Queering Sexual Violence
Queering Sexual Violence
“This is not just survival; it is activism on the most intimate level. It is proof that we can live in a broken world without losing ourselves, and without giving up on it.” -Melissa Febos, author of the memoir, Whip Smart and the essay collection, Abandon Me
What does it mean to queer sexual violence? Within the mainstream anti-sexual violence movement, whose experiences are seen, validated and responded to and whose are being minimized or missed entirely? Who are the people at the table making choices around policy, programs, and delivering services? Who are the survivors and stories we’ve built the movement upon, and whose experiences and stories remain untold? How has the movement to end sexual violence disregarded queer survivors and how is the queer community organizing to create a more inclusive, accountable and accessible movement for queer survivors and for those that fall outside of the stereotypical image of a survivor?
If we understand queer as both an identity that may be connected to sexuality and gender, as well as a critical framework that centers marginalized peoples and movements within our social, political and cultural landscape – we begin to envision a more equitable and inclusive future for the movement to end sexual violence when we amplify this lens within our field. Yet, much needs to change so that the anti-sexual violence movement can reflect and encompass the breadth of knowledge, nuance, and experience required to meet the needs of a tremendously diverse survivor community. This evolution will also require internal and historical reflection to examine how we’ve situated services, organizing, and practice in a way that has reduced access to healing and justice for so many survivors – and then collaboratively working to deconstruct the walls we have erected.
In the recently published anthology, Queering Sexual Violence – Radical Voices from within the Anti-Violence Movement, the writers reveal a range of experiences where trauma, sexuality, race, culture, ability, and institutions all combine and interact – influencing how survivors relate to their experience of sexual assault and impacting how they are treated by systems and the surrounding community. Importantly, their stories demonstrate how in spite of the individual and collective obstacles in their way, queer survivors have carved out pathways towards recovery, resilience, and justice that are not reliant on mainstream systems and heavily embedded in their communities of belonging.
The anthology was edited by Jennifer Patterson, who is also a contributor to the book, along with over 35 others and it is beautifully shaped by four sections: Redefine. Reclaim. Resist. Reimagine. Reading through these powerful, painful, and transformative perspectives, I imagined parallels in the book’s organization and the personal, social, and political journey of a survivor moving through their process of healing and towards a sense of embodied justice.
In reflecting on Queering Sexual Violence, we must ask ourselves: What does it mean to queer holistic healing? To queer trauma-informed care? As a nonprofit seeking to connect all survivors of sexual violence with sliding-scale, trauma-informed, holistic healing arts – we as an organization must continually investigate and dismantle the still present barriers to accessing care. For our delivery of the healing arts to be truly trauma-informed, we must go beyond honing expertise in understanding sexual violence as a singular category, since it is not a uniform phenomena. In our sexual trauma healing, we will encounter the many layers of individual, historical, and systemic forms of trauma that remain within our bodies and that require safety, care, and support. It is therefore essential we contextualize the ways in which sexual violence intersects with other forms of violence and systems of oppression – and therefore, will manifest and impacts people’s lives in incredibly varied, ongoing, and uneven ways.
We embrace the ways in which our organization can and must continually evolve and we are utilizing the humbling insights, critical thinking, and righteous courage contained within the heart of Queering Sexual Violence as one of our guides. We had the opportunity to interview Jennifer Patterson, QSV’s editor, contributor, and a TBN member to learn more about what this book means for individual survivors, for the national movement to end sexual violence, and for our organizational efforts center survivors’ healing. In order to give greater context for the interview, we begin by sharing a portion from Jennifer’s introduction to the anthology which describes some of the challenges facing queer survivors in terms of accessing resources, advocacy services, and justice within the mainstream movement, the barriers and biases in our society that can impact healing, and what lead Jennifer to develop this project and book. Our interview follows Jennifer’s introduction.
