We Need a National Monument to Survivors of Sexual Violence

A temporary memorial to survivors on the washington mall

This past year, rape has dominated the headlines. From front-page coverage of the Penn State trials to Todd Akin’s “legitimate rape” comment to international outcry about gang rape in India to national focus on Steubenville, talking about rape—a long-silenced topic—is finally a mainstream conversation. We are in a unique cultural moment where the ever-present epidemic of sexual violence is being recognized.

We need to not only recognize the reality of rape, but work to end it. We need a platform to honor survivors that will forever change the way the American public responds to their experiences. We need to create a national monument to survivors of rape and abuse.  

The news coverage that is putting rape in the national spotlight is also messy and problematic.  Our country struggles with how to talk about rape. What we saw in the media wake of Stubenville is that our young people, our news anchors and our country do not have the language to respond to the tragedy and trauma of sexual violence in a way that honors survivors.  The silence around rape has left a void in our culture.  We know how to publicly shame survivors.  We don’t know how to publicly support them.  

What if, instead of tearing a community apart, sexual violence was a tragedy and trauma that brought communities together? What if the public process of uncovering these dark truths healed the people most affected by them?  What if, when a survivor feels blamed, our country tell them it’s not their fault?  What if when a survivor feels isolated, we tell them they are not alone? What if when a survivor feels silenced, we listen?  For the public to respond to survivors of sexual trauma- the way we respond to the survivors of other tragedies- we need clear messages about rape.  

The Monument Project is a call to create a national monument to survivors of rape and abuse.  We believe in building a national monument because our country needs public and supportive spaces for survivors to heal.  We believe the monument will allow America to imagine a day without rape.

Memorials create a platform for individuals and communities to grieve trauma.  The existing memorials on the National Mall are places to honor the heroes of our history, to grieve the losses of violence, and for society to remember its past.  When our nation remembers difficult parts of our history, we are better able to prevent injustice and atrocities from repeating.  This process has not happened with sexual violence.

As Judith Herman says in her book Trauma and Recovery:

The most common trauma of women remains confined to the sphere of private life, without formal recognition or restitution from the community. There is no public monument for rape survivors.

As an art and activist campaign, FORCE: Upsetting Rape Culture is installing temporary monuments to survivors of rape and abuse on the national mall as a call to create a permanent monument.  For our first guerilla monument, we floated a giant poem in the reflecting pool that spelled out lines from a poem: “I CAN’T FORGET WHAT HAPPENED BUT NO ONE ELSE REMEMBERS”.

The author of that poem says this about the need for a permanent memorial:

“There are no safe places to talk about my experience. People look at me with pity, or they associate what happened to me with the choices I made, when I do tell my story. I know I am not alone in my inability to define my experiences and even now, I do not completely understand them. A lot of my healing process has been internal. A public memorial would create both a physical space and a psychological space that does not exist in our culture—one where survivors are not blamed or judged, but rather are honored and respected for their ability to survive and thrive through trauma and shame, where they do not need to learn to live with part of their identity hidden, and where their character is not judged by their assault.”

Coming in the summer of 2014, FORCE will install its largest temporary monument to date.  Currently, we are gathering stories from survivors that will be put together to build a quilt.  This quilt will be a GIANT Picnic Blanket that invites the public to sit, eat and talk.  For one weekend, our picnic will occupy the mall, like the historic installations of the AIDS quilt.  The installation will create a public and highly visible cultural space in which survivors’ stories are honored and respected instead of silenced and shamed.  The picnic and conversations will create the public understanding that will help make a permanent monument a reality.

For survivors, the first step towards healing is the telling of what happened. As long as the telling of such stories is ignored or forbidden in our culture, we are hindering the process for millions of survivors to heal. By creating this quilt, FORCE is creating the cultural space where people who have long carried a trauma in silence, may speak their truth. 

Right now, we’re gathering stories from survivors and would love to hear from anyone with a story to tell. We’re also fundraising to create this temporary memorial. Pitch in if you can!

—   Rebecca Nagel is a founder and co-creative director of FORCE. Read more about the group on their website. Photo credit: Casey McKeel.

by Rebecca Nagle
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Rebecca Nagle is a citizen of Cherokee Nation and a Two Spirit woman. She is the codirector and cofounder of the Monument Quilt and FORCE Upsetting Rape Culture.

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