Sexual Violence: A Reckoning of the Both/And

ENVISION VOICES is a blog written by Project Envision NYC members to start healthy dialogues around the root causes of sexual violence.

 

 

 

“The ability to claim abuse is intricately related to possessing the symbolic

and material capital that allows the claim to be heard, and thus does not

reflect the proper power of balance that the claim is supposed to unveil.”

-Ilana Eloit, London School of Economics blog, Engenderings, July 2015. Site: Sarah Schulman

 

 

I want to write about a personal experience of trauma – an act of sexual violence that brings out

the vigilance and fear too familiar for women living under patriarchy. It was scary. It was wrong.

It was surreal. And yet… I need to do some unpacking.

Me and my roommate near where we lived on Medill in Humboldt Park, Chicago, years later, 2012

Me and my roommate near where we lived on Medill in Humboldt Park, Chicago, years later, 2012

 

I think it was the winter of 2006. Chicago.

I was walking home down a quiet street from the California Blue Line train stop – maybe from

work, or maybe from a bar – talking shit on the phone with a friend. I passed Logan Square’s

Darwin Elementary School (where at some point, “Fuck Darwin” had been sprayed across the

playground slide). I swung right down the familiar alley that bordered the East side of my

apartment building. As I turned left onto the quiet half-block long side street, I had my phone to

my ear and put the key in the lock of 2147 West Medill Avenue.

At that moment, I felt a sudden jolt between my legs, as a hand jerked up from behind me and

firmly grabbed my vagina over my pants. It all happened so fast. I blood-curdle screamed. My

friend on the phone panicked, “What the hell? What happened? Are you ok?” I immediately

started laughing. This happens sometimes when something hard happens; I have an

uncontrollable laugh response. In that split second I turned around, now assuming it was a friend

who often threw rocks at my window late at night, still laughing, to see an unfamiliar man dart

away, sprinting down the alley.

Oh.

So that violent crotch-grab just happened.

Wow.

Shaken and blurry, I assured my friend I was ok, quickly turned the lock to get inside the

building, climbed the stairs to my apartment, got off the phone, and thought about what to do. I

deliberated a bit. Would he do this to someone else? Was this trending in the neighborhood?

What if it escalated next time? How could I protect other vulnerable women?

I decided to call the police – a decision that might surprise my friends today.

“A man just grabbed me on my street. He grabbed my crotch, then ran away. I don’t know how

to report this, but is this happening in the neighborhood?”

“Can you tell me what the man looked like?”

(Well….Medium build. Medium height. Latino...)

“Um…. Do I have to give a description?”

“Yes.”

“Huh. Alright, that’s ok. I don’t want to make a report. Thanks.”

While some feminists might have told me to curb my white guilt and actively intervene to

prevent reoccurrence, I’m glad I didn’t report the incident. Who was The Community? Who

would feel safer? Who would be heard? Who would be identified as a threat?

Statistically, the people who hurt us are usually people we know, people we know intimately. I

can personally attest to this emphatically. But this was actually that whole stranger-in-a-darkalley

trope – it fit the narrative we like to tell about sexual violence. It felt odd to me. Was I the

innocent white female attacked by the scary man in the alley?

No. There was more to this story than that.

I mention Medill Avenue because in 2006 I was at the forefront of gentrifying Logan Square, a

neighborhood I would be priced out of today. It was a predominantly working class Mexican and

Polish neighborhood with an ongoing history of community-based organizing to protect

affordable housing. People talked about the gangs and rampant gun violence – measures of street

cred for young white arrivals. I think I paid $250 for my first apartment there.

Today, Logan Square hosts farm-to-table food and has recently revamped the local $1 OldStyle

pitchers-plus-crack, plus bar fights, plus smoke-inside dive bar, into a high-end cocktail joint. As

beloved as Helen’s Two-Way Lounge is (was) to me, I guess my friends and I kind of took over

that neighborhood institution too.

In 2006 Logan Square, I felt brazen enough to walk home drunk and alone at night – maybe

partially as a defiant testament to my toughness, but also due to my privilege. Yet I would still

feel fear when johns pulled in the early pre-dawn mornings along Fullerton Avenue for a hook. I

hated men. Stay away. You’re disgusting. But why would I feel insulted? How could I not

imagine they might perceive me to be working the well-known strip? What shame and

judgement was I casting on street-based sex work, particularly in a poor and working class

neighborhood?

Something we don’t delve into around street harassment is the underlying issues of gentrification

and power. In Logan Square, I was participating in the displacement of poor people and people

of color. Albeit unintentional, this was an act of “Power Over”. Gentrification is an act of Power

Over. And isn’t street harassment as well? But how does power play out when a white woman

accuses a man of color? Where is the power play there? We have the historical and ongoing

murder and policing of men of color to tell that story.

I am not justifying this man’s act of violence. I am complicating the intersections of white

supremacy and the punitive systems we have in place to address or not address both

interpersonal and systemic violence. I survived an act of violence. And I was also participating in

violence against communities by my existence within them.

In her controversial new book, Sarah Schulman asks us to think about the impact of putting the

efforts to end interpersonal incidents of violence into the hands of the state. Moving away from

the grassroots foundations of the anti-violence movement, we see that an increased reliance on

police means “the antidote to violence at home [is] now officially violence of the state” (96).

That night, I could have easily accessed state violence to punish the Latino men in the

neighborhood whom the police were set to incriminate.

This is not to negate the vigilance and, sometimes, fear I feel walking down the street as a

woman. But this fear of violence is all too familiar for many black and brown folks relentlessly

policed and imprisoned, for undocumented people and their families, for people perceived to be

Muslim (during Trump and before Trump), for folks working in the sex trade, for day laborers

waiting on corners for work, for migrant workers picking the food we eat, for trans and gender

non-conforming people carefully navigating restroom use, or for other people living with layers

of heightened, and often visible, vulnerability. It could be a guttural fear of street violence. It

could be anxiety about making it to the subway safely every day. Or it could be the ever present

fear of state violence that pervades every aspect of your life.

Shulman states, “People from privileged groups, or who overlap with the groups society is

designed to serve, have expectations that their complaints will be heard. Obviously white and

bourgeois people are more likely to have their accusations take seriously than the undocumented,

poor, trans, and people of color…” (90).

I was and remain in a place where I can access state violence to protect my cisgender, white

femininity – the same state violence that continues to incarcerate and murder entire communities

who, in our racist society, have come to symbolize a threat to my white femininity. What about

Black femininity? Or Indigenous Sovereignty? Does the state serve to protect or to eradicate

these individuals and entire communities of survivors?

I want to honor my trauma and my survivorship. I want to name the sexual and physical violence

I have endured throughout my life in a world bent on keeping women and queer people down. I

do believe that we need to make room to honor the violence we all experience and not move only

from a place of scarcity. As I have seen in my personal relationships and my communities, a

measured hierarchy of pain is sure to tear us all apart.

But in a world based on scarcity, I must recognize my participation in violent systems, in

displacement and racist profiling. I must name the limited access to safety available to some and

not others. Only by doing these things can we be truly accountable in the movement to end

sexual violence and other forms of violence and oppression.

We can be survivors and we can commit harm. Naming this is not a solution. But it is a step

towards accountability.

— Sydney Kopp-Richardson

 

 

 

Prairie burn outside the town where I grew up, 2015

Prairie burn outside the town where I grew up, 2015