When people say “survivor,” lots of people hear “victim.” I never liked the term “survivor” much, though I refuse to ever identify myself or someone else as a “victim.” The language of this matters, though it isn’t the point. But to be a “survivor” implies, at least to my ears, that an event begins and ends. I find myself deviating instead toward the questions of living with and through, wondering how to do this with others.
If they tell anyone at all, most people who experience sexual abuse will tell people they trust. That’s a big and elastic if that can stretch out in decades. For me it took eleven years to tell one person, and thirteen years to tell anyone else. It took twenty-two years for me to call myself a “survivor” without shame – except, a little bit, at the inadequacy of terminology.
When and if someone tells someone else, it is because that someone else has made themselves somehow trustworthy – often, by sharing their own experience of abuse. That is, survivors are each other’s comrades. To name this is nothing small. It is nearly impossible, in contexts of abuse, to discover the sense of collectivity that naming this requires.
I’ve read that two out of three sexual assaults go unreported, though I’m not sure how something like this can be knowable. We know what we can, speculating from the partialities that we get from the infrastructure of state violence that appears to so many survivors so thoroughly untrustworthy. For instance, we can take from the Department of Justice what information they have about why they don’t have information. Most who do report to the police do so on behalf of more than themselves.
Survivors don’t often talk to cops, but they do sometimes talk to each other. When they do, they have to carry forward more experiences than are just their own.
Carrying forward. This is where a “survivor-based” politics gets messy. It involves attention. There is the event of the experience and then there is the collectivity we assemble to keep living with everyday trauma. Sharing our experience means just this: sharing it, making it not just ours, but taking the experience from the abuser’s authority all the same. What do we call this other experience when we talk about “survival”? What do we do with these experiences of sharing space with other people’s secrets, and often, of being asked to do what you might have already been told to do by whoever it was who abused you: keep quiet.
Act like nothing happened.
Act like it won’t happen again.
When we tell each other our stories, we often ask this of each other, too. We do this to be quiet together instead of being quiet alone, because there appear to be no other options. We do this to each other in order to live.
A few years ago a woman I barely knew confided in me. It was at first a familiar story. I’d known many friends who’d discovered a partner’s porn collection. But, as she told me in tears, some of the porn featured children. I tried to comfort her. When I started asking questions, though, she started expressing self-doubt. Maybe she was being overly sensitive and she wasn’t really sure how old they were, she told me. They were teenagers — they weren’t any younger than that. She tried to reassure me. It didn’t work. I couldn’t un-hear it.
Whatever it was that she saw, it had clearly disturbed her. She packed up a few bags and started thinking about her options. I don’t know what those options were; he had the job, the car, the lease in his name, the friends who’d start talking about her “breakdown.” About a week later, she moved back in with him.
It was hard to know what to do with this. Overwhelmingly, I felt pressure to do nothing at all. But that didn’t feel possible for me, as her listener. At the very least, I never wanted to see him again, and especially not around my kid.
I haven’t seen that woman in a long time, and I wonder about her often.
A lot of the time it feels unsustainable, knowing how other people have been harmed by other people, and knowing about the potential for more harm, too. Knowing about harm that’s unknown to others does its own kind of damage.
Once you show that you will listen and believe, it won’t ever stop. The stories will keep coming. They’ll pile up around you until you can build a set of walls with them. You’ll do this because to leave this enclosure of other people’s stories means something worse — having to co-exist with this reality as a secret. From the outside it will always look different. Trust will be called a conspiracy.
While we know that sexual abuse happens everywhere and all the time, those who ask us to think of this not just in the abstract are often made to suffer for it. There’s the violence of being raped and then there’s the violence of discovering that people don’t want to know about it. It will appear to many as if to speak of such horrors is simply indulgent. I’ve heard so much about how these responses to sexual abuse prevent us from “getting along,” and hardly ever about the sexual abuse itself.
For once, please let it be an abuser who’s called “divisive.”
Over the years, I heard too many stories about some people. Part of a survivor-based politics is asking “what can I do?” when someone tells you their story. Most of the time they’ll say “nothing.” It isn’t nothing, though – the listening, the secret-keeping, all the ways that this brings back other horrors, all the work it requires to keep that from killing you. If the answer is “nothing” then it means even more.
I have told myself that my politics about sexual violence are survivor-based but I don’t know what that means a lot of the time. When, over and over, secrets come from different people, but are about the same person, it ceases to be about a singular survivor and abuser. The problem we can’t avoid in efforts to be “survivor-based” is how we imagine the survivor. Too often, as if by default, the survivor is cast as an individual, stripped of collective possibility. Watching this pattern play out, over and over and at such extreme risks, should make us wonder how to extract a “survivor-based” practice from the idea of the individual we get from the history of capitalism and liberal thought. The “survivor” is a person but also much more than a person or an owner of experience — a person is an example. We have to be able to think these things at once to get anywhere.
Trauma has a way of dwelling, but sometimes it moves. It moves between other traumas, magnifying some and telescoping others. When we tell each other secrets, we make feminist collectivities. We build toward acting as something more than individuals, and ask of the ways to do this without parties or laws, without cops or prisons, but with each other. It can be the most beautiful thing. After a while, it’s dangerous to pretend that this isn’t happening all the time. It’s dangerous to pretend we’re not noticing this.
