importance of having affordable and accessible health care. It is also a story about a woman, terrified of her husband, feeling powerless, fighting this feeling, and doing what she feels necessary to survive while dealing with the cognitive dissonance of enjoying it at times. It is a story of narcissism in all of its seduction and destruction. It is well written, well filmed, and has the rare quality of being a complete story with a satisfactory and inevitable ending. It’s kinda perfect TV.
Unfortunately this is where too many people stop. They don’t realize that this is a story told primarily from the perspective of the narcissist, because of this people empathize with Walter, and I would argue few ask themselves if they ever go too far with this empathy.
But enough about Breaking Bad, let’s look at a new trend in media that has gained more and more of the spotlight in recent years: the stories of Brilliant Women. First I will start off with a positive Hidden Figures. Hidden Figures is such a refreshing movie for an array of reasons. I will say only the readily relevant ones here though. First and foremost, there is no rape in the story at all. There’s not any physical violence in the movie specifically towards women at all. The women are not abused in their personal relationships. They do however, have to deal with the abusive Jim Crow system and daily prejudices, as well as overt sexism. While still infuriating, it was refreshing to see a beautiful and powerful story that didn’t center around overcoming abuse and/or sexual assault.
There are two other stories that I will focus on right now that are currently running on Amazon Prime and HBO. Z: the Beginning of Everything and Big Little Lies.
Z focuses on Zelda (played by Christina Ricci) a bold, flirtatious, adventurous, bright debutant that dreams of escaping her repressive Alabama family and town, who also happens to be a great writer, unbeknownst to her. This talent, as well as her beauty, however is quickly caught on to by none other than F. Scott Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald, it turns out, is narcissistic and abusive. He steals intimate words written to him by Zelda for his books, as well as demanding to see her diary, which he steals from, too. Zelda is unaware of this at first, but then realizes that he is even seemingly dependent upon her writing as a muse at the very least, yet still does not think of herself as a good writer (or as the artistic identity of a writer). It is not until Fitzgerald’s editor who reads a great portion of her diary, unaware that it was this intimate thing of Zelda’s, because her husband had left it casually lying on his desk, tells her that she is a great writer in her own right and would consider publishing it as a memoir of a society girl. The end of the season sees Zelda and Fitzgerald in a combative toxic relationship, wanting to work things out, but she is still left with wanting to have her own voice be heard outside of Montgomery, Alabama.
What I learned watching Z is that there is just another “great”, “genius”, writer/artist, who stole from and abused women. Another man’s shadow being seen by society while the woman that ignites the light is forgotten. Another story of an abusive man whose abuse did not slow his celebrity or praise.
Big Little Lies centers around the lives of three women who have all been victimized by men to varying degrees. One woman, Jane, who was raped (but doesn’t really feel comfortable outwardly defining it as such) got pregnant from the assault and is now raising a five year old while dealing with undiagnosed PTSD. Madeline, whose first husband abandoned her and their infant daughter (who is now 16) has come back into their lives a changed man, committed to his new wife and their 5 year old daughter. Their presence, and his desire to be a good father to both his children now, has forced Madeline to confront the abandonment and all the subsequent psychological damage (and deep resentment) that she had not acknowledged until her ex’s recent move into the same school district. Finally, Celeste is an uncannily beautiful woman, wealthy, with twin boys, and a gorgeous amorous husband. She appears to the majority of the town and Madeline, her bff, to have the perfect life; however, this is far from the case. Her husband is a narcissistic abuser who harms her physically, which often is immediately followed by aggressive make up sex. Her POV chapters talk about how the violence is almost like foreplay to them. But throughout the story she realizes that it can’t go on. I love this story, because each of these women are complex, compelling, fully realized characters. It treats the nuances of abuse with respect. But it does something more: it shows how it leaches out into society and is passed on to the next generation.
