Conservatives Want To "Protect" Us From Assault — Don't Trust Them
A series from the editor of Yes Means Yes that explores the politics of sex, power, and representation.
There is a new groundswell among conservative men on certain campuses (including Harvard, Princeton and Notre Dame) to get their school administration to ban students from accessing porn via the college WiFi network. These men are making this effort, they claim, out of an abundance of concern for women, and a powerful desire to stem the tide of sexual violence. As a sexual assault survivor myself, I obviously think that's a noble goal. That's why their efforts so deeply offend me.
Invoking cis white women’s vulnerability to rape in order to advance an oppressive agenda is a time-honored tradition. Since Europeans set foot on this continent, it has been used to justify the mass murder and enslavement of Indigenous and Black men, while the same white men in power were systematically raping Indigenous and Black women.
In recent years, "concern" about sexual violence has been invoked by the NRA, which uses it to sell pink guns (yes, really) and block the kind of sane gun control legislation that would actually keep women safe; Donald Trump, who infamously leveraged fear of Mexican immigrants to kick off his entire presidential run and hasn’t stopped since; and bigots who keep trying to ban trans people from public bathrooms and many other public accommodations.
The bathroom debate came to Massachusetts (my current home state) last year, when some right-wing activists tried to use our ballot measure system to repeal existing legal protections for trans and non-binary people using public accommodations. Their scare tactics — these people think way too much about where others pee — are familiar to many: ads styled like horror movies, suggesting that our law recognizing the basic rights of trans people in public was paving the way for restroom rapists.
But survivors were having none of it. I proudly penned an op-ed to that effect, as part of a sustained and organized effort among survivors and our advocacy groups to stand up against this hateful use of our trauma.
What if survivors took a page from Beetlejuice, and every time we start getting invoked by concern trolls using us to paper over their hateful agenda, we show up and answer the call?
Kasey Suffredini, President of Strategy for Freedom for All Americans, the organization that lead the charge to protect trans rights in Massachusetts, thinks it made a big difference. “Anti LBGTQ activists perpetuate a false choice between supporting transgender people and supporting women. It’s intentional. It’s intended to drive a wedge,” he told me. “And I think what survivors did with [the Massachusetts campaign] was the reverse. It was very powerful and healing — including for many trans people, many of whom are survivors themselves — to see those personally impacted by that argument correct the record and state clearly and convincingly that trans people are not a threat to other people.”
The conservative effort was soundly rejected by Massachusetts voters, with 69% of us voting to uphold protections for trans folk. And ever since then, I’ve been thinking: what if we made this a habit? What if survivors took a page from Beetlejuice, and every time we start getting invoked by concern trolls using us to paper over their hateful agenda, we show up and answer the call?
It's easy to tell when someone is leveraging the idea of survivors and rape prevention for nefarious political ends: find out what else they've done about the issue. If the only thing you've done to “stop rape” is force trans people to hold their pee until they get infections, you don't care about rape. If the only the only thing you've done is try to control what we see in the privacy of our own dorm rooms, or make sure it's easy for violent men to get guns, or force refugee children into camps (where some people in your employ sexually abuse them), you obviously don’t care about survivors. If you’re new to the movement, listen to those who are already out there doing the real work of violence prevention, healing, and justice. Ask them what the best way to help is. Then do as you’ve been asked. Otherwise, expect us.
I want to be extra-clear: surviving sexual violence never obligates you to anything.
I want to be extra-clear: surviving sexual violence never obligates you to anything. Since you didn’t choose to be violated, you don’t “owe” it to anyone to be a role model, an activist, or even a good person. And survivors are often part of some community being targeted by allegedly “anti-rape” conservatives, whether it’s trans folks, immigrants or sex workers; this makes it far more intimidating to show up and call out the haters. Just because some people are pretending to care about us to disguise their true motives, Trojan Horse-style, that doesn’t mean any individual survivor has a duty to do anything at all.
But as a movement, we should explicitly recognize and capitalize on the opportunity these fakers are presenting us with: let's show them that if you call for us, we'll come.
After all, many survivors turn to activism to make meaning of the trauma we're grappling with. I know that I did. But sometimes, no matter how strongly we feel called to make the world a better, less violent place, not all of us are ready to answer a rape crisis hotline, or confront lawmakers with our wounds and our humanity. And even for those of us who can and have done those kinds of things for years, it can get exhausting — especially when we don’t see enough change as fast as it’s needed. Expanding our definition of “survivor activism” to include standing up against other injustices expands the opportunities to reclaim our power and our voice.
I understand how this might be a hard sell for some survivors. We’ve got a sexual predator in the White House, Congress keeps declining to renew the Violence Against Women Act, and the Department of Education is deferring to “men’s rights activists” on campus rape policy. We have a lot on our plate already as a movement. But intersectional organizing always makes us stronger, because “divide and conquer” tactics notwithstanding, our issues have never actually been severable. The more we recognize that survivor rights are trans rights are immigrant rights are people of color’s rights are prisoner rights are sex worker rights are disability rights, the more powerful we’ll all be together.
As for those college guys and their WiFi porn ban to “stop rape”? They’re really just trying to shut down speech they don’t like. That’s why you can bet I’ll keep speaking up to say “not in my name.”