Published in the Spring 2007 issue • Features
Breaking the Silence
When it comes to fighting back against rape, resistance is not futile. So why aren’t we talking about it?
Continued from page 1
In popular culture and mainstream media, we see acts of resistance to sexual violence presented in limited ways: as crisis moments, big fights or dramatic action. If we see a woman resisting sexual violence on the news, it’s portrayed as a rare and noteworthy occasion: “Senior citizen fights off attacker with umbrella. Ain’t she feisty!” In film and on television, young, beautiful, fit women show their ass-kickin’ martial arts skills, or “chicks gone crazy” are driven by personal vendettas. But mostly we see the “good” victim (read: a white, straight, able-bodied, attractive, middle-class, professional woman) who struggles valiantly but is, of course, overpowered in the end (but gets that all-important DNA under her nails for the forensic team to process).
There has also been a long-standing hesitation among some feminist activists and scholars to celebrate resistance because of the potential to trivialize the trauma of rape or re-victimize women who have been raped. The theory is that emphasizing the power of resistance will make it seem as if it’s a woman’s fault if she tries to prevent rape but is unable to, or does not try to defend herself. Likewise, stories of resistance can create a limited category of special “heroic” women — fit, able-bodied, young, healthy, confident — making the idea of fending off violence still seem largely inaccessible to many women. Other reasons for keeping quiet about resistance relate to the possibility of new myths being created. Women may take on a false sense of security or encouraging women to fight back may increase the level of violence in an already violent society. (See the Toronto Rape Crisis Centre/Multicultural Women Against Rape’s website for more examples of such myths and some excellent responses.) These are very important reasons to be mindful about sharing accounts of resistance. But being mindful is not the same as remaining silent, especially since the silence surrounding women’s ongoing resistance has continued to support the myth that men rape and women can’t stop them.
In a book titled Rape on the Public Agenda, academic Maria Bevacqua exposes a history of combining self-defence techniques with storytelling that stretches back to early radical feminist activities of the 1960s. Although it took place in very limited circles, women were “breaking silence” about resistance at the same time women were “breaking silence” about rape. Some contemporary feminist-led self-defence programs, such as Wen-Do, maintain this consciousness-raising style of teaching. Likewise, feminist scholars have recently argued that sharing accounts of resisting sexual violence reduces the fears that limit women’s social and physical behaviours, and works against the myth that women have no options. Exchanging personal stories is less about uncovering hidden truth than it is about reframing our thinking, and finding new and different ways to represent resistance.
How can women (and men) rethink sexual violence from the point of view of its resistance? It’s difficult to recognize these important events in our own personal histories; yet, women prevent sexual violence in a range of ways, with or without formal training. When I speak publicly (and privately) about my work, I have found that when women and girls hear other women’s stories, they are more likely to recognize events in their own lives in which they’ve been able to fend off violence. They’ll add something like, “Oh, wow! I remember this time when…” and proceed to tell a story of when they managed to prevent some form of violence or coercion. Like the mother of two in a remote farmhouse in Jamaica who flung a jar of acidic cleaning product at three home invaders armed with machetes, sending them running off into the night. Or the retired nurse who awoke to an attacker leaning over her with a knife and, after being stabbed several times, reached up and bent the blade. One young woman, when knocked to the floor of an elevator, kicked and kicked at her attacker until he frantically jabbed at the buttons to get out. She said she had no self-defence training, but used yoga breathing to stay “present.” I heard about a woman riding in the back of a taxi in Buenos Aires who reached around and forced her fingers onto the driver’s eyelids, threatening to dig them into his eyes if he did not stop his verbal assaults and let her out. And a friend of mine once menaced three assailants with nothing but a long-tailed comb and a don’t-mess-with-me look. She laughed about it when she first told me, but months later, she admitted, “I was scared shitless!”
Sharing such stories is a way of circulating knowledge about resistance, and can be a powerful way of reducing the fears that perpetuate rape. The more ways we find to represent resistance, the greater our recognition becomes and the more we can broaden notions of what counts as resistance.