I was reading about the R. Kelly verdict, which of course led to reading about the facts and just how much nastiness he has inflicted over how many years. I wanted to say something right away, but I was scared to write anything. If I wrote too quickly or too soon, it would probably end up just another flip, sarcastic internet comment ultimately containing no meaning. Hell, maybe it would even end up causing problems. It wouldn’t be the first time. I can be such an ass about all this because I did anti-sexual violence and anti-domestic violence work for so long that a whole bunch of the wisdom feminists have accumulated through the years became second nature to me, and I would forget that people who didn’t work in shelters and on hotlines didn’t have that. I got to the point that anti-violence wisdom became second nature, and that we aren’t born knowing things, we learn them either because we were taught or because we work our asses off to learn them ourselves, which is admirable, but takes a fuck of a lot longer. Decades.
But I did learn that I can be an ass about this, and that I can expect too much from normal human beings who simply haven’t been taught important things by their families and schools and societies. Because I can be an ass, when the time came to shake up DV/SA public outreach at an agency where I worked I heard people say that we need to put, “It’s not your fault,” front and center in our public message, I said no.
I’ve worked with survivors for decades, and over and over I’ve seen the impact of abusive people defining the experiences of their victims. The guilty literally tell their victims that it is the victim’s fault. You burned the pot roast. You dressed like a slut. You forgot to pick up my prescription. You got drunk at the party.
It seems like we need to counter that. GODS it seems so obvious that we have to counter that. To have real human empathy and talk to survivors over and over again for years, witnessing the pain inflicted by victim blaming is excruciating. We burn with the need to counter that. And that’s why we put, “It’s not your fault,” at the center of our public outreach. We have empathy. We see the pain. We feel so much pressure inside, there’s a sense we might literally explode. So we tell people, “It’s not your fault.”
But we’re wrong when we do it. Not wrong in the sense of lying, not wrong because it really is the survivor’s fault. We’re wrong in the sense that we’re making a bad choice.
At heart, rapists and abusers strip agency. We choose not to consent; they choose to ignore that. They choose for us what we experience. Even the victim blaming is part of that.
But when we are speaking to survivors and tell them, “It’s not your fault,” we are dictating to them what is true about their experience. We feel like we are helping, but we have stopped listening. Even though there is a good motivation to counter victim blaming, the impulse is also selfish, to ease that pressure we feel inside when we hear about these outrages.
Every single person who has ever worked on a hotline or in a shelter is a fucking superhero, but I’m not the only one who forgets that not everyone knows what we know. I’m not the only one who can struggle with putting her own perspective first when she knows, deep in the heart of her soul, how wrong and harmful victim blaming is.
But a huge percentage of survivors aren’t ready to hear it wasn’t their fault. They want it to be their fault. After all, it can’t be your fault if you had no power to affect the outcome, right? If it is your fault, then maybe you can learn that one weird trick to prevent rape, to prevent abuse. Survivors in this place are desperate to learn that they have the power to prevent their victimization. It’s the pot roast. It’s the slutty skirt. It’s providing adequate mental health resources. It’s the alcohol. It’s the parties.
The truth is far scarier. The truth is that some people are asshatmotherfuckingVILLAINS, and they choose to deny us our own choices, our own lives, and while you certainly have power and you can certainly make some choices that lower your risk, those asshatmotherfuckingVILLAINS are still out there. You will never be completely safe.
“It’s not your fault,” hits the most traumatized people, the people who have been victimized just last night or just last tuesday or last year but they haven’t told anyone yet and it still feels like it’s happening this moment, and hits them in a brutal way. It is far too often heard by the people who need the message most as this: “You will never be safe.” And even when it isn’t, the people who are convinced that it is their fault, or at least partly their fault, will experience it as one more person telling them how to feel rather than listening to how they feel. In the midst of grappling with a theft of body agency, it’s easy to experience the helpers as taking away your emotional agency. It’s confusing and infuriating and creates another barrier that makes it that much harder to go report somewhere.
Why report a theft of agency to those who are simply going to steal your agency again? We act like the big barrier to reporting to the cops is the fear we won’t be believed, and that’s real, but it isn’t always the biggest barrier.
No, the law demands procedures. Fill out this form. Answer this question. Give this blood sample. Sign here. When you feel at your most out of control, when your agency has been stolen from you, law enforcement offers you a chance to … be ordered around, to have your agency removed again and again for hours just to make the report. For days with hospital visits and follow ups. For weeks if they make an arrest. For months if it goes to trial. And society has good reason to want the law to follow procedures. We can’t have arbitrary administration of a system that takes away the freedoms of thousands of people every day. But fucking dammit-to-hell, it is the exact opposite of what most survivors want: a return to controlling their own lives.
