In the wake of the Laval University break-ins and the ensuing flurry of emotions (not to mention that just about every day of my life I am in contact with sexual violence of some kind) I feel the need to write…something! Bell Hooks puts into words a question I ask myself on the regular: “How do we hold people accountable…and yet at the same time remain in touch with their humanity enough to believe in their capacity to be transformed?”
We Are Leaving…But Who is “We?”
In 2013 I put out my album Waiting for the Light, which included a song called “We Are Leaving.” I wrote the song as way of channeling my sense of powerlessness in the face of many friends (of all genders, though primarily women…) experiences of abusive relationships and sexual violence. At different times male friends approached me to say that they felt very uncomfortable whenever I would sing that song at my shows because they felt they were being “accused” or pigeon-holed as oppressors by dint of their gender. Okay. There is a lot to be said there…but to sidestep a bit, my main desire was to have men see that speaking out about sexual violence was NOT equivalent to saying “all men are evil.” Almost the opposite in fact. It’s an attempt at underlining the role we all play in creating the social environments we are part of…it’s just that as far as this specific issue goes, you could say men have a “lead role”. So I started introducing the song differently. “This song is an invitation to people of all genders to leave behind (i.e. no longer participate in or support through silence and inaction) cultures of violence and dominance…”And that’s exactly what I feel is important now…
THIS, this massive exposure of rampant disregard for the sacredness and beauty of human sexuality; THIS, this deeply entrenched toxic relationship to power and freedom as “dominance;” THIS, this total return to zero on how to relate between genders without carrying forward the wounds and damaging patterns of the past; THIS, this culture of sexual aggression that goes unnamed and unchallenged at every level of our social interactions; THIS, this courageous voice that is speaking out in so many forms today across the globe…THIS is an invitation, this is a rallying cry, this is a warrior song telling us we have the CHOICE to participate in perpetuating the current culture or to create, through every day action, a new one. This is an opportunity to live by certain basic standards of respect and to hold ourselves and others accountable. This is an invitation to learn how to dance together again instead of maintaining the divide.
There is no way I can cover the many layers involved in this issue. Any failure to provide a connection between thoughts is just because I could spend my life digging through the rubble of humanity’s struggle with sexual violence. My hope is that this ongoing flood of exposure of sexually violent cultural norms (from the stories of gang rapes in India, to Val d’or and the many Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, to the Jian Gomeshi case, to Donald Trump, to Laval University and on and on…) is the final precursor to some major-scale healing that has been desperately needed (and has been taking place on a small scale) for a very, very long time.
Why This is not “Just” a “Women’s Issue”
People are starting to talk about the fact that sexual violence is not a “women’s issue,” but everyone’s issue, and perhaps even…a “man’s issue!!!???” Oooh I know, it sounds like the beginning of the blame game. But here’s the thing: this in no way means that all men should walk around feeling paralyzed by guilt and shame for the violence enacted by people of their gender. It simply means that men, as people who can have a whole lot of influence on other men, have an added responsibility and opportunity to create a shift in male culture. As I said above, it’s an invitation….and an urgent one.
It’s unfortunate, but it still has a lot more impact when another man, or ideally several men (wouldn’t that be nice?), calls a dude out for his unsavory behaviors/acts or attitudes. Sure, it’s not easy to be that guy who gets labeled an over-sensitive “pussy” by some for objecting to the normalization of sexual violence, but it’s a worthy challenge and one that will make a huge difference in the lives of everyone, of every gender.
Maybe you’ve heard this all before, but standing up for a culture of respect makes a difference whether or not you have experienced sexual violence directly because we all have partners, families and friends who have been directly affected. In Québec one in three women has experienced some form of sexual aggression (fact checkers, here a link’s). Think about it. One in three. If you have a hard time believing the stats, I invite you to open the Pandora’s box with female friends and family and see what you discover. I can see why you might not. It’s easier not to believe because it’s not something anyone would want to believe! Plus, it’s not a comfortable subject and we mostly avoid it…which is a big part of why sexual violence continues on such a widespread scale! On the other hand, just about every couple I know, including my own, has had to deal with, or suffer the consequences of ignoring, the scars of sexually violent cultural norms that come up, inevitably, in our intimate relationships.