I could go on in detail, with every show or movie off the top of my head that has at least one character that has been raped, focuses on it, or a character that is threatened with rape, but instead I will merely list them: The obvious crime procedurals (CSI, SVU, Criminal Intent, Criminal Minds), The Fall, Orange is the New Black, Justified, Mad Men, Game of Thrones, True Blood, How to Get Away With Murder, The Good Wife, The Americans, Jessica Jones, Breaking Bad, Prime Suspect, Scandal, Grey’s Anatomy, Veronica Mars, Thelma and Louise, Girl with The Dragon Tattoo - and I’m going to stop there, because it’s starting to get exhausting. My point is, sexual violence is well represented in visual media. Often even depicted at graphic length, yet despite this there is still little empathy for those who have experienced sexual violence in real life. Is it that the problem seems too overwhelming? Or is it a denial of the enormity of the problem? Or is it just a consensus, “that’s how things are” and a tragic acceptance of this reality? Whatever the answer is, has left us living in a rape culture.
I don’t know how many times I have been personally called a victim in the form of an insult, even by myself. The victim/survivor dichotomy is infuriating: 'Victims are at fault, because they had weakness that allowed them to be prey.'
Alyssa Lentz Lisa, I hadn’t even considered the “Strong Female Character” concept, but I’m so glad you mentioned it! I can definitely see that attitude permeating our society. Rape culture, to me, is the result of defining “manhood” as aggression and dominance, and “womanhood” as passivity and submission. This mindset turns women into objects; simply another sexual conquest. It’s a global issue, and there are certainly places that take it to an extreme that I hope we will never see here in the US - but we absolutely live in a rape culture. It’s why men feel like they can and should make grotesque cat-calls and why we end up with “locker room talk.” It’s the “nice guys” who bemoan how women won’t sleep with them even though they’ve shown them some sliver of human decency. It’s the way we assume someone is lying or exaggerating when they come forward with their sexual assault, and how we so often hear about the promising athletic career of a rapist or the judge who recently declared in court that a rapist was “a good man.” I also think that rape culture is what completely minimizes male victims. When a culture is centered around the idea of men being dominant and aggressive, it’s hard to believe the claims of men and boys who have been assaulted and abused. Rape culture tells us that they’re too strong to be victims, that they ought to be such sexual beings that they should just “enjoy it.” While we may not necessarily experience the level of extremity that we can see in other countries, I think we can definitely see the effects of rape culture here in the US.
Jade Hughes Lisa and Alyssa, excellent points! I also agree that rape culture is dominant in this country, and the idea that women are being turned into objects is evident all around us. One example that hasn’t been mentioned yet, and that I only realized when I became a mother, is that even a nursing mother has become a sexualized object. Breasts, whose main role in a body are to feed a child, are now solely seen as sexual objects. So it’s OK for us to see swimsuit models on billboards, or lingerie commercials, but it’s not OK for a nursing mother to feed her child in public, because it might generate some kind of reaction in a man walking by, or maybe because our breasts are not serving men in the way they want them to. The hypocrisy of it all is completely blatant, and I think part of what really bothers me is that other women tend to push this fake agenda of “modesty”, often by being the most judgmental. How can we fight against this sexualization and objectification of women if there are so many of us still intent on victim blaming and judging? Why are we so worried about a man’s feelings that we are conditioned to stifle our own? I see this a lot around me, in the media, in everyday life, women trying to play down a catcall or assault, trying to explain why a famous person may want to hurt a child or woman, etc, when there is no explanation to be made. I think the fact that this administration was voted in over the possibility of a woman president has a lot to say for the rape culture that is ingrained in this society.
Part Two: Resources, Projects and Hopeful Outcomes
Callie Garp What resources do you know of for people who have experienced sexual violence of some form?
Darci McFarland I’m currently working on a collaborative project with various survivors of sexual assault called Post-Traumatically Stressed Feminist. It’s a compilation of poems, narratives, paintings, photographs, drawings, and other work from feminists with PTSD about PTSD or their lives with PTSD. We are getting it ready for publication, but we would love to consider adding your perspective to our collection. Email PTSFeminist@gmail.com to submit your work.
Molly Donlan Rainn.org is a great resource for information and can help survivors connect with their local sexual assault support center. One thing I would like to point out, that often people maybe don’t realize, is that you don’t have to be a survivor of sexual violence to reach out to a sexual assault support line/hotline. We really encourage anyone to call for support-- recognizing that just hearing about sexual assault and especially seeing these conversations play out on the news and in the media can bring up a lot of feelings for people. You can always call your local support center even if it’s just to talk about what you’re feeling around what you’re seeing/hearing.
