FORCE: Upsetting Rape Culture cares deeply about the values and accountability of the movement to end sexual violence. Along with our fellow activists, we have the responsibility to engage in open and honest reflection on how we do our work, how our identities and privilege impact this, and how we can and must do better.
We want this reflection to be part of our participation in One Billion Rising. In sharing our critiques of V-Day and One Billion Rising, our goal is to support the movement's growth, not to tear it down. We recognize that FORCE has benefitted from the in-roads created by Eve Ensler, V-Day and One Billion Rising. In many ways our work would not be possible without the space the Vagina Monologues has created to talk about sexual violence. We want to be part of a movement where even the most successful and well-known leaders acknowledge space to grow and improve.
We want this self-reflective conversation to reach the One Billion Rising base, particularly women who benefit from being straight, white, middle class and/or cisgender. For those of us that experience privilege, we need to reflect on how our privileges shape the movement we are working together to build. We urge the one billion of One Billion Rising to join us in this conversation of self-awareness and self-reflection prior to, during, and beyond V-Day.
The movement can only benefit from it.
As the founders of FORCE, Hannah and Rebecca, we are able-bodied, college educated, white-presenting, cisgender women. Rebecca is queer and Hannah is straight. We are both survivors and come to this work through our personal experiences. Now that FORCE affects a base much broader than two survivors, it is more important than ever to examine and remain aware of how our identities shape our work. We hope to find ways, alongside other feminists, to discuss and confront our privilege, rather than perpetuating systems of oppression by choosing to ignore it.
As white feminists, to understand deeply how sexism has hurt us, but not examine how our white skin unduly benefits us, is deeply disingenuous. If our understanding of our place in the movement is to be fair and complete, we must understand how we experience both privilege and oppression. Rape thrives on inequity. Rape does not live in a vacuum where gender is the sole system of oppression. An intersectional approach is necessary to not only end violence against marginalized people; it is necessary to end violence against everybody and every body.
For one, we acknowledge the privilege we have in writing this without fear of being subsequently accused of being divisive, like many women of color experience when they publish thoughtful critiques. We also acknowledge the years we have spent learning about privilege from feminists of color, who are often made to point out white feminist's failings of privilege and teach us how to do better -- an undue burden. We also support movement-builders that choose not to participate in One Billion Rising and would rather call One Billion Rising out than call it in. We don't presume our perspective or approach is better than others.
FORCE appreciates the strategy that Ngọc Loan Trần recently wrote about and is "calling in" our movement to think critically and thoughtfully about the following:
V-Day and Gender Essentialism
While we understand the importance of celebrating and in turn destigmatizing vaginas, centralizing biologically female genitals in efforts to end rape culture is problematic because it leaves very little to no room for trans* and gender queer people to be part of the conversation or share their experiences.
Trans* and gender non-conforming people in the United States experience sexual violence at rates significantly higher than cisgender people. In a 2011 report by the National Center for Transgender Equality and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, transgender respondents were 5 times more likely to have survived sexual violence than cisgender women and 21 times more likely than cisgender men.
When we see cisgender men's role in the movement solely as allies or perpetrators, we silence male survivors. We must engage men as survivors first. When 1 in 6 men are sexually abused as children, carrying the assumption that the men we encounter in our work are not survivors is hurtful and wrong.
Our assumptions of who experiences sexual violence come directly from the rigid gender norms that create rape in the first place. To open the story of sexual violence to other genders is not only accurate and truthful, but necessary to uprooting the deep cultural roots of rape.
One Billion Rising, White Feminism and Neo-Colonialism
With regard to One Billion Rising, it is deeply problematic to engage in global feminism as American women without talking about colonialism. Without doing so, our work is likely to fall into the white savior complex.
As @PrisonCulture and Andrea Smith recently wrote, "women of color generally occupy the space of ethnographic object within the mainstream. We are there to be "understood" "theorized about" and "reflected upon" by white feminists in order to facilitate their self-reflection and personal education."
This insightful analysis rings true when it comes to One Billion Rising. While raising awareness about violence against women in the Congo, the movement remains mostly silent about systemic violence against people of color in our own country. White Americans' attention would be best spent understanding how racism creates and perpetuates rape. We have the most access and responsibility to change that part of rape culture.
As FORCE, it is not our place to say whether or not One Billion Rising is good or bad for Congolese women. We don't presume to know what Congolese women want for themselves. What disturbs us is when we hear assumptions being made that American feminist values are what's best for women in Congo, India, and well, everywhere! Whether or not it's One Billion Rising's intention, these attitudes are what we often observe within their events and conversations. Without talking openly about the "we-know-best" attitude we have inherited from colonialism, our American movement toward global feminism will export unexamined privilege, not radical social change.
When, as Americans, our most horrific examples of sexual violence are consistently from foreign countries, we have a problem. We confuse ourselves into thinking that sexual violence in this country is somehow less horrific. The closer an injustice lies, the harder it is to spot. Constantly pointing to violence in far away places dulls our ability to name the violence that is thriving in our schools, churches, neighborhoods, families and homes.
And speaking of injustice in our backyard, the call for justice within the anti-violence movement needs to reconcile itself with the deep racial injustice of American prisons. How can a violent institution be the answer to ending sexual violence? We know that rape is the most under-prosecuted crime. We also know that people of color are the most prosecuted, sentenced and imprisoned group of people. We cannot solve one system of oppression--sexual violence--with another system of oppression--prisons.
We believe deeply that survivors deserve to live in communities that hold their rapists and abusers accountable. We also believe deeply that only individual survivors can self-determine what their approach to healing and justice looks like. It is not our place to tell survivors that they should or should not report their crime. As long as we turn to the criminal justice system as our main or only way to hold rapists accountable, our movement ignores the needs of communities who, when interacting with that system, experience racism--not justice.
The Telling of Survivors' Stories
Survivors are experts on their own experiences. Creating space for survivors to speak their truth and break through a culture of silence is different than telling their stories for them, or claiming them as your own by proclaiming them "not separate from each other or from me."
With the Monument Quilt, we are not giving voice to the voiceless. We are not retelling a story that a survivor has already told. We are creating a space and platform where it is safe for survivors to speak their own truth, as they feel comfortable doing so.
We credit V-Day and One Billion Rising with helping to make these conversations about sexual violence more public and less isolating. And we need to continue having public conversations about the lived experiences of survivors, but we must ensure that the survivor has the most agency and control over their story.
Especially when a straight, white leader is working in communities of color or LGBTQ communities, the paradigm of "giving voice" is problematic. Their stories should not have to come through a straight, white mouth to be heard or validated.
We are indebted to many feminists of color who, through pointing out our privilege, create space for reflection and growth including, Mia McKenzie, the Crunk Feminist Collective, Mikki Kendall, Suey Park, Andrea Smith, and "Prison Culture".
The writing contained here is not earth shattering, profound or anything that has not already been said. We don't deserve credit for these ideas, but rather are indebted to the people who have been pointing out privilege within feminism for far longer than we.
It is our responsibility as activists to be open to feedback and thoughtful criticism. Our first response to being called out, or in, might be to feel defensive and hurt, but we must recognize that this work is much larger than ourselves. We are humbled by the amazing work being done to end rape culture and look forward to creating the movement we have called us in for.