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In the New Year, let’s all recommit to intersectional anti-sexual violence work

It’s funny how much power convention holds. 

Over the years I’ve been working on/writing about/talking to every human I come into contact with about sexual violence, I’ve noticed a funny thing. While I’m generally into shit getting personal—incorporating my sex life into my professional life is a skill seconded only by my excellent taste in eyebrow shaping—I still often edit a lot of stuff out of the conversation.

Stuff that doesn’t fit the mold. Queer stuff. Moments when I couldn’t parse out power. Moments when I caused harm, or we both caused harm, and no one knew how to be accountable.

There is little space in the dominant conversation around sexual violence for the messiness of queer experiences and queer lives. Come to think of it, there is little space for all kinds of intersectional complexities related to the ways in power shakes out in our lives, the ways in which pleasure and violence are often dictated by oppressions beyond our immediate control. These inadequacies haunt even our radical spaces, leaving a lot of us without the language to express our true lived experience of sexual violence, and craving a new vision for justice.

Inspired by a book I <3 from 2016, Queering Sexual Violence, which you should read, let’s ring in the New Year by recommitting to—what else?!—intersectional approaches to intimate violence and justice, in all their complexities and messiness. 

First, let’s chat about the problem(s). Anti-sexual violence folks have a tough job. We’re dealing with a kind of violence which has been normalized, appearing in the popular lexicon most frequently with variations of this charming model: Boy meets girl, boy exerts masculine privilege over girl, boy sometimes abuses or sexually assaults girl, society shrugs a little and asks girl what she was wearing.

The task of feminism (in different ways across different contexts) has been to denaturalize, to make not-inevitable and not-okay, sexual violence. To remind us all that, while it may be normal for women to experience sexual violence and for men to inflict it, it is not right, and it is not inevitable. This is an important task, and a hard one. 

Historically, feminism has ignored or glossed over the fact that while the boy-meets-and-abuses-girl model is sometimes a true and useful model, that barely scrapes the surface of lived experiences of sexual violence. And the mainstream structures we have in place to deal with sexual violence, from the discourse to the resources, have often been woefully inadequate in dealing with a lot of this shit. Because desire, power, and consent are complicated; and because even our most radical spaces are informed by the power structures we are trying to fight against.

Sexual violence is complicated because we know false rape accusations are exceedingly rare in contemporary society—and yet we also know they have been weaponized against black and brown men in our racist past (and present).

It’s complicated because we know that survivors deserve compassion, justice, and support; and abusers deserve to be held accountable—and yet we also know that many abusers have survived sexual violence, and some survivors will abuse.

It’s complicated because we know that interpersonal violence goes hand in hand with structural violence, and the criminal justice system often fails everyone.

It’s complicated because we know that sexual violence happens at the height of intimacy, as well as the height of war.

It’s complicated because we are conditioned not to know or be able to articulate our sexual boundaries, and are trained not to believe ourselves when they have been violated.

It’s complicated because we know that cis men commit a hell of a lot of sexual violence against cis women. But we also know that people of all genders and sexual orientations commit violence against each other. And we know that intimate violence is as much a problem in queer and radical spaces as in hetero ones.

So as we advocate against sexual violence, how can we expand from solutions (like incarceration) which exacerbate injustice, and models (like hetero/straight ones) that leave people and stories out?

It’s a project we’ve been working on a while here on the site, and which many many people in diverse movements have also been working on. Some topics that come up a lot are sexual violence in queer communities, sexual violence and racism, sexual violence and incarceration, and the way that women and gender and sexual minorities’ sexual agency and pleasure is continually minimized and dismissed even beyond direct violation of consent.

It’s good work and we gotta take it forward. So hopefully (and since I am on *winter break* from grad school and what better thing to do over vacay than think about abuse, amiright?) we can ring in the New Year by asking some important and difficult questions about our own experiences, models, and movements.

Tidings of comfort and joy, and let’s get to business.

Cover photo: Wolfram Burner, Flickr.

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 a masters degree in Indian cinema, theater, and visual art at Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi.

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

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