Coding Sexual Violence, or Realizing your ‘Survivor’ Identity is Part of the Problem – Rena Bivens

Sexual violence: I’ve travelled in it, slogged my way through it, and emerged on the other side of it a decade later.

My use of ‘I’ in the previous sentence stirs some feelings of shame. This is because I’ve centered myself by using it. I’ve begun this piece with myself. Yet, it’s part of this story I’m trying to tell, so I think it has to stay. This story is about different perspectives on sexual violence and how they end up coming out of us in coded language: that is, words or phrases or ideas that act as codes to signal one perspective over another. It’s mostly a story about how I learned these different codes over time, in a very particular order, and the questions I now struggle with to determine the impact of these codes on others.

It’s not just about me, anyway. It’s you, it’s them, it’s her, it’s him, it’s us who may have an experience. None of us occupy the same position in relation to sexual violence. Our bodies are differently charged. The social categories created by the dominant culture imbue our bodies with different reasons for the violence, different effects, different outcomes.

We also exist in different temporal and affectual relationships to it. Maybe it is raw. Maybe it is familiar. Maybe it is frustrating. Maybe it is too much. Maybe it bounces off. Maybe it never hurt you. Maybe it is beneath you, over you, behind you, in front of you. Maybe it exhausts you. Maybe you define it differently. Maybe there are other things you’d rather have us care about, fill words on a page about. And perhaps we should.

Personally, I can’t recall ever having thought about it until that day in August when that thing happened. I didn’t have the words for it right away. I’ll never know how I got home that night and I’ll never forget that it was him who gave me the words. On the telephone. Early the next morning.

The next six months or so are blurry. But my friend tells me that I talked around it, cried on top of it, let some of it escape, kept most of it in. These mental and emotional gymnastics only ever happened between the hours of midnight and 3am. Again, it was on the telephone. She lived over 500 kilometers away.

Many things happened for many years: stalking, fear, avoidance, coping, not coping. The threats became too serious. The institutional dance began. Their interventions paused the advance, but didn’t quash it.

I’m not sure what quashing it would have looked like, though. The state’s responses, when they are actually metered out, ultimately seem counterintuitive.

Something else was happening, though. I had come to know sexual violence. I understood what it had done to me. I could see how it had broken me. I learned that I was shattered in that moment and – in all likelihood – into my forever future. I learned a new word to help me narrate these years: survivor.

Survivorhood gave me an identity. This identity was imperfect. While it gave me a platform to walk on, something secure to move through the world on, it also set wheels in motion that I am still trying to negotiate. In some ways, the survivorhood logics that I was internalizing magnified what happened. If rape is so serious, it would necessarily have to shape the rest of my life. For a long time, I couldn’t quite bond with someone until they knew, until the story had been told. Each time it became a proper occasion. The story had a beginning. And an end. Often the same words, phrases, and sentences would come out of my mouth. It bound me to my survivorhood.

Through survivorhood I learned that it was not my fault and that no one ought to tell me otherwise. I learned about victim-blaming. This was enormously helpful at the time. With these conceptual structures my freedom of movement increased in many ways.

The specific brand of survivorhood I was inhaling aligned me with gender specifically. This makes perfect sense given that I occupy privilege in nearly every category of identity apart from gender, which means that I had been taught to ignore the rest. My whiteness, for instance, was one of my identifiers that I had not even begun to identify with, which is of course central to how whiteness operates, but it helped condition my responses and made survivorhood that much more accessible and desirable as an ‘empowering’ identity for me. Gender alone could demonstrate to me that my experiences were influenced by a broader social system. I could align myself with others, I was part of a collective, I had an identity that was shared. I could also use a broad brush to fling my perpetrator into a set of perpetrators, into a type, a known entity. Things were more settled as a result: they were there, we were here. I could dump him with the rest of them, cast him out, erase him – as best I could anyway.

So now I knew. I started volunteering. I performed the Vagina Monologues. I did it a second time on a different continent. I became a crisis line counsellor. In the midst of these experiences, I learned about intersectionality – or perhaps, more accurately, I started to really hear and understand and grapple with intersectionality. Now I could finally begin to decentre my own narrative. I encountered critiques of the coded language I had learned, the lens I was using, the knowing of sexual violence I had come to know. I was curious. I started listening for the different logics that were put into motion as a consequence of marginalized identities. I started to understand how history continues to influence the present: the use of sexual violence as a colonizing strategy; racist lineages such as accusations against Black men, particularly by or in defense of white women; anti-carceral strategizing to avoid the racism and cissexism rampant within the penal, legal, and justice system; the deep-seated heteronormativity and cisnormativity that shapes legible experiences of sexual violence that then become highly visible while the realities of trans, gender non-conforming, gay, lesbian, and bisexual experiences continue to be denied.

I learned about community accountability approaches, and started asking whether shunning, isolating, and ejecting someone from a community makes any sense. I started asking about due process for the accused. These were not my questions – I had been taught to ask these questions by many scholars, activists, and community-based practitioners who have long tried (with varying levels of success) to have us dispel the mainstreamed codes of sexual violence and openly admit to the erasures implied in continually prioritizing these codes. Critical scholars with whom I was lucky enough to become colleagues taught me to look for paranoid responses to sexual violence, consider the power of accusation, and critique the victim/perpetrator dyad. Even though I understand the continued importance to many of identifying women as the overwhelming target and men as the overwhelming perpetrator, I feel compelled to see through the statistics. Searching for heteronormativity, cisnormativity, racism, ableism has become like second nature, or at least I want it to be.

But.

