Social justice as a tool for combating sexual violence

On Wednesday evening I gave a talk at Kenyon College as part of their annual Take Back the Night Week, about how we can use social justice to combat sexual violence.

Via a request on twitter, I thought I’d share some of what I spoke about there.

This is the second Take Back the Night Event I’ve been a part of and I’m constantly inspired by the students organizing and passion when it comes to really talking about the big picture of what it might take to really end sexual violence.

One of the most powerful parts of many Take Back the Night events is the speak out, where sexual assault survivors are given the opportunity to tell their stories, publicly, to an audience that simply listens and bares witness to their experiences. It’s an incredible act of courage of behalf of the survivors, and it brings to light the fact that so, so many of us have intimate experiences with sexual violence.

An excerpt of my comments after the jump. If you’re interested in bringing me to speak at your campus or community, details here.

Some people would want you to believe that preventing sexual assault is just about safety, about modest clothing, about educating college students on responsible drinking and drug use.

Some would want you to believe that preventing sexual violence is just about educating men to respect boundaries, about finding shelter for women who are being abused, about better prosecution of rapists and testing of rape kits in hospitals.

Some people would want you to believe that preventing sexual assault and violence is an isolated issue that has isolated solutions—solutions often directed at the survivors themselves.

Just ask the NY Times. Twice in the last year the New York Times, arguably our nation’s leading newspaper, has reported on sexual assault cases while implying that it may have been the victim’s fault. At Feministing we call this “victim blaming,” but in the world of journalism, I call this despicable and irresponsible reporting. The first, and most heinous of these was the case of the eleven year old girl in Texas who was gang raped by eighteen men.

Even the NY Times wants to make this young girl’s brutal gang rape into a simple fact of bad clothing choices.

Even the NY Times wants us to believe that this type of sexual violence isn’t about anything bigger than temptation and sex itself.

Unfortunately, the NY Times isn’t alone.

We all know this isn’t true. We all know that sexual violence against women and girls is just one piece of our larger struggle for social justice, and that the violence we face is intimately connected to our broader struggles.

Just ask the thousands of immigrant women who risk their lives each year to cross the US/Mexico border. Ask them about why they take birth control pills or depo shots before being the journey. They would tell you that they know they are likely to be sexually assaulted along the way by fellow travelers, coyotes they hire to get them to the US and border patrol officials they encounter. For these women, sexual violence isn’t about sex at all—it’s just one price they pay for the chance at a life in the US. These violations are intricately connected to our country’s draconian immigration system, in addition to the class hierarchies that determine who can come here legally. The sexual violence immigrant women face is just as much about race, globalization, labor and capitalism as it is about sex.

There are some who want you to believe that preventing sexual assault is about lighting dark alleys and streets, about not walking home alone. They want you to think that if we all have a buddy system, if there are blue lights on every college campus and safe rides home, sexual violence will be over. But we know that most sexual assault takes place between people who know each other, often intimately. Dark alleys and strangers are not the norm, and all the blue lights in the world won’t stop the sexual violence we face from friends, lovers and family members from happening.

We could take any experience of sexual assault or sexual violence and make the connections to the broader structural inequities that exist and that we’re trying to work against.

Combating sexual violence is a key part of the movement for social justice.

Why is it so important to remember these connections? Because it has a big impact on our tactics. Without understanding the broader connections, combatting sexual violence gets simplified into just educating women about safety when going out at night.

Combating sexual violence gets simplified into telling young girls not to talk to strangers.

Combating sexual violence gets simplified into telling women to dress more modestly.

Combating sexual violence gets simplified into relying on the criminal (in)justice system to protect us from violence.

Combating sexual violence is not simple, and its elimination is going to require a big picture strategy that takes into account all of the factors that contribute to its existence.

Taking back the night is one of those strategies—an important one that allows us to build strength, know our own power and stand up for our safety.

Let’s make sure to take this work beyond tonight, into all of our attempts to change the world.

Thank you.

Join the Conversation

  • Catherine

    As a Kenyon alum, I’m super proud (and absolutely jealous) that they invited you to speak as part of this awesome event!

  • Julia Fiedler

    As a victim’s advocate for the Rape Crisis center in Fort Worth, I’ve tried to warn people – especially parents – that sexual violence can happen to anyone. I love this article because it says what I have a hard time articulating to fathers who have told me, “my daughter’s a good girl, so I don’t see that happening to her.” Sir, I hope not, because she’ll have your ignorance to battle along with everything else.

  • Matthew T. Jameson

    I risk being a bit boorish here, but I feel frustrated that this article does not actually describe the “tool for combating sexual violence” alluded to in the title. Sure, victim-blaming and the buddy system probably are not real solutions, but we are disparaging them without offering any substantive alternatives. Simply saying that this abstraction “social justice” will help is not very satisfying.

    Also, a related question for commenters more knowledgeable than me: is there evidence to suggest that Take Back the Night is an effective means of lowering rates of sexual violence?

  • Linda F Musabayana

    This piece is very moving and thought-provoking. I currently live and study in Halifax, Nova Scotia in Canada and I used to attend talks organised by our women’s centre frequently in my first couple of years. I’ve been disillusioned since because every time someone came to speak they always pointed to things people should be doing after a sexual assault. While this was helpful (and to my deep pain, became necessary one day for a friend of mine) there never seemed to be any discourse about ways to prevent sexual assault on a social scale, and not just on a person-by-person bais.

    It’s good to see that at least somewhere there is work being done on how to work on that type of scale. It’s good to know strategists have not resigned themselves to helping victims and are still looking for ways to prevent people from becoming victims in the first place.

    Thank you.