The following post was written by Stephanie Trilling, director of BARCC’s community awareness and prevention services.
In a recent Boston Globe op-ed entitled “Don’t encourage young women to feel traumatized,” Wendy Kaminer derides the work of activists working to end sexual violence. Kaminer’s piece unfairly judges activists and survivors, ignores survivors’ realities, and only distracts from the vital work needed to end sexual violence. Our take at BARCC is that survivors are courageous for coming forward about any kind of sexual violence, that each survivor experience and response is unique and valid, and that we need to focus on supporting all survivors, on prevention, and on institutional accountability.
Strength in coming forward
First off, no matter what kind of sexual violence they have experienced, survivors show strength and resilience in coming forward and acknowledging how they've been affected. This is especially true in a culture that, on the whole, blames survivors, excuses offenders, and minimizes sexual violence.
At BARCC, day in and day out, we work with clients who have been deeply affected by their experiences. Most of these survivors tell us that no one has ever acknowledged their pain, that they feel “crazy,” that they think they should be stronger. We work with survivors of all genders who struggle to get out of bed and go to work or to school each day, who are in jeopardy of losing or who have already lost their housing, who cannot sleep through the night without waking in fear from nightmares. All of these are common experiences for someone who has survived the trauma of sexual violence. Acknowledging the impact of sexual abuse and harassment takes great strength and asking for help is a courageous act, not a weakness.
Comparing forms of sexual violence: not helpful
When it comes to sexual violence, it is not helpful to compare experiences or to judge how people react to them. When referring to the assault of a student at Phillips Exeter Academy covered by the Globe, Kaminer wrote, “Many older women endured similar encounters over the years . . . and many of us emerged unscathed.” What women have survived in the past is no reason to excuse such violations in the present. Even more importantly, every survivor experiences the trauma of sexual violence uniquely and will respond differently; we must not dismiss anyone’s trauma based on someone else’s experience. And judging an individual’s response based on the experience they have had is neither productive nor helpful to survivors—or to institutions that are being called on to change how they respond to and prevent abuse.
How can anyone say what is more traumatic? It’s unfair to compare the various forms of sexual violence and their effects. We refuse to make such comparisons. There is, however, a lot to be gained from the solidarity that comes from acknowledging the impact of rape culture on women, LGBTQ folks, non-binary people, children, communities of color, people with disabilities, sex workers, immigrants, and all people who are targeted for being a part of a vulnerable population.
Institutional response and betrayal
It’s important to note, too, that institutional response and betrayal can be just as traumatic for people as the initial event. When a survivor comes forward and is not believed, when an offender is not held accountable, when a survivor is mistreated in the process—that causes harm. And it makes it more difficult for others to come forward when they experience sexual violence.
Kaminer argues that offenders are unfairly subject to the overcriminalization of sexual misconduct. Her response is dangerously close to the “boys will be boys” mentality. People who choose to exert their power over others and sexually violate them must be held accountable in order for their behavior—and the societal attitudes that enabled it—to change. The criminal justice system is far from perfect, and yes, we do need more robust treatment options for child and adult offenders, but to argue that society overcriminalizes sexual misconduct is gravely misguided (see “Criminal justice system ill-prepared to tackle cases of sexual violence,” a letter to the editor from Gina Scaramella, BARCC’s executive director, published by the Boston Globe).
Healing, prevention, and institutional accountability
Ultimately, focusing on how survivors should or shouldn't react distracts from the work of healing sexual trauma, holding offenders and institutions accountable, and advancing work to prevent sexual violence.
In her closing, Kaminer claims that activists are “imposing . . . expectations of trauma” and “stigmatizing resilience.” This is far from the truth. What is more resilient than a young person coming forward and speaking out, not just against her assailant’s behaviors, but an entire system that has been set up to repeatedly excuse and minimize the behaviors of offenders and to question, ridicule, and place blame on survivors? At BARCC, we believe that there is no act more resilient than a person speaking out against a broken system that excuses offenders and puts the burden on survivors.
We are in solidarity with all survivors who take great risks in sharing their stories and demanding systemic change to address sexual violence. And we are deeply committed to preventing sexual violence in the first place. The more we educate people of all ages to understand consent, respect others’ bodies, and take action as bystanders, the more we move toward ending all forms of sexual violence.
Find out more about BARCC’s community awareness and prevention services.
Stephanie Trilling is the director of BARCC’s community awareness and prevention services.