The Value of Vigil(ance) in Ending Sexual Violence

A vigil, the free collection of bodies choosing to be present, is exactly the right space to re-shape our understandings of sex and sexual violence. The freedom of participation and movement showcases the basis of the society and sexual practice we want emerge.
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What do we here in the U.S. take away from the brutal gang-rape and death of Jyoti Singh Pandey?

Across our world, miles away from the original site of violence in Delhi, India, a wave of protests and vigils have honored Jyoti and demanded an end to sexual violence. Leading the wave, thousands of protesters in Delhi have faced tear gas, water cannons and other police force in order to say India needs stronger laws against sexual assault while fostering a society that does not condone gender violence -- so that it is no longer the most dangerous place to be born a girl child.

In the United States too, with our own sobering rate of sexual assaults faced by one in six women and one in 33 men, a number of vigils for Jyoti have marked local calls for community response to sexual violence.

At a recent vigil last Tuesday evening, where I contributed a poem, hundreds of community members gathered in Union Square, New York City to honor Jyoti and offer support to stop sexual violence around the world and here at home.

Then again, in an article speaking to the spread of U.S. vigils honoring Jyoti, commenter Douting Mind, asserts, "What a waste of time." Indeed, you can't bring a body back, erase suffering, wish away experience. Laws are slow to change. Society, sometimes even slower.

And yet it is ironic that vigils are seen as a waste of time in the context of sexual violence, when so often our response as a society is to condition girls to remain vigilant over our own bodies -- how we dress, how we move, how we speak, where we travel -- all in the hopes that monitoring ourselves will mean an escape from unwanted touch and violation.

In the context of sexual violence, then, it is precisely in keeping vigil and re-rendering the onus of vigilance where change starts.

Take, for example, the closer-to-home Steubenville case where, in addition to two alleged rapists, a "rape crew" witnessed the sexual violence of an unconscious 16-year-old girl while filming and tweeting about it.

These young observers kept a vigilance -- as guardsmen of force. As witness-bearers to a lack of consent.

From India to the U.S., both of these tragedies have witnessed repugnance and horror at human behavior.

And yet, as a society, what vigilance do we teach men? Boys who are also in need of protection or men who should be more vigilant of their invasions? Or politicians espousing "legitimate rape" who should be more vigilant over their uninformed ideas? Or any of us consuming social media? What can we here in the U.S. learn from this brutal rape in India, this brutal rape in Steubenville?

At the very least, we should learn that we need to turn the act of vigilance on its head --demanding perpetrators are made accountable and that society keep vigilance not on women's "honor" and bodies but on unwanted sexual invasion as well as behavior that condones it. We each need to shift from being a blind -- or active -- witness to being part of a consent crew.

We do so by keeping vigilance over our own attitudes, behaviors and quests for meaningful consent.

We do so by beginning to shift the answer from being guarding our movements to enforcing consent in all situations.

We do so by showing up to vigils and making a space for conversation and action on ending sexual violence.

In sexual violence, the opposite of silence is not simply speech, but intervention and demanding vigilance of meaningful consent. It requires each of us remain wakeful, as in a root sense of the word, vigil.

In so doing, we keep vigil over whether we are contributing to violence or fostering a space for consent.

Tuesday's vigil in New York City enabled organizers, speakers and community members to connect sexual violence in India and the U.S. It offered an important opportunity for survivors of violence to be heard and gain support as well as for each of us to remain awake to solutions toward altering our attitudes and behaviors that perpetuate gender violence. The vigil enabled us to be part of a gathering united in believing an end to sexual violence is possible, united in believing new understandings of gender are inevitable, united in keeping witness until we see and realize such change.

In the end, a vigil, the free collection of bodies choosing to be present, is exactly the right space to re-shape our understandings of sex, sexual violence, and desire: in light of the freedom of participation and movement it showcases, we see the basis of the society and sexual practice we want emerge.

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