I’ve been thinking about the narrative that people are to blame for being sexually assaulted and responsible for keeping themselves from being sexually assaulted, at the expense of placing the blame and responsibility with perpetrators and potential perpetrators. I’ve been thinking about how warnings and dictates of prevention routinely assume that listeners are not already survivors.
Perhaps you know the kind of thing I mean? I remember attending compulsory anti-sexual violence workshops and lessons at my all-girls school. Instructors spoke of sexual assault survivors as people who were not there. The other thing is that they spoke of sexual violence as a one time occurrence, something we listeners were to prevent happening and that had damaged the survivors who had been known by these instructors, or the survivors who had been introduced to us as fictionalised examples in our workbooks. There was nothing about how people were to deal with multiple sexual assaults. There was also no acknowledgement that, statistically speaking, people in the room had been sexually assaulted.
The point was to put the culpability for preserving our purity onto us, and bully for any of us who were “impure”. And where I say purity, I don’t only mean the messed up idea that a person, once sexually assaulted, is damaged goods. I also mean a vision of conceptual purity, where it is only possible to educate young female students about sexual violence, uniformly, as though it has not happened to any of them because it is too messy and difficult. It is too messy and difficult, apparently, to acknowledge that most groups of young women and girls (and, hey, everyone else for that matter) include survivors of sexual violence, and responsible humans should have narratives about safety and sexual violence that treat those listeners as though they are worthy of safety from further violence, and worthy of narratives that treat them as though they are valuable, present, not blameable and always lovable.
I am sure that a lot of people who do not talk about how people may have already been sexually assaulted, or may be sexually assaulted multiple times, are doing so because they consider these survivors as irredemably tainted. I am also sure that a lot of people who do not talk about these matters do not think in horrid, heinous terms of survivors rather than perpetrators being responsible or tainted or broken. Sometimes, I suspect, these speakers find it hard to conceptualise the fact that people around them have been subject to sexual violence, and that crime is present. There’s a reason why these silences proliferate in prestigious newspapers and close-knit, well-to-do communities, for instance: they don’t want to mess up the pretty picture of middle class perfection with paying attention to the presence of perpetrators. These silences allow perpetrators to keep committing acts of violence, and to escape being brought to account. Acknowleding the presence of survivors as well as potential survivors, all in the same room, is not only proper and accurate. It also makes people who would rather not think about the presence of sexual assault perpetrators and their crimes in their own communities, well, think about these matters.
Acknowledging survivors as present and important means they are part of these discourses beyond their status as cautionary tales. It means we have a better picture of sexual violence, where it proliferates. In this way we can not only work to prevent future instances of sexual violence, but also to rework how we approach sexual violence that has already occurred. Because people go on being people after they have been subject to crimes that should only reflect badly on the perpetrators.