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Controlling Our Own Words: Survivors of Sexual Violence Speak Out Author(s): linda alcoff and laura gray

Reviewed work(s): Source: Off Our Backs, Vol. 22, No. 4 (april 1992), pp. 10-12 Published by: off our backs, inc. Stable URL: . Accessed: 26/04/2012 16:56
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their segment on the show began, the camera zoomed in on Tracy (the sur vivor) as Dana Fleming, Gary's co-host, asked her to "tell us your story". So it was not Gary but a woman who asked for the details. Tracy proceeded to tell in outline fashion what happened, fo cusing on her feelings of confusion and fear afterward. Tracy's goal in coming on the show was to say something use ful for other women who may at that moment be strugglingwith the after math of an assault, and feeling as un certain about what to do as she had. However, Dana did not want to focus on the aftermath but on the violent act itself, and her next question was for Tracy to explain to the audience why she went to the guy's room "in the first place". She prefaced this question by saying that "now you have to under stand that the audience may not com prehend your behavior: help us to un derstand." This of course made the as sumption that the audience was un friendly or skeptical, perhaps displacing Dana's own reaction. Tracy bravely tried to respond with some dignity and for a few horrificmoments the show was focused on Tracy's behavior. Then Gary took over and shifted to the ques tion, "what can parents do in preparing their daughters for college to reduce the risk of this occurring?" An expertwho does rape education counseling was then introduced and proceeded to dis cuss theways inwhich women in our society have a difficulty in "saying no." What were the effects of this

rible to be heard and too disgusting and disturbing to the listeners,whose sen sibilities are still given deferential pref erence. Incest survivors have also been construed as mad: hysterical women who lost the ability to distinguish reality from their own imaginations. And all women who have been violated by men they knew have had their integrity It is likely that every sur questioned. vivor who ever lived has experienced some pressure against telling her story, whether given in the form of "advice for your own good," or a social sanction against revealing "private" experiences.

incoherent entities
have been dismissed because they spoke of things that simply could not exist according to dominant conceptual frameworks. A "rapist husband" or "rapist boyfriend" were conceptually incoherent entities in cultures such as our own where husbands and boyfriends have been defined as themen towhom women gave unconditional sexual ac cess. In this scenario, the very use of a term such as "husband rapist" will have the effect of calling into question the way we understand such concepts as husband, rapist,wife, woman, man, sexuality, and heterosexuality. The exclusion and dismissal of survivors' stories is a testament to their radical potential. If theywere not so threatening to the system of male su premacy theywould not have to be so aggressively repudiated and silenced.
In many cases survivors' accounts

August 1976 / battered women City Hall Plaza, Boston, MA




There is a growing movement in this society of the survivors of rape, sexual assault, and incest, determined to empower ourselves through empowering each other. We can find evidence of thismovement in the proliferation of books by survivors and in the political actions taken by survivors on college campuses. The principal tactic chosen by thismovement has been to encour age and make possible "speaking out" and "breaking the silence" about these most private and painful of memories.

we begin to speak about it, threaten its continued, un acknowledged presence. (Voices in theNight: Women Speaking About Incest, 1982).

pandering to voyeurism

There against

is not a taboo incest; merely

against speaking about it

Whether we do it in relatively private contexts or in public ones, speaking out can educate our society about the shape and extent of the problems of sexual violence, and can reconfigure these problems as social and not individual ones. Survivors who have been silent out of fear of retaliation or increased humiliation, and who have been carry ing around the burden of hidden agony formonths, years, and even decades, often report the experience of speaking out as a relief. And, as one book on the subject of incest put it, We believe that there is not a taboo against incest; merely speaking about it...ifwe begin to speak of incest,we may realize its place as a training ground for female children to regard them selves as inferior objects to be used by men.... By beginning to page 10/april 1992/off our backs

