The following essay is about the ongoing struggle against sexual violence, especially in the context of the last year’s events in Durham, NC. Readers should know that it could trigger difficult emotional responses among survivors and those folks close to survivors.
It’s been a dizzying couple of weeks here in Durham. Rape charges dropped against the lacrosse players. Another survivor’s life poked and prodded by a public that has little interest in her health or happiness. District Attorney Nifong’s scandal. Finnerty and Seligmann invited back to Duke in “good standing.” Survivors of sexual violence re-traumatized by public attacks and re-assertions of one myth about rape after another.
Those of us living here, and those of us struggling to end violence: we’ve been busy. Many of us are survivors and supporters of survivors, and this has been the perfect recipe for a few weeks of nightmares, flashbacks, anxiety, and despair. We’ve been working to heal ourselves and each other, and building strength and strategy for the fight ahead.
In the media frenzy of this case, the lack of instant response has led many to believe we’ve gone away. Not the case. Our timetable is different. Our work is not the work of headlines and sound bytes. We have not gone anywhere.
Be assured. We will continue to fight until the violence ends.
We know that there are people across the country looking for a grounds-eye perspective on this one. Others are better equipped to come with legal analysis and media strategy, but for those of us focused on the long-term struggle to end sexual violence, here’s some thoughts. Please share them with others and take action in your own communities.
1) Sexual violence happens every day. We knew this when the charges first became public; we know it today; we’ll know it until the day it stops. In building a survivor-centered response, this has been our emphasis from the start. We know that anywhere from 1 in 3 to 1 in 8 women will experience sexual assault in the U.S. in her lifetime. Countless men, children, and people who live outside the gender binary are subject to this same plague. It is vital to fight against ALL sexual violence until the day it no longer happens. A crucial part of this fight is believing those who bravely step forward, every single time. This is the first step.
2) It is more likely to happen to people who are more socially, politically, and economically vulnerable. It’s no accident that sexual violence occurs most commonly among women and children. It is a tool to control, humiliate, and batter the bodies and souls of those deemed less-than-human by our society. People of color, prisoners, transgender people, sex workers…anyone historically denied respect, less likely to find sustainable employment, less connected to institutions of power (schools, government, the military, corporations, etc.) is at a greater risk. Every day.
The fact that the survivor in this case is working class and Black has everything to do with the reality of how this case has unfolded. From the lacrosse team’s request for a Black dancer, to the racist attacks heaped on her as she left the party, to the police officer who assumed she was drunk rather than in need of help, her race mattered that night in March. It has mattered since. She has been disbelieved, denigrated, spoken for, spoken about, and stripped of her agency; all without the privileges of whiteness to shield her.
3) Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is real. Imagine the survivor of a traumatic car accident being asked for a second-by-second detailed account of a crash in which she lost a leg and watched her child die. Would we expect that she would tell same exact story twice? Would we call her a liar when it inevitably changed, as certain details became clearer while others clouded?
Anyone who has experienced trauma is going to suffer long-term consequences. Add alcohol or drugs, a disorienting situation, the stress of your trauma’s publicity, threats against your family, and your life’s story splashed across every television in the country the way this survivor’s has; most of us who are close to, or are, survivors were not surprised when the story changes multiple times. We know that it is a reality of survival of any traumatic situation.
4) The judicial system is an unlikely source for justice in the case of sexual violence. In five minutes the other day, I counted in my head the names of over 20 people I know who have survived sexual violence and not reported it. This is the case for the strong majority of survivors. Factor in those who go to the police and are not believed, and those who are believed, have charges pressed, and see them beat or dismissed in a trial or investigation: now you have the typical story of almost all survivors. After all of that, it’s not hard to doubt the legal process.
Further, once a case goes to trial, as we have seen, a person’s life becomes public property. Names, reputations, and lives are dragged through the mud as the defense works for a not-guilty charge, whether or not their client is innocent.
It is hard to believe that someone would make up a story, subject themselves to such scrutiny, only to face tiny odds of legal “success.” I can’t think of a single decision I’ve regretted enough to go through all of that for. For every hyper-publicized account of a false story, there are millions of survivors who never see justice in the courts. Success in a court will never guide my decision to believe.
