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The Interdisciplinary Work of Lyss England

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CW: rape, sexual violence, gender-based violence, restorative justice, hollywood, violence against women, masculinity, emotional labour, men’s mental health, #MeToo campaign, gender

 

 

Nearly a decade ago, I read a book called “Cunt: A Declaration of Independence” by Inga Muscio and it kind of changed my life. It’s a book that’s far from perfect, but it was perfect for me to read at the time. I had been sexually assaulted and slut-shamed a few months prior, and was coping by self-harming, writing songs I’d never show anyone, and listening to a ton of Bikini Kill in my bedroom.  Although I was always told I was an emotional being, not a logical one by most people when I was growing up, I know now, looking back, that I’ve always been a very logical and analytic person. I wanted to understand what had happened to me, and I desperately wanted to be well. “Cunt” was just what I needed to begin to feel knowledgable about the dynamics behind why gender-based violence happens and empowered regarding what comes next.

So I did a lot more reading, went to university for Women’s Studies, focused my work on sexual violence prevention, and produced 6 plays about the stories of sexual violence survivors (directed 2 of them). Then I moved to a rural community where I situated myself firmly on the ground of anti-rape advocacy. This whole time, I was in and out of therapy, I was writing, I was learning to form positive relationships, and I was working hard on my own (continuous) healing process. For the better part of ten years, my life has largely revolved around gender-based violence. Why it happens, what to do about it, how to live through it. It’s complicated and layered and non-linear.

During my first week of university, in 2009, when I really started to dedicate myself to this subject, I remember introducing myself to people who asked what my major was only to have them scoff at me and tell me we don’t need to study gender and that I’d never go anywhere with that degree. During my final semester, in 2013, I remember trying to write a major research paper about the representation of non-binary gender and having a difficult time finding academic resources on the subject- to the point where I used blog posts and tweets as sources for my academic paper.

Four years later, that paper is now so outdated that you couldn’t pay me enough to let you read it. But at that time, it was pretty cutting edge and I was really proud of it. That much changed in only four years.

Over the time since I first read “Cunt”, there has been a MASSIVE shift regarding the topics of gender and, more specifically, gender-based violence. Especially recently, with the viral social media #MeToo movement and the trend in Hollywood where serial abusers are being called on their behaviour by the women they have assaulted, discussion around gender and gender-based violence is becoming mainstream. And I get it: it’s a lot to ask someone to radically reconsider who they are and the way they exist in the world, which is what happens when you ask people to critically reflect on the ways gender rolls are constructed.  But at the end of the day, I would like to believe that most people don’t want nearly every woman in their life to have experienced gender-based violence in some form, as evidenced by the massive success of the #MeToo movement. And I want to believe that anyone is capable of doing better.

I also want to take just a moment, before I continue, to be extremely clear that I am referring to women in this essay because women are disproportionately affected by gender-based violence. And even more disproportionately affected by gender-based violence is women of colour, indigenous women, immigrant women, queer women, women with disabilities, transgender women, and women living in poverty.

I’ve recently had some friends who know how obsessed I am with gender-based violence ask me to comment on the discourse rising in mainstream culture. And my over-all comment is that it’s amazing and important that light is being shed on gender-based violence in mainstream culture. With that being said, that discourse is overwhelmingly immature (which is to be expected!) and I urge people to listen to the survivors who have been speaking out about these topics and symptoms for longer than it’s been cool (even, arguably, safer) to do so.

Regarding discussion in mainstream culture on the topic of gender-based violence, there a few specific subjects I’d like to share my thoughts on. Here they are in a slightly more digestable format:

Yes, people who have been doing the work around these topics should have their voices magnified over the opinions of people who are just starting to think about this. And no, there’s nothing wrong with acknowledging you’re just starting to learn about a subject and listening to the people who have put in extensive time and energy around it.

Hopefully, by this point in the essay you already get my perspective here. But I’ll give you a metaphor to help communicate my point.

I drive a car pretty much every day. I own one, I know a little bit about how it works, I live in a world where there are lots of cars around. But I am far from a car expert. I haven’t really spent that much time thinking about how cars work, or the history of cars. I don’t know statistics about cars off the top of my head, and I haven’t spent years tinkering around under/inside a car, examining parts and trying to figure out what makes them work best (or at all). So when I take my car in the mechanic for maintenance and they tell me that I desperately need a part replaced or my car is gonna be seriously messed up, I’m not gonna go “well, I haven’t noticed anything wrong with my car, my car gets me to and from work every day and it’s fine”. If I have time, I might educate myself on the part of the car that’s apparently damaged, I might call a friend who has spent a lot of time and work learning about cars, I might consult a few other mechanics, but I’m not going to consider my limited knowledge on the subject equal to theirs. I’m going to listen and try to learn more.

