We all know someone with a chronic illness. Given that 117 million people in the United States live with one or more chronic illnesses, we’re more than likely encountering someone in our workplaces, our homes, and our everyday lives who is navigating the ins and outs of sickness and the pain that accompanies it. Chronic illnesses are especially pervasive among women, and thanks to medicine’s long history of paternalism and ambient sexism, doctors regularly dismiss or disbelieve women who suffer with unexplained pain.
“In Sickness” is a weeklong series about chronic illness—and what the misdiagnosis, disdain, and marginalizing of people with chronic illnesses reveals about our culture.
Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7 | Part 8 | Part 9 | Part 10 | Part 11 | Part 12
In the spring of 2014, I visited 13 cities on national book tour to facilitate town hall meetings to talk about sexual abuse and community accountability. After conversing with hundreds of people and countless lectures later, one thing became clear: Before creating a world that is free of sexual violence and abuse, we need to first become a society that can fully comprehend the problem for what it truly is—an epidemic, one that flourishes under our cultural norms, power structures, and even in the ways we define progress. To break the seemingly cyclic conversation demanding safety from sexual harassment, assault, and rape—before the idea of safety can materialize into anything more than an idea, the very concept of safety has to be intimately examined in the context of how we have arrived at this cultural moment, and what continues to hold us back. Before we can claim safety for anyone, we have to determine whether our investment in safety is more about selective protection or eradicating a complex epidemic for all.
In nearly every gathering, I asked the same question. It’s the productive kind of question because no one has the answer. The purpose of the question is not to have the solution, the purpose is to lead a process-conversation that leads us to the most honest and productive answer that a community can find. The question: How do you create a world that is safe and free from sexual abuse?
The best answer that pushes us off in the right direction: “I’m not sure.”
Who is safe enough to speak out?
By now we know the two starting points of the #MeToo Movement. First, there was Tarana Burke, the original founder whose offline work for the past 20 years focused on survivors of sexual abuse. And then in October of this past year, the accusations against media mogul Harvey Weinstein prompted a months-long unmooring of this country’s culture of disbelieving survivors of harassment and violence. A tweet by Alyssa Milano sent #MeToo in another channel as it became the digital go-to place to sound off against all different forms of sexual violation. The unraveling hasn’t stopped.
Since the #MeToo Movement gained mainstream momentum, sexual harassment, “misconduct,” and assault allegations have led to the removal or dismissal of household names and A-list celebrities like Kevin Spacey, Louis C.K., Matt Lauer, and trudged up decades-long battles with open secrets like Woody Allen. When Time published its “Person of the Year” and bestowed the title to the whistleblowers, the “voices that launched a movement,” the conversation turned toward who was included on a magazine cover, rather than outlining what we’re all waiting for: next steps.
As debates continued over who was more deserving to be included on the magazine cover, another person who was pivotal to the #MeToo movement who was not included on the cover continued to be absent from the banter. Heaven, the young girl who Burke remembers as the child she could not help when she disclosed her personal history of abuse to Burke. While Burke rightfully deserves all the praise for her lifelong work, it’s important to trace the story even further back, to the moment that Burke tells us pushed her to create #MeToo.
Burke shared that after listening to Heaven tell her about what had been done to her by her mother’s boyfriend, she passed Heaven off to someone else because she wasn’t capable to be fully present to Heaven’s needs. Although Burke characterizes the encounter as regretful because she was unable to say the words, “me too,” Burke’s actions illustrate an important step if we are ever going to realistically build safety. The most critical seed of #MeToo was laid 20 years ago: Heaven helped Burke realize that sexual abuse in all of its forms was far too large for one person to carry.
In that moment, in her ability to recognize that she alone could not build safety for another person, it was her ability to recognize the magnitude of sexual abuse as an epidemic and deciding to bring others in to more holistically confront the problem remains the unsung note in the #MeToo movement.
Safety can’t be built if we ourselves aren’t stabilized enough to see our own trauma.
Who Defines Safety?
