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Learning #EverydaySexualViolence: Women Telling Our Stories

Social structures such as racism, sexism, heterosexism, classism, capitalism, and imperialism thrive on unmitigated and often state-sanctioned violence. The brutal murder of Michael Brown is but one example.

We at The Feminist Wire, as well as so many of us across the United States and around the world, are contemplating the reality of everyday violence – and while it makes no sense in so many ways, we also realize that it makes perfect sense. Social structures such as racism, sexism, heterosexism, classism, capitalism, and imperialism thrive on unmitigated and often state-sanctioned violence. The brutal murder of Michael Brown is but one example, but we can also see it happening in places around the world (such as Gaza) and in our own hometowns. Violence – even the threat of it – is real.

We begin this short series with this observation because we are opening a space to speak about how we learn violence through our own experiences as recipients of it. In this series of personal narratives, we are talking largely about sexual violence, but these stories speak also to violence as it manifests in sexist and racist ways. We openly acknowledge what many of us know, even if we don’t articulate it — sexual violence is normalized. But what makes it normal? Why are we expected to accept it as a part of our lives as women?

In the wake of the March 2014 murder spree in Isla Vista, California, which left seven people dead (including killer Elliot Rodger, who committed suicide) and thirteen people injured, feminist journalists, pundits, and observers noted how deeply misogynistic Rodgers was. Indeed, his hatred of women was cited as part of his criminal motive and intent to kill. Although no one suggested that any man and thus all men could be such a killer, people started defending men under the Twitter hashtag #NotAllMen. In response, an anonymous person started the hashtag #YesAllWomen to underscore that while not all men are misogynistic murderers (or anything close), all women can enumerate when, where, and how they experienced some form of sexual threat or violence. Later, when George Will opined that rape survivors on college campuses experience a type of social privilege, Feminist We Love Wagatwe Wanjuki started the hashtag #SurvivorPrivilege. Rather than debate the efficacy of hashtag activism, we recognized that within four days, #YesAllWomen had been tweeted over 1.2 million times – people were clearly resonating with this hashtag and the moment that brought it to existence.

Pia took to Facebook, penning a piece longer and deeper than the 140 characters Twitter allows – and drawing up her own experience with the normalization of sexual violence in her childhood. This post, reprinted and developed herein, inspired Stephanie to write her own; Pia invited several other people to contribute as well. Writers were asked to explore how sexual violence is normalized but not normal – something we all learn not as we enter adulthood, but rather as we begin our lives. We are, yes, all women, but we are aware that the normalization of sexual violence is not something women alone experience. This collection of personal narratives brings to the fore how media, family life, work, the playground, and other facets of everyday life are also spaces in which we were and are violated. We are particularly riveted by this “we” as racially and geographically diverse – stories range from South Korea, to Germany, to the southern United States. We are also diverse in terms of age and socioeconomic class.

Let us note a couple of important things here – things we will repeat at the beginning of each day that these pieces appear in this forum: some of the writers herein use a reference to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). We do not use this term lightly or glibly because we know it is quite real to feel trauma, isolation, shame, pain, avoidance, and other things in response to violence. We also want to consider that we should use a “trigger warning” with respect to these pieces. Andrea Smith observes, “The challenge for us [as Heather Merton-Lightning observed at an Indigenous Women’s Network gathering] is to build movement structures that take into account the reality of how personal and collective trauma has impacted all of us.” We follow Smith’s insight: “Trigger warnings are one of many practices that insist that one does not have to be silent about one’s healing journey – that one’s healing can occupy public and collective spaces. And healing can only truly happen when we take collective responsibility for creating structures and practices that enable healing.”

We are occupying space at The Feminist Wire to insist that we do not have to be quiet and still about our journey; we are not alone. We share these pieces individually and collectively as a way to practice the power of naming and to enable healing for ourselves and, perhaps, for readers. Following the powerful book Dear Sister, we pen these personal stories from the pain as well as from the hope we envision – we refuse to be identified by sexual violence even as we are shaped by it. The space is not “safe”; neither are the words “safe” – drawing on Christina Hanhardt and Roxane Gay, among others – because we are giving voice and light to unsafe experiences from our past and present lives that will invite others to feel and/or recall their own lack of safety. But we do so to practice what Smith invites us to do – to “build healing movements for liberation that can include us as we actually are rather than as the peoples we are supposed to be” – and we are sharing stories not because we are healed but because these stories are, in part, who we actually are.

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