What We Lose When Anti-Rape Campaigns Go Mainstream

I spent 2014 traveling to nearly fifteen cities to organize listening events about sexual violence and how we respond to rape, incest, and abuse. There was something deep, authentic, and promising about the exchange between survivors and their communities that took place in those classrooms, coffee shops, and libraries. On my trip, I realized that while the efforts to nationalize the conversation about sexual violence have merit, there is something lost in the one-size-fits-all approach mainstream feminists are incorporating in the movement to end sexual violence.

Every year at this time, mainstream media are full of talk of the popular, large-scale, anti-violence efforts, like Vday and One Billion Rising, along with their creator, playwright and feminist Eve Ensler. But, the criticism mounted against Ensler and her globe-trotting activism is substantial and troubling. The glorification of child rape and the exclusion of the transgender experience have led to cancelled performances of The Vagina Monologues. One Billion Rising’s campaigns have been criticized for erasing the grassroots organizing efforts of indigenous women in Canada while Ensler has been denounced for bearing an imperialistic presence — occupying critical space with unchecked power and privilege with an agenda to “save” women in other countries. These campaigns move into territories where they are not only unwelcome, but futile. While the act of listening as a form of feminist practice is hardly a radicalized notion, it is becoming a lost art in the movement to end sexual violence.

Instead of widening the landscape to include more communities, mainstream feminist anti-violence efforts increasingly resemble programs like the federal government’s “It’s On Us” and the celebrity-endorsed “No More” campaigns — campaigns that fail to consider the varied needs and lives of all survivors of rape and sexual violence. Specifically in the United States, media continues its hyper-focus on college campus rape — to the exclusion of other, pervasive forms of violence.

When that happens, we lose essential and hard-earned ground. We lose our grasp on the complexity of power and abuse, and gain in its place the incessant profiling of the cisgender, heterosexual young white woman as the brave rape survivor who reported to the police. We lose the peripheral understanding that rape is a problem that encompasses economic and racial justice and gain the banal reasoning that favors incarceration and reporting as a means of healing and justice. 

The deeper truth is that sexual violence impacts all communities, but it does so in different ways. While most national headlines continue to feature college campus rape as the primary locus of sexual violence, 1 in 3 Native American women will experience rape in her lifetime, compared to 1 in 5 national average for all other women in the United States. Nearly 80% of Central American women and girls trying to cross the US border are raped. Not including previous experiences of sexual trauma, among the incarcerated, 1 in 20 individuals will be raped while in prisonResearch and demographic studies have repeatedly confirmed that marginalized populations — communities with low socioeconomic mobility, scarce social services, and histories of racial oppression — stand a higher risk for sexual assault. But these facts are sidebars in a movement claiming to want to end violence for all.

In the era where “branding” ideas, projects, people, and organizations is encouraged for social acceptability and potential for viral success, mainstream feminism continues to encourage rape survivors to “stand up,” “speak out,” and “break the silence” which presupposes social and domestic support, safety, and protection that many marginalized survivors simply do not have. Even more troublesome, this ideology places the onus to stop sexual violence on the survivors themselves instead of the perpetrators and the community at large.

One of the best kept secrets that I learned after the listening sessions about sexual violence is that smaller group settings create better listeners. The dynamic is more effective when the exchange of stories is between members sharing cities, universities, neighborhoods, and small towns. It shifts the focus from rape and sexual violence as an exterior, global phenomenon and turns it inward, to a much more intimate questioning of one’s own conscience. This is where the real potential for transformation begins. 

The art of critical listening is a trademark and skill which smaller economies are practicing in their efforts to address sexual violence. It is breaking open questions around power, sexuality, and gender essentialism with an energy that “national conversations” or “global campaigns” simply cannot muster. These dialogues have proven that probing more deeply into complex questions is more effective than superficial answers and taglines. Perhaps one day mainstream feminists will learn to embody this, too.
Lisa Factora-Borchers is a writer and editor of the anthology, Dear Sister: Letters from Survivors of Sexual Violence.  Her work focuses on feminism, motherhood, race, and contemporary Catholicism.  She lives and works in New York City.
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