(Un)Silenced: Institutional Sexual Violence

‘Speaking Out’ against Colonialism and Sexual Violence

Content warning: This article discusses sexual violence on the basis of gender and race. 

On International Women’s Day, Twitter was abuzz with hashtags carefully crafted to elicit stories of survivorship. The UK Home Office asked users to tweet #enough to ‘violence against women and girls’, while fashion retailer PrettyLittleThing urged followers to share their own photos for the #MyDressDoesntMeanYes campaign. The message was clear: to end violence, women must ‘speak out’ and share their personal experiences.

This idea is hardly new. Nearly fifty years ago, Susan Brownmiller’s bestselling feminist treatise, Against Our Will: Men, Women, and Rape, proclaimed the necessity of women sharing narrative accounts of rape to spark legal and societal protections. Gender scholar Tanya Serisier meticulously traces how the politics of ‘speaking out’ – from 1970s second-wave feminism to #MeToo – has created a genre of experiential rape narratives which urge individual women to ‘break the silence’ to ‘end the violence’. While an important space for some survivors’ stories, the genre has also enacted constraints around whose experiences are included and how they can be told and heard.

Beginning with Brownmiller, the ‘whitestream feminist’ movement incorrectly locates the ‘origins’ of anti-violence activism in 1970s U.S. feminist speak-outs and consciousness-raising sessions. These events emphasised that ‘the personal is political’, featuring (predominantly white) women sharing their experiences of sexual violence amongst peers to raise awareness and create community. While women of colour were not expressly excluded, these groups prioritised the unity of ‘women’ as a category, rejecting any discussing of ‘division’ such as race or colonialism. Dominant feminist histories that centre these groups as the ‘inventors’ of anti-violence activism, perhaps unsurprisingly, spare no space for Frances Thomas, the gender non-conforming Black woman who recounted to the U.S. Congress her rape by white men during the 1866 Memphis Riot. Nor do they include Sarah Winnemuca’s 1883 autobiography, Life Among the Piutes, which details heinous sexual abuse of Native women by colonial agents – and, of course, there are no citations of activism from women of colour in other colonised nations.

This particular feminist politics ‘speaks out’ only for the experiences of white, middle-class women. By claiming a universality of womanhood, whitestream anti-violence activists begin ‘speaking for others’, creating a violent erasure of the lived experiences of women inside the borders of colonised lands. Recognising and challenging this pattern of insidious othering inside of campaigns purported to empower victim-survivors, including popular movements like #MeToo, is imperative to preventing violence against all women. Ultimately, ‘speaking out’ is a powerful tool for victim-survivors, but for both activists and researchers, the urge to elicit stories of survivorship must be approached with intentionality, self-reflection, and care.

The Colonial Limits of #MeToo

A contradictory act of recognition and erasure from its inception, white actress Alyssa Milano’s 2017 call for survivors to tweet #MeToo was taken (without credit) from Black activist Tarana Burke who used the term a decade earlier to create community amongst Black and brown girls who had experienced sexual violence. While it trended in 85 countries, the emergent stories and icons of the #MeToo moment were predominantly Western and white women, leading rhetorician Aimee Carillo Rowe to contend that #MeToo was primarily ‘the mobilization of sympathy for white women’s suffering’.

Women’s march in Philadelphia, 2019. Image by Rob Kall, unchanged, Creative Commons (CC by 2.0).

Rather than a stand-alone phenomenon, #MeToo can be understood as part of the genre of feminist anti-rape activism. Similar to speak-outs of the late-20th century, #MeToo connected individual narratives of sexual violence (through a hashtag) to encourage social and political change. Within this framework, socio-legal scholar Rachel Loney-Howes contends that a victim-survivor who uses the hashtag to share their experience must ‘speak out’ within the permissible parameters of societal definitions of violence and victimhood—concepts heavily shaped by colonialism. Historical racist imagery depicts Indigenous women as ‘dirty, lazy, degraded, easily sexually exploited and … incapable of rescue’, presenting Native women as ‘unworthy’, ‘ungrievable’ victims and influencing contemporary societal responses to their victimisation. The cycle of silence is deepened as Indigenous women’s #MeToo accounts are then deemed inauthentic or unbelievable. In effect, the colonial scripts dehumanising Native women are uploaded to social media movements like #MeToo.