For nonsurvivors, safety is often defined by a state of not-being—not being harassed, not enduring an experience of assault. For some survivors, not-being may be a goal too: not-being raped, not-being harassed, not-being traumatized even though this is an impossibility. In this myopic hope of safety being a state of null-violence, or absence of a “terrible” experience, safety becomes about precaution and avoiding certain situations instead of fully addressing the institutional and cultural normalization of sexual abuse in our everyday behaviors.
As rape survivor Leslieann Hobayan reflects on the concept of safety:
Let’s start with this: safety is an illusion. There’s a certain level of trust we put out in the world by presuming that we are safe…With regard to safety as a woman, there’s a certain level of awareness we carry to try to maintain the illusion of safety: we are told to not walk home alone at night, for example. Carry mace or pepper spray. We are told our bodies are more vulnerable than those of men and so we must be vigilant about the measures we take to be “safe.” In the context of sexual violence and harassment, most women presume that nothing will happen to them—the illusion of safety secured in place—or, if we are aware that, say, harassment is inevitable given our patriarchal society, it’s nothing we can’t handle (we tell ourselves).
More and more, sexual violence is being written into TV female characters. Who could forget when Sansa Stark was raped by Ramsey Bolton in Game of Thrones or when it was revealed on Scandal that Mellie had been raped by Jerry, her father in law? But we still have a long way to go before audiences understand TV depictions of sexual abuse beyond entertainment value. However there’s no comparison to the franchise that has centralized sexual violence as spectatorship. Thanks to Law and Order: Special Victims Unit, pop culturists have been fashioned into a superficial and formulaic understanding of sexual trauma because its very nature is (you know the line from the opening credit) “considered especially heinous.” Ironically, Law and Order: SVU has tapped into a cult of watchers who are riveted by the “especially heinous” crimes but also satisfied by sewing up every problem by the time you can read the “Created by Dick Wolf” end credits. Perhaps one of the reasons Law and Order: SVU has found a long term home on TV is because it turns heinous acts into digestible storylines; shifting the epidemic of sexual abuse to a special investigative unit in New York City with Detective Benson and Stabler, rather than understanding the epidemic is communal and, usually, familial. And once we begin talking about our own proximity to the problem, safety becomes a right. And once we can understand that each and every person—regardless of their identity, has the right to walk in the world without being harassed or assaulted, the underbelly of the underbelly is exposed. Because this is where we confront ourselves, not just perpetrators’ behaviors.
Queering Sexual Violence editor Jennifer “Bones” Patterson, who has been facilitating healing work that has been focused on creating spaces for queer and trans people to work with trauma, shared, “I think it’s incredibly important that we consider both who is promising they can create ‘safe spaces’ and who actually can safely access these ‘safe spaces’—privilege is so essential to acknowledge. While I don’t actually believe any of us can promise that a space is 100% safe, I see a lot of white, cisgender, straight, class privileged women promising “safe spaces” for all people without considering what that actually means and what actually needs to change in spaces in order for that to be remotely possible.”
Artist Aaminah Shakur, a survivor of sexual harassment and assault offered their thoughts:
It’s interesting that right now we are seeing a mass outing of abusers and harassers and rapists, and all the people who have covered for them all these many years. We’ve all known the truth that we are not safe anywhere. Not in our families, in our schools, in our workplaces regardless of field, not in our faith communities. We’ve known it was everywhere, but this is the first time we are collectively acknowledging it to this degree, that rape, harassment, and abuse are the NORMAL of our culture. While I want to believe that this moment of public naming can change things, I also do not see us yet putting forth actual solutions. Plenty of us have been speaking for a long time before now. Why are we only being heard now? But [from] the people who are belatedly listening…I still haven’t seen a single suggestion of how to move forward, what comes next, how we change the culture. Safety isn’t just magically going to descend on us. Humans have to create and commit to that safety. I don’t think we’re there yet.