Elizabeth Gallien In Seattle, a great resource is NW Network. NW Network works primarily with the LGBTQ+ community. Their mission is to end violence and abuse. They offer support groups and counseling. They also provide legal advocacy and referrals to other agencies. They also host a variety of webinars related to sexual assault and abuse within the LGBTQ+ community.
You can also always call the National Sexual Assault Hotline through RAINN at 1-800-656-4673. As Molly stated previously, RAINN is a great resource for information and help for survivors.
Another resource that I learned about at a conference (Gender Odyssey) that I had the luxury of attending, is FORGE. FORGE is based out of Wisconsin and has a variety of webinars, coloring pages, and self-help information directed toward trans and gender nonconforming individuals. Having met people who work for them in person, I can say they were some pretty kick ass individuals who care enormously about the queer community.
Digital or otherwise online groups/projects
Jennifer MacMartin While developing my campus organization’s monthly survivor newsletter, I stumbled upon this beautiful Tumblr dedicated to survivors writing love letters to themselves: survivorloveletter.tumblr.com. This is not only an empowering space for survivors to have their words “heard” publicly, but also a supportive space for other survivors to hear self-love and resilience from their peers. Of course, this isn’t to show that recovery is easy, or linear; rather, this space can be viewed as a goal of some sorts, or somewhere to visit along the way. Recovery is a continuous process, and learning to love yourself again can be one of the most difficult feats. Reading other people’s love for themselves, especially when they’re in a similar situation as you, makes loving yourself just a little bit easier. To me, it reminds me of giving my friend advice that I realize I never give myself; once you offer yourself the same gratitude and generosity that you give to others, you can move mountains.
Alyssa Lentz I run a project called The Louder Coalition, which is, for now, an entirely online project centered around empowering survivors of sexual violence. We encourage survivors to share their story through any creative medium they’d like, and try to cover topics that tend to be overlooked in many discussions about sexual violence, such as body image and mental health.
Callie Garp How have marches and demonstrations sparked by the Trump election impacted the visibility of sexual assault in the public eye?
Jade Hughes On a general level I think that the election and more importantly the marches and demonstrations have forced people to open their eyes a bit more on a lot of the ingrained issues in this country. I do also think there has been some focus on sexual assault (specifically with Trump’s past and disgusting pussy grabbing quote and now Bill O’Reilly’s scandal), but I worry that the momentum is slowly dying down… By that I mean that what felt so raw and ugly back in January seems to slowly be swept under the carpet, people are going back to their lives and dropping their guard. I think the marches have also clearly shown that there really is a bitter divide in this country, between those who are ready to unite and fight for our rights and those around us, and those who really believe that this administration is what this country needs to “become great again.” I feel that while many women and men have come together to fight against assault, harassment etc, just as many are making light out of it. Bill O’Reilly was fired… But still received compensation in the form of a year’s salary ($25 million I believe). What does that say about it all really?
On a personal level, the marches have definitely emboldened me to be more vocal about my own personal experience, to write about how being abused as a child changed my entire outlook on life, and also to take a bigger stand in general. There is such a huge mountain left to climb until we can actually say that the shadows that surround sexual abuse, assault and rape are swept away, and I really hope to help chip away at it as much as I can.
Elizabeth Gallien I have to agree with Jade. The marches and demonstrations as well as Trump’s comments did increase visibility. However, it has been quietly swept under the rug. The seemingly huge focus disappeared quickly. I think this is likely due to the numerous other issues that Trump’s presidency has brought forward. Every week there is something terrible happening.
With so much happening in the world, where do we put our attention? I think a lot of people are at a loss as to where to even begin. I’ll admit that my hope is shrinking. We live in a country where a person who talked about sexually assaulting someone can become president. Think about what that means. Sure, it increased visibility briefly, but, it also means that the country still chose to elect him as president. It didn’t matter to the United States that he sexually assaulted someone and wrote it off as "locker room talk". Essentially, his election affirmed that sexual assault is okay to those who voted for him. It wasn’t enough to stop him. His hateful rhetoric didn’t matter to those who voted for him.
