I Speak Because I Must
[trigger warning: assault and abuse] I am one of the lucky ones.
I am 26 years old. I have never had sex. I have never been in a physically or sexually abusive situation or relationship. I have never had trouble affirming my right not to be touched. I grew up in a household where a “no” or “stop” was respected and my brothers were punished if they ignored my protests in, say, a tickle war. My mother heavily guarded me against any potential abuse, telling me that I should scream, cry, and kick if someone tried to touch me without my consent. I’ve only been touched without my consent twice, and both times were a groping that was ended almost immediately.
I never had to fend off the advances of a lecherous uncle.
I never had to deal with a boyfriend threatening to kill either me or himself if I didn’t sleep with him.
I never had a teacher who took advantage of the power differential between teacher and student.
I made it to 26 years old unscathed by physical or sexual abuse. And yet, as many of you regular readers of this space know, I am an outspoken ally for the abused. I respond viscerally and loudly to victim blaming ideologies. I will be one of the first people to side with abused women in my life and to make every attempt I can to advocate alongside them, to help them get back on their feet. This is not me tooting my own horn – this is merely a summary of my work and my advocacy.
And the most common question I get when I speak out with the abused?
“What happened to you?”
My mother, my brother, friends in real life, friends on the internet, strangers on the internet, people I disagree with – everyone seems to ask me this question.
And this question saddens, terrifies, and angers me.
Are the abused so lacking for allies that it is assumed that all advocates for the cause have been abused in some way?
Do we actually live in a world where empathy is in such short supply that I cannot possibly advocate for someone without having a shared experience with them?
Am I to believe that I need to be a part of this group as a qualification for helping them?
Is compassion really that unusual?
I don’t have panic attacks when stories about abuse are told. My anxiety doesn’t spike when I read about sexual assault. I am one of the lucky, privileged people in the world who doesn’t require a trigger warning at the top of this blog entry.
But I know people who do. I know people who cannot go to certain places for fear of being reminded of their assault. I have family members who are just now, years after the event, finding ways to put their experience into words. I have spent much of my time listening, reading, and speaking with survivors. I am what one would call an ally.
Simply having led a blessed life does not mean I get to ignore the stories, especially not when they are staring me in the face.
Simply being one of the lucky ones does not give me a free pass to excuse behavior.
One can be an advocate without being a survivor. One can be an ally without being a member of a group.
Being an ally does not mean I speak for members of the group, but that I listen to their stories, I stand by them, and I speak with them.
In its early days, the feminist movement would not have gotten off the ground without male allies.*
The Civil Rights movement was spearheaded by black leaders, but also required the work of white allies.
The LGBT movement has turned the tide in part because straight people have realized that this is not just a “gay” problem.
And survivors of abuse are made to feel alone if people who are not survivors remain silent.
Nothing needs to have happened to me directly in order for me to be an advocate against abuse. This kind of thinking is dangerous – it allows those privileged with a benign past to write off the stories of the abused as bitterness, as seeing things through the lens of their abuse, as merely speaking from a place of anger and pain, and not rational thinking. After all, if you can write off your opponent as a bitter nag with abuse issues, then you don’t have to critically engage with what they’re saying.
I write about rape, sexual assault, physical, verbal, emotional, and spiritual abuse not because I am a survivor of those things. I write about them because I desire to create a world in which I no longer have to write about them. I advocate because it is the right thing to do, not because I have an axe to grind. What matters is what I have to say, not what my history may be.
*See The Advocate for Moral Reform published in the 1830s by the New York Moral Reform Society. Male allies were required to aid the advocacy of these white middle class women - they could not get published otherwise.