Who are rape survivors?

28 January, 2012 § 6 Comments

Recently I commented on twitter “Ironically, a post about making safe spaces for abuse victims made me feel so unsafe, as an abuse survivor, that I’m afraid to post.” The exact discussion isn’t important (and, in fact, linking directly to it is probably counterproductive) but I want to talk about some of the social forces at play, because this sort of alienation from actions putatively in our name is not uncommon for me and, I imagine, is not uncommon for other survivors of rape. I dunno. Maybe it’s just me. Tell me in the comments!

On the surface, social activism / action on behalf of rape survivors is pretty much completely unobjectionable. We are a pretty needy group, in terms of both immediate resources and care and also long term support, and we’re socially seen as very pitiable and in need of help (there’s a separate issue here, but not the one I’m driving at.) It makes for a good cause. But, of course, the reality is much more complicated.

When choosing to help a problematized group, such as rape survivors, an activist can take two options. They can either attempt to help the group in total, which is pretty much the legitimate, morally valid choice, or they can choose to help only the subset of the group that subscribes to their social prejudices and preconceptions, which is pretty much despicable in its effect, regardless of how well intentioned the actor is.

A lot of the speaking on behalf of rape survivors that happens in parts of the internet I frequent is the latter, not the former. There are groups that do the former (Rape Crisis and RAINN, as institutions if not always in specific instances, are really great institutions and wholly deserving of your respect, as well as your moral and material support), but they’re not what I want to address here.

When you choose to deal with rape survivors, you don’t get to only deal with ideal rape survivors. Rape survivors, are, as a class, are not ideal. Compared to the general populace, we are more likely to be criminals, drug users, drug addicts, alcoholics, depressed, have PTSD, have other mental illness, have socially or politically problematic sexualities, be unemployed, be homeless, be socially maladjusted, suicidal, and more prone to, ourselves, be rapists. Further complicating things, rape survivors form an enormous cross-section of our society, coming from all social classes, races, genders, and biological sexes. Rape survivors are, in short, not an easy group to work with.

If a would be actor is made uncomfortable by this, there are three possible responses. The first, totally admirable, is to mold themselves until they are comfortable seeing rape survivors for who we are and working with us on our own terms, whatever those are (and, given our enormous diversity, that’s likely going to vary survivor to survivor.) The second, also totally admirable, is to simply take that altruistic urge and use it towards a different, more comfortable form of activism, or in a role removed from direct interaction with other people. This is great as well. The last, and seriously problematic reaction, is to simply discard any rape survivors that the actor sees as “unacceptable” by any means, to void them of their legitimacy and often of their very existence. This is not acceptable, and it’s actively harmful not only to the rape survivors that it dismisses, but also to rape survivors as a class, because it paints a dangerously erroneous portrait of us, usually one based in patriarchal values and rape culture.

The traditional (patriarchal) view of rape is that it is a crime committed by monsters against innocents, and that monsters and innocents are not legitimately intersecting groups. See nifty venn diagram, below (I worked hard on these Venn Diagrams: if you want to get brownie points with me, praise them.)

In this view of rape, activism on behalf of rape victims, and really anti-rape activism in general, becomes a matter of sheltering the innocents from the ravages of the monsters. See next nifty venn diagram.

This ranges everywhere from the KKK putatively protecting white women from rape at the hands of liberated black men to a modern feminist blog attempting to make a putatively safe space for rape survivors by ostracizing all men, or (in another example) anyone who has a problematic sexuality or problematic sexual history.

The idea is that the activists, as knights in shining armor, are here to protect the delicate rape survivors and would-be rape survivors from the ravages of the horrible rapists. It’s a highly motivating narrative, partially because it casts the activists in a wholly noble role, and frames the entire action in a clear Mannichean duality between good and evil.

It is also wrong.

Here is an actual view of rape survivors and rapists.

In this view, which is considerably more troubling, rapists and rape survivors are both humans, not innocents and not monsters. Thus, there can be (as there actually is) an overlap between survivors and perpetrators. When an activist holds this in their head, and really understands it, the role of activism changes dramatically. It cannot be the role of activist to protect would-be and present victims from the ravages of the monstrous rapists. It must be the goal of activism to provide comfort for anyone who needs it and, in a strategic sense, to shrink the entire diagram whether by psychological support, social change, or other means.