In the shelters, on the hotlines, we are proud of putting survivors first. Of telling them that they have choices and that we will respect those choices. But then it comes to saying, “It’s not your fault,” and somehow we can’t help ourselves. The pressure inside is too much. And people who are desperate to talk stop talking. Maybe they get mad at the implicit message that they cannot control their own safety, at least not completely. Maybe they think we’re factually wrong. Maybe they just know that it really is their fault, that it must be their fault, because this is what happens when you date a white guy or smoke a joint or offend God. Maybe they’re just certain that the universe is respecting their choices even when the rapist wasn’t. But sometimes it’s just that when we say, “It’s not your fault,” they can tell that we’ve stopped listening to their needs and begun speaking out of our own.
The details of millions of stories can vary, but the hard truth is that, “It’s not your fault,” is a phrase for which new survivors are rarely prepared to hear. “It’s not your fault,” is for later. It’s for when a survivor is ready, which is rarely in the immediate, messy aftermath.
When we reach out to survivors, we need a different message. We need a message that’s timed for our worst moments, when we most need help. One that doesn’t tell people what’s true. One that doesn’t remove their agency. One that makes help possible without ever telling people what helpful has to look like.
We need to say, “You can talk about it.”
It seems too trivial to need to be said. It seems so ridiculously basic. But so many people are not talking about it when it’s causing such great injury. We might know a lot about responses to trauma. We might dive into the barriers to talking about things and try to solve those directly. Maybe the cops are hostile? File a lawsuit. Give ’em training. Maybe there’s no one to listen? Create a national hotline. Maybe they don’t feel they deserve help? “It’s not your fault.”
But then there are cases like R. Kelly’s, where who knows how many were victimized for decades, and we can’t help but reach the conclusion that this shit is not working. So many people had to know something was wrong, and not just the survivors. If we’re feminist, if we’re even just decent human beings, we should want this to work better. We should want quick justice. We should want prevention that works.
And I speak from experience on this, as someone who held her tongue about her own rapes, the details are too complicated, too unique. For me they involved trans experience and childhood abuse. As a nonreligious person, they even involved religion, oddly enough. No one is going to create a campaign that removes barriers as specific as mine.
But what we can say is, “You can talk about it.”
No judgements. No instructions. No conditions. We’re not saying you have to call this number or contact this person. It can be your mom or your best friend or the cop on the corner. We don’t fucking care. It’s your choice. But if you want, you can talk about it.
I hear about R. Kelly and decades of abuse and it is painful. It risks despair to think how many people knew, and for how long, and how many were raped and abused while society wondered aloud what would stop the pain. But I don’t despair, because I know there’s still something we can try.
You can talk about it.
I’ll listen, but you don’t know me and you don’t have to trust me. Maybe your minister, she’s probably a good egg. Maybe the stranger on the bus who is somehow holding their bag of groceries in a way that makes you want to be honest when they ask, “How are you?”
You can talk about it.
Whole religions are telling people that they can’t talk about it, and we know that message works. We know it has worked before, for decades. For centuries. They wouldn’t be working so hard to prevent people from talking if there was no power in something as simple as talking, not reporting, not using a hotline, not testifying in court, just talking.
And you can talk about it.
Imagine three teenagers waiting for the bus and someone just says it: “I went there and he hurt me. I wouldn’t ever go back.” How much power is there in that? And the two who heard? What if they tell two friends? How much power is there in that?
And when they feel like talking, we can make it easier, if if we choose to listen. If we choose to make it easy. If we choose not to tell people how to feel or what should happen next.
It doesn’t have to be about feminism to be feminist. It doesn’t have to be about relieving that pressure inside us to feel good. It doesn’t have to be an effort, or clever, or validated with statistical analysis of the experimental intervention. It could be just an invitation. We can tell anyone and everyone:
You can talk about it.
Whoever the right person is will be there. The moment will wait. Pick a quiet time. A time between classes or chores. A time when the baby is asleep. A time after you’ve had a couple glasses of wine. A time after you’ve cut your skin just a bit, let a little blood out to relieve the pressure, then covered it up because that ritual is just for you. Talk after you’ve given yourself a chance to get your shit together or talk while you’re a hot mess. Either’s fine. This isn’t supposed to be about anything big. It doesn’t have to be about saving the world. It can just be about you right now. The world can be there for you for a bit. When you’re ready, you can let this out and things will get a little easier. Maybe you’ll still need some help, but maybe you’ll be able to ask for it. And maybe you’ll be ready to help yourself, but not anything more, not anything else.
That’s okay. We don’t always have to analyze root causes or smash barriers or save the world. No pressure. This isn’t about anything else right now.
You can talk about it.
Then, when you’re back to being okay, maybe we’ll find the world has saved itself.