on the commodification of trauma, what has been lost, and what can be regained
When I first wrote about some of my trauma due to a history of multiple sexual assaults, it was a very different time. It was the late ‘90s, and I had put together a zine about some of the things that I had gone through—for my own healing. I’d been inspired by other people who had done the same, and whose experiences I found I related to. Writing about it all felt important because my abusers had tried to keep me silent, and I knew that the written word was the best means I had of expressing myself. I was trying not to let them win.
Then, other people who had read my zine started coming up to me at shows to tell me their own stories. Some of those people are still my friends today. I’d put together a support circle at college for other survivors, and this felt like an extension of that, and of the work I was doing volunteering for domestic violence safe houses. While I’m sure outside looking in it may have seemed self-centered to some, what we were doing was very much active and as outwardly directed as it was inwardly so. There was always the sense that we were part of a connective resource—maybe because I was purposefully surrounding myself with other anarchist and communist punks, maybe because our community felt intrinsically like part of an underground network. We read lauded feminist works critically, always with an eye to who was being left out, and tried to move what we were doing beyond the failed project of second-wave white feminist consciousness-raising. We did active, political survivor support work. We tried to model a better world.
This has been the spirit in which I have shared my trauma online. I have done so pointedly, and politically, and only at times I felt it would be helpful to others. I have turned down a lot of offers to tell and retell my story that I felt were exploitative, or that would reduce my life and work to the horrible things that happened to me. Every once in a while someone still surfaces to ask if I would like to write a memoir. The answer is always no. Every once in a while, when there is news about sexual violence trending, some random person will pop out of nowhere to ask me what I think, as if I must have an opinion on every disclosure of rape always because I am a survivor who has been public. Depressing, and dehumanizing. (It should also be obvious how I feel at this point, if one happens to care about my individual opinion.) Once, in a move I will never forget, a PR person asked me to cover an album because it was about the artist’s rape and, well, as a survivor, that should be my beat, right?
As the kind of survivor support rhetoric I once found extremely meaningful becomes ever loosened from the goal of helping others, from the goal of liberation, from the goal of building a better world—it has become, as every concept that reaches the mainstream does, both deeply oversimplified and deeply commodified. I would never want to discourage anyone from speaking about, or making art about, what they went through on their own terms, if it is helpful to them—that is something I still believe in strongly. But it is hard to uncouple that from a world in which a survivor’s experience is only listened to if it makes headlines (and even then…), and in which we must constantly drag ourselves back into that pain in order to make ourselves even remotely comprehensible. Contrary to any infographic you might see online, or anyone who might be trying to sell you something for your pain, violence doesn’t affect everyone in the same ways. There is no universal survivor experience. It does not make anyone innately noble, or brave, or wise, or infallible.
I’m not sure I would be as publicly open about what I went through if I was growing up now, or if I would be able to avoid being exploited in the ways I was able to. I have done a lot of notoriously stupid shit and have a problem with racing headfirst into things without thinking them through. The conversation about sexual violence is so different now—I am glad it has less of the intense stink of shame than it did when I was young, though it is absolutely still not an easy thing to do. I’m glad that young people are starting to learn about consent as part of sex education, something I’ve been yelling about for years. But instead of talking about sexual violence as an experience that a whole human goes through, The Discourse has been flattened into being a survivor as an identity, and trauma has taken on the weight of a singular object. In some instances, an object like a cudgel—on all sides of the thing, in personal relationships and in public rhetoric. I do understand why survivors wield it, even if I sometimes disagree with how—when you have been through a physical experience that centers around your agency being taken away, you will sometimes do very intense things to reclaim it. It mostly just makes me very sad. All of it does.
We should all feel free to speak about painful experiences knowing that the people in our lives will listen to us and support us when we need it, as we do for them. We should all feel free to do that free of the creepy sense of coercion that pervades this current moment, and we should be able to do so without forever anchoring ourselves to it, should we so choose. One of the first things I learned volunteering at safe houses was that telling someone to leave the relationship was forbidden—that it took away the agency from that person in the same way their abuser did. I think about that all the time in terms of how society compels disclosure.
I guess this is all to say that keeping collective action and the political project of building a better world front of mind when talking about sexual violence is a crucial thing that has been lost in a lot of ways because of commodification and the watering down of radical ideas for the mainstream (which then makes its way back into radical spaces! I still need to write that piece on how business speak made it from nonprofits into queer community discourse). I know it hasn’t been lost entirely, because I have comrades, and because I sometimes stumble across great and thoughtful discussions in other corners of the internet. And the fact that it hasn’t been lost entirely is the thing that keeps me going forward.