Reflections on the Consent is Sexy Campaign: Moving Forward, Looking Back
Reflections on the Consent is Sexy Campaign: Moving Forward, Looking Back
“To grieve, and to make grief itself into a resource for politics, is not to be resigned to inaction, but it may be understood as the slow process by which we develop a point of identification with suffering itself. The disorientation of grief—“Who have I become?” or indeed, “What is left of me?” “What is it in the Other that I have lost?”—posits the “I” in the mode of unknowingness.” (30)
The Consent is Sexy campaign I co-organized for my Final Web Event has definitely been an emotionally, physically, and academically exhausting venture. The above quote speaks greatly to my feelings about the campaign. The project was a political endeavor inspired by my experience of violence, trauma, and grief. However, it was also an exploration and coming to terms with the new person that came out of the survival of that trauma. For me, the campaign was just as much a form of mourning as it was inspired by mourning. The emotional nature of this form of politics was inspiring and empowering at the same time that it was frustrating and problematic. These experiences have made me wonder if restorative justice can truly be achieved for survivors when their community is willing to look forward, but not back.
The Consent is Sexy campaign had many components (posters, blog, open letter, DC postering, open meeting, etc.- for more details see my third web event.) These efforts took over my consciousness in a way I have never truly experienced before. This was way more than just a class assignment. I had to work very hard to keep myself from becoming over-involved (with varying degrees of success); the support of other organizers (and Kaye) was instrumental in this effort. No amount of postering and blogging was enough. I had to push harder. Since some of the initial shock of the campaign has died down, it has become easier for me to understand why I was so consumed by our efforts. Rereading Judith Butler, I am struck by her analysis of political grief as a process of developing “a point of identification with suffering itself” (30). Her questions—“Who have I become?” “What have I lost?”—resonate with me deeply. Sexual violence is a difficult issue to analyze, process, and understand. As someone who has been assaulted, I must try to process both my own experience of sexual violence and how my experience fits within a broader structural context. As explained by a criminologist in a recent New York Times article, “Rape is the only crime in which victims have to explain that they didn’t want to be victimized.” Not only do I have to explain this to others, I have to explain it to myself. As a survivor, I battle constantly against internalized rape culture, against the voice that says “You’re a fraud. You weren’t really raped. You should have fought harder.” It’s not just that society blames survivors—we also blame ourselves. My experience with the Consent is Sexy campaign forced me for the first time to look at my rape through a political lens, allowing me to understand the source of my guilt and shame. It took me almost a year to be able to comfortably describe my experience as “sexual assault.” Though my experience fit the definition of sexual assault, these words seemed too extreme, but I finally accepted them because “rape” was too much to even think about. During the campaign, the more I thought, wrote, and talked about rape culture, enthusiastic consent, coercion, victim-blaming, and slut-shaming, the less I could run away from the word “rape.” As I thought critically about these issues, I always had my own experience in the back of my mind, and when the idea of coerced consent finally came up, I couldn’t be silent anymore. I couldn’t think of any other way to make people understand the importance of consent without sharing my story. And so for the first time, I wrote a narrative. And for the first time, I thought of my experience using the word “rape.” I wasn’t just explaining to others what had happened to me, I was explaining it to myself. I was finally coming to understand what I had lost; I was grieving my way to understanding who I had become as a survivor of sexual violence.
The emotion associated with this campaign was not only difficult on a personal level; I also found that it undercut our very mission. We experienced a variety of reactions from community members, both supportive and hateful. Many people offered valid critiques that we tried to address, primarily through the blog. However, one in particular was impossible for me to hear. Some people perceived the campaign as in-your-face, aggressive, and accusatory. They complained we were offensive. They complained the word “rape” made them uncomfortable.They were uncomfortable with having to think about it. They were uncomfortable having to acknowledge the truths being expressed; they did not want to mourn us. They tore down and crumpled posters; they were angry and offended that we demanded to be mourned. Having the word “rape” plastered across campus was bad for business—it was alienating to prospective students and athletes, who didn’t want to think about it eithir. To respond to these comments, I can only quote a post by my co-blogger, Christine Letts, who so perfectly summed up the necessity of having the issue of sexual violence openly recognized by the community:
“We have an obligation to remember what our fellow citizens cannot be expected to forget.” --Pablo de Grieff
We can't forget sexual violence. Sometimes it's physically impossible to forget, or to stop thinking about it. We go to SOAR and remember every week. Sometimes remembering hurts. Sometimes remembering makes us angry. Sometimes remembering makes us sad. Not always, but sometimes.