On the other hand, the speaking out of survivors has been sensational ized and exploited by themedia, and used for its shock value to pander to a sadistic voyeurism among viewers. In these shows, survivors are asked on cue to relate theirmost traumatic personal experiences, and are often subjected to hostile questions from the audience and condescending interpretationsof their experiences from the "more objective" expert who is inevitably on hand. The result is often that the survivor is re duced to a pathetic victim who can in spire only pity while her story is used to bolster the authority of the expert and the ratings of the show. In short, then, survivors' speaking out has paradoxical ly appeared to have both empowering and disempowering effects. We want to initiate a discussion about speaking out as a political tactic. We need to explore theways inwhich our speech can be used against us, and theways inwhich we can subvert these attempts at co-optation. The authors of this article have been active in the
movement ment vivors and of survivors liberation, and we for empower are sur


exclusion and dismissal of survivors' stories is a testament to their radical potential

show? It produced an emotional mo ment of a survivor's self-disclosure to a get audience attention, it focused dis and it created or re-created a scenario where older women are skeptical and women and judgmental of younger men are paternalistic pro where older tectors. Tracy became an object of analysis and evaluation for experts and representatives of the media-appointed masses (Gary and Dana) to discuss. Her attempt to discuss the aftermath of rape for the survivor was effectively circumvented to a discussion of how women should change their behavior and how their (paternalistic) parents can aid in this process. The entire episode was an undermining of survivors' agen cy and a deflection away from the per
petrator. cussion of rape on women's behavior,

Therefore, it is vital thatwe begin to break this silence and tell our stories.

However, the tendency of any dominant system is to findways to re cuperate or co-opt such emerging dis courses, and turn them to its ends or at least minimize their disruptive effects. This is the tendency we can see played out in the popular media today. On a recent Gary Collins Home Show two student activists were invited from our university to discuss the issue of cam pus rape. Our university was chosen because of its recently gained national notoriety, based on the number of rapes we've had reported and on the fact that one of the rapes occurred on theChan
cellor's lawn. The

speaking in the public eye


It is important to keep inmind that speaking out is inherently liberat ing. Stories of sexual assault given by survivors have been historically prohibited. Such stories have been cate gorized as mad, untrue, or incredible. The stories of incest survivors have been particularly prohibited, as too hor

a student group and asked specifically if survivors would appear on the show. They also said that theywould prefer recent survivors and survivors of rapes which occurred on the campus itself. The student group discussed this and one survivor volunteered to do the show, togetherwith a male member of the group who is not a survivor. When



anatomy speak-out

of a talk-show

There have been numerous shows on Oprah Winfrey, Phil Donahue, Ger aldo Rivera and Sally Jesse Raphael devoted to the topic of sexual violence.


Usually the format goes like this: at the start of the show there are close-ups of survivors "telling their stories," and the host of the show makes sure to ask the sorts of probing questions which can get them to cry on screen (this is accom plished by interviewing them before hand to find out theirmost vulnerable issues, and then keying in on these



Violence Out
need the authoritative mediation of our experiences for public consumption, experiential validation, or for theoretical

edgement of sexual abuse, these sur vivors are able to develop alternative identities "not" traumatized who can then function "normally" in society. But by heralding this dramatic act of self-splitting as a functional survival mechanism, the expert psychiatrist re veals a preference for system stability (where the system is a society inwhich

terms, and must recognize and affirm the correct choice of many survivors not to tell. Everyone is not at any given time in a situation emotionally, financially, or otherwise where speaking out is the healthy choice tomake. As a group, we must findways tominimize the dangers to ourselves while main taining our autonomy over the process. Clearly, an important aspect of this autonomy is the disenfranchisement of outside expert authority over our dis course. This does not mean that outside (non-survivor) experts cannot contribute to the empowerment and recovery of


imposition of "objective" experts set up as the authoritative interpreters disempowers survivors. The focus on survivors and their trauma deflects attention from the perpetrators.
there is ongoing rape and assault of children within the family) over system disruption. The mechanism of multiple personalities causes the survivor to bear the burden of her own survival rather than the society. To call this a func tional, positive response is to valorize a terriblyunjust distribution of burdens caused by sexual abuse.

becoming survivor/experts

during the show). After a few minutes of this, the host usually goes "wow" or something comparable and breaks to commercial. Afterward there is a period of audience questions and then the inevitable expert shows up: almost invariably a white middle-class profes sional-looking woman, discreetly dressed, who with a sympathetic but dispassionate air explains to the au dience the nature, symptoms, and pos sible therapies for such crimes of vio lence. The survivors are reduced to victims, reified as pathetic objects who offer pitiable concrete examples as liv ing specific instances of the universal truths the experts reveal. These shows especially like to get survivors with personality disorders, such as multiple personalities, because it can increase the sensationalism of the show as well as the emotional distance between the sur vivor and the audience, thus making it more easy to objectify them.

