At a recent panel on anti-rape organizing, Vicki Sides, director for Resources for Sexual Violence Prevention at the University of Chicago, spoke about a student who'd given her rapist a choice: Either read a syllabus she'd created for him, or she would instigate disciplinary procedures.
If I were to make a syllabus for my assailant, I'd include in it Not That Bad: Dispatches From Rape Culture, a new anthology edited by Roxane Gay. The essays here convey what it feels like to live in a toxic culture that normalizes sexual violence, especially against women. They respond to the challenge posed by June Jordan, quoted by poet Claire Schwartz in her essay "& the Truth is, I Have No Story": "The victim must learn to make language tell her own truth."
Originally, Gay writes in the introduction, she'd planned for the anthology to include "some reportage, some personal essays, writing that engaged with the idea of rape culture, what it means to live in a world where the phrase 'rape culture' exists." But those plans "had to give way to what the book clearly needed to be—a place for people to give voice to their experiences, a place for people to share how bad this all is, a place for people to identify the ways they have been marked by rape culture."
Why tell these stories at all, Nora Salem wonders in her essay "The Life Ruiner"? Salem suggests that storytelling makes visible the damage inflicted by rape culture, and generates empathy for survivors. "We don't exist without other people; therefore, our pain isn't real until somebody else looks at it and goes: 'Damn, that looks like it hurt.'"
And hearing these stories makes it more difficult to doubt the pervasiveness of sexual violence. "The more of us who come out as survivors," Zoë Medeiros writes in "Why I Stopped," "the harder it gets to ignore that there is too much to have to survive, the harder it gets to pretend like this doesn't happen or it only happens to certain kinds of people."
These stories implicitly rebel against the pressure for survivors to contort their story until it fits a conventional shape. The less closely one's experience adheres to a certain model (a young, white, slender, virginal victim who fought hard against a predatory man), the more likely one is to be blamed for being raped, or told one wasn't really raped. This pattern can be especially damaging if a survivor chooses to seek help from the criminal justice system: Her case may be dismissed if it doesn't fit this mold.
In 2007, for example, a judge in Philadelphia dismissed a charge of rape against a sex worker, leaving only the offense of "theft of services." Pursuing the rape charge "minimizes true rape cases and demeans women who are really raped," the judge argued—drawing a false distinction between sex workers and innocent victims who were really violated.
Not That Bad joins a growing body of media that's finally giving serious consideration to stories of sexual violence, along with Teen Vogue, the Washington Post, New York’s the Cut, NPR, and others. At last, we're celebrating the bravery that disclosure requires, rather than engaging in victim-blaming.
What role can the act of telling our stories play in ending rape? Feminists have been organizing speak-outs against rape for decades, but sexual violence remains shockingly common. While the stories of some (mostly white professional women) have succeeded in bringing down powerful men lately, the #MeToo moment has largely sidelined change in the lives of those who are structurally deprived of the power to speak up—including undocumented women, who face deportation if they do talk, or waitresses, whose tips, and maybe their jobs, are on the line if they object to a handsy customer or supervisor. Those battles don't attract the same level of media coverage or the same kind of mainstream support as telegenic actresses saying "Time's Up."
I am exhausted from taking in the seemingly endless tide of stories of sexual violence, especially given the slow pace of progress. I start to wonder how many stories need to be told, often at great personal cost, before we stop getting raped, and why the conversation stays stuck on these stories, rather than on how we can build solutions. And I notice that reading such stories over and over can feel reminiscent of the months following a trauma, when you return obsessively to your own story, hoping to make it into something you can live with, rather than something you have to reconstruct your life around.
After a while, these stories give me the opposite of that "good, satisfied feeling, that make[s] you feel so clean and refreshed," that, Assata Shakur writes, comes from "fighting for your freedom." I still think anthologies like Not That Bad, which offer survivors a space to tell their stories and be heard, are valuable—but I’m increasingly interested in the question of what we do after we accept that sexual violence needs to end.
Two other recent anthologies—Where Freedom Starts: Sex Power Violence #MeToo and Color of Violence: the INCITE! Anthology—offer a much-needed analysis of the material conditions that produce and enable gender-based violence, and how people have organized, and continue to organize, against it. Rather than focus on the politics of storytelling, these two volumes take aim at the structural conditions that create fertile ground for sexual violence, like a lack of workplace protections. As they evince a distrust of the institutions we're told we can rely on when sexual violence occurs, the writers in these anthologies are intent on building grassroots power structures to combat the problem.
Because Gay acceded to making Not That Bad what it "clearly needed to be—a place for people to give voice to their experience," the testimonies in that anthology rarely segue into concrete ideas on where we can go from here; nor do they center the economic and historical context of sexual violence, or explore how sexual violence is related to other forms of gender-based violence. (A notable exception being Michelle Chen's essay "Bodies Against Borders," about sexual violence against migrants.) The book doesn't give readers a sense of how we can get out of the cycle of telling our stories and produce change.
That's partly because nearly all the entries in Not That Bad are cast as personal essays. They're ambiguous, emotional, intimate, avoiding the clear language of directives. Personal essays can be a good vehicle for talking about individual experiences of oppression. They're powerful tools for drawing survivors and their loved ones together, engendering solidarity, empathy, and system-transforming rage—but they are also just the starting point. After all, telling stories doesn't redistribute resources or power in a material sense. Telling stories doesn't attack the material roots of sexual violence.