But I know these ‘new(er)-to-me’ codes forced out the sanitized survivorhood code that I first latched onto. The latter code was available in part because it had a louder voice in society. That code appealed to me because my whiteness had time for it. I can’t make these same choices now. The other codes stop me – and rightfully so. I feel a sense of responsibility to prevent the early codes I learned from taking up so much space, from coming first before any other codes can be discussed. This pattern often means leaving intersecting issues to be discussed at some later date, as if the discussion could somehow carry on without them. I don’t want the temporal trajectory I experienced to be repeated or reproduced in other settings.

When the Jian Ghomeshi case was in the news, people took to social media and covered it in open sores, in vulnerability and #beenrapedneverreported stories. They built identities of survivorhood, and I felt moved by what I saw as my old codes. I felt the ghost of that forever shattered feeling I’ve since mended and replaced. I began to wonder how I can battle against it. How can I decenter survivorhood (or my original, narrow version of it)? Would that be akin to chopping off the arm that fed me? The arm that held me and told me who I was and how to move forward?

But I have to ask what else is it ultimately doing out there in the world. Perhaps it is helping some grapple with their own experiences. Yet at the same time we should not presume, let alone enforce, a compulsory traumatic response – which is an outcome that survivorhood codes may feed (and that our criminal justice systems take up). Perhaps it is helping onlookers begin to reckon with the scope of the problem. Yet it may draw attention to and reinforce the legibility of particular locations (campuses), bodies (white, cis, hetero, able-bodied), and responses (trauma). But what else? Do we end up (inadvertently or not) rendering power and sex incompatible? Did survivorhood make me complicit in a politics of conservative sexuality? Did it make me internalize shame in ways that perhaps I am still trying to unpack and unglue? Are my fantasies illegitimate?

Recently, I found myself participating in a process of collaboration to draft a sexual violence policy for the university I work for, which followed the passing of Bill 132 (Sexual Violence and Harassment Action Plan Act) that required all Ontario colleges and universities to put together a policy. Different sets of codes were voiced in the process: stories were told, emotional pleas were made, imagined future scenarios were concocted as thought experiments. The policy was passed, but not without many fractious debates. It did not only occur between the administration and anti-violence activist-scholars; the social justice university community was damaged. So I found myself thinking about codes of conduct. When I think about speaking or writing about sexual violence now, I think about all these codes and I wonder what my code of conduct should be. (Or should it be a code of non-conduct?) Does it depend on the audience?

I wonder what certain codes do to my students. Sometimes it seems like many are best prepared for or conditioned to expect a ‘survivor-centric’ rendering. What do alternate codes do to those who might be stuck in the narrow version of survivorhood that I first encountered, whether they want to be or not? Do they offend? What about those whose experience of sexual violence is more recent than mine?

Sometimes it is helpful to use codes to indicate a certain level of experiential knowledge with sexual violence. What should the secret handshake be? What words constitute survivorhood? How many times must we identify as ‘survivors’ for it to be acceptable to say anything else? Are we labelled ‘apologists’ if we even mention the phrase ‘due process’ or the complications of a strict rendering of consent (‘sober and enthusiastic’)? Do we self-censor as a result?

In a recent ‘Critical Karaoke’ format of scholarly address, I ‘outed’ myself as a ‘survivor.’ The response seemed to hinge on and construct some sort of ‘bravery’ on my behalf, which I was awarded simply for naming my experience. Indeed, the affectual ‘bravery’ that comes from survivorhood codes can be powerful – in that scary, raw opening carved through identification (or codes that do just as much) a cutting silence can occur. Material effects rush through some of the bodies in attendance: hearts beat faster, bodies tense, goose bumps form, palms sweat, hyper awareness and sensitivity is mixed with a dizzying depletion of time and space. Everyone’s attention is secured. But surely there were critiques about my broader argument that I was shielded from because of my ‘big reveal.’

When I am in rooms with anti-violence practitioners, I sometimes get pushback that denotes this as an academic debate they simply don’t have time for. But I know this isn’t the case in every such room. Many are deeply committed to intersectional analyses of sexual violence, and would readily advocate for a nuanced coding. Yet some advocates have made a strategic decision to circulate an unapologetic version of survivorhood. Of course, strategies include losses. They are a calculation of losses and gains, a weighing out. I’d presume these advocates have calculated the impact of different codes and determined that only some are worthy of being voiced in this cultural moment.

But I still have to ask: to what extent can we know or reckon with sexual violence when survivorhood codes have the potential to engulf all that surrounds them? Whether survivorhood codes are signalled first or strategically centered, how do we reckon with any recursive effects that follow? When perceived ‘alternate’ codes are raised and then crushed by the flood of survivorhood stories volleyed back, a demand often follows: believing is the first and most important intervention for us to make. And I did need that. Before. Maybe still. But how well can we really get to know and understand sexual violence, to what extent can we tackle it or reconfigure it, if this is where we keep returning?

Clearly, my needs should not be at the centre of this conversation. But I am here with my ‘I’s because the codes have me stuck in the weeds. I keep anticipating that someone, whether they are a student, an activist, a community practitioner, an academics, or a member of the broader public, will feel disappointed by the codes they interpret from my speech.

Whose disappointment will matter most? Should anyone’s?

Are you disappointed?

Rena Bivens is an Assistant Professor in the School of Journalism and Communication at Carleton University. Her research considers how software design is implicated in the emergence of gender, race, and violence. Science and technology studies, software studies, feminist and queer theory, critical race theory, speculative design, and new materialism inform this work. Rena is currently working on a SSHRC-funded project called ‘Imagining the Future with Speculative Design: Reconfiguring How We Think, Talk, and Intervene in the Problem of Sexual Violence.’ She is also the author of Digital Currents: How Technology and the Public are Shaping TV News (University of Toronto Press 2014) and her work has appeared in peer-reviewed journals such as New Media & Society, Feminist Media Studies, Information, Communication & Society, Social Media + Society, the International Journal of Communication, and Journalism Practice.