The perpetrator's mugshot in the Stanford rape case

Smile Sweetly, Don’t Shout

The other day I wrote a strongly worded text message. After delivering it —quickly, before I lost my nerve— I blocked the recipient on every social media platform I could imagine.

Oh, baby, was I blazing toward justice.

The recipient? A character in a story as violent as it was banal: A man who had assaulted me in a one-off sexual encounter, with the sort of casual violence that leaves one feeling mined. 

I sent the message, and then I felt very nervous: The message hadn’t been very nice.

This is, of course, completely ridiculous. After all, the entire point of the message was to inform the recipient that his actions had been unacceptable, and that he was a jerk. This is obviously not going to be a pleasant message to receive, but then again, being assaulted by the dude hadn’t been a particularly pleasant experience, either.

What on earth is so deeply rooted about politeness that this guy’s feelings somehow ended up seeming more important than my own? Why are women so often forced to feel more concerned for our attackers than for ourselves?

You must by now have seen the coverage — now ubiquitous — of the Stanford rape trial, in which a 20-year-old named Brock Turner received only six months’ sentencing for assaulting an unconscious woman because the judge feared the sentence would have a “severe impact” on Turner. 

The survivor’s brilliant speech in the courtroom upon sentencing has been rightly shared in the media and on Facebook. In the speech, the survivor takes apart the ways in which both the judge’s sentence and the perpetrator’s defense focuses upon his pain, the “lessons” he has supposedly learned, rather than on her pain and his responsibility for his actions. She details the way in which the defense attorneys and assailant revictimized her through demanding a particular kind of emotional presentation — penitent, unreliable, cowed. 

Social values like politeness or accomodatingness are often used against us. These standards of socialized behavior are deeply gendered: I may feel guilty raising my voice to yell at a street harasser, for example, but he may feel no shame about raising his voice to harass me me.  

Behavioral norms are also racialized and classed. I may fear seeming impolite or whiny while a woman of color may fear seeming angry or violent. I may smack a groper’s hand away on the street and be read as protecting myself, whereas a working class woman might be charged with assault.

We can understand these social norms as hierarchizing the value of human life — men over women, white people over people of color — such that marginalized people often end up taught (or forced) to prioritize those who oppress us over ourselves.

Whose pain matters? Whom do we rally around? Whose voices do we dismiss offhand, finding their truth too keening? Whose voices never reach our ears?

Let’s consider, briefly, the work of feminist academic Sara Ahmed. Ahmed recently resigned from the University of London in protest of the university’s failure to address sexual harassment in the educational institution — a topic about which Ahmed has written a great deal.

Ahmed’s work, and particularly the freely available work on her blog, often addresses the way in which oppression structures or is structured into our notions of personhood, including personal expression. She often writes about the “willful” oppressed person — the oppressed person who is constantly censored for, but only survives because of, their persistent assertion of their right to exist  — and about the “feminist killjoy,” or the feminist figure who inconveniences absolutely everyone by refusing to shut up about injustice. Ahmed writes about women who speak up:

You are heard as making a complaint; you are heard as being complaining. You are heard as expressing annoyance about something. Grumbling; grumble; grump; grumpy.

So emotional; so moved by being heard as emotional. You are used to this. Eyes rolling. You are used to this. Feminists are heard as being emotional whatever they say, which is to say, again, independently of what they say. Being called “emotional” is a form of dismissal. How emotional. Just look at you.

Women and marginalized people who speak out against injustices committed against them are not only labelled “difficult” or “annoying,” Ahmed writes — they are often blamed for creating the very problem they speak against.

“When you do speak out, you are seen as a problem, as if the problem is only there because you speak about it,” she writes. “It is as if the problem would go away if you stopped talking about it.”

We can see that norms and expectations of marginalized people’s behavior — politeness, say, or servility — are strategies of normalizing violence. And they are strategies that are often violently enforced. If we are too polite to yell at subway masturbators, society does not have to deal with male privilege.

And we are not just encouraged to follow standards of “acceptable” social behavior, we are bullied into it — by the fear that others will shame us for speaking up, will blame us, will assault us, will kill us, or will get us into legal trouble. We can see, for example, the prevalence of abused women jailed for self-defense as one way in which both social norms and the legal system penalize marginalized people’s assertion of their right to exist in the face of violence.

We can look back to the Stanford survivor’s speech as one brilliant assertion of this right to exist.

This speech shatters the banishing of women’s pain to a mere ghost in the archive — a thing to be read from its absence in the records and on the news — as her declamation takes front and center stage. It is a brilliant speech, the kind so many women have fantasized about making, an antidote to the guilt that we are taught to feel in demanding our due.

There may not be a justice big enough to sate the voracity of all of those injustices which are not brought to the court of law, to the media, to the radios of middle class cars. There is no sharply worded text message that can restore life or personhood. But sometimes we can summon justice into the world by speaking that which otherwise would melt into the margins, and by listening closely for the echoes of that which we cannot say.

Reina Gattuso is passionate about empowering conversations around queerness, sexual ethics, and social movements with equal parts rhapsody and sass. Her writing has appeared at Time, Bitch, attn:, and The Washington Post. She is currently pursuing her masters.

Reina Gattuso writes about her sex life for the good of human kind.

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