We as a campus need to remember. I know people some people feel uncomfortable with the posters reminding everyone that rape happens here. But tearing down the posters won't make rape go away. And trying to forget won't make rape go away.
We as survivors remember. Do you?
Part of the difficulty in our campaign was getting people to remember. For us, these issues are personal, emotional, and ongoing. For the rest of the Community, they are very firmly, purposefully invisible. They are even institutionally invisible. I have so much anger towards the Deans for denying the value of SOAR as a resource for survivors and continuing policy failures that have re-victimized on-campus survivors. I have anger towards the Community for allowing a culture of silence, and then boldly attacking the first empowering attempt to break that silence I have seen in my time here. There is a long-standing history of bitterness and injustice between SOAR and the administration. So many wrongs have occurred here, and due to confidentiality and taboo, we cannot address them. Our campaign faced the most opposition from people who said we were too negative—that we should focus on positive messages. Since the very title of the campaign—Consent is Sexy—was positive, I am inclined to believe that any negativity would have been met with resistance. Our community does not want to address past injustices—it wants merely to move forward, without remembering. However, a true model of restorative justice requires both recognition of past wrongs and movement towards a more productive future. Those who have not been affected by sexual violence may be able to simply move forward, but I cannot. Unlike many in our Community, I cannot forget. I will never forget has happened to me and so many others, and I cannot move on to a better future with others who do.
The topic of restorative justice came up yesterday, when the Consent is Sexy organizers met with Interim President Creighton, as well as Theresa Tensuan and Jason McGraw from the Dean’s office. Steve Watter and Martha Denney—the two deans who have been most involved in this issue previously, were suspiciously absent. Theresa had some wonderful suggestions, and we discussed the formation of a joint student-administrative panel (using JSAAP as a model) to address some of the grievances brought up in our campaign. We all seemed to agree that working from a model of restorative justice will prove very fruitful in this endeavor, as this will facilitate reparations in the form of institutional change towards a safer future for all Haverford students. I believe this eye towards the future is very important. However, I also believe there must still be a look back, in order to restore the relationship we current survivors have with our college. While I think the absence of Martha Denney in particular made the meeting more productive by reducing the tension and placing focus on the future, that tension exists. The system has failed the survivors on this campus. It has re-victimized us, exacerbating the burden we carry by failing to alleviate the hostility of the environment. Even though the meeting was productive, I could not help but feel unsatisfied at the end. Trying to figure out why, I realized I want an apology. I want recognition of the wrongs that have been done before they are righted. I wish Martha Denney and Steve Watter had been at that meeting. Even with the legal complications of pending lawsuits and confidentiality, I need to know that they remember. Even if done privately and off the record, I want them to say “We are sorry the system failed you. We are sorry we failed you. We recognize your pain, and our role in it. How can we help you now? How can we move forward?” I want the Haverford community to recognize the trauma suffered by survivors on this campus. I want the community to say “We acknowledge your pain. We mourn with you” before they say “How can we move forward?” Without this recognition, there will never be a true right relationship. Without the recognition of injustice, this move forward is nothing more than another form of forgetting. The Haverford Community has an obligation to remember what survivors cannot be expected to forget. First there must be remembering. Then there may be justice.
 This does not refer to survivors who triggered. We found the potential for triggering to be a valid criticism and tried to address it with intelligent sensitivity. However, I would like to add that without the dialogue we created, most community members probably would not know what “triggering” is.