The election has shown how much the United States still does not value the lives of women, people of color, the LGBTQ+ community, or anyone who does not fit neatly into the category of Caucasian, heterosexual, cisgender male. I for one, am disappointed in the United States and deeply disturbed by those who hold power in the government. It feels as if the United States is endorsing sexual assault, or at the very least, pretending it is not a problem.
Jade Hughes Exactly. I moved to this country 12 years ago and learned to love it over time, but now I fear more and more for our basic human rights and can’t imagine bringing up my kids in this environment. But at the same time, I do feel like the election has also turned over some deep issues in this country that are continuously being rug swept, so I hope that there are enough of us to keep the momentum going to actually dig deeper and uproot this poison. So I hover on a daily basis between despair and hope.
Elizabeth Gallien I too navigate between despair and hope. I find hope in those who are standing up, in those who are showing up at rallies and marches, those who are taking action. Surrounding myself with these individuals gives me hope. But, there are so many issues in the United States that are being ignored and cast aside. Without action, I fear the worst. But, if we can all keep the momentum going, keep advocating for the future we want, then there is hope for the us.
Callie Garp Has the important shifts towards re-imagined gender identities and expression, as well as the greater inclusion of queer relationships in intersectional feminism impacted the current discussions and activism around sexual assault?
Jennifer MacMartin This is something I spend a lot of time thinking about! These shifts make definitions of consent and assault even more broad. For instance, operating within the typical cisheteronormative conceptions of rape will conjure images of a penis penetrating a vagina - but with gender, sex, and sexuality being much less distinct than this, the definition is far more complex. We must reconsider sexual assault of all types to be equally as legitimate, regardless of the body parts or identities involved.
Consent and communication are absolutely essential in any sexual experience, but potentially even more so in queer relationships. Trans individuals, gender non-conforming individuals, and their partners must be in constant communication and set boundaries, specifically around touching, discussing, and naming certain body parts or areas. Consent is a process that must be maintained throughout the entire sexual experience; for many cis, heteronormative relationships, certain aspects of this experience may not need to be as explicitly discussed. However, what may be consensual in a cis, straight experience may be assault in a queer experience, simply because parameters for touching are broadened. In my personal opinion, this is very much a step in the right direction - broadening the criteria for what is considered consensual in any sexual experience is only an improvement on our current standards. Assuming comfortability in any sexual situation is absolutely grounds for a potential assault; we must always prioritize the needs and wants of our partner, regardless of their identities.
Alyssa Lentz I absolutely agree with Jennifer and echo all of those thoughts! I’ve seen some progress being made even in terms of legal terminology; rape is no longer only defined as penetration but also as being forced to penetrate, which is a really important distinction. I think this societal shift in how we define and understand gender and orientation has fostered a greater sense of openness about sex in general within our culture, which has added a new level of depth to our conversations about consent, and encourages us to look at the experiences of those who exist outside of the binary that we’ve grown accustomed to.
Molly Donlan When sexual assault activism feels especially tough to continue, what keeps you going? How do you prioritize and practice self care in the wake of the Trump election?
Darci McFarland It’s tough to focus on yourself and self-care when there’s so much to be done, especially if you’re a survivor of assault who deals with the daily symptoms and exhaustion that comes from having PTSD. Sometimes hot coffee, epsom salt bubble baths, and puppy cuddles are the only things that get me through the day. I think self-care is really appreciating the small things that add to your life and help you feel more balanced and able to continue the fight.
Jennifer MacMartin This might sound counter-intuitive, but I think in a lot of ways, activism can actually be a form of self-care. While this isn’t always the case, I’ve found that up to a certain point, activism is my way of seeking a sense of purpose and validating my existence. When engaging in activism and advocacy for survivors, I feel as though I am situating myself in a position of power - power to make tangible change. When survivors feel that they are powerless, and that their autonomy has been taken away from them, it can be truly liberating to find yourself in a situation to make change. While I am not a survivor of assault myself, I have experienced other traumas and oppressions that make activism a mode of self-care for me.
Elizabeth Gallien Though I had not considered activism self care until I read Jennifer’s response, I have to agree that it can be self care. Thinking back to the marches and rallies that I’ve attended, I have felt a sense of hope and empowerment witnessing so many people advocating for change. However, I think it can still be exhausting.