The enforced split between the person who simply relates her ex perience and the person who gives a theoretical analysis of that experience is based on a very old division between the subjective and the objective, feelings and knowledge, body and mind, and each of these is correlated with man and

Talk shows are not primarily organized around thegoal of

empowering survivors or decreasing the violence.


multiple personalities: healthy response?

In a culture where audience sen sations are dulled by graphic depictions of violence (both real and fictional) and inwhich the alienation of late capital ism has atrophied mass sensibilities, these shows provide for the audience a moment where real, raw and intense feelings can be observed, perhaps re membered, perhaps invoked. This is their use value as a media commodity: for a period of time (now drawing to a close) their shock value has been a val uable scarcity themedia needed. On the other hand, it appears that the goal

ratings boost

survivors. This contradicts our own experience and that of nearly every sur vivor we know. Our point has to do with a public arena inwhich expert analysis is given more credibility and legitimacy than survivor speech. We may be able to use expert help in pri vate therapy situations, but we do not

woman. These conceptual divisions have oppressed women by rendering them as feeling objects while men are said to be knowing minds. The split between the survivor and the expert is based on this old division. The strug gles to transform the arrangements of speaking to create spaces where sur continued on next page

Truddi Chase, who has been diagnosed as having multiple per sonality disorder, has appeared twice on theOprah Winfrey show, each time with a psychiatrist who is billed as an expert in these disorders to substantiate her story. In these shows, Chase oc cupies the position as themedia spec tacle while the psychiatrist sitting next to her is there to interprether behavior for the audience and explain it in the light of the latest psychological theory. What is especially alarming about these dialogues is thatChase's subversive speech patterns are not only analyzed within the terms of a "scientific" de
marcation sane, between versus the sane abnormal, versus and in normal

of producing disturbed feelings for the audience must be tempered with a dose too little feelings will of moderation: make for a boring show but too many may frighten and alienate viewers and induce them to change the channel. Thus themediation of a coolly disposed displacing identificationwith the sur vivors in order to reduce the emotional power of the survivor presence. The problem with speaking out in such for mats is that the survivor's speech be comes a media commodity to boost ratings and wake up viewers. Such shows are not primarily organized around the goal of empowering sur vivors or decreasing the violence. The imposition of "objective" experts set up as the authoritative interpretersdisem vivors and their trauma deflects atten tion from the perpetrators. And the shows adopt a coercive stance in asking on camera themost intimate details of a survivor's experience. A refusal to comply then gets interpretedas a weak ness of will. The call to break the si lence by the survivors movement must be a call based on the survivors' own
powers survivors. The focus on sur expert can serve as a mechanism for

medically treatable versus the unbeat able?binaries which effectively seg discourse and thus erase its disruptive also thatChase and other potential?but victims of multiple personality disorder are now presented as functional respon dents to traumatic experiences. By splitting their ego identities and isolat ing away theirmemory and acknowl
regate Chase's speech from "normal"

off our ba?ks/april 1992/page 11

continued from previous page

vivors are both speakers and experts, recorders of experience and theorists of experience, are struggles which can alter the structures of domination which op And we will all be clear on the role of theory in the process of em powerment. It is only with the de velopment of feminism as a political and theoretical orientation that survivors have been able to come to a position of anger on our own behalf. It is a wo man's theoretical orientation that will affect theway inwhich she experiences sexual violence: e.g. as deserved or undeserved, as humiliating for her or as humiliating for the perpetrator, as an inevitable feature of women's lives or as a socially sanctioned but eradicable evil. Becoming the theorists of our own experience is an importantpart of the struggle to gain autonomy over our speaking out. We also need to gain autonomy over the conditions of that speaking out in public spaces, in order tominimize the adverse effects on sur
press us.



