By Kay Whitlock
“Change, when it comes, cracks everything open.”
PART 1: Backdrop
Throughout my life, my most painful and wrenching experiences have become unexpected portals into new ways of seeing more deeply into the nature of old dilemmas—or at least, my old dilemmas. My initial feeling is almost always, “Oh, shit, no.” Followed by: “I won’t! I can’t! Fuck this! You can’t ask this of me! No!”
And yet. And yet.
One such portal appeared when, as a result of breaking my personal silence on child sexual abuse and trying to imagine what justice could possibly mean for me (and also, yes, for “the perpetrator”), I ran smack into the punishing prison archetype constellated in my own psyche. Unsettled, I began to question, then openly reject, public rituals of shaming, revenge, and retribution.
I have at hand a journal from the early 1980s. Compiled and given to me by my friend Jackie St. Joan, who is a poet, novelist, attorney, and former judge, it contains brief notes annotating faded, slightly blurred snapshots, most taken on the sly and at a distance. The journal documents the pivotal moment when, as an adult in my 30s, I broke the family silence around a period of sexual misconduct—inappropriate touching, not rape—by my father when I was a child.
This was at the center of memory when I said, on Facebook, “Yeah. #MeToo.” Like countless other women,* cisgendered and transgendered, I recall multiple stories, minor and major, about my own experiences with the infuriating commonality of sexual harassment, exploitation, coercion, and violence—some of it merely pathetic and crude, some of it much uglier and frightening. (*Yes, I know full well that males can also be sexually harassed and abused. This isn’t that story.) Even so, I didn’t say “#MeToo” without ambivalence.
We must bulldoze through the silences of domination and oppression. But the dominant US culture—irredeemably raced, classed, gendered, and (dis)ableist—constitutes fraught cultural, political, and economic terrain for those who reveal realities that shatter easy group fictions about harm, violence, and justice. By group fictions, I mean storylines that establish raced and classed hierarchies of worthiness, telling us which victims of harassment and abuse we should care about and which victims are worthless, even violently disposable. False notions about what kinds of people endorse, enable, and perpetrate sexual misconduct, coercion, and violence—and who almost always gets a pass. Supremacist mythologies and images signifying which groups of people are marked as intrinsically, criminally “predatory” and which are blessed with indwelling virtue, no matter who they hurt. Group fictions that shape and misshape how we understand “justice” and what we imagine we want from it.
Mainstream society wants perfect victims, whose innocence shines like a perpetual halo, and irredeemable Trophy Monster predators/pedophiles whose existence and visibility shield from sight the discomfiting normality of sexual misconduct and violence. It wants to downplay or deny harm against Black, Indigenous, Latina, and Asian women, elevating the stories of white women—but not caring about them much, either, except as props for white supremacy. It wants brilliantly staged show trials, lurid accounts, and public frenzy to misdirect attention away from the systemic nature of sexual violence, simultaneously providing crowd-pleasing proxies for structural change. Most of all, it tells us that justice means eradicating monsters, however they are defined. That the primary way to ensure the existence of the good society where we are safe from violence and crime is to police and punish our way to it.
These group fictions are worse than useless. They create injustice, not accountability. They compound existing and produce new harms. They obscure rather than reveal complex truths. Public outcries against real, demonstrable harms can easily, if inadvertently, morph into responses that strengthen oppressive systems. We should remind ourselves daily that lynching, assaults on Black communities and race-based policing have always been justified in whole or in part by charges that sexual violence or insult was done to white women by Black men; that people of color are intrinsically predatory.
Or public naming of harms can help unravel those fictions, becoming thresholds that lead toward what Angela Y. Davis calls “new terrains of justice.”
Justice: The evolving pursuit of trustworthy, respectful, and non-exploitative relationships, together with accountability for interrupting, preventing, and redressing violence, in its myriad forms, against individuals, peoples, communities, and ecologies.
—Whitlock & Bronski, Considering Hate: Violence, Goodness, and Justice in American Culture and Politics
I’m always interested in what happens when group fictions start to come apart at the seams.
Breaking Silence in the 1980s
I was living on the East coast in the early 80s, deeply connected to a larger, predominantly white, feminist (and predominantly lesbian) community of activists and organizers, therapists, educators, health care providers, and social workers. We played softball, organized defense teams for women’s clinics against right-wing anti-abortion mobs, and urged the feminist, nonprofit women’s health clinic to offer cash-and-carry insemination services. Many of us were involved a variety of social and economic justice movements. A number of us, including several of the therapists and social workers, were individually and collectively engaged in confronting our own histories of having been sexually abused as children or other forms of sexual violence. And the Right, with relentless political and cultural attack, served up as moral crusade, was gaining momentum.
