Why Sex Matters

We've been talking this week about ending sexual violence in conflict, both why it's an achievable goal, and why it's one that affects you. Now I'm going to get a little personal. 

I'm a survivor of sexual violence. The details of what happened to me are unimportant to this story, but it's important to me that you know. The experience politicized me, and my anti-sexual-violence activism has taken a lot of forms over the decades. I've taught self-defense, written (and successfully changed) institutional policies, performed educational theater, marched and protested, walk-a-thonned, facilitated infinite "discussion groups," and written what must at this point be hundreds of thousands of words on the subject. And over that time, collaborating and conversing with all kinds of people doing overlapping work, I've slowly come to understand that we can't end the global public health, security, and human rights crisis that is rape without changing the sexual culture that enables it to flourish. My first book, the anthology Yes Means Yes, is all about this idea. And my second book goes even further afield, centering on sexual liberation and focusing less specifically on preventing sexual violence.

I've caught a lot of flak for this approach along the way, much of which rolls off my back at this point. The kind that really pains me is when people claim that my insistence on talking about sexual freedom minimizes the reality of "serious" rape. That when I say we should all have the right to voluntarily do whatever we like with our own sexuality, and, as long as we’re not hurting anyone else, be free of shame, blame, and fear, it’s missing the point. They say that my insistence that we should all be free to take a man home with us, fool around with him, and still expect him not to force our legs open and penetrate us without our consent, that this somehow does damage to the cause of women who’ve been raped by a stranger, or in conflict.

Which is the frame of mind in which I received an invitation last year to attend the Nobel Women's Initiative’s conference on the possibility of ending sexual violence in conflict. It was this conference—attended by 130 women activists, security experts, academics, journalists, and corporate leaders from 30 countries, as well as Nobel Peace Laureates Jody Williams, Shirin Ebadi, and Mairead Maguire—that set the stage for the global campaign NWI has just launched.

Rape in conflict was not at the time anything resembling an area of expertise for me, so I was more than a little nervous about being worthy of my place at the table. I was also incredibly anxious that the survivors in the room would consider me worse than a lightweight: they'd consider me a traitor. How could I be worrying about our right to judgment-free sexuality when the Burmese army is systemically raping its citizens with total impunity?

The conference was an education in so many ways. For one, it taught me to hope. Being in a room full of women who know how to change the world and are hell-bent on doing it can have that effect. As did the practical strategy conversations we had throughout the week, breaking down how we can get from here to a whole different kind of world, one in which women are full and equal citizens, not a battleground where men fight.

Another thing I learned in that comically phallic Canadian lodge where we met is this: survivors of the most brutal armed rapes care about sexual liberation, too. Surely not all of them—it's hard to say anything universal about a group this gut-wrenchingly vast. But not a single survivor I spoke with thought talking about sexual politics was frivolous or privileged.

And really, why would they? One of the reasons that rape is such an effective tactic for so many armies and militias is because it rips at the fabric of a community in ways that other forms of violence just don't. Know why rape is different? Because of how often survivors of even government-sponsored rape are slut-shamed by their communities, rejected and thrown out by their families and husbands, have their children shunned, and worse. Why does this happen? Because across the globe, we still seem to believe that a) women who have sex, especially outside of heterosexual marriage, are worthless, even dangerous and b) that rape is always sex, because the victims always wanted it. They always could have fought harder or done something different if they didn't. It's always our fault if a penis or anything else invades our body, whether we invited someone home and then dared to set a boundary with him, or whether we were abducted by soldiers.

The conversations I had at that conference were off the record, so I can’t share them with you. But examples of slut-shaming and sexualized victim-blaming in conflict aren’t hard to find, whether they’re used as deliberate propaganda tools, as when Hutu media repeatedly portrayed Tutsi women as “sexual weapons” during the Rwandan genocide, thereby simultaneously creating incentive and justification for raping them, or in this harrowing but too-common story from Libya:

“Mohamed … said he heard directly from five separate male heads of nearby households and close friends that some of their daughters and wives had been raped by Qaddafi forces. One father confided in Mohamed that his three daughters aged 15, 17, and 18 had gone missing after Qaddafi troops arrived in Tomina. They returned to the family in late April and told their father that they had been raped in the Alwadi Alahdar elementary school for three consecutive days. In what is known as an ‘honor killing,’ Mohamed related to PHR investigators, this father slit each of his daughters’ throats with a knife that day and killed them."

You can also read my live-blogged impressions from the conference session that most directly dealt with these issues, which teased out the ways cultural sexual taboos prevent victims from speaking up to access support or justice. This includes, in some countries, laws against adultery. See my point b) three paragraphs up: rape is always considered to be sex, because of endemic, cross-cultural, sexualized victim blaming. 

I’m not trying to make false equivalencies. Of course being kidnapped and gang-raped by soldiers isn’t the same experience as being raped by some guy you took home after a party. But pretending they have nothing in common is just another way of dividing us, yet again making rape in conflict seem like an "Over There Problem." It also erases a crucial fact, probably the most difficult one we must address if we’re going to really end rape in conflict, or anywhere: rape as a social phenomenon is inextricably tied to the idea that women’s sexuality is dangerous, and must be controlled.  That our bodies are not for us, and that we can’t be trusted with them or about them. That we are not fully human, and we don’t have the same right to freedom, security, pleasure, and bodily autonomy that men do.

This isn’t just a philosophical point. Industrialized Western politicians and diplomats often use “cultural differences” as a reason to turn a blind eye to the sexualized atrocities I’ve been describing here. If we’re going to make any progress toward that better world we envisioned last year in the Canadian countryside, we need to figure out how to make them see that the cultures are really not so different.

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