Excerpt from the Introduction to Queering Sexual Violence by Jennifer Patterson
“Studies have shown that people in LGBTQ relationships experience violence at the same rate as people in heterosexual relationships (and actually, often have higher rates) and this only reflects those of us who report and are actually included in studies to begin with. We are not immune to a systemic culture of rape, for example, simply because we are queer. In fact, we often experience violence because of who we are. The kinds of violence we face and how/ whether we survive is influenced by our race, ethnicity, disability, whether we do sex work and our economic status. But the amount of funding, research, non-profit prevention and advocacy work, direct care, organizing, and healing spaces centered on queer people is severely lacking. Non-profits and organizations are usually focused on and funded to address violence against (heterosexual, cisgender, middle to upper class, white) women. Beginning with the emergence of battered women shelters in the 1970’s, the new legislation that came soon after intended to protect survivors but the growth of what can now be considered a full-blown industry came with a heavy reliance on and investment in the state and the criminal (in)justice system. This reliance had and continues to have a pretty detrimental effect. Some communities look to the state for justice but many other communities have historically experienced and continue to experience an imbalanced amount of criminalization through the prison industrial complex. Fortunately there have been growing challenges to non-profit anti-sexual violence work that relies on and assumes the state to be a site of safety and justice rather than one of the most significant sites of sexual violence, particularly in trans communities and communities of color.
Through my time working in non-profits and organizations, as a rape crisis counselor in an emergency room, and simply as a survivor, my personal experience confirms that when it comes to mainstream anti-sexual violence work and activism, the survivor receiving most of organizational attention and support is a certain type of survivor. In this anti-violence fantasy world, she is virginal, she is sober, isn’t “crazy,” wears the right clothing, has the right job and so forth. The centering on certain communities of survivors while erasing others has a huge impact; coupled with the reliance on the state, survivors outside the communities of mainstream focus are lacking some pretty serious resources. This means that a trans woman of color who is a sex worker will most likely be unable to come forward after experiencing violence on the job (not to mention the fact that she most likely won’t be believed to be a survivor). This means that a gay man or a person who is gender non-conforming or someone who is trans or someone who is read as a man will feel —and might actually be— physically or verbally shut out of support groups. This means that a survivor who is undocumented will be unable to receive even basic forms of medical care and support because of language barriers or fear of deportation. And this also means that queer people who are incarcerated are rarely counted as survivors.
As I quit the community organizing group I was involved in, I told myself that it was essential that I next picked a project that made space for all that I considered to be missing from mainstream anti-sexual violence work. I wanted to immerse myself in work that mirrored my beliefs, practices and political ideology that I believed needed to be front and center. I drafted the call for submissions for this book and then I tried to figure out how the fuck I was going to edit a book, and get it published, having no experience with either. I knew there were already so many other people doing this radical work. I contacted organizations, bloggers, activists, and writers who I knew were already deep in radical community organizing. I thought about the dominant systems and narratives I hoped we could collectively challenge and how a collection of voices could impact the direction of anti-sexual violence work. Then submissions came pouring in. There were so many people ready that I couldn’t even accept all of the pieces submitted.
The contributors move beyond a mainstream understanding of violence in which the “victim” is (assumed) to be a white, cisgender, heterosexual, virginal woman—the perfect survivor. We work to blur the binaries. We acknowledge that the survivor and perpetrator binary is not clear-cut; that many of us and those we love have complicated histories as both survivor and perpetrator. We look at interpersonal sexual violence as being but a part of the larger structural systems of violence like the military and prison industrial complex. For me, part of the issue with the “violence against women” framework is that sexual violence is not just a gender-based violence. And while it feels important to not only recognize that people with all different gender identities have both harmed others and have been harmed by sexual violence, it’s also recognizing that sexual violence has been, historically, and still is a tool of racism, of economic exploitation, of criminalization and state violence.”
The Breathe Network: Jennifer, thank you so much for taking the time to share a bit more about the Anthology and for your work with The Breathe Network community. Your introduction has created a nice framing for the conversation, so let’s dive into the interview.
