Friday, March 14, 2014

What were you wearing?

 This article came up on my Facebook yesterday:

Sexual Survivors Answer "What Were You Wearing?" on Buzzfeed (may be triggering - mostly descriptions of outfits and age at which survivors were assaulted; not graphic, but certainly overwhelming)

There are apparently problems with privacy and agency and a range of things in Buzzfeed publishing this piece. I gather this from reading Twitter but it is hard to follow the trajectory of how this was published and the conflict behind it. As I don't know the nuances of it I am hoping that linking to this isn't perpetuating something I wouldn't be on board with. As well, as a friend of mine pointed out when I linked to this on Facebook, this still creates a dichotomy of types of victims based on clothes - note that none of the folks whose tweets are compiled here were dressed to go clubbing necessarily, or wearing something that would be stereotyped as "immodest," so we have a binary of young women wearing pyjamas, work clothes, and so forth, contrasted with the women who are invisible here who are wearing clothes that many people would code as "asking for it." So this is more complicated than it seems at face value, and as my friend said, reinforces myths at the same time as it challenges them.

I've realized that on the rare occasions when I answer this sort of question, I always include a disclaimer. I was in just my underwear at the time, but I was always quick to point out to whoever asked that I was in my underwear because I was changing after gym class - as in, not in a situation that should have been compromising. But I think the trauma could be much the same if I were wearing underwear in an already sexually charged situation - still violent, still a breach of trust. I'm now trying to puzzle out how to tell my story without unconsciously reinforcing this idea that because I wasn't "asking for it" that someone else must have been, how to avoid inserting cues that signify my position as one of virginal innocence. Because while I was what a Law and Order episode might consider the "perfect victim" if I were to try pressing charges, that should not be as relevant as our social tropes make it.

And to also respond to a provocative photo (also linked on Facebook, but I forget from what source), truly nobody asks what HE was wearing. And that complicates things, because he was hardly the gnarly stranger in a back alleyway. He was wearing a school uniform, identical to the one I was about to change into, at the end of the day a boy rather than a man. Those uniforms were imposed in my urban public school as a way of equalizing students across class, and undermining gang activity, and that's a dynamic that I wonder and worry about: if I'd reported it, I now don't doubt that he'd have been charged. I was a white girl, upper middle class, in an elite academic program at the school, and the sort of kid who could get away with skipping class or accessorizing my uniform because I looked innocent enough for the administration. He was mixed race, taking less academic classes, in detention every time he was late or forgot his uniform. But what if the roles were reversed? Or if racial dynamics were less significant at my high school? As a historian I don't like thinking through "what if" counterfactual analyses such as this, but I doubt a black girl would have the same personal narrative, the same responses.

So with those caveats, a poem that I wrote in response. As always, may be triggering.


I could say I was naked
but for the tethers of undergarments
in the first seconds of struggle.
But that would not be true,
would bury my wardrobe of
armour, creeping to enclose my skin,
not quite reptilian like his eyes
staring but never meeting mine.

I could say I was naked
but I always had my skin.

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