About a year ago, I was gifted “Queering Sexual Violence.” It quickly became one of my most tattered books: I would pack it in my bag for early morning NYC commutes, along to the beach, on road trips. Everywhere I went, this book came with me, my eyes scanning the pages trying to soak up every affirmation of all the conflicting thoughts I’ve had as a queer person and as a survivor of multiple rapes.
You see, the combination of the words queer and anti-sexual violence are complicated. The two communities have strong aversions towards each other. Working within the anti-sexual violence movement, I’ve come to learn that the language used is very specific for a reason: People do not believe survivors. We live in a rape culture that perpetuates victim blaming over supportive networks.
Laura Davis was quoted in a 1991 article of The Advocate saying, “If child sexual abuse was responsible for women becoming lesbians, then the lesbian population would be far greater than it is today. Sexual abuse may be one factor among many in someone’s sexual orientation. But saying that abuse causes homosexuality is making an assumption that there’s something wrong with being lesbian or gay.” Though this is a fair point and her first statement is accurate that the number of lesbians and queer women would be much higher, this overall statement is quite limiting. It doesn’t allow space for those of us who are queer and survivors to explore the ways in which these two identities blend into each other. However uncomfortable that may be.
Of course, not every survivor who is LGBTQ feels this way. But when both the LGBTQ and anti-sexual violence communities deny the authentic experience that sexual violence may in some way inform a survivor’s queerness, that leads to a form of censoring for many people. In “Queering Sexual Violence,” Jen LaBarbera dives into this concept with her essay “Welcome Effects: When Sexual Violence Turns Girls Queer.”
In this essay, she writes: “If we, in our queer communities, truly based our rhetoric on the assumption that nothing could de-legitimize or de-authenticate our queerness, there would be no need to fear speaking honestly about these things we censor in ourselves.”
This line struck me. I understand why the LGBTQ and anti-sexual violence communities are so rigidly against implying any sort of connection between the two. Each movement has fought so hard to earn legitimacy in the mainstream to make serious progress for those in need. However, if we truly want to resist homophobia and the normalization of sexual violence, we need to allow our truths to be told no matter how messy they are.
The LGBTQ community often needed to fight for legitimacy by saying that we’re born this way, scientifically wired this way. Anti-sexual violence advocates have worked tirelessly to ensure that survivors are believed, having made the ways in which we understand sexual violence very definable and digestible. I don’t believe these approaches work for either community; in fact, they’re damaging to any sort of progress we make. These aren’t honest representations of true life experience; they are censored versions with uncompromising narratives. There needs to be room for nuance in understanding sexual violence and human sexuality.
In searching for some practices to queer up the anti-sexual violence movement and add more nuance to these conversations, I spoke with Brian Pinero the VP of Victim Services at RAINN. The numbers of LGBTQ people that experience sexual violence is staggering:
- Queer women are 3 times more likely to experience sexual violence than straight women (source: CDC 2010 report)
- Queer men are 3 times more likely to experience sexual violence than straight men (source: CDC 2010 report)
- Trans and GNC people are 5 times more like to experience sexual violence than cisgender women and 21 times more like to experience sexual violence than cisgender men (source: Office for Victims Crime 2014 report)
To make room for those messy life experiences, those who may be live in the in-between, here are four practices the anti-sexual violence movement can use to create more space for all survivors, no matter how complicated their lived experience may be.
1. Center the voices of those most affected
“I think you first have to start by acknowledging that every person’s experience is real and that LGBTQ relationships are valid and real. Perpetrators of sexual assault are more often than not an intimate partner or someone the victim knows personally,” Pinero told GO. “We have to do the training necessary to treat every person as believing what happened to them from law enforcement to first responders. After that, what we have to do is reflect this in our leadership.”
Hiring queer and trans survivors into leadership positions and/or advocacy roles will help push for positive change. LGBTQ competency training for those who work with sexual assault victims is, of course, important. However, I believe that those making decisions on how support networks and advocacy works should be those most impacted by the issue. Many LGTQ people who are survivors are already outspoken about their experiences, but this activism is taxing both emotionally and physically. Giving more space in leadership to LGBTQ survivors will only make way for intersectional change.
2. Holistic and inclusive sex education
Many research studies have found that youth get most of the information they know about sexual assault from the media: “Most participants received their information from the popular media, including television (43%), newspapers (29%), magazines (10%), and radio (9%). The Internet was also a common source of information (38%). Participants also identified family (7%), friends (10%), and school (9%) as information resources.” (source: Stacey Katz-Schiavone “Myths and Facts About Sexual Violence: Public Perceptions and Implications for Prevention.”)
There is no question that consuming media that portrays sexual violence in a normalized way impacts a young person’s concept of sexual consent (i.e., Robin Thicke’s music video for “Blurred Lines”). Adversely, I believe that holistic and inclusive sex ed could reduce the number of sexual assaults that happen.
The Netherlands implemented a comprehensive sex education program in 1999. Teachers talk openly about homosexuality and masturbation, as well as advocate the importance of communication with sexual partners. Their current rate of sexual assault is 9.2 incidents per 100,000 citizens. (source: Berne, L. and B. Huberman. “Sexuality Education: European Approaches to Adolescent Sexual Behavior and Responsibility: Executive Summary & Call to Action.”)
3. Sharing our honest and sometimes messy stories
“When I started this job back in July I was leaving Austin, Texas to move to Washington, DC,” Pinero said. “While in line at the airport, I was talking about my new position with a prominent leader in the Republican party. He told me a story about his friend’s daughter who had been assaulted. It doesn’t matter the side of the aisle you’re on. When you tell a story about yourself or the community, you’re speaking to a micro part of the macro issue that is sexual violence.”
The more we as survivors and LGBTQ people are able to tell out stories, the more we create space for others to know that their experience is real and valid. When I first came out, I remember constantly Googling “sexual assault turning you gay,” and coming up with no results. I wondered if my experience with rape had turned me gay. In my process of healing, I found that I’ve always been queer. But my identity as a survivor also plays a role in my sexual orientation.
Everyone has a voice at the table; it doesn’t matter who you are—stories are what will help bring us together in this movement.
4. Advocate for those in need
“Advocacy works,” Pinero said. “You can’t always expect the victim to advocate for themselves. Having an advocate helps a victim develop a sense of empowerment. They can get help that is tailored to them without any pressure to make decisions they’re not ready to make.”
When I asked Pinero on our call what suggestions he had for communities who may not feel safe reporting to the police for whatever reason, he suggested advocacy. Many reports have been done to show that victims who receive advocacy soon after their assault have fewer symptoms of PTSD or depression later on in life.
There are many decisions to make – from whether to report or not to if you want to seek out a support group. Having someone by your side informing you of all the options you have takes a huge burden of the survivor.
If you or someone you know has been sexually assaulted, you can seek help by calling the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800-656-HOPE (4673). For more resources on sexual assault, visit RAINN, End Rape on Campus, Know Your IX, and the National Sexual Violence Resource Center.