In #MeToo era, 'solidarity' requires taking better care of the stories and survivors of sexual violence
We have been hearing accounts of sexual violence in an unprecedented manner online for almost half a decade now. But even after several waves of #MeToo, we are still struggling to get the concept of solidarity right.
“It feels like people are making your trauma about themselves,” my therapist told me, for what was perhaps the umpteenth time since I recounted how an internet-famous feminist — who had built her following on believing survivors and cancelling perpetrators of sexual violence — accused me of using woke language to vilify exes and branded me a “habitual liar”, after asking me to describe my assault in detail.
As my therapist noted, this was about me: The fact that I carried immense trauma after I was sexually assaulted and severely emotionally abused by a man I trusted with my time and emotions and body; the fact that I reported him to the police hoping that due process would be some kind of acknowledgement of my trauma so that I could heal and move on; the fact that I named him online so I could enforce a much-needed boundary after he began a smear campaign when I tweeted about his abuse anonymously to lighten the burden of my trauma.
We have been hearing accounts of sexual violence in an unprecedented manner online for almost half a decade now. But even after several waves of #MeToo, we are still struggling to get the concept of solidarity right. In her book, What We Talk About When We Talk About Rape, Sohaila Abdulali wrote, “Certainly, more cases are reported than ever before, but one thing stays the same: the victim remains the least important factor.”
In a feminist existential crisis of sorts, I looked up the official #MeToo Movement’s history and vision late one night. The page mentions the word ‘perpetrator’ just once, that too alongside the word ‘accountability’. But the word ‘survivor’ appears four times, and the word ‘community’ three times. My #MeToo reality, however, has been quite the opposite: I expected #MeToo to provide me what the punitive due process system wouldn’t. How it ended up being though, was exactly — and painfully — like due process.
We collectively chant “Believe Survivors” but fail to grasp the weight of those words. What was supposed to be a resolute chant to facilitate healing and a sense of security while furthering conversations on justice and rehabilitation for survivors of sexual violence was actually being used as a war cry to demonise perpetrators and glorify those naming and shaming them. In the ensuing ruckus, the one person who matters most — the survivor — is forgotten.
In an interview with Vox, the creator of the ‘Shitty Media Men List’ Moira Donegan says, “We live in a culture where it is historically presumed that women are both less competent and less honest than men.” The call to believe women “asserts women’s capacities as knowers and as credible interpreters of their own experience,” she notes. It really is as simple as that.
Survivors of sexual assault are discredited and disbelieved upon speaking up, forcing them to carry the burden of their trauma all by themselves. This in turn re-traumatises and re-victimises them, and does nothing to build a world free of sexual violence. To approach survivors from a place of belief is to fix the first step, to shift the starting point.
Believing a survivor isn’t the end of the conversation, it is the beginning.
“Believe Survivors” isn’t going to mean much until we learn to center survivors. A common misconception about solidarity that makes believing survivors so difficult is [that it requires] vilifying those they speak up about. It is not our place to dictate how and when someone speaks up about their trauma, but how we choose to react when they do speak up, is on us. This punitive dragging of perpetrators fuels the revenge narrative that pushes survivors into silence.
When I spoke up about my assault, I neither vilified anyone, nor do I desire to do anything of that sort. Whenever I have been asked what I want, I’ve made clear that it is to simply carry on with my life with the lightest burden possible — which will come with acknowledgement, an apology and ideally some kind of reparation for the harm caused to me.
The problem is not that we survivors see perpetrators carry on with their lives; the problem is that we see perpetrators carry on with their lives as if nothing happened when we can’t do the same. That is why we speak up. The burden of trauma is too heavy to carry alone.
Moreover, demonising one perpetrator does nothing to address the systems that permit and normalise sexual violence in the first place. Centering the survivor provides us with a framework where we can not only ease that burden for them, but also find the solutions we need to build a world that is safer, kinder, and devoid of the traumas we speak about, which addresses the prevalent systems of power and misogyny.
There is immense power in simply being heard. As Sohaila Abdulali writes: “The minute you speak, the moment you write your own narrative, the second you open your mouth, you are no longer just a victim. You are taking back some control. It is the opposite of victimhood.”
If survivors speak up in hopes of securing justice, and the goal and purpose of serving justice is to ensure that the trauma doesn’t define the survivor’s life moving forward, then it is only fair that that courtesy be extended to the perpetrator too. And this should reflect in the solidarity we show.
How is it justice for anyone if we do not create structures to prevent re-offences or systems of accountability that cater to the survivor’s needs instead of vilifying perpetrators?
#MeToo provided us a new direction in the fight against misogyny and rape culture. It asked us to focus on the survivor, on healing, on addressing the need for systemic change within legal structures, on recognising the prevalence of sexual violence and the societal flaws that enable it all. It urged us to revisit how we view trauma and sexual violence.
Our failure has been recreating a punitive justice system that doesn’t support survivors in their time of need. We focused on vilifying individual perpetrators and patting ourselves on our backs for it rather than centering those harmed, in the conversation on justice. We glorified those who gained clout by speaking on behalf of survivors but forgot to ask survivors if they got what they wanted once their story dropped out of public memory. We didn’t ask if those we named and shamed were rehabilitated and wouldn’t engage in re-offences.
However, there is reason for optimism, in what we could learn from the last few years. For that we need to really understand what it means to center a survivor.
In my case, I maintain that speaking up about my assault and filing an FIR was an act of self-love — not of vengeance or hate. On that long Friday afternoon I spent at the police station and the same evening when I spoke up online, my abuser was the last thing on my mind. All I could think of was: how can my trauma be validated, who will tell me that I will heal and that we will work together to make the world safer so I don’t have to fear this happening again, to me or anyone else? Shouldn't solidarity mean the same compassion and love and kindness towards me too?
The author's name has been kept confidential on request.
— Featured illustration © Namaah K for Firstpost
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