The Color of Violence and Where Freedom Starts give us a roadmap for where we go next: How we can begin to embody the idea that "it is not our experiences of violence that define who we are, but our struggle against violence that defines a collective we," as Liz Mason-Deese writes in Where Freedom Starts. A collective we, these anthologies suggest, is our strongest hope for ensuring justice and freedom for survivors and everyone else threatened by rape culture.
The Color of Violence was written for and by women of color, and especially for activists. There's an urgency to these essays, a sense that the women who wrote them now see no choice but to act—and many of them are already organizing. These essays respond to the multiple forms of violence that women of color face, including police brutality, incarceration, domestic violence, and sexual violence. Implicitly, the essays collectively argue that all these forms of violence must be addressed together if all women are to be free.
Many of the writers in The Color of Violence share the conviction that institutions meant to protect survivors of gender-based violence have failed. The criminal justice system often criminalizes and punishes women of color in addition to disciplining their abusers; and, as Andrea J. Ritchie writes, police violence also takes the form of rape and harassment. Battered women's shelters and rape crisis centers don't always respond to the needs of a diverse group of women.
From this understanding comes a focus on community accountability—and on community resources for safety and healing for survivors. Like Where Freedom Starts, The Color of Violence champions women and survivor-centered grassroots that organize against gender-based violence. This kind of organizing, the writers make clear, is risky, difficult, and potentially painful.
The essays in Where Freedom Starts analyze and argue against the material conditions that lead to gender-based violence. Many indict capitalism itself, appealing to the reader who has a pre-existing socialist feminist politics.
As several of the essays in Where Freedom Starts make clear, women are often made powerless to protect themselves against sexual violence, speak out against abusers, or pursue justice, all because of their lack of political and economic power. Outrage against the #MeToo revelations, historian Stephanie Coontz says in an interview with Hope Reese, can act as "cover for people who get indignant about sexual immorality but are perfectly at ease with economic discrimination."
In Magally A. Miranda Alcázar's essay on Latina women's organizing at the Oakland Domestic Workers' Center, "Women Workers Make All Other Work Possible," she writes that one of the lessons we can learn from these women is that "[sexual] harassment and assault cannot be treated in isolation, but must be taken up in conjunction with other organizing against their super-exploitation. Assault and harassment aren't aberrations: They are another instance of how exploitation works."
Tithi Bhattacharya, in "Socializing Security, Unionizing Work," suggests that, to protect women who speak out against sexual harassment and violence at work, we need to provide them with "security, in the most expansive and socialized sense." That means "the security of a robust infrastructure that will catch her if she does get fired [in retaliation], tide her over, and sustain her family 'til the next job": an infrastructure made up of things like unemployment benefits, universal health care decoupled from the workplace, and protection against deportation.
The socialist feminist framework in Where Freedom Starts also gives the essayists an idea of what won't protect women from sexual violence under capitalism: human resources departments, public relations firms, Title IX compliance officers. All are under intense pressure to minimize liability and bad press for the institutions that employ them. Those profit- and prestige-seeking organizations, which generally have a vested interest in the status quo, contribute to what essayist Jane Ward calls "liability culture ... compliance with institutional policies that attempt to manage people's unpredictable behavior, create sex-free institutional environments, and protect the institution from profit-disruption or lawsuits."
The approaches of these three anthologies differ because they're all serving different constituencies. Not That Bad was edited by a New York Times bestselling author and put out by Big Five publishing house HarperCollins and has already garnered significant press. Its readers, I would guess, mostly agree that sexual violence is a pressing problem—but they don't necessarily share the same ideas of what constitutes an appropriate response to sexual violence, and how we can root it out. Not That Bad seems ideologically non-committal on these questions, open to readers of diverse political backgrounds.
In the opening entry in Where Freedom Starts, Tarana Burke, creator of the #MeToo campaign, says: "We need to look at alternative approaches to justice; I'm talking about restorative justice and transformative justice." While agreeing that sexual violence merits criminal sanctions, Linda Gordon argues that it is "vital for the women's movement to retain a primary commitment to non-legal and non-bureaucratic means of struggle, means that we can control ourselves.... The only reliable protection for women will be the power of the women's movement, not the threat of official punishment."
The concluding section of The Color of Violence describes what such movements and organizations have looked like, and might look like in the future. The Brooklyn-based collaborative Sista II Sista created a "local alternative for the police" called Sista's Liberated Ground, "a territory where violence against sistas is not tolerated," marked off by flyers, T-shirts, and murals. The group provides "support and intervention for cases of gender violence" through Sista Circles—all within a non-hierarchical, consensus-based framework in which women of color in the community both lead and are served.
Members of Sista II Sista write of the group's struggle to secure funding outside of mainstream foundations, and how difficult it is to build community-centric institutions in communities devastated by decades of disinvestment and over-policing. Several other writers in The Color of Violence also highlight the challenge of ensuring safety and accountability for survivors through alternatives to the criminal justice system, especially in a world where most people don't live in strong, tight-knit communities that could assume the burden. Rather than advising survivors to seek justice within already existing, deeply flawed institutions, however, the writers insist that grassroots community support for survivors could exist—if we work to build those communities.
From their attempts to build such a community, members of Sista II Sista write, the group has discovered that "justice is not a product you arrive at. It's not an 'end.' Justice is something we have to continually imagine, envision, construct, and practice."