This guest post is from one of our contributors, who wanted to repost their writing here. I’m really glad to be getting more guest posts on here, so that we can begin to paint a fuller picture of what consent culture might mean, and where we’re at currently, from various standpoints.
Cross-posted from: http://queerfeministkilljoy.wordpress.com/2014/06/19/on-the-costs-of-talking-about-consent/
Content Note: rape, child sexual abuse, self harm
It’s been a trying time of late to be someone for whom consent is really important. The Washington Post published a column within which were posted the words, “when they make victimhood a coveted status that confers privileges, victims proliferate.” More of the usual victim blaming asshole-ry has blown up on Fetlife, and I recently received a phone call from a dear friend wanting to process newly recovered memories of sexual abuse. The conservative columnist (whose name I’m not using purposefully, as he doesn’t deserve any more air time) who penned the piece for the Washington Post probably has no idea how common rape and sexual violence is because he isn’t a target for that sort of assault. In his experience, as a white cisgender hetero man, rape and sexual violence are somewhat rare. He applied his broken validity prism, threw in some heartless conservatism, added some dubious statistics and stirred et voila! Rape apologist tripe!
So now we have another example of victim-blaming narrative. I’ve seen this particular approach elsewhere of late– apparently we’re all doing this for the positive attention, you guys. You know, all the attention? How like… positive it is? Yeah. We’re completely hooked on it. Yup. That’s the argument, and homie ain’t the only one making it. Let me just let that sink in for a minute. Survivors who refuse to be silenced by their own internalized shame and self-blame, by the obvious hostility, the gaslighting, denial, and threats from all of those who wish to silence survivors– are in fact making it all up. Yup, because of all the positive attention.
I wonder though, what does all this positive attention look like? Maybe its like the time I asked politely that folks refrain from using the term rape to mean anything other than rape. To which a crowd of barely literate mansplainers linked me to the dictionary definition and sounded off about how words evolve and change and mean different things. Wow, thanks guys! I’m so glad you were there for me about that because frankly, my graduate program in Comparative Literature left something to be desired in terms of, “how words work,” and complex stuff like that. –So instances like this- in which someone who is/was/has been/will continue to be continually targeted for sexual violence asks someone who veeeery likely isn’t/hasn’t been/won’t be to have the tiniest smidgen of sensitivity to that issue and gets so much pushback you’d think she’d asked for blood or plasma… These are perhaps not the instances of, “positive attention,” to which the columnist is referring? Maybe there is some other place and time where all the positive attention comes into play? Because in situations such as the one mentioned above I’ve personally been, at best- laughed at, verbally bullied and shouted down for daring to challenge the status quo or assert my right as a survivor to be comfortable in a space, and at worst called names, the target of threats (typically threats of sexual violence, because that’s not at all triggering for a survivor) and the recipient of gendered insults.
Regardless of how this narrative about all this positive attention actually flies in the face of survivor’s stories and statistics, (many survivors report being disbelieved, shamed, blamed, and/or ostracized when seeking support) this is the argument in a nutshell. We’ve got something to gain- attention, fame, noteworthiness, sympathy– some damn thing. That’s the latest version of bitches be trippin meets lying liars— we aren’t all some woman scorned after all, it seems. And we aren’t all slutty sluts with buyer’s remorse who changed our minds and decided to cry rape. Nope. We’re attention seekers who desperately desire the adoration of fawning acolytes. We’re seeking positive attention- all the real and desirable effects that come of claiming survivor status. We’re drama queens, and narcissists and liars. Anyone else notice the similarity of this particular bit of victim blaming to all the others? Notice how they’re all coded femme? Ain’t life grand?
So let’s back this bus up a smidgen, shall we? Survivor privilege, what might it look like?
Well, at least in part, for me, it looks like being one of a few people that those whom I love who are also survivors can come to when they need to process shit so dark you wouldn’t watch it were it in a movie. Like what happened on Monday first thing in the morning, when a woman I love and consider family called to discuss the depths of horror she lived through as a helpless child. She needed to talk so I listened, because I am a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, intimate partner violence and rape. It was only natural she’d talk to me about this– besides her therapist, who would be willing to go down that particular rabbit hole? Ah, but there’s the rub—because I’m a survivor, I can empathize, perhaps a bit too well. Unfortunately, I’m so traumatized that hearing firsthand accounts from those I love is triggering and integrating new information is a painful process. I have to rearrange things to make a space in my brain where I can put some more wordless horror. I have to process what I now know while walking the world acting perfectly normal while making space for this dark sludge alongside all the other nightmare inducing things already stored in my full to bursting little brain.