#MeToo also individualised the trauma associated with sexual violence, obscuring its institutional causes and recreating opportunities for violence by colonial governments. The movement prioritised ‘call out culture’ to name individual abusers and represent assault as a deviant and unprecedented experience. But this paradigm only reflects the lives of privileged women for whom safety and bodily autonomy are generally guaranteed; for Native women, sexual violence is often intrinsic to lived experience. This is, in part, due to the ‘unfinished business’ of colonialism: an ongoing project through which settler governments (like the U.S.) naturalise gendered violence as a strategy of cultural domination. Here, sexual violence is not just a metaphor for colonisation; instead, it is a tool, both historically and presently, of the U.S. in silencing, disempowering, and destroying Indigenous nations.

The historical evidence is as disturbing as it is persistent. During the Indian Wars (17th-18th c.), U.S. military units targeted Native women for extermination after battles were completed, so that they could not reproduce Native children. Decades later, the Boarding School era (19th-20th c.) normalized the discipline of women and girls through sexual violence within government-run schools. During this time, the Supreme Court upheld Grey vs. United States (1967), validating a harsher penalty for the rape of a non-Indian woman than an Indian woman. And, today, the practice of non-consensual sterilization (20th-21st c.) continues to institutionalize sexual violence in social services. As Muscogee legal scholar Sarah Deer notes of this violent history, ‘key federal mantras, such as Manifest Destiny and the Doctrine of Discovery, are played out on the bodies of the women it displaced’. Ultimately, she concludes, ‘preparing for this inevitable violence resembles a full-time job’. It is part of the daily lives of Native women, ‘normalized but never acceptable’.

While the use of sexual violence as a colonial tool is often recognized in visceral accounts of historical violence, the settler colonial project depends, in part, on more subtlety imbedding colonialism in mainstream (and often well-intentioned) activism like #MeToo.  For instance, the calls within #MeToo and mainstream anti-rape activism for incarceration and increased police and judicial involvement further empower the very state that is enacting sexual violence against Native women. ‘Solutions’ that grant more power to agents of the settler state (for example, hiring more police officers or passing mandatory arrest laws), fundamentally preclude Native women’s safety. Those seeking help from the seemingly ‘benevolent’ state institutions lauded by anti-rape activists are often revictimised by the child protection system and civil or criminal legal systems, which ignore the violence faced by survivors, and threaten to remove their children or stop financial benefits arbitrarily. While #MeToo was certainly intended to help women share their stories and improve ‘the system’, Native women cannot obtain justice within a colonial system ‘originally designed to destroy their lives’.

On a Decolonial Listening

While #MeToo catalysed public discussions and ruptured perceptions about sexual violence, it simultaneously silenced women of the many nations that have doggedly survived within colonial borders. In this way, ‘speaking out’ in #MeToo was a distinctly racialised experience, yet ‘speaking out’ can, and does often, reject colonial impulses. As Seneca scholar Mishuana Goeman explains, ‘stories are a narrative tool that must be part of Native feminisms; they serve as fertile grounds wherein the layers of geography are unfolded, explored, and expounded upon’. These stories—of victimisation, survivorship, and experience—are a gift, not owed to ears of settlers, but presented nonetheless. As a researcher of and activist against gendered and racialised violence, I believe this gift requires non-Native listeners to examine our own complicity in colonialism through our writing and activism.

“Decolonize This Place” . Image by Billie Grace Ward, unchanged,Creative Commons (CC by 2.0).

While necessarily uncomfortable and challenging work, Indigenous studies scholar April Petillo highlights that this discomfort among those ‘more closely situated to settler whiteness’ is an ‘indicator that a new truth worth engaging may be emerging’. Here, her concept of a ‘self-reflective embodied listening’ allows both activists and researchers to not only hear the truth of gendered violence within colonial borders and bear witness to resistant intersectional community responses to sexual violence, but also to confront our own biases and create truly coalitional efforts to reclaim sovereignty over our bodies, lands, and cultures. Ultimately, we must resist the urge to prioritise ‘speaking out’, and instead work toward a practice of decolonial listening to ensure we hear victim-survivors ‘where they are, in the ways they need to be heard’.

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