For myself and other women, we deal regularly with being told to “fuck off” or being labeled an “angry man-hating feminist (oh no, not the F word!)” for objecting, however diplomatically, to sexually violent jokes, films or other media. Yet, whatever peoples responses, I feel validated each time I manage to overcome my fear of rocking the boat. There is a sense of incredible dignity and self-respect that comes with standing up for ones values. There’s a feeling of having stood by the many, many women, men and LGBTQ people I know who have experienced directly the impact and trauma of sexual violence, including myself.
I’m pretty sure that if I wasn’t assaulted by images and stories of male sexual violence, I would feel a heck of a lot more comfortable getting close to people. And I know this is the case for most of my female and LGBTQ friends, at the very least. On the flip side, many of my male friends have at some point brought up feeling that their sexuality as men was being influenced by the sexual violence and pornography they were exposed to for most of their lives…the process of undoing that type of “patterning” is also long, painful and involves a hell of a lot of humility, self-love and willpower. How can we expect ourselves to build healthy, balanced sexual relationships with our partners when the culture we live in bombards us with toxic images of what sexuality means and how we “should” experience it?
While I may be emphasizing the importance of men’s role here, it’s implicit that people of all genders have a responsibility to change the social culture surrounding sexual violence. And yes, perhaps there’s a limit to being “politically correct” that can become overly “rigid”…there are extremes to anything. However, I for one never have and never will find jokes about sexual violence funny. ESPECIALLY given the fact that this type of humor seems to dominate when I’m in majority-male circles. To me, the fact that rape and sexual aggression are made to seem banal, and worse, funny, indicates something much more insidious and deep-seated about our society.
The System is Down…Where Do We Go From Here?
There are other basic everyday manifestations of sexually aggressive culture that can and should be addressed which will take some larger scale action. Everyone knows it and says it, but how about the over-sexualized representations of women (and men!) in all forms of media? How about the fact that sex and violence are seen as selling points for just about everything? How about the fact that people, especially men, of a younger and younger age are exposed to violent porn? How about the lack of childhood education around empathy, communication and respect of others? Parents, educators, politicians, people on every scale of society need to come together to address this issue in a systemic, and a very grounded, way. Fear and “security-measures,” (as are taking place right now at Laval University to keep female students safe from the possibility of continued break-ins and sexual aggression by male students) are not long term solutions. Nor can these situations be written off as “isolated incidents.” The problem is rampant and it is rooted in some deep and complex narratives. And there is no snap-of-the-fingers abracadabra solution. There is actual “work”, actual communication, actual emotions, actual ACTION involved!
We have to build this thing back up from the ground, people. And we need men to be on board for things to truly change! I know needing each other became kind of unpopular for a while there (I mean…”needing” any one or any thing is sign of “weakness,” right? You may not say it out loud, but how do you feel and think when you need something or someone? Do you feel slightly ashamed and frustrated?), but I think it’s time to bring it back big time. We need models of what healthy relationships between men and women can look like. We need to relearn how to be powerful without being dominant, how to trust, listen to, love and heal each other and ourselves, how to be allies and partners and co-creators of something totally different. We need to be able to witness each others wounds and perhaps also the darkest, shittiest parts of each other, and still believe that we can change, no matter who we are or what we’ve experienced or done. We need to create space for massive scale healing and all the upheaval and mess that may involve.
In my life I have been honored to witness the strength of both men and women who’ve had the courage to face the writhing mess of emotions that comes with being subject to sexual aggression. I’ve also witnessed the incredible healing that can come when those perpetuating violence are able to dig deep enough to find the roots of their actions, to change for the better and, in doing so, change others. I have seen the courage of those who choose to stand up for cultural practices and norms based on mutual respect and love. And I ask myself daily… “”How do we hold people accountable…and yet at the same time remain in touch with their humanity enough to believe in their capacity to be transformed?” There is great potential and possibility reaching out it’s hand…inviting us into the challenging, beautiful process of birthing something new…inviting us to “just bloody-well walk out cause this is total bullshit!” as one part of me would have it….and I don’t know about you, but We are leaving!