You raise two critical questions, explicitly and implicitly throughout the anthology, “Who is allowed to seek justice and what is justice for our many varied communities?” The Anthology makes it painfully clear the many barriers that exist preventing queer, disabled, people of color, trans and gender nonconforming, low-income and documented survivors from accessing justice. I would like to learn from you about that word – justice. What have you discovered justice to be, or to include perhaps – either for yourself, or in these larger conversations about queering the sexual violence movement? What is necessary for justice? Has it changed for you? Why does expanding our notions of justice matter so deeply when we think about survivors in general, and specifically, when we consider and center survivors who are outside of the narrow identity that the movement has proscribed?
Jennifer Patterson: First, I want to just share that so much of my work for this book and the evolution of my politics and practice has been informed by a huge long lineage of survivors and activists, often queer and trans people of color, women of color, people who do work through a disability justice framework, people who are looking for justice outside of harmful systems and it was through these people doing radical work that I was able to expand my own understanding over the years. I’m doing the work of internalizing, reflecting back and shifting what I was taught, unlearning. In the introduction I name some organizations and books and I’d love to share them here: GenerationFIVE, Communities Against Rape and Abuse (CARA), Incite! Women of Color Against Violence (and the books The Revolution Will Not Be Funded and The Color of Violence), the Sylvia Rivera Law Project, the Anti-Violence Project, the book The Revolution Starts at Home: Confronting Intimate Violence Within Activist Communities (edited by Jai Dulani, Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha and Ching-In Chen), Persist Health Project, UBUNTU, Generative Somatics, Philly’s Pissed, The Audre Lorde Project (and Safe Outside the System), Red Umbrella Project and so many more.
Something I often come back to when I think about justice is a quote from Cornel West: “Never forget that justice is what love looks like in public.” This opens up so much and really forces me to think about justice as a public and loving process— a community based, accountable and compassionate process. I’ve had to unlearn a lot of what I was taught about love. As a survivor of multiple forms of violence, and as someone who grew up in a home experiencing a lot of harm, often the love shown to me wasn’t really love but something else, something rooted in fear, punishment, anger, guilt and control and was directly related to other people’s trauma histories.
I have my own understanding of what justice looks and feels like and I’m also very conscious that many people want different things than me when it comes to seeking justice. I try to hold a lot of complexity at once: I think about people who hold a lot of privilege and the expectations of justice — how the police are the first people called after violence occurs because they are still able to believe that the police are there to protect — incarceration has become a stand in for justice. I also try to stay really conscious of the reality that the police have never been safe for so many communities and have never brought justice. It feels super important to acknowledge the incredibly high rate of violence and murder of people of color, of sex workers, of trans women of color, people who are disabled, people who are moving through addiction and LGBTQ people (and all the intersections) and so often this violence is literally coming from the people who we are told will “keep us safe”. Keep who safe? Also, people who are incarcerated experience extremely high rates of violence within prisons, often from prison staff and that’s so rarely part of a larger anti-violence conversation. I mean, how can we ever hope for a decrease in violence when we rely so heavily on violent systems? I think there is also this dominant narrative that if someone who commits harm is not found guilty in court and expelled from the community through incarceration, than real justice has not been achieved and I really find that tricky. So for me, justice is rooted in looking outside the systems that are so incredibly violent and instead hearing from individuals and communities about what they actually want and need in order to move through the trauma they experienced and what can support healing. This is work already done by people in Transformative and Restorative Justice spaces. And this looks really different for everyone.
The contributors to this anthology are really living in and writing into the complications of their narratives in their search for justice and it’s incredibly powerful to witness throughout the book. Aishah Shahidah Simmons has an incredibly beautiful and honest piece in the anthology and you really get a sense of what it can look like to hold someone’s humanity alongside the harm they have committed. Katherine Scott Nelson also closes out the book with a powerful piece that draws connections between personal and institutional violence and what seeking justice can look like when we also include those who have committed harm in our search for justice. To hold the complexity in our bodies is such incredibly difficult work and I also think so often it is the most loving and honest way to move through life after violence.
