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Monday, April 12, 2010

Keeping Perspective

Happy Monday! To those readers who came out to support the Walk for Change yesterday, thank you! The walk was great - we got a ton of people and BARCC raised a lot of money. The weather was appropriately deferential to the occasion, and I got a sweet sunburn. The BARCC development team did a fine, fine job on this event; +10 social justice XP for them.

I was proud of my team - we got almost 30 walkers and we beat our fundraising goal by almost 30%. The most encouraging part for me, though, was that my team wasn't at the top of the fundraising pile. A lot of other volunteers and teams raised more money, brought more people to the event, and got a lot of exposure for the issue. Good jobs all.


I first got involved in feminism because I was bored. I was unemployed in the fall of 2006, and after my daily job hunting activities, I needed something to interest me to keep me from all-consuming boredom. My roommate was a huge Malcolm Gladwell fan at the time, so I started reading every article of his I could find. It was through his website that I found Ariel Levy's book Female Chauvinist Pigs. I liked her book, and especially the critical parts of it - the parts that analyzed the big picture of culture and what it was telling each of us about our gender and identity. Her book led me to start investigating as many other feminist thinkers as I could find (at least, find for free in the library). It wasn't unusual in this period of my life for me to bring my laptop the BPL in Copley at 9 a.m., apply to jobs until 2 p.m., and only get home at 9 at night because I just sat on the second floor in the sociology section, burning through all of the books on gender theory they had.

Sexual violence was a topic that came up over and over again, especially in the writing of second-wave thinkers. I had a pretty mainstream idea of what sexual violence was at the time, meaning I didn't understand the concept of rape culture or patriarchy, but I thought that rape was a bad thing and we should probably arrest or at least sanction more rapists than we seemed to, as a culture.

As I read more feminist literature and theory, my view of where sexual violence fits into the world changed. A lot of the original impetus to contact BARCC and volunteer with them came from Susan Brownmiller's Against Our Wills, her landmark 1975 treatise on sexual assault. This was a foundational text for me in my understanding of systems of oppression:
From prehistoric times to the present, I believe, rape has played a critical function. It is nothing more or less than a conscious process of intimidation by which all men keep all women in a state of fear.
Rape is a different kind of crime than theft or arson or even murder - rape has a political context that these other actions do not (murder is probably the big exception, especially in a racial justice arena). For most women, fear of rape and sexual assault is standard operating procedure - it is something the rest of culture tells them is a basic, inherent threat because of their physiology.

Fear is incredibly powerful. Fear is a tool of social control. Fear changes the way people act in real, basic, day-to-day ways. From my perspective, when I came into the sexual violence prevention world, rape was primarily a social construct to enforce gender-based oppression. This was one of the major reasons that I got involved with my men's group NOMAS-Boston - I felt that, not only do male-identified people have a role to play in ending sexual violence because we are half the population, we have more responsibility to end this because we were the ones who were causing it. It was my belief that the existence of patriarchy and its requirement that female bodies are oppressed was the root cause of rape. If we could strike back at the patriarchy, if we could break its social hold on our culture (which would mean making a new culture, too) then we would get rid of rape, or so I believed.

I still believe all of that, but coming to BARCC showed me how limited my perspective on sexual violence could be at times. Patriarchy isn't the only form of oppression in the world, and the ways that society elevates or diminishes people for their gender, ethnicity, or bodies all interact in complicated ways. Learning about the problems in the lesbian community with sexual assault confused me, because in my incredibly macro-level view of sexual violence, women weren't ever talked about as aggressors. I didn't understand their place in the "conscious process of intimidation by which all men keep all women in a state of fear." It took me some serious time and digging and having good conversations and listening a lot to start to see a common thread from the super-big-picture theory that led me to BARCC, and the actual ways that I saw rape and sexual assault happening in the world. The common thread was power: who had it, who wanted to keep it, and how it was protected.

In general, society provides more easy access to power for men than for women, but if we find any one individual man and individual woman, the differences in power between the two might be very different than between the bigger and de-personalized constructs of "man" and "woman." The way I had conceptualized rape and sexual assault was great for trying to tackle sexual violence as something that affects millions of people, but it was a really bad way of understanding the actual lived lives of individual people. Working at BARCC gave me the opportunity to speak with a number of survivors, and each one of them has their own relationship to the wider culture and the ways power was distributed to them (or not distributed to them). In many cases, though, those big, social concerns took a necessary backseat to much more practical concerns: did they have a place to sleep? Were they safe? Did they want to go to the hospital, and did they have a way to get there? Worrying about the patriarchy could wait for tomorrow; people need to eat today.

Working on high-level social change is vital, but if I spend all of my time up in the clouds, I'm ignoring the people who are being affected by sexual violence every day. And coming full circle now, that's why things like the Walk are so important for me as a volunteer. The Walk is an opportunity for people like me who spend a lot of time in the clouds to make sure our work is always grounded in helping survivors, and in this case, that means giving BARCC dollars. Ensuring the staff is making a livable wage, making sure BARCC has the necessary facilities to work with survivors, making sure we have enough counselors on staff to actually support the living, breathing survivors who come to us for support - these things all cost money, and if my cash and the cash of my friends can help make sure those services exist, that's action that is supporting people in the real world, right now.

Likewise, for those folks who spend all of their time dealing with the heavy trauma of working with survivors to make sure they aren't suicidal, helping them get to the hospitals if they want to go, validating their experiences and listening to them, the walk is a place where those folks can see the commitment the rest of us have to fixing the system.

My efforts to change the world and the system, if they aren't grounded in the way people actually live their lives, will never actually fix anything.
Posted by Dave on 04/12 at 12:45 PM

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