I’ve been on Twitter for a quite a few years, and I’ve established a fairly solid online presence as a commentator on rape culture in all of its horrible and myriad manifestations. So when the stories about Harvey Weinstein first emerged, and when I couldn’t turn to a single social media platform without seeing harrowing stories featuring the #MeToo hashtag, I didn’t hesitate to Tweet some of the things I was thinking about.
Some of my Tweets were extremely personal, about the various assaults I’ve suffered and the enduring consequences of sexualized and gendered violence. Others focused more on pointed critiques of the various institutions (all of them?!) in which power and violence run rampant.
While my Tweets often get modest uptake, one in particular, from October of 2017, became the first that I would ever designate as a “viral” Tweet. Echoing the feminist writer Lindy West, who Tweeted in 2016 that she wished that “women didn’t have to rip our pasts open & show you everything & let you ogle our pain for you to believe us,” I wrote that I wished that the #MeToo hashtag was about rapists and assailants “admitting to being trash humans instead of survivors having to bare their souls.” The Tweet, at last screenshot, had almost 3,000 retweets and more than 9,300 likes.
I’m not ashamed about my Tweet, or embarrassed, really, because it does reflect my strong sentiment about the ways in which survivors of sexual assault have, in many ways, had to “prove” the extent of the harm they’ve suffered by sharing their stories over and over and over again, often in explicit detail, and often at the cost of great emotional and psychological distress. To be honest, during #MeToo, I found myself at the intersection of rape culture fatigue and hashtag fatigue: after all, hadn’t we seen this before? Didn’t this happen during #BeenRapedNeverReported, which was started by Canadian journalists Sue Montgomery and Antonia Zerbisias in the fall of 2014, when stories about former Canadian Broadcasting Corporation radio host Jian Ghomeshi were flooding the headlines. We were promised, then, that this would be a “watershed moment.” Hadn’t we seen this during @gildedspine’s #YesAllWomen, Zerlina Maxwell’s #RapeCultureIsWhen, Wagatwe Wanjuki’s #SurvivorPrivilege, Kelly Oxford’s #NotOkay and any number of other hashtags about sexual assault and harassment?
As it turned out, the hashtag #ItWasMe would soon emerge, and for the first time on Twitter, I saw people who had harassed or assaulted others taking responsibility for the harms they had caused. As reported by Alexia LaFata at Elite Daily, #ItWasMe featured a wide range of stories: LaFata observed that
“some of the men admit to enabling damaging gender power dynamics, being silent in the moments they should have spoken up instead, and doubting the accounts and stories of women who have talked about their experiences. Some even admit to having been a perpetrator themselves, ignoring physical boundaries, objectifying women, and generally behaving like a “piece of sh*t.”
Like many others, and despite the fact that my research argues for the importance of stories from and about people who have harmed others, I wasn’t entirely comfortable with #ItWasMe, either. I worried about the impact it would have on survivors to see people speaking, likely in detail, about the ways in which they’d violated others. I worried that those who had committed harm would get accolades for speaking out. I worried that like the now-infamous 2012 Reddit thread, in which perpetrators of rape were asked for “stories from the other side” of the issue, that it would be twisted into some sort of grounds for bragging about having gotten away with assault, and that it would merely titillate or empower others who had done the same.
I have always wavered on what to do with people who hurt others. In moments, like the current one, when yet someone else that I love has been impacted by rape, and when I have spent countless hours watching the victim impact statements of some of the more than 140 women who were assaulted by former U.S. Olympic doctor Larry Nassar, I want to send every single rapist and abuser and harasser to an island.
It is easy for me to want bars and chains and bread and water and no dignity, and while I readily call out anyone who thinks that prison rape is some sort of retribution that should be applauded, there are moments in which I am not particularly merciful, not particularly interested in complexities or nuances, not as certain as I usually am about the need for prison abolition and restorative justice, not interested in recognizing the humanity of those who have hurt me and so many others.
I still think that “trash humans” a far cry better than “monsters” or “evil,” though I recognize the ways it risks playing into the same discourse. As I’ll discuss in my next post, learning to interrogate the latter two terms, and the ways in which I believe they damage some of the possibilities for transforming our society and our justice systems, is something that I am getting much better at doing. I tend to think about violence less in binary or black-and-white terms than I used to. Certainly, my scholarly training and my activist work are responsible a massive part of that shift, but I still reserve the right to be angry. Some days, when sexual violence feels like a deep pit of quicksand, and when the defensiveness around rape culture feels like a hot garbage fire, “trash humans” is the best I can do.
A few weeks after I wrote that Tweet, Seattle-based writer Ijeoma Oluo wrote a wonderful post over at The Establishment, entitled “When You Can’t Throw All The Men Into the Ocean and Start Over, What DO You Do?” Echoing the kind of despair and exhaustion that many of us felt and still feel, Oluo wrote:
“[…] As a mother of two boys I cannot believe that every man is a sexual predator and that every little boy is destined to become one. I would not be able to get out of bed in the mornings. But as a survivor of multiple sexual assaults, as one of the 20% of all women in the U.S. who report being victims of sexual assault (and this is not including sexual harassment and other ways in which women are made to feel unsafe in their bodies), as a citizen of a country that elected a man who proudly admitted on tape to sexually assaulting women as president, I will say this: This society is doing everything it can to create rapists, to enable rapists, and to protect rapists.
We certainly can’t throw all of the people who do harm into the ocean. Nor do I truly believe that Oluo’s ocean or my island are actually the answers. The problem is, as Oluo also writes: “I absolutely cannot give all the answers. I do not have all the answers. Women more capable than I have died trying to find a way to fix this.”
I don’t claim to have the answers: what I am interested in is trying to add even a small grain of sand to the conversation. To accomplish that, though, I have to approach my work as the whole human being that I am, which is (as all humans are) someone who comes with biases. Because I am conducting a large portion of my work online, through social media, I have to accept that sometimes this bias might get far more airtime than, say, a Twitter thread I wrote the same day about imagining better supports for those who harm others.
When it comes to the work of writing more broadly, I know that it is a common truism to say that people ought to “write what they know.” Indeed, I know and understand sexual violence intimately from personal experience, but I am not convinced that this experience alone makes me an excellent candidate to conduct this research. In the past decade or so of studying trauma and violence, what I have learned is that I don’t always know as much as I think I do. My scholarly research has, in recent years, led me to take much different positions on my own experiences of trauma, most notably the idea that trauma somehow lies in exclusively in the realm of the unspeakable and the unknowable (more on this in a later post). And my personal experiences, particularly those working as an activist and advocate and learning from others, has shifted my scholarly research, particularly in terms of how I approach the idea of carceral punishment, and what kinds of theoretical frameworks I wish to work from.
All this to say, then, that my biases are something I confront at every turn in this work; rather than being ashamed of them, I live with them. I develop curiosities about them. I try to attend to them rigorously, and revise when and where it is necessary. This work requires a lot of messy and uncomfortable moments of sitting with myself; but I couldn’t imagine doing it any other way.