Patterson echoes Hobayan’s concept of safety as an illusion:
I think a big struggle, for me, with this idea of safety being attainable is that it’s an illusion. I think many nonsurvivors or people who aren’t working in anti-violence believe prevention is as simple as avoiding ‘creepy’ strangers or ‘dangerous’ neighborhoods and wow, does the racism and classism need to be unpacked there because as Aishah Shahidah Simmons speaks to in NO! The Rape Documentary, a very high percentage of violence is enacted between people of the same race. Or for women, not dressing ‘too sexy’ or drinking or using drugs can be a way to stay safe. If we do all the ‘right’ things we can avoid sexual violence. But what many of us have known for a long time is that there often is truly no avoiding it. It’s folded into the fabric of this country, it began with the colonization and ‘birth’ of this nation. It’s literally everywhere. We’re seeing so many institutions and industries crumble as the reality of sexual violence and the rate it is happening is being unearthed. Many of us are regularly experiencing violence in our workplaces, our places of worship, our close relationships and partnerships. It happens in the places we are most comfortable or assume safety and less frequently in the assumed unsafe places. I also think that language plays a huge role in considering safety for example, so much of the language in mainstream anti-violence work is heteronormative: a cisgender man is the person who commits violence toward a cisgender woman. And in this narrative it’s often individual and not institutional. And following this line of thinking, queer and trans people and the violence we experience in our relationships, our communities, through policing, in the prison system, and more gets completely erased. Some people don’t even believe it can happen and believe that LGBTQ people live in some fantasy world safe from violence.
Who Benefits When We Valorize Silence-Breakers?
Over the past decades, with the assistance of social media, anti-rape celebrity campaigns like No More, coupled with high profiled cases of survivor-led narrations like Emily Sulkowicz and Emily Doe’s letter against her rapist Brock Turner have deepened our reactive and fleeting dependency upon survivors to speak out. Unlike survivors who must manage their trauma daily, nonsurvivors have a shorter span for tolerating discomfort. The axis for a society to transform itself leans on survivors’ trauma for fuel to do so, ultimately adding to the labor for survivors to not only find their voice after trauma, but offer it for others’ benefit. Activist marches like “Take Back the Night” or rallies may give necessary and empowering space to survivors, but it teeters on a dangerous exchange when survivor narratives are consumed by a mass of nonsurvivors, and silence, not rape culture, is scapegoated as the enemy and the survivor is the savior.
Not only does it create a dependency on survivors which further asks of them to revisit their trauma, it also creates a prescription of what a good survivor should do for the enlightenment of others—the bystanders, the enablers, and apologists who need to learn so we can improve safety, prevention, and address it in our own communities. The hope for establishing safety becomes a fragile exchange between those who have already been through enough, and those who don’t understand it as an epidemic. Safety cannot exist inside of an epidemic.
For years, consumers of pop culture have witnessed sexual impropriety at every level since the internet increased the rate and frequency of storytelling. From Monica Lewinsky and political scandals to college and professional sports—the conversation about sexual abuse in the past few decades have broken division lines and impacted countless institutions and cultures, including Penn State, the Catholic Church blue collar workers, USA gymnastics, media giants, and, of course, again, politicians.
As more mainstream focus helps us deconstruct the expansive epidemic of sexual harassment and assault, safety has been left as a dangerously ambiguous goal. As more people come forward and use more media platforms to tell their stories, hold others accountable, and spur the nation to confront its problem with sexual abuse and compliance, we find ourselves at an impasse. The question used to be “who, anymore, is safe?”
As Hobayan reflected, “I’m thinking now: what is safety? Maybe it comes down to what we’ve been talking about all along: to believe someone when they tell your story of sexual violence or harassment. To see people—really see them, to acknowledge their existence as a human, as a soul, to confirm that yes, they are here and they are seen—they matter. To listen, really listen—and to not dismiss or discount what one says.”
If we are going to confront the fragility of safety, perhaps the first step in curing the epidemic is believing survivors when they say that no one was safe to begin with.
Read the entire series on fragility!