TBN: I really appreciated your comments on how the linking of sexual violence and queer identities is rooted in homophobic, transphobic, and heterosexist ideas and belief systems, and you also attended to the diversity of experiences and how some survivors may feel that their experiences of violence did in fact shape their sexuality or gender identity. Can you share how assumptions that link sexual violence and queer identity (made from the outside, not from the survivor’s perspective) might influence advocacy service delivery and responses and the harms to the survivor (and the queer community) that comes with those assumptions?
JP: Well, to start there is just a complete lack of visibility of LGBTQ people who experience sexual violence in the mainstream narratives around sexual violence and within mainstream anti-violence work. Lately I’ve been seeing more work that is centered on or inclusive of LGBTQ survivors but we have a long way to go and our identities and experiences are also not a monolith.
There is also a narrative around legitimacy that I’ve experienced personally, that because I was raped as a younger person, my queerness is either not legitimate (because it’s rooted in violence) or often times, people have had an “AHA!” moment when they learn that I am a survivor and I’m also queer— like they found a root for my “deviant” behavior. People have also told me that it “made sense” that I was queer and there’s been this belief that perhaps in my relationships with other queer people I would finally be “safe” and there wouldn’t be violence which is just not the case at all. LGBTQ people are not free and clear from violence — in fact, we experience more violence, including extremely high rates of murder for trans women of color which is also sexual violence and foreword writer Reina Gossett and contributor Ida Hammer both really speak to this in their pieces. Often we experience violence because of how we identify, because of who we are. And we have also experienced huge amounts of violence and have to unlearn that in order to not perpetuate that in our own relationships with each other.
A lot of pieces in the anthology work with these assumptions and realities. There’s a lot of fear (based on real life experiences) that if we are open about our survivorhood and our queerness that we will be reinforcing pathologizing narratives about LGBTQ people. Some pieces work to separate LGBTQ identities from being the result of violent experiences while a few contributors claim that there is a relationship between violence and their queer and trans identities. I love that these two orientations, in a sense, are in conflict but allowing these different experiences to live in the same book honors the multitude of different experiences in our actual lives. Contributors Jen LaBarbera and River Willow Fagan both name trauma as something that has informed their queer and trans identities and they push back on the notion that they aren’t “legitimate” in their queer and trans identities. Both of these pieces challenged my own beliefs, that I came into the book with, and I’m so thankful for that.
TBN: I was very moved by this quote, “We celebrate our imperfections. Our strength lies in our resiliency, our contradictions, the questions we ask ourselves and the answers we demand from others. It’s in the way we hold ourselves accountable to something bigger than us” and wondered if you might expand more on the importance of holding space for imperfections, contradictions, resiliency, self-reflection and accountability? It seems to be a more expansive, accessible and honest way of viewing ourselves, our healing and this work, and it also invokes (for me) a sense of vulnerability, intimacy and rawness that has been in some ways missing or discouraged within the mainstream movement.
JP: Creating space and remembering that people are complex is just more real and honest to me. The book is full of people working to shift and complicate simplistic narratives. Rousse Arielle, who has a background in law and in prison abolition, speaks to the limitations of binaries: victim/survivor and survivor/perpetrator and she asks some really difficult questions about how we determine who deserves support. And contributors Sassafras Lowrey, Keiko Lane, Sinclair Sexsmith, and Avory Faucette all help to complicate the myth of the “good” survivor as they look at pleasure, radical sexual practice, kink and BDSM as tools for healing from trauma (among so many other themes in each piece).
One of the big things that I hope people take away from the pieces in this anthology is a better understanding of how rarely people are either only victims or only survivors or only people who commit harm. Certainly there egregious acts of violence however we all commit everyday small and large acts of harm even when we try our best not to. I think survivors are often told explicitly or implicitly that in order to be a real survivor— one deserving justice and healing— we have to be good and being good means that other people have to be bad. There’s so little room for imperfection. Other people being bad means that there is this conflict between us and them and on some level, it ensures that if these “bad people” are criminalized and then go on to experience violence within the prison system or get expelled from communities– I think the violent reality of the prison industrial complex is often dismissed because these “bad people”, they deserve it. Reina Gossett speaks about this in a video series that she did with Dean Spade and Barnard College called No One is Disposable. It felt so liberating to hear them talk– it created some room for me to stop trying to make other people bad, to get out of that binary, and instead name their behavior as violent and harmful. It helped me to stop trying to hard to be good. When I started thinking about what I wanted for the people who harmed me, I realized I didn’t want them to suffer, I didn’t want them to experience violence in any way. I was able to see them as hurting and determined to try to ease that hurting by hurting other people. I wanted them to find healing too. And that doesn’t mean that I have to excuse what they did or have a relationship with them, just that things are always more complex.
