This post may be triggering for survivors of sexual violence. Please be safe.
Last night, I marched with Take Back The Night, an annual event in the city where women and trans people take to the streets, make a hell of a lot of noise and reclaim the right to walk the streets without fear. This year was, from the reports of many, one of the biggest turn-outs here in Toronto. This is no surprise to me, given the recent wave of public sexual assaults concentrated in the Christie Pits vicinity. Women are angry that while the news media are actually reporting on sexual violence, nothing really seems to be happening on the policing front. I have to confess that I don’t count on police to help with sexual violence: I didn’t report my assaults after a Criminology professor I once had implied that women cry rape after leading men on, among other disgusting comments that I knew many survivors had heard from the mouths of law enforcement. Standing up in solidarity tonight was far more freeing.
I cannot recall how many times I have been sexually assaulted. I can tell you which incidents left indelible marks on my psyche. I can tell you which memories haunted my suicide attempts, which images tormented me in flashbacks and destroyed my healthy sexuality for years.
I can tell you about the man whose name I couldn’t even speak aloud after his betrayal of a longstanding friendship and former romance. I can tell you on dark nights that I look him up on Facebook, that he has two daughters I fear for. I fear, you see, because as a pre-teen, he watched a male friend violate friend’s younger sister and neither intervened nor spoke up.
I can tell you of the family that took advantage of me, of how they left me ashamed of my body. I can tell you how seeing their friend requests on, yes, Facebook struck terror in me and made me want to recoil like a child. I can tell you how they, my peers in age, were sexually interfered with by teenage girls on our block, only to take that out on me.
I can tell you of the time last year where a man sexually assaulted six women in a general admission concert crowd, that five men watched and did nothing as each woman protested and fled until I became number six. I can recall how I punched him and grabbed him by the throat even as he still tried to touch me, and how my request for help in restraining him for security was ignored by the men behind me. The women, however, helped, as did my male friend.
I can tell you of the time I was followed down a dark street past midnight and how I approached the doorstep of a lit-up townhouse and faked ringing the bell. I can still see him lingering on the sidewalk before mercifully giving up and walking away. I can tell so many stories of my own and so many of the survivors I know. I can tell you why women and trans people need to take back their right to walk – to live – without fear.
But I could also tell you of the ex-boyfriend who was repeatedly molested by male babysitters from age 10-14, and how that damage lingered. I can tell you of the male survivor friend I have and how his experiences have dramatically affected him. I could share with you how isolated he feels, how he doesn’t believe he belongs anywhere as a survivor.
I cannot disagree with his concerns, and it is here that I find myself struggling mentally and emotionally with the mandate that cisgendered men are not invited to the march portion of Take Back The Night (they are welcome to the rally and to stand on the sidewalks and support women). Women and trans people are unquestionably disproportionately affected by sexual violence. However, in that understanding of sexual assault as a crime “that happens to women”, male survivors are silenced withing a unique layer of shame. We are survivors all, but just as my male friend will never understand the experience of walking the streets as a woman, I will never truly understand survivorship as he experiences it, either.
In recent years, those of us involved in the fight for an end to sexual violence have tried to dispel that shame, that emasculation pain that rape culture thrusts down the throats of male survivors. More men are speaking out and demanding justice for themselves and that is such a good thing. In opening this space, we have given these men a voice, and with that voice, cisgendered males are asking why they cannot march with Take Back The Night, why men must stand aside or go to a workshop to be better allies. I noticed several questions along these lines.
I don’t have any answers.
The fact is, the dynamic of this discussion is changing from the year of the event’s inception. Trans men and women both participate. On a personal level, I would be comfortable walking with my male survivor friend at my side, in acknowledgement of the pain men have inflicted upon him. Then again, the fact remains that cisgendered male survivors are still safer than I am at night.
I am torn because I need the space of this march to rage against the fear and oppression I cope with as a woman. I want that space. But the friend in me sees how desperately the male survivors I know need a space – and women as allies – as they heal themselves and also combat the gender role bullshit they face in our rape culture. Maybe it’s because I have been hugely involved in the Tori Amos fandom that I am acutely aware of these silent men; her music draws them in just as much as female survivors. The why doesn’t matter. What matters is I hear their voices, too.
What is the answer? Again, I do not know. I just see the dialogue between the lines and know that we need to reach out into the ether and address it. Perhaps instead of only a workshop on allyship for men during the march, a safe space could be offered for male survivors to unify and affirm each other’s experiences. Maybe we need another annual event where all survivors of all gender identities and walks of life unite together and raise our collective voices. What I do know is isolation. I know how it feels to believe you do not belong, that you are somehow branded or tainted as ‘other’. I know shame. I don’t wish this on my brothers.
One woman noted feeling unsafe after an anti-psychiatry speaker gave their talk at this year’s rally – that the mentally ill were stripped of a safe space. Men who ask and are told no, you cannot participate even as a survivor of sexual violence perhaps feel they, too, are stripped of a safe space. Having had my safe space ripped away so many times, I just want there to be safety for all survivors. Perhaps this post will open a door to that space for men like my friend, my assailants, my ex. It need not be the space female-identified survivors claim; perhaps it should not be. But they, too, have voices. Maybe it’s time we listen for those whispers.