So, what else is there? What else do I stand to gain? I’m an outspoken feminist for whom it took twenty years years to properly name a drunken-teenage-passed-out-drunk-woke-up-to-someone’s-peen-in-my-vagina-moment (surely we’ve all had those? amirite?) what it actually is- rape. I never told my friends about it; even though he was their friend too and we were all passed out on another friend’s living room floor. It didn’t even occur to me to say anything. Instead I just glared at him when I saw him after that, and I didn’t explain to anyone, not even to myself, until fairly recently- that this was a tipping point for me as a teenager. Soon after that I started to cut myself. Instead of speaking about violation, I bled and had nightmares and my mom told me that I was, “sick in the head.” Ain’t that cute? That’s how girls are supposed to deal with things you guys! Internalize it! But quietly! Don’t cause anyone else a moment of inconvenience, though. That’s survivor privilege. Taking twenty years to sort out the precise moment I started cutting my wrists, arms and inner thighs and being able to trace it to directly to a single moment after a lifetime of truly dramatic history. It was a –one thing too many- sort of thing, which happened just as I was starting to come to grips with all the horrors I’d been through. Survivor privilege is having some more stuff loaded on to your back when your legs are already broken. Survivor privilege is when people who are carrying very little yell at you to get up and move and stop being so self involved.
Survivor privilege is being dismissed whenever I talk about that night when I woke up all drunk and woozy and confused to discover that sex was being had, apparently, with me. Survivor privilege is having anything I say that has to do with the systemic and systematic sexual violence which primarily targets women and other fem(me) folks dismissed out of hand due to my gender identity, mistakenly attributed to either my politics or my hatred of men. Whatever I say is dismissed because I already have an opinion about rape (hate it) and rape culture (hate) and the violent misogyny (grr hate) and male supremacy (triple hate) that excuses and denies all of the aforementioned hateful stuff.
I’m completely biased, get it? As a woman, as a femme, and as a survivor I cannot discuss bodily autonomy– especially that of women and/or fem(me)s without having a vested interest, a stake in the topic. Therefore my opinion is always already irrelevant because I have one. Unlike other people whose opinions are valid regardless of their history or lack thereof– mine is suspect, because its personal. Survivor privilege is having my passion for changing the situation that we call rape culture—the situation where sexual violence is permitted and permissible and alluded to continually and used like a bludgeon to force feminine people into line in service of male supremacy and compulsory heterosexuality– all of this is attributed back to completely subjective feelings and therefore irrelevant. I’m not objective you guys. Unlike all those hetero guys with a vested interest in telling us all about their friend who was falsely accused, or so they say, because some bitch cried rape—and they all seem to have a friend like that, have you noticed? Funny, I don’t have any of those friend but most of my friends have been raped. A girl I started dating recently said something like, “well you know, when you just go with it? Because it’ll go easier?” and what she meant was: you know, those times when you have to choose between mild coercion and brutal rape? Because women and fem(me) folks make that choice frequently enough that its not unusual. We have that experience, well I guess about as often as dudes friends get falsely accused, I’d guess. Unlike the rape apologists, those bastions of all things objective and reasonable and traditionally coded masculine and good and glorious and great, I already have an opinion, one that is totes subjective and stuff. Yeah I can see why you’d dismiss my opinion in advance, seeing as how I got one, or whatever.
Waitaminute though, I’ve forgotten already what it is I’m supposed to have gained from having all these conversations where I’m triggered and gas-lighted repeatedly, where insensitive clods say the most foul, misogynistic, backwards, sexist, victim blaming, rape apologist shit they can think up– all to convince me to stop talking about consent. I wake up crying from nightmares during consent wars, I cry more easily and often during the day. My depression gets worse, and I get rageface- which we all know leads to wrinkles. No bueno. No fucking bueno, compadres.
