[trigger warning: child sexual abuse and rape, talk of racism and violence against people of color, victim blaming]
I’ve been thinking a lot about survivors’ rights lately. It’s not totally accurate to say that we “earn” certain rights or privileges, because these things happen not because we want them to; they happen to us. We don’t cause it. But I do think that suffering and surviving is a kind of work— and we all know it’s hard.
I started to think about survivors’ rights— the right to refuse. The right to take up space. The right to be sad. The right to implied refusal if there is no “yes”, even if there is no “no”. The right to complain and whine and cry as much as needed. The right not to have to deal with people who talk shit or joke about your experience. These are the basics. But then I stumbled onto something else— the question of violence and nonviolence.
In critical race theory, the ideas of nonviolence are often criticized as reinscribing white supremacy. Malcolm X, a guy who didn’t advocate actively going out and killing white people, but instead, encouraged black people to defend themselves— with force if necessary— has been painted as a super bad guy, a caricature of an evil villain. But if you’re living in 1950s Montgomery, Alabama and last week five little girls were bombed at a church, and the day before that you saw a cross burning on your front lawn, what are you supposed to do? You have a family and kids. You value your own life too. So you do what most reasonable people would do given circumstances akin to war on your home territory— you defend yourself from the people attacking you. Instead, we have villainized Malcolm X. We criticize him because he (very understandably) saw Martin Luther King Jr.’s ideas as “let’s let the white people step all over us.”
In this context, and in the context of the victim-blaming that we all experience, it has become difficult for me to support nonviolence as the ONLY possible solution to these issues. If a little boy, a victim of child rape, suddenly decided one day that he would no longer let his priest hurt him, would we really blame him for the end result? No— we’d send him to counseling and celebrate the death of a piece of scum. This is especially true given that so many of us were/still are totally powerless. When the person hurting you has all of the physical and emotional advantage over you, nonviolence is just not going to cut it— having the moral high ground is nothing compared to surviving and not being hurt.
But what about the survivors out there right now who aren’t still in those situations? I don’t know. I’ve gotten to a place of understanding where I now get that not all survivors/victims heal/survive the same way. I also understand that some survivors have experienced things so many times worse than what I have dealt with— things that have messed them up forever, things that make them very angry. If a rape survivor decided to kill their rapist, would I tell them, “no, that’s wrong”? I don’t think so. And I don’t think that many people out there (who really understand sexual violence) would.
Yes, some of us might think that we could never do that. I am in that group— I don’t think hurting other people would ever really “fix” things for me, it would only make things worse. But for some survivors, just the idea that their abuser is out there, living life and enjoying the world, is too much. By virtue of still existing, they continue to pose a threat to that person’s safety.
I’m not saying that people should go out and kill the people who hurt them. Not at all. But if someone did, would I blame them and think they were awful for doing so? No. And neither would most of us.
In a world without sexual abuse and rape, we would never have to think about these moral dilemmas. But here we are, talking about whether or not non-violence is actually a good thing.