Survivors, Limited

The other day I went to help out a friend making a sexual assault awareness video. He was filming Amherst College students promising to stand up against sexual violence. The director wanted each student in the video to wear white to show their support. As a member of campus and as a sexual respect activist, I showed up at the video shoot in a white dress. I am one type of woman-sized woman, and when I wear a dress it is apparent that I have a certain kind of curvy woman’s body.

The dress, apparently, was a problem for the Amherst College Public Affairs Office. The director of the video told me that I was showing too much skin – specifically, too much cleavage –because he wanted Amherst College Public Relations to showcase the video he might have to cut my part from the final video. I was completely taken aback: here was a friend of mine, activated and engaged in trying to work on issues of sexual violence at Amherst, and his vision of who could be part of the conversation was too narrow to include the way I choose to present my body. After some back-and-forth we reached an understanding of the problem and he did include a clip of me in the video. However, the damage was done before shooting began. To him, I, in my little white dress, was not the type of woman to be talking about sexual violence.

This interaction highlights the problem we create for ourselves when we begin conversations about sexual violence in what I will call the monologic voice. The testimonial, first-person narrative put forward by so many courageous women and men across the country has done so much to push administrations, to raise awareness amongst their peers and even to grab the attention of President Obama. I worry that the singularity of the “I” in that voice holds us back from a broader, more inclusive discourse. While some have had the capacity, the privilege, to speak up, others have been forced to stay silent, and their silence has erased them from the conversation.

Alice Sebold, the writer of Lovely Bones, wrote a memoir called Lucky about her experience being assaulted on her campus in the ‘80s. Sebold, an upper-middle class 18-year-old, was walking home alone at night, sober after a quiet night with a friend, when a stranger pulled her into a tunnel to beat and rape her multiple times. Sebold was able to have a rape kit performed with positive results, identify her assailant and try him in a court. The night she had been raped she had been wearing belted jeans. She was also a virgin. And she was white.

In the title of her book and throughout her memoir, Sebold talks about how, despite how horrible and traumatic her experiences were, she was still “lucky.” “Lucky” is how the intake officer at the police station describes her and how her lawyer talks about her case; “lucky” is how her legal counsel reassures her that she has a shot of putting her assailant behind bars; “lucky” is what her parent’s friends from church call her for being alive and healthy after her violent assault. Sebold meets a girl in class who has been repeatedly assaulted by her father and brothers and is forced to return to them after she attempts to commit suicide.

Compared to this other survivor, Sebold is, in fact, lucky. Her class, her race, her physical and mental wellbeing and her supportive family provide her with countless more resources than her classmate. Throughout the memoir Sebold critiques the system and struggles with the fact that she was only able to make her way through the legal system because she is the perfect victim.

When Dana Bolger was first interviewed by the New York Times last fall, a photo appeared next to the article by photographer Ilana Panich-Linsman. In it, Bolger looks exhausted but poised: she stares straight into the camera, warily. I don’t know who chose the framing for the photograph, whether it was Bolger’s choice or Panich-Linsman’s, but for the past year and a half I have gone back to it again and again, trying to figure out just what upset me about it. Then I realized: Dana is sitting on her bed, her pastel quilt draped over it. Almost out of view, behind her and a little blurred, lies a teddy bear, face-up on the bed. Student activists are young, it’s true, but the quilt and the teddy bear in her room at night make Bolger seem even younger than twenty, still a child and deeply innocent.


The picture seems reductive to Bolger’s work. Why put a woman speaking out about surviving rape, abuse, and an unsupportive college administration back on her bed, amidst stuffed animals and quilting? Why not show Bolger speaking in front of a crowd, standing somewhere on campus, or even, if it must be in her private space, writing one of her powerful and poetic articles? Why her bed? Why the full-scale shot of her body with one arm protectively wrapped around her torso? The picture creates a specific image, an image that both reduces the lived experience of survivors and leaves other survivors out completely.

Bolger and Sebold (Sebold-the-character, not necessarily the older Sebold-the-author) are made to be the idealized versions of the sexual assault victim. The law and the media (the court of public opinion) cannot handle them both as victims of sexual assault and as women with sexualities in their own right, so they are forced to choose one over the other. In the pursuit of their safety and raising awareness for their causes, both women were pushed to allow the erasure of the latter and the presentation of only the former. The picture of Dana Bolger makes a reader think “she could be my sister; she could be my daughter,” and helps to create the narrative – one that can indeed be activating for some – that women need to be protected.

First, the images constructed by this narrative are a problem because they eliminate survivors who are seen as inherently sexual or outside of sexual norms. Queer and trans* individuals, who have statistically higher incidences of sexual assault and harassment, are outside of the purview of the model victim. They are sexually divergent from the heterosexist, cis-sexist mainstream and are therefore not recognized by mainstream activism as poster-children for the cause. Women of color and women of size, who are frequently hyper-sexualized or completely de-sexualized (respectively) in the media, are often unable to find justice because of legal systems that do not consider them to be victims deserving of justice. Amherst College is a campus that has had tragic first-hand experiences with the effects of the erasure of male-on-male sexual assault, and yet we still only look to female-identified survivors. In short, the victim narrative that has become so familiar to us and has worked so effectively to make change also unintentionally perpetuates oppressive structures of body policing that further move to the margins demographics already marginalized and left out of the discourse on sexual respect.

Second, victims of sexual assault are disempowered from having their own sexuality or autonomy. In “Sexuality and the Law: A Lacanian Examination of Date Rape,” Kareen Ror Malone writes:

The position of the victim is a de-eroticized position… Defiled innocence is a significant theme in almost all social narratives of rape. Fathers of daughters are considered to be the best jury for conviction in a rape case.

This narrative is the slut-shaming narrative, which presumes that anyone who is not virginal could not be the victim of assault. It is replicated not only by those not convinced of the crisis that is sexual assault on college campuses but also inadvertently by people on the inside of campus sexual assault discourses.

I am by no means suggesting that people stop sharing their stories. There is more to narrativizing trauma in the public sphere than just activism, it is often part of a healing process for survivor-narrators. However, there are some who are still not being reached by the dominant narrative and this article is the beginning of a question about how to best serve and reach those people, who despite all the work being done still do not feel supported.

I wonder what a model for more plural action could look like. If the single voice of testimonial is dually liberating and silencing, what would a form of activism look like that focused more on being collective and inclusive? Such a model would allow survivors to more directly support one another, not in the quiet of survivor support groups (although those can certainly be helpful to the activation of survivors) but more publicly.

Some are already doing the work that needs to be done to include more people in the conversation. The KnowYourIX organization, started by Dana Bolger and Alexandra Brodsky, along with others, has the potential to be multivocal in both content and form in ways that a testimony simply by nature of its monologic quality cannot be. Its homepage is a slideshow of different kinds of sexual respect activists and survivors from campuses across the country and information about the work they’ve done. The website is big enough to encompass a wide variety of different kinds of people and experiences. In their “Dealing with…” section they have pages on homophobia, administrative racism, being a male survivor and being a religious survivor. While the website certainly is lacking in some respects (its primary function is not dealing with issues of inclusivity in the image of survivors’ lives but in empowering activists), it is a step forward.

This article is the second in a series written for a special topics course in the Amherst College English Department called “Trauma at Amherst.” YYou can find the first and third articles here and here.

Photo cred: Thomas Patterson for The New York Times