Diving Into the Wreck: On Learning to Recognize Intimate Violence

Part of what makes sexual and intimate partner violence so difficult to confront is the very intimacy of it. It thrives in private spaces and in things that are half-said. It thrives in our communities, often, as an open secret, discussed in kinds of language not given credence in court, and excused in kinds of language that sound reasonable at first glance.

In her 1972 poem “Diving Into the Wreck,” Adrienne Rich wrote of a process of excavation:

I go down.

Rung after rung and still

the oxygen immerses me

the blue light

the clear atoms

of our human air.

I go down.

My flippers cripple me,

I crawl like an insect down the ladder

and there is no one

to tell me when the ocean

will begin.

It’s this process, of diving down into the depths of intimacy, coercion, sexuality, violence, and even what we believe constitutes love, which many of us undertake when we set out to confront and eliminate sexual and intimate partner violence in our communities. This collaborative process of diving into the wreck requires us to learn to see our own and our communities’ experiences in new lights, and it requires us to learn skills of listening. 

Intimate violence has a way of slipping through cracks and silences — of disappearing just when you’re trying to pin it down. Sometimes sexual and intimate partner violence are immediately and shockingly apparent to ourselves and those around us. Sometimes, our own experiences — which may discomfit us at the time, but which we may dismiss as a coping strategy or because we are told our concerns are not important — float up only later out of the shipwreck of memory. This, in turn, may cause us to re-read moments and even whole relationships. The same goes for our friends and loved ones. 

The bulk of this work does not happen in debates or speeches or resounding statements of condemnation and solidarity. Much of it is quiet work, often between women and queer people, of personal testimony, listening, and connecting the dots of patterns you didn’t let yourself realize were there. It often happens in contexts and kinds of speech that are dismissed as unimportant, unpolitical, or petty: Rumors, gossip, burdened silences; things that women say to each other in hushed voices; moments of confession or of intimacy.

After all, gender violence — from harassment to stalking to relationship abuse to sexual assault — is often so pervasive and normalized, so built into our very notion of love, that understanding the actual scope of the problem requires us to look and listen for normalized notions of romance that, upon close feminist inspection, actually operate upon a logic of coercion.

He showed up unannounced at her work just to say hello — sweet, right? I don’t know why she seemed so freaked out about it.

Her girlfriend hit her but, you know. They’re both girls.

He wouldn’t stop asking me. He wanted it so much I just said fine.

The process of diving itself is destabilizing: We may find that when we begin to look into our own and our community’s experiences, violence feels so pervasive, it intertwines even with our consensual sexual lives.

A friend and I were having a playful conversation about our sexual histories, which became a very different conversation when we realized that we couldn’t talk about our “firsts” — first kisses or first sex — without talking about violence. Another friend and I realized recently that I had been sexually harassed by her male friend, and she had been sexually harassed by mine. We’d had no idea.

These moments of self-doubt — can I trust my partner, my friends, anyone? — can give us a case of the bends. Rich writes: 

First the air is blue and then

it is bluer and then green and then

black I am blacking out and yet

my mask is powerful

it pumps my blood with power

the sea is another story

the sea is not a question of power

I have to learn alone

to turn my body without force

in the deep element.

It is difficult, but we must learn to listen for cover-ups and excuses, for ways that we shield each other or justify each other’s problematic behavior: “It only happened one time.” “He’s harmless really.” “They didn’t mean it in that way.” “I just get so mad.”

We can learn to map public spaces, to read body language, to read the dynamics of groups. How are men standing, how are women standing, how comfortable are queer people? If I’m traveling from point a to point b at a community event, is my path determined by people I am afraid of?

We can learn to imagine, if we are privileged in a certain way, how a space might look to a queer person, or a person of color, or a woman. 

In doing so, we commit to understanding sexual and intimate partner as a community problem — not one happening only on the street, or only committed by big brawny football players at frat parties, or only happening in the patriarchal home. Not a problem that can be solved only in courts. Not just a problem of individual people or individual men. But a problem of both individual perpetrators and community standards; a problem of both overtly patriarchal spaces and progressive communities.

Finally, we must commit to looking critically at our ourselves, to understanding that we too — even as survivors — can go on to be perpetrators.

Discovering or confronting the fact that our safe spaces are not, can never be, entirely safe is a scary task.

But learning to look critically for and at violence is the beginning of accountability, justice, and solidarity. I think of those conversations I’ve had recently, the pain of discovering similar narratives of trauma, the pain of discovering that we could not trust people we thought we could trust. Yet also the spaces of solace we created — small hollows of understanding and held hands.

We can dive into the wreck together. It is the only way we will all of us get back to air.

We are, I am, you are

by cowardice or courage

the one who find our way

back to this scene

carrying a knife, a camera

a book of myths

in which

our names do not appear.

Image Credit: Arnaud Abadie at Wikimedia Commons

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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