I was initially inspired to name the collective Salvage from an editorial in the feminist art blog No More Pot Lucks. Here Salvage is explained as:
- The act of saving
- Something extracted from rubbish and made valuable
- To remove from harms way
Whilst being critical of the ‘rescue industry’ (Agustin 2007) and power at work in constructions of victimhood implied in the act of saving, I was drawn to the more active processes of removing ourselves, making value and challenging harm that makes space for agency and resistance for survivors and activists to transform their lives.
Victim or Survivor?
You may have already noticed that I have been using the term survivor. By survivor I mean anyone who has experienced, or is living with, violence and abuse. There has been a lot of debate and discussion about the term victim and its problematic implications of passivity, vulnerability, being damaged and needing the (paternal) protection of state powers. However for some the term survivor fails to fully acknowledge the power of white supremacist capitalist patriarchy that shapes who uses violence, abuse and harm against who and what impacts this has on lives. For instance, women, girls, trans, queers, sex workers and people of colour, are more likely to experience violence and abuse.
Research on domestic violence has suggested that in violent and abusive regimes women are actually highly skilled in managing risk and harm to themselves and their children (Cavanagh 2003). Careful management of the self within regimes of violence and abuse (feeling like you are ‘walking on eggshells’) is a core (and very demanding) part of safety work; whereas the work done to unpick and recover from long-term impacts of violence and abuse is thought of as violence work (Kelly 2012). The need to recognise this has led some folks to prefer the term victim-survivor in order to better acknowledge that active resistance and structural constraints shape lives. Other folks reject both victim and survivor for a more optimistic possibility of being a thriver.
I wanted to keep the language as simple as possible and to avoid the academic quirks of brackets, hyphen and inverted commas as much as possible so I am going to stick to using survivor to talk about anyone who has experienced, or is living with, violence and abuse. Most importantly and ultimately, it is up to the person themselves to decide which term feels right for them and how to best describe what has happened, or is happening, to them.
It can be difficult for survivors to name what they experience as sexual violence. The legal and government definitions of sexual assault and rape may not fit lived experiences. Much of what is experienced as harmful cannot be reduced to an incident or criminal act but is experienced cumulatively. Violence and abuse can become normalised and routine in everyday life – a taken for granted way of being a woman, gender-queer and trans in a heteropatriarchal world. This means that the process of naming sexual violence may take some time and survivors often feel responsible for causing or deserving the violence they have experienced. Feminist research in sexual violence has long recognised the diverse forms that sexual violence can take.
‘Any physical, visual, verbal or sexual act that is experienced by the woman or girl [individual] at the time or later as a threat, invasion or assault that has the effect of hurting her [them] or degrading her [them] and/or takes away her [their] ability to control intimate contact’
(Kelly 1988, p. 41 – changed gender pronouns in brackets)
This means that sexual violence can be thought of as a continuum that encompasses a range of harms experienced in everyday life. This ‘continuum of sexual violence’ (Kelly 1988, 2012) can include: threats of violence, sexual harassment, unwanted touching, everyday intrusions of personal space, pressure to have sex, use of communication technologies to harass and denigrate (e.g. text/picture messages, phone calls, e-mails, social media, photos and films), coercive sex, flashing, domestic violence, rape and incest. In short, sexual violence is an experience imposed on you that results in a harmful and degrading loss of sexual autonomy.
Consent is a term that feminists have fought for in struggles to recognise rape as a global human rights issue and criminal offence. It refers to a person having the basic right to choose whether or not to have sex. The statutory definition of consent refers to whether there is a ‘reasonable belief’ that consent has been granted. The reasonable-ness of this belief can be undermined by anything that indicates a lack in capacity (e.g. age, ability and understanding) and freedom (e.g. alcohol, drugs or coercion) during the encounter.
Outside of the legal definition, in consent activist circles, consent is understood as a voluntary, enthusiastic, active, mutual, informed and honest agreement. It is a process – so just because someone has agreed to one sexual activity this does not mean that they have agreed to all sexual activities. Consent is not coerced – an inability to say no is not a yes. Put simply if you are pressurising someone into having sex with you who doesn’t want to have sex with you – you are denying this person their sexual autonomy. This is non-consensual sexual contact and your behaviour towards that person falls on the continuum of sexual violence.
These are the many myths that circulate in society and culture that make it difficult to make sense of what is happening/has happened as sexual violence. Common rape myths are recognised as a major problem in the courtroom leading to low conviction rates. As mentioned above survivors can feel they are to blame and can take on responsibility for the sexual violence they have experienced. Social and cultural beliefs in natural sexual aggression/entitlements (e.g. cisgender men and masculinity) and hypersexualisation of particular social groups (e.g. women of colour, working class, sex workers, transgender women) means that many survivors are encouraged to locate responsibility in their own actions and self-presentation rather than the abuser.
Things that make survivors feel responsible can include: not having any visible injuries to demonstrate physical resistance, if it happened at home, being drunk or using drugs, not having a clear memory of what happened, not reporting it straight away, being a sex worker, being dressed sexy, flirting or perceived as ‘asking for it’, being in a relationship with the abuser and feeling obliged to perform a sexual act or being too afraid to say no.
There is also a myth that women make a high number of false allegations of rape against male partners as a way of seeking revenge. This adds to a culture of suspicion and outrage around those who come forward and speak out about sexual violence despite the number of false allegations being very low (McMillan 2010). Rape apologism is an umbrella term for a range of arguments that suggest sexual violence is rare, over-reported, not a big deal or even excusable. A ‘rape culture’ that does not challenge rape myths, supports the abuser and refuses to believe the survivor contributes to a harmful society.
The term gendered harms refers to the theoretical approach that I am still working on (if you do not like theory skip this). A gendered harms approach combines a commitment to gender self-determination, rooted in the dissident histories of feminists, lesbians, trans and gender-queer folks to the dominant social ordering of gender and sexuality (Stanley & Smith 2011; Mogul, Ritchie & Whitlock 2012; Lamble 2013), with a social harm approach that takes into account much more than what is currently understood and responded to as a crime in law and policy. This highlights the harms of chronic sexism, homophobia, transphobia, imperialism and neoliberalism within society. This highlights how the carceral state, in collaboration with (often newly) privileged social groups, are implicated as sources of harm and pushes for a collective responsibility to challenge such harms.
written by Julia, August 2015
Agustin, Laura (2007) Sex at the Margins: Migration, Labour Markets and the Rescue Industry. London: Zed (also see The Naked Anthropologist blog)
Cavanagh, Kate (2003) Understanding women’s responses to domestic violence. Qualitative Social Work, 2(3): 229–249
Kelly, Liz (1988) Surviving Sexual Violence. Cambridge: Polity
Kelly, Liz (2012) ‘Standing the test of time? Reflections on the concept of the continuum of sexual violence’. In Brown, J. and Walklate, S. (eds) Handbook on Sexual Violence. London: Routledge
Lamble, Sarah (2013) Queer Necropolitics and the Expanding Carceral State: Interrogating sexual investments in punishments. Law Critique, 24: 229-253
McMillan, Lesley (2010). Understanding attrition in rape cases. Economic and Social Research Council end of award report. RES-061-23-0138-A, Swindon: ESRC
Mogul, Joey L. Andrea J. Ritchie & Kay Whitlock (2012) Queer (In)Justice: The Criminalization of LGBT People in the United States. Beacon Press
Stanley, Eric A. & Nat Smith (eds.) (2011) Captive Genders: Trans embodiment and the prison industrial complex. Edinburgh, Oakland & Baltimore: AK Press