I’m tired. I realize I begin nearly all of my commentary on sexual assault with those words, and I’m tired of that too. I’m tired of putting critical and creative energy into these pieces so that I’ll be perceived as “just right,” so that people can’t dismiss me for being “irrational” or “reactionary” or “mean.” Part of this is the necessary and important work that goes into being a writer, considering audience and the myriad ways in which our words will be received, whom they might hurt and whom they might challenge. But part of this is also me bending to patriarchy’s prescriptions and expectations, because even when we criticize misogyny we have to do it in a way that shields us from misogyny or else risk not being heard at all.
But fuck I am a mother. I already spend my days shaping myself and life in conjunction with someone else’s needs and desires, a person who deserves my unconditional love, my time and energy. I am perpetually exhausted. Yet I say this knowing it doesn’t actually matter that I am a mother. It doesn’t matter that I am tired. You see this is me bending, telling you these personal things in an effort to humanize myself, because so often when I speak about sexual assault I am dehumanized, accused of “trolling” and “handing out gold stars” and “knee-jerk reactions” as I try to navigate which spaces are not safe for me, as I try to reclaim agency. I am a person. I am a person. I am a person.
Lately I’ve been working extra hard on being a person. It doesn’t come naturally, and self-care has been a priority, which is difficult to balance with childcare. But this morning I came across this essay at Luna Luna Magazine in which the author, Joanna C. Valente, argues that non-specific rape allegations ultimately cause more harm to victims, that such allegations are responsible for the doubt the allegations are met with, and that they just “don’t work.”
I am upset. I don’t want to engage, I am too busy working on my personhood! But a part of that work is learning how to say No and not waver, and this is essay is something to which I must respond with a strong and solid No, and not because I think I have the power to change anyone’s mind, but to make space in which other realities can breathe and grow big.
My first question is Who don’t redacted allegations work for? Because obviously they work for the person(s) who chose to use them, which would be the person(s) most harmed by the accused, and if we’re not centering the needs of those who have suffered the most harm then what are we even doing publicly talking about sexual assault? Valente says she doesn’t have any answers. When it comes to cases of sexual assault in which a man in a powerful and influential position has been accused, I don’t have answers either, except for one: the most important thing we can do is respect the agency of those from whom it has been stripped. And because victims of sexual assault are as varied as human beings themselves (because, surprise! Victims are humans), this means there is no script we can ask victims to speak from. There are no demands we can make of victims, no matter how “respectfully” we might make demands. We have to be willing to actively listen, even when the accused person is someone we know, even when the accused person is someone we like, even if we are unsure what exactly happened. The nature of trauma is such that often victims themselves are unsure what happened, and it’s self-centered and damaging to say we need more from victims before we consider their voices valid. Why don’t we demand more from the accused? Because Valente is right: the world does not operate on theory alone. We can’t just say “I stand with victims” and then not actually stand with them when we don’t like the way a particular case has unfolded, or around whom it has unfolded. This perpetuates illusions of safe spaces that are not actually safe and mirrors the dynamics and effects of psychological abuse, commonly referred to as gaslighting, which many victims of sexual assault have also suffered and risk suffering more as soon as they say a word.
We also need to talk about the fact that active listening is not the same as a persecution or an accusation or a “witch hunt,” although time and again I see people put forth this binary thought process that ultimately only functions to dismiss empathic listeners as rage-fueled attackers. Listening is simply that: listening. I don’t know what that does for the accused man in power and frankly I don’t care. His narrative is not my priority simply because it has been and continues to be the priority, on both personal and systemic levels. This is patriarchy, and it’s not going to dismantle itself. We need a narrative shift, and in cases of sexual assault that means decentering concern about “all parties involved” in order to center the needs and agency of the person(s) trying to be heard, no matter how they choose to go about doing so.