If I’m really honest, and it took me years to finally settle into this kind of honesty — like so many of us, I’m someone who has also committed harm. Yes, I’m someone who has experienced multiple forms of violence — I’ve been raped, I’ve been physically assaulted (and had my ribs broken by someone I was dating and then I was stalked by him), I was raised in a violent and harmful home. And I’ve also committed harm as I moved through the aftermath of frequent trauma — I had a horrible temper as a younger person, I’ve name-called and been verbally abusive to people, I’ve drunk until I’ve blacked out and started fights with strangers in bars, I used to drive drunk with frequency, until I got a DUI. I look at violence as being a huge spectrum and I really do think that we are all harming people in small and large ways all the time. It’s almost ordinary in its frequency and because I wanted so much to be believed and to be good, I had to push away the harm I had enacted on other people. So when I began this work I had to do the work of holding myself accountable to my own imperfect past and I had to work on forgiving myself for the ways harm showed up in my interactions with other people (which I am still doing and will probably always do). And yeah, admitting this has made me, in the past, feel really vulnerable and really bad. I remember in the first six months or so, after I launched this anthology I was overwhelmed because I was convinced that because of my own imperfect past, certainly I shouldn’t be the person to be building this project. I was still stuck in this idea that I had to be perfect and good instead of someone who was unlearning violence and working to be accountable.
TBN: If you could direct the anti-sexual violence movement, and all the organizations and service providers underneath that umbrella, to make 3 changes today that would further the queering of the movement and the access to healing, safety and liberation for all survivors – what would they be?
JP: One of the many things I love about the anthology is that while some of it is directive, so much of it holds space and opens into questions that we can all take on and consider together. I love having a question and offering it up to other people without already having an answer because it means we can dream up solutions together. The contributors to the anthology are so generous – there are so many questions and answers within the book. So I mostly have questions for us to consider (and maybe a little direction).
*Begin interrogating the reliance on the criminal (in)justice system and the prison industrial complex. How can we have a world free from violence when the movement, to a large degree, relies on a justice that inflicts continued harm on people’s bodies?
*Reconsider who you are serving and who is excluded. I hear frequently that women need safety and I, too, believe that women need safe spaces. But women are not a monolith. If you are serving women, are you also not only including but centering trans women’s experiences with violence? And really, I’d love for the larger anti-violence movement to move towards a less gendered framework in general.
*Ask yourself and your organization: Who do you serve? What does justice look like? Who gets to access this notion of justice? What are you doing, as an organization, as a provider etc. to create space for a wide range of people to access services, and healing? Recognize that healing is not a linear process and that there are a multitude of ways to heal. By honoring whatever it is that has kept someone alive, we de-stigmatize certain ways people have chosen to heal and move away from this binary of “good” and “bad”.
TBN: Thank you Jennifer for taking the time to share on such a personal level about the book and how you have arrived at this place in your work. The anthology is a treasure not only for the movement but absolutely for the many lives and communities whose stories were previously silenced and whose perspectives offer the necessary nuance to not only strengthen the movement and also to deepen our compassion for self and other. We are grateful that you have chosen to align your healing arts and social justice practices with the survivors we serve by being a member of our collective and look forward to witnessing the catalyst effect this book has on the evolution of the movement to end sexual violence!
Learn more about Jennifer Patterson’s work with survivors through herbalism, writing workshops and creative arts by visiting her practitioner page. You can order Queering Sexual Violence here and follow QSV on Facebook to stay up to date about readings and other events related to the anthology.
Queering Sexual Violence Cover Design: Sean Sullivan