Breaking the CovenantWhat Does Solidarity Look Like for Sexual-Assault Survivors?

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Women’s anger has fueled every political movement in the United States, from suffrage to Civil Rights to #MeToo. Women’s anger is a powerful, unshakeable force that sends people from marginalized communities into the streets, the courtrooms, the classrooms, and beyond to fight for the more just world that our ancestors fought for and our descendants will fight for long after we’re gone.

“The Future is Furious” is a weeklong series about women’s anger—and, more specifically, about how that anger is policed, dismissed, and overlooked because its potent, transformative social and political power terrifies people. We get to decide how we wield our anger, and this series is a mere entry point for a canon of work about women’s rage. It is our hope that by the end of it, you’re revved up and ready to rage in a time when it’s more important than ever to put women’s anger to work.

Silence breaking is never an easy decision, and anyone who decides to do so must contend with the repercussions of breaking the wall of shame and secrecy that often surrounds survivors and perpetrators. Still, I was woefully unprepared for how my choice to publicly reveal my sexual assaults would reopen old wounds. As I spoke the names of the men who harmed me and recounted every detail of the assaults to journalists, the protective scar tissue over my heart began ripping open. The trauma of my past is now splayed open for all to see.

Rape culture is woven into the fabric of our society and no one emerges unscathed from the bombardment of misogynistic and sexist messaging that dogs us before we even recognize it. It’s also unsurprising when wealthy, powerful people call survivors liars or make excuses for their assailants. Men who defend abusers and invalidate their victims are as predictable as the sunset. But when women do it, it’s almost always shocking. Women are not monolithic creatures, and people of all genders internalize misogyny, still it’s enraging when women—especially those who proclaim themselves “woke” and speak out against sexism, racism, and the carceral regime—support violent and abusive men.

Fictive kinship binds us with social cords that transcend familial ties; sisterhood is supposed to be a sacrosanct space safe from the encroachment of patriarchy. Yet I’ve seen female leaders of organizations that defend and protect the rights and interests of all women publicly proclaim their support for the men who assaulted me. These women have benefited from their association with these men at different points in their careers. Like so many of us, they have needed support from these men in order to advance their careers.

Sometimes these are women—like AJ Calloway’s personal attorney, Lisa E. Davis—who are paid to issue statements on behalf of their client that denounce allegations as “meritless.” Everyone is entitled to competent legal representation, but when a Black woman is dispatched to do the dirty work of her male clients, it can make a Black survivor question the very notion of “sisterhood.” (Lisa E. Davis has not responded to a request for comment). Even more infuriating, though, is when someone like Tamika Mallory, co-chair of the Women’s March, defends a friendship with a rapist, as she did when asked about her  friendship with Russell Simmons and my allegations against him. (Tamika Mallory has not responded to a request for comment). Or rapper-turned-philanthropist MC Lyte, who continues to promote Simmons as a celebrity advisory-board member of her Hip Hop Sisters Foundation, publicly standing by a man who’s been accused by almost 20 women of varying degrees of sexual abuse even as her organization aims to “promote positive images of women of ethnic diversity” and “provide national and international support to women, men, and youth” on cultural issues, health, and wellness. (Hip Hop Sisters Foundation has not responded to a request for comment).

I am not the only woman who has seen this inconsistency from those who proclaim themselves supporters of other women. Of course, we all know people whose words and actions don’t align; I myself would be lying if I said I’ve never been inconsistent. But betrayal by women who, through words or deeds, have been uplifted as symbols of righteousness must be called out. Women who publicly support men who abuse and violate women are communicating that your pain does not matter. Coded in the pauses of those who deflect or justify their relationships with abusers is an undeniable rejection of a woman’s right to bodily integrity.

One of the covenants of sisterhood is that you do not publicly call another woman out unless you’re operating from a space of grace. Quite frankly, I don’t feel gracious—I feel profoundly disappointed, and say the names of these women because of my sense of responsibility to survivors of gendered violence who find themselves in a similar situation. As you read this, you may be thinking to yourself, “She sounds very angry.” That’s true. I am incensed and feel compelled to speak out against the violence being inflicted upon us by our very own. When I see their behavior, I remind myself that relationships are complicated. I’ve never had to make a decision about believing a friend accused of sexual assault. I try to imagine what it would feel like if my son were accused of sexual assault. I’d like to think I would automatically side with the alleged victim because it is my position to believe all women, but I also know that I am biased when it comes to my child.

 How many survivors have had to swallow their pain, frustration, and anger at seeing their sisters’ continued support of the men who harmed them? I cannot be the only survivor who feels this way.

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This isn’t the first time that I have seen this sort of incongruent behavior, but this is the first time that a movement has specifically amplified the voices of survivors of sexual assault and fought for changes within the social structures that have long protected perpetrators from the  consequences of their harassment, assault, and abuse. Finally, women are being heard, and in some cases believed. Statistically, false rape allegations are rare, and women who work in social-justice spaces are especially aware of this fact. But if these enlightened women are unwilling to denounce their association with men who have histories of sexually or physically abusing women, what does that say about the opportunity for true change in our broader society? How many survivors have had to swallow their pain, frustration, and anger at seeing their sisters’ continued support of the men who harmed them? I cannot be the only survivor who feels this way.

Some may say that this critique of my sisters is regressive, but failing to address this schism within the #MeToo discourse is acutely antifeminist. James Baldwin once said, “If I love you, I have to make you conscious of the things you don’t see.” Ignoring what’s staring us in the face is irresponsible and unloving, and failing to interrogate such disturbing behavior from those who say they love us is dangerous. We can’t fully address this epidemic of sexual violence if the people we know and those we look up to fail to confront their complicity in upholding structural violence. I will no longer pretend that the inaction of these women doesn’t matter because, in fact, it is hugely significant—not only to those of us who come forward against powerful men, but to the millions of survivors whose stories may never be heard because they don’t involve boldfaced names and vast sums of money. 

It should not be too much to ask that women put aside their personal interests in favor of what is just and righteous. I should not have to beg my sisters to see my humanity or to acknowledge the deep well of pain that resides within the soul of every survivor. Yet here I am, doing exactly that. To every woman who has turned a blind eye to the pain inflicted upon her sister, I beseech you to cease the pantomime of solidarity and fully embrace what it means to be unapologetically pro-woman and anti-sexual violence.

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by Sil Lai Abrams
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Sil Lai Abrams is a domestic violence awareness activist, National Association of Black Journalists award-winning writer and inspirational speaker.