Furthermore, the argument that “vague allegations ultimately hurt victims” because of the doubt that is “created” by these allegations is to blame victims when others don’t believe them. It is not a victim’s fault if others don’t believe their allegations, no matter how specific or non-specific they are. The doubt those allegations are met with is not a flaw in the allegations or their medium but a product of a patriarchal society in which the presumed innocence of an accused man in power holds more weight than the pain of those presumably suffering in silence. Nonspecific allegations don’t create doubt, and it’s not “a typical human reaction,” as Valente asserts, to doubt stories without hard evidence. It’s a typical reaction when one is living in a system that upholds the status quo, and it’s a reaction I cannot respect because I refuse to be complicit in a society that writes scripts for victims.
At the start of Valente’s essay I felt sad for her pain. This sadness was my “knee-jerk reaction,” which I feel the need to point out so that my anger does not get dismissed as reactionary. Again I am bending. I am tired. I felt sad. I am sad that Valente knows what it’s like to be a victim of sexual assault. I don’t want her to know what that’s like. I don’t want anyone to know what that’s like, but the more I processed what I’d just read the more I regained my critical thinking abilities and the more I said No, No, No. No to the self-centered victim-blaming arguments put sloppily forth as an opinion deserving the time and energy we should be putting towards those who continue to be silenced by these very beliefs. My sadness and empathy does not prevent me from being critical of her argument. I am a person, remember! And a dynamic one at that.
Valente writes, “I believe victims, but as a victim, I want justice.” While I sympathize with Valente’s own experiences of sexual assault and ultimately rage at all perpetrators everywhere, being a victim of sexual assault does not grant one entitlement to dictating what other victims should do with their experiences. Being a victim does not make you immune from perpetuating a system that works to harm victims. In an unjust world the word “justice” means something different for everyone, which means if we’re going to stand with victims we need to decenter our own needs and desires for justice in order to make room for and center the needs and desires of those we want to support.
Valente also says, “I would never in a million years ask a victim to put themselves in danger” and then two sentence later says, “But you must tell a story. It helps by allowing people, like me, feel less isolated, by not allowing a rapist to go free because people don’t know whom to believe.”
Let’s dissect what’s actually happening here: According to Valente’s own words, she firmly stands with victims of sexual assault BUT if they don’t tell a specific story they are 1) further isolating her, 2) allowing a rapist to go free, and 3) making it impossible for everyone else to know whom to believe.
Sorry-not-sorry but Fuck. That. Victim-blaming is not standing with victims and I don’t know how much clearer I can make this. I am tired of unpacking this mind-fuckery. Don’t say you stand with victims and then accuse them of being responsible for “allowing a rapist to go free,” as if victims who come forward with specific allegations ever have much luck in keeping a rapist off the streets. I want to know in what universe having specific allegations has ever made substantial differences in the outcome of rape cases. This argument is so off-base that I cringe in even having to address it. It is so close to trash that I don’t have a problem calling it trash, that it’d be dangerous for me to pretend this argument is worthy of my respect and compassion. Rapists don’t run free because of a lack of hard evidence; rapists run free because we live in a fundamentally patriarchal victim-blaming society. I am horrified that a magazine self-labeled as “feminist” would put forth any other idea. I am horrified at the lack of empathy that keeps passing as “respect,” at the insistence that responses to this lack of respect must be respectful. And I say these things because to not say them is a risk I’m not willing to take. We can do better. We have to.
Part of me doesn’t feel right ending this essay on such an angry note, but motherhood calls, has been calling, and I can only bend so much until I break. I am a person, after all.
Sarah Xerta is a poet whose works include Nothing To Do with Me (University of Hell Press, 2015) and the chapbooks JULIET (I) (H_NGM_N Books, 2014) and JULIET (II) (Nostrovia! Poetry, 2015), which was one of the recent winners of the NYC Nostrovia! Poetry Chapbook Contest. She lives in Minnesota where, in addition to mothering, she works with adults with developmental disabilities and as an art mentor with teens who have experienced trauma. Find more of her work online at sarahxerta.com and on Twitter @sarahxerta.