[This talk was given on March 3rd 2018 at a talk for a Heforshe event at the Ohio State University.]
I want to start by quoting a short poem by the British author Jane Commane. The poem is called ‘Landmarks’ and it describes the threat of violence in our everyday spaces, asks how or why we are supposed to negotiate that.
Our geographies are different,
Pierced by landmarks like this;
Secluded lanes, alleyways, parks,
emptying train carriages, taxi cabs,
stairwells, public toilets, almost all
open spaces when unaccompanied.
Then, those other landscapes of threat;
working late alone, short-cuts home,
the party where the first drink swipes
your running feet from under you,
the stranger or the friend you trusted.
It can happen almost anywhere.
And too often, it does.
We fold up this tattooed map of threats,
carry it everywhere we go.
This poem was published a few years before #metoo went viral on social media, but it is certainly prescient in mapping out the prevalence and routineness of sexual and gender violence in everyday spaces: spaces where we work, public spaces that we have to negotiate in order to live our lives, intimate spaces that are supposed to be safe. In this speech, I would like to consider #metoo and the journey that we have already towards understanding this phenomenon, before considering possibilities for the future for #timesup and beyond.
I speak to you this evening as someone who has been working to correct perceptions of sexual violence for over ten years in my academic work, and in my teaching. Very often doing the work I do has felt like living in a parallel universe. In the world of my everyday life, sexual and gender violence is so often ignored, sidelined, covered up, while my research revealed the horrifying extent of the problem.
The prevalence of sexual and gender violence was also revealed to me through my work with students: in fact, some of the work that I am most proud of has been in helping students come to terms with experiences of violence through creative writing. On poetry courses that I have taught here and in England, one particular workshop is on dreams, and it puts forward the idea of using dreams language – symbols and surreal stories – as a means to talk about the difficult or troubling moments from one’s life.
Sigmund Freud described dreams as enacting “the liberation of the spirit from the pressure of external nature, a detachment of the soul from the fetters of matter,” and for these students, writing about their lives as dreams gave them a sense of freedom, and allowed to write about events even if they still felt ashamed or guilty about what had happened. What became clear in holding these workshops is that many of the students who took part wanted to write about sexual and gender violence, especially but not only women, and it occurred with greater and greater regularity over the years. It was through my teaching then that I began to see how widespread such violence is. As an activist, an educator, a creative writer, and a survivor, I began to realize that I was not alone, and that change might be possible.
In fact, the classroom has the potential to be a life-changing, transformative space for all involved. It is worth remembering that the #metoo movement began in the 1990s in a classroom setting. Civil rights activist Tarana Burke was working in a school, when, as the New York Times reports, she was confronted by a thirteen year old girl who began to talk about her experiences of sexual abuse. Burke was shocked by the admission, and she felt frustrated by her own inability to comfort this young girl. Burke described how “I didn’t have a response or a way to help her in that moment, and […] [i]t really bothered me, and it sat in my spirit for a long time.”
The answer that Burke invented was #metoo, because as Burke explains: “We use a term called ’empowerment through empathy.’ And ‘Me Too’ is so powerful, because somebody had said it to me—right?—and it changed the trajectory of my healing process once I heard that.”
So this is where we have come so far, finding each other, finding empathy and a kind of collective voice, a kind of collective power. But that has also meant finding out hard facts about the way in which violence works: how though it falls on all of us who have said #metoo, it falls hardest upon the poor, on folks of color, on those who do not fit conventional ideas about what gender or sexuality look like, non-binary people, and though men often perpetrate violence, they can also be victims of it too. We know now that it is not enough to have empathy with white celebrities, though we may sorrow with them, but we must go forward by protecting the most vulnerable, and that means groups including but not limited to black women, immigrants, trans- people, bisexuals, non-binary folks, and Native American women. (I mention these groups in particular because they have been pinpointed as suffering particularly high rates of violence.)
And now we come to the question which is what all of us here tonight really care about, which is having found each other, what do we do about this violence? One initiative being set up is gathered around the hashtag #timesup. Set up in response to the momentum after the Harvey Weinstein scandal, #timesup seeks to take practical measures to combat sexual harassment in particular, one notable aspect being a $13 million legal defense fund based in the National Women’s Law Center, and the emphasis is on helping women on low-incomes who want redress for workplace harassment or assault. #timesup’s defence fund seeks to help the most vulnerable people who may have even fewer resources than we do, even if we are all survivors.
The point is that if we are seeking to redress and correct these violences, justice cannot just be for rich or middle-class white people, and one thing that I would like to see come out of #timesup is a radical kind of deep imagining. What do we need to correct to create a world where this kind of violence does not happen? We need to think about poverty, and how that makes specific groups of people vulnerable. We need to think about rape culture and the myths that it promotes, including racist ideas about non-white women and their sexuality. We need to look at how LGBTQ communities are still stigmatized in media cultural narratives, especially trans people. We need to critique our institutions – the police, medical care, government, and we need to consider radical new forms of community or restorative justice, because the current justice system is not working well for victims. We need to think about reproductive rights, and who seeks to control women’s bodies. We need to think about sex education, and the scripts that young people are taught.
Another important aspect of mobilizing against sexual and gender violence is the development of different strategies to combat different kinds of violence. Sexual harassment in the workplace is different to intimate partner violence for example, and street harassment is different to date rape. We can argue that there is commonality, but it is worth considering that one task before us is to create specific strategies to combat specific kinds of violence.
And how might we enact the ideals of #Timesup on campus? Campus has been proven to be an extremely dangerous public space. Documentaries like The Hunting Ground have brought attention to what researchers in this area have known for a long time: that sexual and gender violence are pervasive on campus. Most studies tend to find that 25% of female students have experienced sexual violence, a number that is probably suppressed due to under-reporting, as are the numbers for men who experience violence due to stigma about male victimhood. So what can we do?
- Examine our institutional responses.
For example, I am currently finishing off an ethics review so that I can interview students from various universities who have been through Title IX hearings, the objective being to listen to survivors’ demands about what they need.
- Work with existing prevention programs on campus.
The Office for Sexual Civility and Empowerment is always looking for student ambassadors to help deliver educational programs about consent or sexual scripts for example.
- Work with programs that seek to help vulnerable communities in Columbus.
#timesup cannot just be a middle-class club. We can work with projects and charities in the wider community, like SARNCO, BRAVO or Equality Ohio, which are seeking to help poor and vulnerable subjects to find the resources they need.
- Consider the broader issues and how they affect campus life.
This could mean everything from the erosion of LGBTQ rights, the demonization of non-white people in the political sphere, or the denial of reproductive rights to women.
- Make what change you can in your future career.
Students from all over the university are committed to this change: they are budding social workers and lawyers, teachers and doctors, anti-violence advocates and counselors, writers and dancers, and they all take with them to whatever career they enter a readiness to challenge the way things are, and to make what change they can.
- Above all find joy in living.
To be happy after experiencing violence is indeed subversive, because so often victims are labeled as irrevocably damaged. Of course, you cannot forget experiences of violence, nor should you have to, but whatever has happened in the past, we are the ones who have survived and we now have a chance to bring others with us: we have a chance to ensure that we can prevent violences from happening to future generations: we have a chance to make #metoo and #timesup so much more than hashtags. As Burke puts it, #metoo “wasn’t built to be a viral campaign or a hashtag that is here today and forgotten tomorrow, but was a catchphrase to be used from survivor to survivor to let folks know that they were not alone and that a movement for radical healing was happening and possible.”