You know what else it costs to write about and talk about consent? I’m going to be super real with y’all. It has cost me the vast majority of my relationships with men. Not all at once, but eventually, over time, one by one. It was one sexist joke too many, it was one boundary-crossing-creep-defender over the line. It was the constant microaggressions or the combination of being privileged and defensive about it and unable or unwilling to do any better. Most grew weary of arguing about feminist issues, or about the fact that I wouldn’t let them just win those arguments, even though they usually had no idea what they were talking about. They couldn’t deal with the fact that I won’t allow anyone to say disparaging shit to and about me and mine. Or they won’t or can’t do better after I explain how to do better many many times and finally I have to peace out on them for my own safety. I have at present a tiny handful of guy friends. One I get into arguments with nearly every time we talk. I fear that relationship may go the way of most of my past relationships with subtly sexist men- away, that is to say. Which is really too fucking bad. Because the truth is, I don’t hate men- I hate male privilege. I really like men, shit, I love them actually, some of them. I miss having men friends, but not enough to let the mild misogyny slide. I have got to take care of me and mine. That’s where we clash, because I refuse to just smooth things over, to just let things go. They’re accustomed to deference and I’ve taught myself to drop that habit as best I can.
So, for me, the cost of talking about consent is pretty freaking high. Why do I keep doing it then? Well, Audre Lorde said, “your silence will not protect you” –I’ve been guarding the boundaries of my person from folks who felt they had the right to lay their hands on me for as long as I’ve had consciousness as a human being.
I was born with a target on my back, or was it between my legs? The point is that I’ve had to fight a war without end. The combatants are my right to bodily autonomy and the right of folks who feel entitled to my person regardless of my granting or not granting consent. That includes grown men who tried to fondle me when I was just a kid and it includes the little boys who did the same. It includes the teachers who excused such shenanigans and it includes the politicians who currently wish to legislate what I may or may not be allowed to do with my own person.
I’ve had to fight for the right to not be touched by men my entire life and the struggle hasn’t ended yet. Because I have a primary partner who is also a woman, I continue to be treated as, “fair game”– and frankly that’s how it feels. Like some of us are hunters while others are prey. I’m a relatively small person, and people seem to find it hilarious to pick me up. I find it utterly terrifying. I dislike being touched by people I don’t know but have a very difficult time making folks hear that over the noise of their preconceived notions about what/whom my body is for– which is to say– I am for them, apparently. That’s why I’m curvy despite being so short, that’s why I have such a big butt- its for the visual and tactile pleasure of men. I’ve gotten good at stating boundaries loudly and staying away from people who set off alarm bells, but this has only mitigated some of the harm. The constant warding off of potential incursions remains. Not talking about this isn’t going to change that, and it isn’t going to educate the people who are privileged but are also decent humans. Silence won’t make the world safer for people like myself. Talking about and modeling the changes we need our culture to undergo will start shifting both the behavior and the thinking that underpins it.
So I keep going. I don’t shut up. I defend my borders assiduously. The last time a stranger decided to put their hands on me was about two weeks ago now at the bus stop. He asked how I was doing and I replied that my back hurt, so he tried to rub my shoulders and I asked him to stop. He did, and then he commented on my big old butt. And I’m sure if you were to ask him, he’d say he’d done nothing wrong- crossed no boundaries, not violated anyone’s consent. Why, after all, should he inquire as to whether he can or cannot put his hands on me? That’s like asking a sofa before you sit down. I’m sure he wouldn’t have put it that way, he’d have said its no big deal and I’m taking it too seriously. Gaslighting aside, the reality is that he is granted bodily autonomy in a way that I am not. That’s why he violated my space with such ease, it literally didn’t even occur to him that I’m not there for him to touch, to push my boundaries, to hunt.
Convincing other adults that I am an autonomous human being and not an object for their visual or tactile pleasure and that they have no right to demand my time or attention is an ongoing struggle. Convincing other adult humans to not put their hands on me without asking first is an ongoing struggle. So what do I get out of it? I get better at stating my boundaries, better at tracking those who are grooming potential targets. I get derided, made fun of, called names- almost always gendered insults, what a surprise. I get yelled at and threatened with violence. I get to have bad dreams and sick sad feelings that take days and days to go away. But I keep doing it anyway. Because only having these conversations about consent will change the way that we as a people understand consent and autonomy. Only by modeling a different way of doing consent where we use our words and ask each other first can we create a world in which each and every one of us regardless of gender or size or status or race or age or ability is an autonomous being who can grant or refuse consent.