To be clear, it’s not a matter of anyone being “better” than anyone else or attaching value judgements to knowledge that people do or don’t have, or recreating power dynamics. It’s about knowing when to share your perspective and when to sit down and listen.

I also want to be clear that the time and space I’m referring to need not include formal education, however, participating in formal education does take a lot of time and space. It’s not a reason either way to invalidate the type(s) of work a person has put in.
Don’t derail conversations about gender-based violence by centring the conversation around men as victims.

There are many cases where men experience rape and sexual assault. All sexual assault survivors deserve support and space and communities, and I do not, for a moment mean to diminish the importance of men’s mental health. I’d like to be clear that it’s not men who are the problem here. There isn’t even a one-stop answer regarding what the problem is. But a major part of it is the way that masculinity has been defined and then systemically privileged . A key component of the definition of masculinity is being more logical than emotional and being emotionally strong. This doesn’t leave much space for men to cope with their every-day feelings, mental illness, or trauma. As a result, there are many men who struggle because of this definition, as well as women and femmes who are, by negative definition, left to bare the brunt of the emotional labour.

Constructions of gender are not innate, they are something we can actively work to redefine- if you’re willing to do the work.

Although all gender-based violence statistics should be taken with a grain of salt, over 80% of sexual assault victims are women and something like 99% of rapes (against people of all genders) are perpetrated by men. When you derail conversations about gender-based violence to redirect the conversation to focus on men who are sexual assault survivors, you’re taking up a disproportionate amount of space.

Instead, I would encourage people to actively dismantle gender roles and to make appropriate space for men who have been victims of sexual assault to talk about it and heal. This isn’t going to happen through derailing women’s social media posts about gender-based violence.

Don’t derail conversations about gender-based violence to make disproportionate and inappropriate space for conversations about false allegations.

If you think being a man is scary right now because you’re worried about false allegations, maybe you should consider how scary it has been to be a woman or femme throughout history. Only between 2-4% of rape allegations are falsely made.
A study a few years ago found that 1/3 college men would rape a woman if they knew they could get away with it. According to a far larger study done by the UN, most men actually don’t believe that they are raping women.

What this shows is that a lot of the “false allegations” are made when a man didn’t understand that what he was doing wasn’t consensual. Again, this is related to the construction of masculinity- and not just that- the construction of femininity as the negative definer of masculinity. This is why learning about consent is REALLY important.

Exclusion isn’t restorative justice and it will usually result in more problems than it prevents.

There are cases where people are part of a community and they harm people in that community over and over again. There’s a clear pattern, and then when confronted with being called in (not out), they repeatedly get defensive, aggressive, and refuse to listen and (un)learn. In that case, I think it’s perfectly acceptable to ask someone not to be part of a space/venue/show/event/whatever. There are also situations where a survivor may not feel safe being around someone who has harmed them, and that’s valid and well worth working to navigate, based on the specifics of the situation.

There’s this thing that often happens now in popular culture (and in communities) where someone is exposed for something problematic they’ve done and then everyone either jumps on the “I’m so edgy” bandwagon (spoiler: condoning people hurting other people isn’t edgy, it’s just shitty) or boycotts their existence. The person accused of perpetrating harm immediately gets banned from community spaces, blacklisted from work opportunities, and abandoned by a good portion of their support system.

I get why this happens. It’s a reaction that many feel is justified, and I believe in providing space for that. But I also don’t think it’s particularly useful in a larger context. When we position people as inherently a perpetrator or inherently a victim, we do justice to no one. Reducing anyone to such a simple definition simply doesn’t allow for the root issues to be addressed or for working towards a place of healing, learning, or reconciliation.

That being said, restorative justice and accountability are complicated and fuelled concepts that don’t have any definite definition. I recommending reading up about it and talking about it a lot. It’s really complex.

There’s so much more to say, but I’m so tired. I’m excited for these conversations to be on the table in mainstream Canadian culture, not just in women’s studies classrooms or rape crisis centres or teenage girls’ bedroom floors. But there is a lot of work to do, and there will be growing pains. Please. Do the work, listen to survivors, and do better. Because we are all capable of doing better.

 

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