Self care is preached about in my profession, working in the mental health field. It’s not something one is taught in school, yet I often hear, “You must practice self care.” Easier said than done. With so much happening in the world, it can be hard to find time to take care of yourself. I did not realize how important self care truly is until this past semester of trying to work full-time, complete a 20+ hour a week internship, attend classes, do homework, engage in advocacy, and maintain relationships. I felt the depression taking hold of me and yet I continued. Not taking care of yourself has major impacts. As someone who engaged in self harm for over a decade and stopped for five years; not taking care of myself brought me back to that point, briefly. It brought me back to a place of suicidal ideation. My therapist said “You’ve been pretty actively suicidal.” That was the point I realized I was doing too much and I was not taking care of myself.
I switched to part-time at work which is a financial nightmare. I’m taking a two week vacation. In a few days, I’ll be in Las Vegas lying under the sun. Self care for me right now looks like showering, spending time with my cat and dog, going to therapy weekly, sleeping, talking with my partner, and walking. Running has been a major part of my self care over the past couple years but has faded. I know it is something I need to start again as it’s something that makes me feel better about myself.
And, the internet always offers us cat videos. Okay, so I only watched the first three minutes and started switching to other cat videos. My attention span is low. And for me, this song on repeat (with lots of sarcasm and anger in my head.) Self care can also be avoiding the news, Facebook, the internet, etc. for a little while. And, that’s also a privilege because people who face these realities every single day do not get to just not look at it. Do whatever it is you need to keep yourself okay. It’s not worth it to stop taking care of yourself. Your physical health, mental health, and well-being are important.
Jade Hughes How do you explain to (your) children why sexual assault activism is so important?
Molly Donlan I don’t have children of my own, but I focus a lot on this when I talk to kids for my job. I teach a lesson on consent and sexual assault to 8th grade students and I let them know that they have the power to prevent sexual assault through activism. I tell them that If every single 8th grader understood what consent is, how to ask for it, and why consent is so important, then we could end sexual assault in one generation. These kids will one day be running our schools, our communities, our country, and our world. If they stand together to support and believe survivors while holding offenders accountable, then we can shift our culture in a way that doesn’t allow this stuff to continue happening at the rate in which it does.
Lisa Smith The age of the child would determine how I explain sexual assault activism. If they were very young, I would say [sexual assault activism is important] because too many people touch and harm people in ways that really hurt far too many people, and it is only through activism that we can see change happen. If they were a teenager, maybe even a little bit younger, I would talk about sexual harassment, groping, molestation, and rape. I would tell them how there’s an estimate of over 100,000 sexual assaults a year, and this is seen as low, due to how underreported sexual assault is. How through activism we can address rape culture, the culture of victim blaming, how rape is tried, and change the stigma surrounding surviving sexual assault. Through activism we can change laws, challenge pop culture to not romanticize sexual assault, cultivate a culture of consent, and maybe, hopefully, one day see a society where rape, assault, harassment, and molestation are actually rare. This activism is just one fight in the continued battle for our agency, our personhood, the validation of our experience, and autonomy of our humanity, to be recognized and protected by the state. (This activism goes hand in hand with activism against white supremacy, workers rights, prison and justice system reform, health care rights, and queer rights.)
Jennifer MacMartin What does it mean for an accused rapist to declare April Sexual Assault Awareness Month as President? How do we navigate this discussion of accountability and respect when our current President has these allegations against him?
Elizabeth Gallien The idea that an accused rapist declares April to be Sexual Assault Awareness Month is more than unsettling. A man who stated “grab ‘em by the pussy. You can do anything” and wrote it off as locker room talk declared Sexual Assault Awareness Month. I feel sick even thinking about the idea of this. It takes away from the seriousness of sexual assault. Number 45 jokes about sexual assault; what implications does that have on this declaration? To me, it seems to ignore the realities that people who experience sexual assault face. It makes light of the trauma they have faced. It’s a slap in the face.
With sexual assault allegations against number 45, I think his declaration of sexual assault awareness challenges accountability. He has not had to take accountability for his actions, for his words, for anything. Navigating accountability [for rapists] with his lack of accountability in public view is difficult. With the election of number 45, accountability has become a shoulder shrug. It does not seem to register in the minds of many. To navigate accountability, we must acknowledge the enormous lack of accountability currently happening within society.