At some point, being asked to keep a secret will feel like being asked to lie.
Sometimes the secrets feel like poison. They’re not mine but they became part of me anyway. The work – the listening, believing, sharing – has to happen either way. Yet the less secretively we take on this work, the more this work might be held against us if we are left to be merely individuals. It is hard to know this so well. It is painful. It is hard not to feel scared.
Caring for those who’ve been harmed, traumatizing ourselves in acts of solidarity around trauma, entails facing, at times alone, whatever produces and maintains the silence. It is not enough to have been harmed. To care for those harmed invites the perception of even greater strength to endure even greater harm.
Whispers and warnings spread wherever they can. Acts to protect each other appear suspicious to those who wonder, watching the figure of the abuser become namable and knowable in real life, “Am I next?”
You could be called things. “Crazy”, “pathological”, “angry”, “opportunistic”, “unstable”, “hyperbolic”, “gossiper”, “reactionary”, “unreliable”, “big-mouth”, “ringleader”, “trouble-maker”. They’ll try to make you a witch.
Breaking a silence means being asked for names, testimonies, evidence. These are key strategies of carceral anti-feminism. These strategies ensure that whoever comes forward will be punished. The more you invest in proving it, the more you’ll participate in their carceral logic.
At a strategic level, a survivor-based practice has to be anti-carceral. Breaking silence can’t be about fetishizing punishment, though it will be unavoidably seen in this way and especially by those who are afraid of their own complicity. It could be important to stop paying attention to these nagging voices of disbelief, who will always find more ways out of listening. Resisting carceral thinking involves understanding this pattern with anti-feminist formations, which will endlessly frustrate and renegotiate the terms of believing whoever takes the risks of speaking against the silence.
Being heard by everyone is a silly idea we have sometimes. We hurt ourselves with the hope to be heard by those who will not. We rediscover too often that a culture of sexual violence can’t be reasoned with. There will never be enough ways to reform it and struggle on a case-by-case basis. What will it take to discover instead that it has to be fully left behind?
Women are sometimes asked to talk to other women. I’ve been asked to do this before. And I didn’t realize what I’d done until a woman was sent to talk to me. She told me how to be heard, not why I wasn’t being heard. And she told me that the way to be “heard” was to shut the fuck up.
It should not be surprising that most white women are anti-feminist, but it remains surprising to some because of how ‘feminism’ keeps being re-imagined: as pure capitalist competition, de-linked from race and without a history; as an imaginary of white faces. White women like to speak of ‘womanhood’ but at every turn act against this false universality. White women say “not every woman feels that way” precisely when asked to give up on concepts like “every woman.” I’ve learned these things as a white woman.
There are always volunteers among women and queers to say that they haven’t been personally harmed by systemic abuse, so it’s not actually that bad.
There will always be volunteers to say there’s “no way to know for sure.”
There will always be volunteers to remind you that Brett Kavanaugh has a wife and two daughters.
There will always be volunteers to remind you that the serial abuser in your town has a girlfriend or a wife.
There will always be volunteers to tell you to look at the individuals not the structures.
There will always be volunteers to try to convince you that speaking out against harm is somehow more harmful.
They will do this so that they can feel heard themselves – so that they can feel powerful in their proximity to power. And that feeling only lasts for so long.
“Did anyone ever tell you that you have a face for radio?” A man I knew asked me with a laugh.
He was in my home. He was my friend.
When he said this my body was strapped to a breast-pumping station at my kitchen table. I was something like sixty-five pounds heavier than the year before, and I remember thinking that everything that was ever beautiful about me had evacuated a month or so before and manifested as another creature. What was left of me couldn’t put up a fight. I remember trying to laugh at my friend’s insults — trying to hear them as jokes. I remember wanting to cry but instead watching the milk being pulled out of my body through plastic tubes. When I think back I wonder if my baby could taste this poison.
When you speak up, people will assume both that you are wrong and that you think you know the “right way.” They’ll see acts of solidarity as acts of presumption. They’ll squabble “this stuff isn’t easy,” as if you didn’t already know. There’s so much to be heard, but not that.
There isn’t a right way; there are better and worse ways. No one way works but there is never a way out until it’s all brought down.
What if it no longer worked to be made an example of?
Sometimes people act like transforming is a bad thing. They pretend they’ve always felt one way or another, whichever way the wind blows. They act like they always knew about that band or author or filmmaker. They act like they always disapproved of a sexual abuser, even after accommodating his “habits.” Just like the secrets, the contradictions will pile up.
I prefer to think about transforming to surviving. To transform is to speculate about a revolution taking place beyond the scope of individuals. When we try to transform ourselves, including our relationship to sexual violence, we ask ourselves crucial questions about the possibility to struggle collectively. But this struggle can’t happen in the private life.
We know why. We know that when these conversations happen in homes, among sexual partners, the risk of domestic violence multiplies. We know that to avoid fighting and even inconvenience, political transformation rarely happens in the context of couples, however queer. Without feminist collectivity, this struggle is unthinkable.
This is the trouble with ‘private life.’ It includes the hellish privacy of living with secrets, rather than living through our horrors together. When we care for each other, though often secretly, we catch glimpses of this other thing — a struggle on different, insistent terms.
Survival is not enough and never will be.
Credit for all images: Madeline Lane-McKinley