5) The judicial system is an unlikely source for justice part II. The court systems in this country were created to serve the interests of wealthy white men. They have proven this time and again by denying American Indian land rights, disproportionately sentencing Black men to prison, and claiming that women cannot withdraw consent once it has already been given (see the recent case of Baby v Maryland), among other daily atrocities. The lacrosse players posted bail over $300,000, hired superpower attorneys, and relied on this system to do what it does best, protect their interests. I don’t believe that this is because of malicious bigotry, just a 200-plus-year-old system doing what it is supposed to do.
Most of us never expected that the court case would go far, and we won’t be surprised if ALL the charges are dropped. For us, the successful prosecution of rape charges and a rape actually occurring are two phenomena so different, they’re hardly on the same planet. When a Black woman is involved, historical precedence says that they’re not in the same universe. For centuries, Black women were considered “un-rape-able.” Same system, different case.
6) The judicial system is an unlikely source for justice part III. What justice can the court do here? If imprisoned, these men are at a greater risk of violence at the hands of guards and/or other prisoners than that of women on the outside. For those of us who want sexual violence to end, this is not the answer. Prisons are not around to keep crime from happening, nor “reform” those who have committed it. They are another way for us to legitimize violence and pretend that our problems are solved, when they have merely been relocated.
We must begin to imagine alternatives for real accountability. Throughout the world, survivors are leading community responses that challenge instances of sexual violence, hold people who commit violence accountable, and work to prevent it from ever happening; all without resorting to the violence of prisons.
7) Sex workers are human beings. I’ll say that again: sex workers are human beings. They are not any number of the dehumanizing names I’ve heard tossed about since last March. They are people who have responded to the wretched lack of options that capitalism presents them by taking advantage of one of the few avenues that may allow them survival, material gain, or happiness. One’s means of making a living, regardless of its social “legitimacy,” ought to have little to do with whether or not one is safe from sexual assault.
Many people who disbelieved this survivor’s story from the start did so because of her occupation. It meant, to them, that “she deserved it,” or that “she was asking for it.” No one makes similar comments when a construction worker is hurt in an accident or a police officer is shot on the beat. Sex workers, like Black women and other women of color, are often considered “un-rape-able.” A Black sex worker has a double burden here.
Similarly, many who believed her story did so despite her occupation. They pitied her and prayed for her. They still missed the point. There isn’t anything that a person could do, including taking off her clothes and dancing for people, operating a phone sex hotline, or actually exchanging money for intercourse, that would justify violence or any sexual act against her will.
By denigrating and denying the humanity of sex workers, we simply open the door for more violence.
8) Men find solidarity in violence. The day after the charge was dropped, I was listening to the radio. The DJ asked for women to call the show because all of the men “know what’s going on. She’s lying, lying, lying.” It could have been Bill O’Reilly or Bill Bellamy: across racial lines men have a perception that we are under attack by vicious rape-charging women. In close to 100 workshops I’ve run with men as an activist/organizer against sexual violence over the last 5 years, I don’t think I’ve ever facilitated one and not been confronted with this myth. Over and over again, we are willing to deny the reality of every fourth woman we know and take the side of a man we’ve never met.
Maybe we don’t want anyone to know what we, and our friends, have participated in.
9) White people find solidarity in violence. At the beginning, we heard, “they couldn’t have done it,” as though good-looking, well-educated, well-mannered white men haven’t been responsible for some of the most monstrous acts of inhumanity ever perpetrated. Then it was the “Innocent” wristbands around town, and the Duke Lacrosse shirts in the store at the airport. Now it’s, “look, the legal system is going to work this one out. We’ll find out the truth, and you all should apologize if you were wrong.”
Few of these people actually know these young men. Even fewer were in the house on the night in question. I’m quite certain these assumptions of innocence and/or faith in the court system to serve justice have at least a little bit to do with the guys that we’re dealing with here. These are our sons here, the all-Americans.
