by Mari Ramsawakh (in conversation with Shriya Hari)
As the #metoo campaign floods social media with posts and accounts of sexual violence and harassment, it has come under fire for putting the burden of change on survivors. As survivors come together and commiserate about their hurt and traumas, what does this campaign do to actually challenge rape culture? Many survivors have been telling their stories for years — fighting to be heard. But now that the stories are out there, what comes next?
In order for #metoo to have an impact on the experiences of survivors and at-risk communities, it has to be followed by meaningful action. Awareness is only one step towards solving a problem, but it’s not the only step. If we want our culture to be one of mutual and enthusiastic consent and not a rape culture, then it is on us as individuals to make the change, and it’s on our institutions to enforce it.
What’s Your Role?
Rape culture can’t be dismantled until we stop distancing ourselves from our participation of upholding it. While it’s difficult, we have to be critical of our own roles in rape culture. And we have to admit that sometimes our roles aren’t just passive. It’s more than just laughing uncomfortably at a rape joke.
- It’s the friend you convinced to hook up with you once, or the time that you got a little handsy while you were drunk, or the time you shrugged off a warning about a friend as gossip.
- It’s the time you told someone that they must have misunderstood because your friend isn’t one of those people.
- It’s the time you watched someone take someone home who can barely walk and don’t say anything.
- It’s the time that even though your friend told you that someone close to you had hurt them, you still stayed their friend.
All of these stories, all of these wounds being reopened, are meaningless if we don’t look at our own actions and identify our own mistakes, and actively change.
Even though I’m not a cis man and I don’t identify as a man, as a transmasculine person I have spent a lot of my life performing masculinity. That includes its toxic bits. And that includes having a moment where I realized that I had hurt someone I hadn’t intended to. There was drinking and exploration. I crossed a boundary and though at the time everything seemed fine and excusable, it felt not quite right afterwards. But just knowing that doesn’t fix anything. It’s not enough to look back and say you’ve made a mistake.
In my case, I ended up reaching out to the person I thought I might have hurt. It wasn’t a conversation I was looking forward to; I knew there could be a possibility that I could be someone’s villain. But I’m not the only one who has to live with it. So I asked how they were and I asked how they felt about what happened. We talked about what happened and what we wanted to do about it afterwards. In this particular case, it was amicable. But it didn’t have to be.
Just apologizing and talking about it isn’t enough. I have tried to keep the situation with me so I wouldn’t have to have another conversation like that again. I have to learn from it or else it will just happen again, and next time the conversation could go a lot worse. So I started checking in with partners more often, especially new ones, and especially while I was drinking.
If we are going to ask survivors to continue to relive their trauma over and over for us, we have to learn from it and do something with it. We have to make tangible changes. We need to do more than just shake our heads if we never look ourselves in the mirror and see our own mistakes. We need to self-reflect and we need to reflect on the actions of those around us. We can’t just say we’re there for survivors, that we’ll do better, and we’re sorry for what they’re going through when we excuse it in ourselves over and over again.
So what should you do if you might have potentially or definitely sexually harassed or assaulted them?
- Consider the situation. Sometimes reaching out can do more harm than good if it was too traumatic for the other person. If it was violent, if they expressed a need to get away from you, then they probably won’t want to be contacted by you.
- If you do decide to reach out, consider who you’re trying to make feel better: if it’s about you, don’t even bother. If you’re not prepared to feel really shitty about yourself, then do not contact the person you’ve harmed. You have to be ready to let them name their experience and that might be labelling you as their rapist.
- Reach out in a way that gives that person a way out. Don’t show up at their home, work, or social outing. Don’t reach out to them through any means that you haven’t communicated before. If you’re blocked, well you know your answer.
- Listen to them. If they decide to tell you what you did wrong, or how you could have done better, be grateful. They don’t owe you that education.
- Make an active change. If you make more mistakes when you’re drinking, stop drinking. Start counselling. Keep your friends from doing the same things. Make a tangible change in yourself. There are plenty of posts and articles and research on how to make those changes. It is up to you to figure out how you can be different. It is not on anyone else but you to become better.
- Be more critical. Everyone is capable of upholding rape culture. You can otherwise be a great person, but if you aren’t actively trying to dismantle rape culture, you are participating in it. That means standing up to your friends, and others, when they’re doing something you don’t agree with. That means listening when someone is standing up to you. Be more critical of your own actions, be more critical when you’re defending your friend who’s a “great guy, really.”
Where’s The Support?
While we need to call on each other and hold ourselves accountable, we need to also ask how the services and supports that already exist could be better. Another nuance writer Shriya pointed out that there is a pervasive issue in the ways that sexual violence is divorced from sexual health supports and services. While it’s important to not conflate sex with violence, we can’t simply separate the two issues.
“But there is no question that sexual violence is a health issue — a sexual health issue, a mental health issue, a physical health issue — how could it not be, after all?” she wrote on Facebook.
She pointed out the way that these services and supports are organized, from funding to advocacy, often enforce the separation of sexual violence from sexual health.
“This separation is artificial. This separation splits survivors into two halves, creates/constructs (at least, and if not more than) two distinct subjects that then have to deal with state/NGO/nonprofit services in distinct ways: the rape survivor, and the person dealing with health/medical issues in the aftermath.”
Shriya pointed to Kimberlé Crenshaw who had coined the term intersectionality and has written about the way Black women’s experiences had been ignored having always been viewed through the lens of white women’s or Black men’s experiences. She also pointed to Audre Lorde who said in 1982, “There is no such thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives.”
“Yet still, we see these artificial splitting of sexual health and sexual violence at so many levels. We see the prioritisation of the single-issue structure — not just in funding structures or organization of supports and services, but even in the wake of #metoo,” wrote Shriya. “Ask yourself how many articles have been written linking sexual assault to sexual health in the wake of #metoo, with #metoo as a pertinent call not just to men to wake up, not just to survivors to compel them to stand together, but also to sexual health groups to say #metoo is our issue too.”
While we want to exist in a world where we can separate sexual violence from sexual health, we can’t ignore that it happens. We can’t have conversations about sexual health without conversations about consent, without conversations about supporting survivors, without conversations about boundaries and power dynamics. We need to have systems and processes that support survivors as they report or seek support, without retraumatizing them. We can have sex without sexual violence, but until our institutions are willing to stand up for victims, we can’t stop having these conversations.
Integrated Health/Counselling/Legal Services
Women’s College Hospital: Sexual Assault and Domestic Violence Care Centre (24/7 service)
Planned Parenthood Toronto: Counselling and Case Coordination
Barbra Schlifer: Counselling and Legal Services
Toronto Rape Crisis Centre: Counselling services and Crisis Line (24/7)
Assaulted Women’s Helpline: 24/7 Crisis Line
LGBT Youth Line: Text, Chat, Phone