Not coincidentally, this was a time—lasting for several seemingly endless years—when public attention was galvanized by what almost instantly became a roiling, sensational, often conflicted, and sometimes wildly frantic and damaging national discourse about child sexual abuse and sexual violence against women. The psychic charge of naming child sexual abuse, particularly, was profound, sometimes for the better, but often for worse. Made-for-television movies appeared. Books were published. A real harm—sexual violence—was being named, but that naming also became a way to reinscribe it, to fuel sex panics that expanded already powerful processes of cultural criminalization. Day care centers were falsely declared to be sites of serial, sometimes Satanic, child sexual abuse. President Reagan’s attorney general, Edwin Meese, convened a right-wing commission on pornography. Some feminists insisted that pornography, by its very nature, constitutes sex discrimination and actual harm against women. The Right continued naming queers as sexual predators and pedophiles. US history is replete with examples of how sensationalized grievances (both real and imagined), played out within a harshly punishing paradigm of “justice,” produce terrible ceremonies of persecution that inevitably zero in on members of already-marginalized communities.
The early 1980s saw feminists at serious odds over how to address not only the particular nexus of sex and violence, but the complexities surrounding sexual agency, pleasure, desire, power, fear, and danger. A flashpoint of that conflict came in 1982, with Barnard’s The Scholar and Feminist IX conference, “Towards a Politics of Sexuality.” (For an excellent introductory essay, epilogue, and collected papers and presentations from this conference, see Carol Vance (ed.), Pleasure and Danger: Exploring Female Sexuality.)
With McCarthyite zeal, New York’s Women Against Pornography (WAP) led the effort to discredit both the organizers and the conference, which they saw as promoting female victimization and anti-feminist discussions of sexuality. They leafleted conference participants and pressured sponsors, alleging that the gathering promoted “sexual institutions and values that oppress all women.” They launched smear campaigns against specific “sex-positive” feminists (designated Trophy Monsters) for promoting consensual sexual choices Women Against Pornography considered inherently oppressive, woman-hating, and violent: “butch-femme sex roles,” sadomasochism (S/M), and more. Dorothy Allison, who would go on to write the highly acclaimed novel Bastard Out of Carolina, was only one of their targets. In an essay, she wrote, “I was fighting to keep my straight job at a publicly funded arts organization which had received a series of anonymous phone calls demanding that I be fired, while invitations to speak, publish, and edit were systematically withdrawn.”
All of this was bubbling up in the early 1980s. And yet I convinced myself that breaking my personal silence could only be liberatory; that I could finally be in control of my own life, experience, and history. Because I often spoke publicly about various justice issues, many friends and colleagues encouraged me to appear on radio and television, at a community women’s tribunal, and more. And I did.
I deeply regret much of it. Not naming child sexual abuse as part of my history. I rue my surprisingly naïve participation in public arenas where I no longer had control over my own story. But mass media predictably went for the ratings. I was ashamed of myself. How could I, a seasoned organizer, have failed to anticipate the effects of media pressure to conform to a kind of shallow, simplistic, and sensationalized narrative template for talking about victims, perpetrators, power, sexuality, and violence?
By the time I spoke out personally, I’d already long been active in work to end sexual violence against older girls and women. In the early 1970s, a period falsely cast by some as “the birth of the anti-rape movement,” I co-founded a rape crisis center. Many of the women who came did not want to report assaults to the police, for a host of valid reasons. Too often that included fear of publicly identifying law enforcement officials as assailants. Several women, including a couple of sex workers, told me privately about egregious misconduct by an especially zealous county prosecutor, whose approval was required in order to obtain the rape crisis center’s funding. The hypocrisy embedded in this was compounded by the fact that the only real funding stream available to us at the time was through the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration (LEAA), which sought innovative approaches to improving state and local law enforcement through the administration of grants to government agencies, educational institutions, and community organizations. Eventually disbanded, LEAA helped set the stage for so-called “community policing.” The center’s various services undoubtedly helped many women. But it also, through the heavy law enforcement influence, hung vulnerable others out to dry.
Yet for reasons I can no longer fathom, I thought that this time, in the 1980s, things would be different because so many women were finally speaking out and organizing against sexual violence.
That is the backdrop to the moment I met my father to break our family silence.
Click here to read part two of “Threshold: #MeToo, with Justice Complications.”
Download the full PDF of “Threshold: #MeToo, with Justice Complications,” as the two-part series is presented in its original narrative form.
Kay Whitlock is a writer and activist who has been involved with racial, gender, queer, and economic justice movements since 1968. Her political vision is unapologetically abolitionist. She is coauthor of Considering Hate: Violence, Goodness, and Justice in American Culture and Politics with Michael Bronski, the award-winning Queer (In)Justice: The Criminalization of LGBT People in the United States with Joey L. Mogul and Andrea J. Ritchie, and cofounder and contributing editor for the weekly Criminal Injustice series at CriticalMassProgress.com. She lives in Missoula, Montana. Follow her on Twitter at @KayJWhitlock.