There is a lot I have learned from being a part of this community accountability process. I would not be the same person if the process had not taken place. I am incredibly glad that through all the difficulties and pain that is involved in engaging in the struggle against sexual violence we were able to build something important.
The process helped me to name my own experience of sexualized violence rape. Being socialized as a woman in our society for me to some extent meant that I needed somebody else close to me to talk about the possibility of rape being committed by somebody you know or even had been intimate with before. For me, it meant taking two years to realise and accept that it is not just a forgivable mistake to be woken up by somebody having anal sex with you after you fell asleep next to them. It took me two years to accept that it wasn’t just the fact that I had made it clear before that event that I did not want to have anal sex which made me feel so strange. It took somebody else opening up about rape to make me consciously engage with the fact I had an ongoing injury that required surgery and to acknowledge the flashbacks I had tried to disengage from. It took somebody else to be so brave to take up some space and demand for some questions to be asked for me to be able to consider that what had happened was rape and that it deserved some time and care from myself and others around me.
It is absolutely unbelievable that we live in a world where I can be socialised in a way where my “noes”, non-consentual penetration, resulting injuries, flashbacks and PTSD lead to a situation where I felt that it was just a weird episode of a short-lived relationship. And sadly, I know that I am not the only one who as a result of a group of people talking about dynamics in relationships, sexual encounters and experiences with friends and partners started to question a lot of what had happened in these areas of our lives. We would have all been pretty able to give you a low-down on sexism, patriarchy and intersecting oppressive forces and we were all involved in activism of various kinds and honestly pretty savvy. But it was almost like we were raised in a society where the default is still to blame yourself when you are the victim of sexual violence or to assume that somehow, despite cognitively ever thinking it, particularly men’s needs somehow have a higher status than your own. I am super grateful that there is a strong discourse developing and for all the work mainly women and victims of sexualized violence and oppression are putting into it over decades and decades. I am super grateful for the victim who initiated this process for allowing me to raise a bar I would have happily applied to other people to myself.
Talking about rape and sexual violence brings up a lot of things for people. For many, it unwittingly seems to bring up an almost unconscious urge to forget and not talk about it. Almost like you acknowledge the topic from the other corner of the room with an awkward nod and then hastily turn back to your previous conversation. That is annoying, because it leaves people that really need to talk about it or need to understand something or to have somebody tell them that in fact they are sane, with very few people willing or able to do that. But even more heart wrenching is the experience of so many people reacting to the uncomfortable feeling that a conversation about rape brings with it by turning on the person bringing it up. In so many stages of this process we were made to feel like this is something that shouldn’t be talked about openly, like this is a private matter, that talking about it means taking up undeserved space.
In some ways it felt like maybe politically we are now at a stage where many people grant a person that has experienced sexual violence to take on victimhood. Throughout the process, it felt more acceptable to have conversations about the fact that somebody was hard done by and as a result suffering. Weirdly enough, many people seemed so awkwardly uncomfortable about the aspects of the process linked to demands and being loud and taking up space and asking for support from a community. Asking others to take some responsibility. Almost like when it takes a village to raise a rapist and then it takes a village to support a victim and maybe teach each other about not being rapists and respecting each other’s personal psychological and bodily boundaries.
Another powerful thing was how the process, the discussions and the communal effort to take sexual violence seriously – and to look at ourselves and our political and friendship group through a new lens – allowed for a major shift in discourse. Through a lot of hard work and many committed people, sexual violence was now a topic discussed as casually as its acts are committed. I and many others learned to speak about getting raped without major shame or fear of being judged. There was a space being carved and shaped in our community where many of us could fit better, with some more of our own stories being uncovered and accepted and valued. I truly believe that this space and right to acknowledge openly how many of us had had experienced sexual violence and to not be made to feel doubted, ashamed or fearful about repercussions of talking about it and demanding change was and is one of the most powerful things that this process created on a large level. I sometimes notice that when I enter circles where no such discussions have ever taken place, it can feel awkward and uncomfortable. There can be a feeling of looming threat of not knowing if you can bring your whole story or if that part of you has to stay hidden, quiet, ashamed and hurt.
Honestly, this was one of my biggest realisations in this process: Getting raped and all the societal messaging of shame, blame and the need to fragment your experience and at best be allowed to be a forever broken victim does totally mess with your head. I do not think that that can be undone. In my example, just as after 8 years I still have a physical injury as a result of rape, the impact on my sense of self is never gonna go away. But talking about sexual violence, having a victim-centred approach and a community that is open to talking about sexual violence, it’s responsibility in fostering violent dynamics and taking it seriously, changes one’s ability to integrate such a shit experience into one’s life story and to become an active agent in working through the impact and fighting the causes.
Acknowledging that something like this will always be a part of the self makes it hard to believe that throughout the process there were many people out there defending the perpetrator. Who said that it is punishment to talk about this openly. Who said asking things of the perpetrator was too much. Who were questioning from day one when the attempts to hold the perpetrator accountable for their actions would stop, because you wouldn’t want the perpetrator’s whole life to be shaped by these acts. So, I guess my point is that it is somehow easier to accept for many that a person who was intentionally damaged and traumatised by somebody who placed their own needs drastically over somebody else’s will have to just deal with the consequences forever, than to accept that for the perpetrator to be accountable and work on their mindset it might also take a good chunk of time. I could write about this for ages because it angers me. However, I have limited time and funnily enough it is also mainly people affected by sexual violence who give a shit about it and invest their time and physical and mental health into working against this oppressive system and the people and mindsets that uphold it. It is the people most affected by it who in my experience tried to see this through the most, who supported each other, who created spaces for discussion, who looked out for each other and who tried to learn and change together. That is exhausting and I wish that hadn’t been the case. But until that changes I am sure that we’d all rather tire ourselves out supporting each other, carving out little spaces and challenging patriarchy and sexism etc. than to not have been part of building a little bit of an alternative for victimsurvivors.