It begins when I hear a new story of sexual violence. I become angry; I join the outcry of other advocates. I listen to administrative grandstanding, I want to believe in the promises made. I hear renewals of commitment to fix this systemic, overwhelming problem. I attend prayer services, I read opinion pieces. We want to work together, these voices say, we can do this.
But then I read the next, inevitable wave of responses, filled with victim-blaming and denial and the insistence that this problem is due to alcohol, or women lying, and so on. I read references to the rare, but highly visible case where allegations can be discredited with relative certainty, such as Duke in 2006 or Rolling Stone’s coverage of UVA this year.
And then I hear and read more responses, with more data, more stories, more strategies. But I begin to feel like we are fighting the same battles over and over again. I yearn for change, for transformation. But then…
But then my university has three reports of sexual assault and battery in the first weekend of school.
But then he confesses an experience that, despite meeting the legal definition, he cannot bring himself to name as “sexual assault” because “that doesn’t happen to guys.”
But then a friend of my parents insists over dinner that the college women in short skirts at a local bar “are asking for trouble.”
But then I hear a rape joke from someone I consider a friend.
But then I try to explain why it isn’t funny, and I receive rolled eyes and exasperation in return.
But then I am tired. Hope, I begin to realize, is fragile.
I feel daunted by insurmountable cultural and institutional momentum. I know there is no magic bit of cultural medicine to fix this problem. There are many angles from which we have to work, many layers of language, media, institutions, policies, and interpersonal relationships that have to be addressed. We need education about full, authentic consent, but also better policies that support victims, but also more intelligent media engagement with sexual violence, but also friends and family who support victims, but also access to mental health services — the needs are legion, the workers are few. What chink in the armor of rape culture do I dare to bang on first? What thread can I grab that will unravel the most?
And so sometimes I feel overwhelmed, frozen, helpless.
Judith Herman’s book, Trauma and Recovery, talks about the importance of allowing victims to reclaim their agency, to re-establish a sense of control over their lives. Among the many ways that sexual assault harms someone, often the loss of agency has the most insidious impact in the unsettling realization of the frailty of control and the contingencies of human life.
Finding sites of resistance can help this — though we should not presume that resistance is always easily recognizable. It may not look like physical resistance to the assault, it may not look like reporting, nor like future advocacy work (though Herman notes that this is very common for survivors to enter in the later stages of their recovery process).
Instead, resistance may start as small as the capacity to name the experience, to call it rape, to call it violence. Resistance may be re-entering your everyday routine. Resistance may be knowing what triggers are and how to prepare for them. In the clamor of skeptics who deny, misunderstand, misrepresent victims and survivors, we should recognize and encourage even these quotidian examples as important successes for the road to recovery, for refusing to let a culture of sexual violence define and regulate our lives.
And yet my examples will feel insufficient, insignificant. The truth is that they are. These alone will not overturn rape culture. We must be cognizant of this even as we encourage small victories.
Feminist theologian Sharon Welch, in her book Communities of Resistance and Solidarity, calls attention to the fact that “descriptions of resistance seem to point to something quite different: the contingency of resistance, its frailty, and the possibility and actuality of its being at times obliterated” (39). But it is precisely in recognizing this frailty that we can claim resistance exists in spite of a lack of visibility; it because of this frailty that when we do see it, it is worth paying careful and close attention to.
If resistance is frail, hope is more fragile still. But hope is nonetheless a marker of the Christian faith. Rendered poorly, hope can seem like a thin optimism, a naïveté that ignores the sin and darkness of the world. Rather, hope is how we learn to be persistent in the face of darkness. Hope is a sign of grace in a world of sin. So I seek hope in little places.
I seek hope in watching someone else tell the friend of my parents that no, those women are not “asking for it.”
I seek hope at an overcrowded table of men and women, from a variety of backgrounds and ages, who are training to be advocates for victims of sexual violence.
I seek hope in colleagues who listen, who admit to mistakes, and who want to learn how to be better allies.
I seek hope in the fact that the assaults and battery from the first week of school were, indeed, reported.
I seek hope in hospital rooms, in the brown eyes of someone in hospital gown, waiting for new clothes and trying hard not to cry, to be brave, to be strong. Hope in blue eyes that do cry. Hope in the green eyes that make jokes as a distraction from the shot of antibiotics in the thigh. Hope when a hand is held. Hope in someone who is not broken, who is not lesser today than before the assault. Hope in someone who survives.
I seek hope in someone who tells me, it’s okay to be nervous, you have a right to be cautious, no you aren’t overreacting.
I seek hope when neighboring institutions, like the Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary, face an ugly institutional history of sexual abuse, and come together to lament, confess, commit to change. I seek hope in the fact that this service is not the end of a conversation, but the beginning of one.
So I see the small signs of resistance, and I reclaim my hope. Too often, this is what critics of anti-rape activism want to deny us. In a recent piece by journalist and policy analyst Mona Charen, activists are chided for a lack of realism:
“Common sense and about 5,000 years of human experience suggest that women keep themselves as safe as possible, mindful that they are the smaller and weaker sex, that some men are not gentlemen, and that even seemingly nice men can behave badly when drunk…[B]ut the world is what it is. It requires a fierce ideological rigidity and even imperviousness to reality to say ‘that’s not the world I want to live in.’”
It is too much, she says, to ask to feel safe around men when they drink, or when I drink, or to ask that my “weaker” body be respected. It is too much to ask for a world where I get to choose and determine boundaries about when, where, and with whom I desire physical intimacy. Instead we are asked to simply accept the world as it is, to accept the constant threat, the fear of walking to our cars at night, of being alone even with men we thought we could trust — because it’s “common sense.”
I refuse. Instead, I hope. The Christian faith dares to hope that we will rise from the dead — and yet it is too much to hope that I might be able to attend a party with friends and not worry about leaving my drink?
This is not “ideological rigidity.” I resist, and I embrace hope by straddling a careful line: hope both laments the world as it is and gives a vision of a world that could be. In fact, Welch argues that it is hopelessness which is self-indulgent. To encounter suffering in this world “impels me and others to work for revolution,” (89) even “to hope that suffering can be ended, to hope that all lives without liberation in history were not meaningless.” This is a risky venture, and we “work for this hope without without the guarantee that such meaning is possible” (87). But it is a risk we must keep choosing to take.
This is not the world I want to live in. I hope for, and work for a better one.
This post is part the Octave of Theological Reflection on Sexual Assault and Higher Education at Daily Theology.