The history of white men's sexual violence against Black women in the U.S. is well-documented. I'm not prepared to assume innocence because of these men's whiteness.
10)These men’s lives are not ruined. I don’t envy them, whatever the results are. There will be rough times, prejudicial treatment, and a lost opportunity here and there. If they are, in fact, innocent, this is a travesty.
Their lives, however, are not ruined. Their position in society is allowing them the best defense money can buy. Duke has issued them an invitation for readmission in “good standing.” They will graduate from one of the top schools in the country (Duke or another) and immediately access the network of power and privilege that has brought them safely to this point. Given what’s been said about them in the media, they are likely to be held up as martyrs; heroes who nobly and stoically suffered a horrible injustice.
Having one’s life ruined looks a bit more like perpetual anxiety, nightmares and an inability to sleep; a disconnection from healthy sexuality; a lifetime of therapy, medical bills, and drugs to avoid mental hospitals; stays in mental hospitals; physical wounds that never heal; depression, alcoholism and drug abuse; eating disorders; suicide. Or simply having your life’s plans and daily activities controlled by the constant threat of the reoccurrence of violence. These are the realities of survivors that I have known.
Know that we haven’t gone anywhere. We aren’t going away because these charges have been dropped. We are healing ourselves and each other, and steeling ourselves for the fight ahead. We recognize that alliances will come and go and those responding to the bright lights of controversy will fade when the lights do; but we’ll be here. We will believe. We will struggle until sexual violence no longer exists. We will create a new world.
Bryan Proffitt is a Hip-Hop generation white man who belongs to Men Against Rape Culture (MARC), a Durham, NC-based organization committed to building the struggle to end sexual violence, and Ubuntu, a women of color and survivor led coalition committed to ending sexual violence. He can be reached at bproffitt33[at]yahoo.com. This essay could not exist without survivors, fighters, and lovers. It was shaped and reworked and made infinitely better by the thoughtful support and critical editing of Nancy Wilson, Tema Okun, Aiden Graham, Sam Hummel, Serena Sebring, Bob Pleasants, Michelle Lanier, Kriti Sharma, Precious-Jewel Zebriskie, and Manju Rajendran.
In addition to these points, those who want to support our work can consider the following steps (and many more):
1) Study, and create, models for approaching sexual violence that center survivors and healing, accountability that does not involve prisons, and prevention. Ubuntu is a women of color and survivor led coalition that has grown from the response to the Duke case. Contact us and support our struggle in Durham. (http://iambecauseweare.wordpress.com).
2) Learn about the complexity of race, class, gender, sexual orientation, and sexual violence. Aishah Shahidah Simmons’ groundbreaking film “NO!” (www.notherapedocumentary.org), and the work of INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence are great places to start. Women of color have been at the forefront of this fight since it began. Support them.
3) Fight against the dehumanization of sex workers. By allowing the disrespect of sex workers, we allow the violence against them. Fight both.
4) Confront the double standard that allows for the criticism of sex workers but not the men who participate in the same system in multiple ways. As my friend Tema just wrote me, “in order for ‘boys to be boys,’ women have to be exploited and demeaned and then condemned.”
5) Find out more about sexual violence in prison and challenge “prison rape” humor when it occurs around you. Stop Prisoner Rape (www.spr.org) has some excellent resources.
6) Speak out against sexual violence in your own communities. Challenge men, who perpetrate the overwhelming majority of sexual assaults, to join the struggle. Contact Men Against Rape Culture (firstname.lastname@example.org) for more info.
7) Believe, believe, believe. Believe yourself and believe those around you.
8) Challenge those who accuse survivors of lying to put themselves in the situation of a survivor, or someone close to a survivor. How would they feel about the denials, the skepticism, the questions about “what you were doing there in the first place?” or “what were you wearing that for?”
9) Support organizations like local rape crisis centers and domestic violence shelters. These institutions do the daily work of keeping survivors afloat and creating spaces for refuge from violence.
10) Create art, make meals, dance dances, smile, cry, march in the streets, host community discussions, talk to kids in schools, write letters, heal, and love each other until the day the violence ends.
Be creative, there’s so much you can do.