This is much, much harder. I understand not wanting to accept it: if I were in a position not to accept it, I would clearly reject it, on two grounds. First, it creates a lot of headaches for me. Second, it massively conflicts with social indoctrination about what rape is, who does it and to whom. But if we’re going to be see clearly, if we’re going to actually address the problems of rape in a single person’s life, let alone in all of society, we have to be able to formulate our world views in this more complex and more difficult way.

That means that, for instance, safe spaces for rape survivors must also be safe spaces to express problematic sexuality and problematic sexual history, up to and including talking about rape that a survivor committed. I’m not saying that there should be support for actually raping people in the present, and the victims must be acknowledged, but a space in which having done something wrong (whether it be rape or some other violence) 10 years ago invalidates your presence in the space is not a safe space for rape survivors, because, for many of us, it means not being able to address the effects of rape in our personal lives directly and clearly and honestly. Likewise, a space where, say, being a BDSM fetishist is unacceptable similarly leaves no room for honesty. And, without that honesty, there can’t be healing.

Ironically, such spaces are perfectly fine for people who are rapists and actively continuing to be perpetrators. Such people are not particularly interested in self-reflection or honesty, and are often perfectly capable of negotiating the rules (whatever they are) of the space while still silencing victims and recruiting more.

A last point I want to add, which is kinda particular to me, is that the contrasting views of rape above are, explicitly, sexist and patriarchal, even as they are reified and propagated in feminist spaces. It is not by accident that we culturally paint most men as rapists, and most women as victims. To that end, I’d like to just throw up two more diagrams, for discussion and dissection either in the comments or at a later date.

(Note: None of these diagrams are to scale.)


§ 6 Responses to Who are rape survivors?

  • Joe Mcdaldno says:

    Looking at all these diagrams, I immediately see another reason why the “patriarchal model of anti-rape activism” exists and gets perpetuated by people.

    It was easy (for one particular meaning of easy) to draw the line of activism onto the patriarchal model. The real world implication is that when someone adopts this mindset, it is clear what needs to be done as an activist. One needs to keep the rapists at bay and the rape survivors sheltered.

    But looking at the factual models, there’s nowhere to “put” the activism. One can’t simply scribble a dot or draw a line and say, “There. That’s where our activism goes and that’s what it looks like.” No… with the factual model, you actually need to step inside of the venn circles, to constantly re-evaluate, to exist not outside of the situation and context.

    That kind of activism is hard. It’s messy and sometimes it provokes deep doubt. It requires one to struggle with multiple, conflicting perspectives.


    I spent a couple of years supporting people with developmental disabilities, mental health issues, and learning disabilities. Some of my coworkers had a “new school” attitude, and some an “old school” attitude.

    The old school attitude looks very similar to the Patriarchal Anti-Rape Activism diagram. Here’s where the needy people are, here’s where the dangerous world is, and we need to be a rigid wall that keeps the two sides separate. Sometimes, it was “for the good of the community,” but often it was for “the good of the individual.”

    And so what would happen is that these coworkers would set out to deny their supported folks from access to anything problematic. And the result was that we were trying to keep a group of adults from their own sexuality, their own anger, their own fears, their own desires. We were trying to deny them access to the things we held most dear in our own lives. It didn’t benefit anyone, and it led to a lot of dysfunctional support networks that perpetuated social barriers rather than bridging them. It was a painful situation to try to work alongside.

    The other approach is a lot more complicated. It involves acknowledging that your role isn’t to make decisions for people, but to help them navigate their decisions with integrity and awareness. It involves acknowledging that people are going to have problematic behaviors.

    Speaking to a similar topic, this dude I really like (Vaclav Havel) said something along the lines of, “It is difficult and impractical, but frankly, I know of no other way to act with integrity.”

    It’s a total bummer that there’s no clear-cut lines of activism to draw onto the factual model.

    • Ben Lehman says:

      Thank you for your comment. I think this is really on point. Realistic activism is always going to be harder than idealized activism: a hard thing to do is figure out how to not make the complexities of realism into paralysis.