Jade Hughes It’s a total slap in the face! How can we even start thinking about making anyone accountable when the leader of this nation not only laughs in our face, he also has a proven background in harassment, assault and has been accused of rape, and also dismisses charges against his friends? However, on the other hand, he doesn’t hesitate to call a Mexican immigrant a rapist and drug dealer! The hypocrisy and lack of any accountability surrounding sexual assault in general in this country make it all the more difficult for those who are suffering, the survivors, and for those who are fighting for us all to be heard. Sometimes I feel as if I am just shouting into a hollow cave. We can’t keep letting these things slide, dismissing them with a wave of the hand, but we need to find a way to collectively force people to understand how serious this really is. What kind of example does this set for the most vulnerable of us, for children who are going to grow up thinking they have to respect this man?
Elizabeth Gallien How can we best support survivors of sexual violence? What emotional impact has the current administration had on survivors?
Lisa Smith I will speak to the emotional impact on my experience as a person who has experienced many different versions of sexual assault, harassment, and rape. Most days it is hard for me to get out of bed. Most days I am tired, because what sleep I do get is not restful. My anxiety has been much higher, I have panic attacks on a regular basis, which often keep me secluded for days in my house. I want to cry so often because it is overwhelming and feels impossible at times for change to actually happen. I fear for my safety (and most of my loved ones) on a daily basis; being out in the world does not feel safe for me or many people. I want to do more, be more timely, but my energy level is rarely high enough, and then when I do get into something, often some of the research that comes up is so mind-boggling disgusting, just thinking about it makes me nauseous. As an artist, one of the things that brings me immeasurable joy and life is painting, making work, but for a month just walking into my studio (which is the room right next to my bedroom) would give me a panic attack. So, in conclusion I would say, for me, often the current state of society/administration, has crippled me.
Things that give me solace: Seeing the turnout for the women’s march, seeing brands drop people (Bill O’Rielly and allies), a resurgence in activism in the form of frequent protesting and marching for everything from Black Lives Matter, the tax march, worker’s rights, immigrant rights, reproductive rights, queer rights, economic equality, the NODAPL water protectors, and science and environmental marches. Occasionally the satire of late night (Trevor Noah, Samantha Bee, Seth Meyers, John Oliver, and even sometimes Stephen Colbert) alleviates this sort of crippling feeling. Videos of whales, wolves, and cats, Beyonce’s Lemonade, bad ass angry girl bands, and other music that I find soothing can make things a bit more manageable.
As to how to support sexual assault survivors, well that’s something that speaks to very personal needs and specifications. In general I would avoid the victim/survivor dichotomy. Listen with compassion and no judgement to those of us who are able and willing to share our stories. And if you can’t listen with compassion and without judgement, don’t listen. Go do some empathy training and then come back. Because sexual assault, violence against women/queer/poc people, and rape are daily threats for the majority of the world. If women are 51% of the world’s population, and then you consider queer, and people of color, as well as the disabled: we are the majority. So think about this: the majority of human beings existing in this world are not granted full personhood by the powers that be. We are still seen as less than, so if you don’t understand that, can’t accept it, please I don’t want you to read or hear my story, because you will no doubt not be able to help yourself in commenting. And we don’t need your comments.
Comments that I will accept: “That’s horrible/disgusting,” “How do people like that exist?” “Why would someone ever do that?” “Are you okay now?” If you cannot hear a survivor’s story without seeing them as damaged and broken - I don’t want to share or hear your comments. But, while I do think it is important to share these experiences, and for as many different people as possible to share, there should not be any pressure put on the survivor to do so. It is something that often takes a great deal of forethought, and something that always takes a great deal of courage, but also it can be exhausting, it can be triggering, and it is too often misunderstood and met with callousness. In the past when I have shared my story, more than once, it was almost a revictimization, just the recall, but then the unwanted followup questions. I know better now, how to recount the events, what sort of person is capable of hearing what, and how much detail is needed and I’m comfortable revealing.
