IX graduation hats

Sad rape girls forever

In the spring of 2014, the White House announced a task force on campus gender violence and the Department of Education released the list of then 55 schools under investigation for sexual assault-related violations of Title IX. I was studying for my second set of law school finals – for my Anti-discrimination Law and Criminal Law exams, to be precise – but put everything on hold for two days after the announcements. For 10 months, fellow student activists and I at our organization, Know Your IX, had lobbied the Department to release exactly that list. Based on months of research, we believed transparency would help students hold schools, and the agency, accountable. The Department had told us no, again and again, after protests and conference calls and petitions. And finally, suddenly, they said yes.

A producer from a well-known NPR show gave me a call. Would I come on the air to discuss the recent developments? Of course. But I was soon disinvited when, during a preparatory call, the producer made clear she expected me to talk, and only talk, about my experience reporting an attempted rape to my school five years before as a freshman. I wasn’t interested. I wanted to talk about the policy change my colleagues and I had championed. “We already have an expert,” the producer told me, exasperated. “We need a survivor.”

What I realized in that moment was that, to the public, being a survivor is a totalizing identity. I could not be an expert at the same time. To me, what happened in a freshman dorm room more than seven years ago was certainly formative, but no more so than my parents’ divorce, my first love, or any one of my close friendships. Without a doubt, it is certainly less constitutive of my sense of self and role in the world than my legal education and policy work. My expertness. To the producer, those other, ancient events defined me entirely.

That lesson has been confirmed to my activist friends and me again and again. The magazines that won’t publish articles by or about student organizers unless they disclose their personal trauma histories first. The documentary crew that promised they needed accounts of personal experience in order to provide “context” for activism, but then included only the clips of interview subjects discussing their assaults. The online news anchor who, after my clear message that I would not answer questions about my personal history, started a segment on consent (the irony!) by asking about the attempted rape.

Reporters aren’t the only ones. Policymakers sometimes exclude Know Your IX, which is run by survivors, from meetings for expert non-profits but invite the group to listening sessions for victims – even though we are a policy and legal literacy organization. Multiple (male) classmates have admitted they don’t think that “people like me” should be allowed to make decisions about issues on which we are, presumably, unexpert because of our intimate knowledge and emotional investment.

After so many episodes like these, my group of organizer friends jokingly call ourselves the “sad rape girls.” (Even the boys and non-binary activists are assumed to be sad rape girls. There is only one narrative available.) In a recent article on her experience as a public survivor, my friend Wagatwe Wanjuki put it bluntly: “[I]t’d be incredibly comforting to be recognized for my capabilities . . . beyond just telling my story.”

I am set to graduate law school in May and soon after start work as a civil rights attorney. I hope that, in accumulating these credentials, a reporter may be able to find my opinion as important as my history. Perhaps someday my Google results will reflect how I understand myself: first and foremost an advocate, with a story of violence on page five.

I recognize I’m not a very sympathetic figure here. I’m a white girl from Yale with access to NPR producers. Many students, and many survivors, would love the chance to talk to a national audience about their personal experiences with gender violence. Inconsiderate treatment by major media corporations is what my mom would call a high-class problem.

There are high stakes beyond my feelings, though. A generation of young, feminist activists have cut their political teeth on campus rape organizing. Many “came out” as survivors out of true desire or strategic sacrifice: organizers know that concern has been reserved for those campuses with a public face of trauma.

The cost of admission to the movement has been exposing personal histories, but organizing is far more than confession. Students have learned to write laws, build grassroots momentum, and advocate through the media. And, lucky for us, Title IX activists are invested in issues from immigration justice to abortion access to police brutality to Wall Street regulation to, yes, gender violence. They can be leaders of future movements, putting to work the tools they developed on campus to further a wider progressive agenda.

Student activists will be experts ready to serve our communities – if only we let them be more than sad rape girls forever. If not, we will miss out on everything these young people can do with the skills they’ve developed on campus. How many years will have to pass until former activists can advise policymakers or speak publicly without first retelling their rape stories? When does their introductory bio no longer need to include “victim”? We should listen when survivors speak about their experiences, but we should recognize that they, like any person, contain more than one history.

None of this is to say that survivors shouldn’t speak out about their experiences. For me, as for many others, the first public declaration of my history was thrillingly cathartic. Telling that story was a rebellion in itself. I forget now—it was so long ago—but I spent nearly four years on a small campus certain my secret could never be more than that. The first time I spoke about my assault to a group larger than my roommate, as a new member of an intimate feminist club, I felt like I’d defied the laws of physics.

I wrote publicly about my experience reporting to Yale only after my graduation, which coincided with a disappointing end to a Department of Education civil rights investigation. I hadn’t meant to reveal anything, but my editor sent a quick note as I drafted. “Maybe something personal,” she said. Finally, away from him, I felt I could.

Three years later, another editor from the same publication took me out to coffee to talk about a story she was writing. Did I ever worry, she asked, if others would take me seriously now? Would they dismiss me as “just” a survivor?

I never want to be that woman, shaming in the name of protection. For those reasons, I’m sensitive to how hard it is to talk about the very real costs of coming forward without unduly discouraging others from doing so. Stories matter. They matter for those who tell them, they matter for the movements propelled by their fuel, they matter for the readers moved to act. Part of the irony is that, in the social justice circles in which I run, a personal claim to the trauma is a source of authority. Who better to design responses to gender violence, or any other problem, than those who have experienced it first-hand?

I want survivors to speak, if they so desire and safely can. But these activists can only flourish – and we can only benefit from their capabilities – if there is room for survivors to be full humans with multiple identities, capable of growth and change, of vulnerability and expertise, of telling and then not telling – and perhaps even of moving on.  


Washington, DC

Alexandra Brodsky was a senior editor at Feministing.com. During her four years at the site, she wrote about gender violence, reproductive justice, and education equity and ran the site's book review column. She is now a Skadden Fellow at the National Women's Law Center and also serves as the Board Chair of Know Your IX, a national student-led movement to end gender violence, which she co-founded and previously co-directed. Alexandra has written for publications including the New York Times, the Atlantic, the Guardian, and the Nation, and she is the co-editor of The Feminist Utopia Project: 57 Visions of a Wildly Better Future. She has spoken about violence against women and reproductive justice at campuses across the country and on MSNBC, ABC, NBC, CBS, CNN, FOX, ESPN, and NPR.

Alexandra Brodsky was a senior editor at Feministing.com.

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