  • accountabilityarchives says:

    this actually sounds like the argument the highly privileged man who sexually abused me uses, along w the community who enabled him. he always complained i was overly manichean and judgmental, and get women to be his caretaking nurturers to enable and coddle him about his sad life.

    writeup here:

    • benlehman says:

      I apologize for taking so long to get back to your comment. Reading the text you posted was very difficult for me, and it made for slow going. He reminds me very much of my maternal grandfather, which is to say, the text was triggering (not in the formal PTSD way but in the informal left-wing activist blogosphere way) and thus it made difficult reading.

      I don’t intend to give life or support to any of his arguments, such as they are. I say “such as they are” because they don’t read to me like sincere arguments or sincere ideas. Rather, they read to me like someone who, either through cynicism or desperation (my bet is cynicism) is reaching for anything that they could possibly find to make themselves “right” in a trivial sense, rather than, you know, sincerely admitting error and making attendant changes. The idea that he might have to sacrifice his power and privilege is more scary than, you know, the horrible shit that he actually did.

      My words exist regardless of my intent, though. Inasmuch as what I posted does give life or support to this shit, it’s wrong. (I’d love it if you could point out specifics, so that I could learn from this.)

      But, I say this as someone concerned with you as a fellow rape survivor, his bullshit needs to be immaterial to you. You are not going to be friends with your rapist. You are not going to be able to safely or sanely occupy the same social circles with your rapist. You need to burn those bridges and start constructing social groups made up of healthy people who can provide you with the love and support you’re going to need, now and throughout your life, both as a rape survivor and a human.

      Fuck him. And fuck anyone who listens to his bullshit.


      P.S. I use some very strong language there (“you need” etc.) Please read this as an indication of strong emotion, rather than actual imperatives. I know you only from a couple of internet comments: I’m not equipped to actually provide you with good advice except in the most general of terms.

      • bq says:

        will process a bit too. when reading the post, i did not know entirely where you were coming from and going, since i do not really know you.

        as to your question, i got upset when people on my first/ex accountability team said stuff about how they didn’t want to “demonize”/”excommunicate” him from org spaces, and pointed out that perpetrators sometimes lash out because of traumas from their own past, people aren’t good and evil in terms of black and white, etc. so sometimes i get really wary when the conversation starts to look like that (re: manichean dualism, perpetrators having lived through traumas too), because it reminds me of his sneering about my lack of political/theoretical/whatever sophistication. also his expectation during the years that i should feel sorry for him bc of his sad life, fulfill gendered expectations for caretaking work, and efface myself. that first group ended up doing none of the necessary work whatsoever (other than using it to advertise to others their activist cred and novels and performance projects), and i had to get a new one. so i’ve gotten upset before with that kind of language being placed on me as an extra burden by people involved in this situation.

  • accountabilityarchives says:

    Here’s an email I had written: This is from the transcript where he told a a friend about his current ideations in the attempt to actually elicit pity for himself, after dodging accountability for a year. Who gets to define what “punitive” is? Why are we equating keeping violent oppressors out of org spaces with the prison system? And what’s with the ridiculous handwringing abou state intervention for an ultra privileged, older, affluent Yale grad who grew up in Long Island suburbs and made condescending remarks about my lack of an Ivy League education and supposed lack of political sophistication.

    16 minutes agoSaurav Srkr
    i had no idea she had a suicide attempt but it doesn’t matter

    16 minutes agoSaurav Srkr
    look i have a lengthy apology
    which details every single way i feel that i have or have not been abusive toward her
    i haven’t shared it with her, even thought it would make me feel better, because a) i’m scared abotu sharing some of the contents with anyone b) i’m shared of sharing most of the contents with her in particular based on her actions
    however, given that this is a year later, at this point, i’m not going to allow myself to be held hostage forever
    if there’s an accountability process that involves someone sane and with a sense of compassion i’m happy to participate it
    i seriously doubt that’s the kind of accountability process that i could look forward to it

    she could have said NO at any point

    it’s just that she sets it up as total unequals
    and i feel like a caricature of an abuser and an oppressor at times
    i know i behaved immaturely and badly and that because of the unequal positions we were in that was Wrong with a capital W

    look, i can accept a lot of what you’re saying, but what people have been saying to me in response when i say how horrible i am and how badly i behaved is that i should accord SOME agency to her

    Saurav Srkr
    you know why i was honest with you?
    because i trust you emotionally
    you why i don’t want to deal with her? because i don’t trust her emotionally
    i don’t think she understands the difference betweeen justice,
    healing, and revenge
    and accountability is a word that covers all three

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