Perhaps what would be most helpful and supportive would be to refocus the conversation on the aftermath of sexual violence. What does the recovery look like? How is trauma understood in society, in the medical community, in a religious community, in pop culture and media representation? I’m much more interested to hear those stories, the stories of the embodied experience of living one’s life through the site of trauma. How that is reconciled. We see bastardizations of PTSD and other mental health responses to trauma, but very little on the actual daily monotony of the recovery process, that is extremely difficult for many, myself included, an often cyclical process, that sometimes takes years of multiple kinds of therapy, and various medications.
Darci McFarland How can sexual assault survivors and allies continue to draw attention to this issue in more impactful ways? Often I feel like we’re screaming into a void with no one listening because there are so many horrible things coming from this administration and the Republican party as a whole. How can we continue to highlight this normalized social problem and the severity of it while engaging in movements, organizations, projects, and response efforts that center other (yet interrelated) social injustices?
Lisa Smith First, we must look at ourselves honestly. Extremely honestly. And then we must do our damnedest to meet ourselves where we are at, with compassion and without judgement or comparison. We all have our strengths, now more than ever let us look to those, and apply them to the cause-however that may be. We must listen to one another, see those who are screaming into the void, and direct them towards us and others who are feeling similarly. Feelings of isolation in a time like this are poison. We are not alone. You are not alone. I am not alone. Look at the images of the Women’s Marches from around the world, remember the size of the crowds, and cherish that all those flawed human beings came out and marched for something greater than themselves, as well as for themselves, and each of them in some way long to end violence against women, queer people and people of color. Because make no mistake, sexual violence, is rooted in racism, misogyny, homophobia, queerphobia, transphobia, and classism. These bigoted ideologies are all interconnected and attack each of us from more angles than we realize.
Jade Hughes I really had to take a long, hard look at myself and instead of turning into myself as I have a tendency to do when I feel that there is too much to do and no one is listening, I decided to become more active in the areas that are the closest to my heart. As a sexual abuse survivor who refused to really speak about it for years I have decided, step by step, to open up about my experience as well as become an advocate for others. I have fought for years against the normalization of sexual harassment in the workplace. I worked for many years in pretty sexist and male-dominated environments where sexual harassment clouded as “flirting” was an everyday occurrence - this video is a very good depiction of that:
But I feel like I need to do MORE now. I can’t just hide behind this tough, no nonsense exterior anymore and help from behind the scenes. I want my daughters to SEE me take a stand, and to understand how important this stand is. I have also been able to step away from much of the shame and guilt I felt growing up, and am now trying to use that as an advantage rather than something to hold me back.
As Lisa states above, feeling isolated is a very real feeling, but also a poison. How can we step up and make a stand if we don’t feel like anyone can hear us? I think that the first step is to join hands and to make ourselves heard. To not scroll through the news and mutter things in anger, but to reach out to organizations, to other like-minded individuals and to push for change. Research local and national support charities and see where we can help. Learn about the laws that protect (and don’t protect us), and lobby for change, make sure that we vote on all levels, and understand our local laws. I may be an immigrant and therefore not allowed to vote, it doesn’t mean that I can’t fight for my rights, and for the rights of others who cannot or do not feel ready to fight just yet.
Darci McFarland What practical, real-life steps can everyone take to fight against Rape Culture and sexual violence?
Jess Lea, a community member from our Facebook page For me I talk about it! I try to make people aware of what rape culture actually is at any opportunity I get. I've come to realize baby steps are best, put the idea out there and get people to start thinking for themselves.
This one is hard (don't want to make the person saying this stuff uncomfortable and all ) but I try really hard to not smile or laugh off shitty comments or jokes people make relating to the sexualization of any individual. I tend to ask a person to repeat what they've just said, this tends to make them think again about it.
My biggest way to fight rape culture will be at home. I have two children and I plan to raise two proud feminists. I will not stand for tasteless jokes or exposure to people that continue rape culture, I will also use the tv/media as a tool to have open conversations - this is all long term, they're both only babies. (Amongst many other ways that I can't think of at this very second...)
Now we turn the mic to you -- how do we fight Rape Culture? Please tell us your thoughts in the comments below OR send us your writings, art, songs, and essays in answer to our latest call for submissions on this topic.
Founder/Director Callie Garp has a Masters of Fine Arts degree from Tufts University. Keep up with Callie here.
Featured image by Callie.