We conclude that survivor stra must continue to explore ways in tegy which we can gain autonomy within the process of breaking our silence. Our words can become a powerful force for our own liberation. As the survivor and poet Emily Levy writes: Tell it in Spanish In Sign Language Tell it as a poem As a play As a letter to President Reagan Tell it as ifmy life depended on

behind the graffiti, as evidenced by what thewomen wrote. Here is a sample: [X] is a rapist. Report the animal. If you think "reporting the animal" will do any good at all, you have a lot to learn about the

speaking to autonomy


it as a jump-rope game...

Tell it as graffiti As a religious service Tell it as a classified ad... Tell it as a TV commercial As a science experiment As a countrywestern song. Tell it as ancient history As science fiction. Tell it in you sleep... Tell it as a map of theworld As if Iwere still forbidden to
speak the words...

judiciary system. Let's start naming names. Ifwe don't take care of each other, no one will. Who erased all the names? Don't let this get washed away. Fight! [Y] is a rapist. Nothing can get him off this campus. He's been tried,went home for a week for "psychiatric evaluation." Rich white boys can do whatever they want on this campus. You have erased our list, but that doesn't erase their

still here.


the survivors,


Tell it as a court case As a congressional debate As if the power of children were respected Tell it as domestic terrorism As a national sport.


it so it will never happen

by linda alcoff and laura gray

The administration was

so incensed by

There was great consternation on the part of thenamed perpetrators and frantic responses by administrators over their inability to "contain" the discourse about sexual assault on their campus
vivors themselves and to underline the attempts to co-opt our speech for patri archal ends. their loss of control that they publicly accused the list-writers of libel, harass ment and even of "striking against the heart of theAmerican judicial system." They also wrote to themen on the list offering to help them file a complaint. However, the bathroom lists ultimately resulted in an increased commitment by the university to strengthen and improve their procedures for dealing with crimes of sexual violence, and the creating of two new administrative positions to deal
with women's issues.

writing on thewall

One such positive example oc curred recently (last fall) when sur vivors at Brown University began list ing the names of rapists on thewalls of women's bathrooms. By not signing such lists, and by choosing a relatively secluded place inwhich towrite, the women could minimize their own ex posure and recrimination, thoughmore than a few survivors felt too afraid to participate even in this for fear that the perpetratorwould guess or surmise who had written his name. This incident created a tremen dous impact on the campus. There was great consternation on the part of the named perpetrators and frantic respon ses by administrators over their inability to "contain" the discourse about sexual assault on their campus. Despite the fact that custodians were instructed to erase the lists as soon as they appeared, the lists kept reappearing, and grew from ten names to about thirty.As re vealed in an article in the "Brown Alumni Monthly" the administration was mainly concerned that the "official avenues" for speaking about the prob lemwere being ignored and survivors had created their own, unsupervised on the space under their own control bathroom walls. The belief that the of ficial avenues for speaking out were ineffectivewas clearly themotivation

We would like to leave you with a short directory of books and services available to survivors of sexual vio lence. While it is by no means exhaus tive, it is our hope that these will be a helpful start in defining theways in will be most personally power which it ful and helpful for survivors of sexual violence to begin the process of "spea king out". is the name of the lar VOICES national network of survivors of gest childhood sexual abuse. They can be reached at VOICES inAction, Inc., P.O. Box 148309, Chicago, IL 60614, (312) 327-1500. Here is a series of book titles: I Never Told Anyone: Writings by Women Survivors of Childhood Sexual Abuse. Ellen Bass and Louise Thornton, eds. (New York: Harper and Row: Voices in theNight: Women Speaking About Incest. Toni McNarrow and Yar rowMorgan, eds. (Minneapolis: Cleis Press [p.o. box 8281, Minneapolis, MN Speaking Outr Fighting Back: Women Who Have Survived Child Sexual Abuse in theHome. Sister Vera Gal lagher (Seattle: Madrona Publishers 98122], [p.o. box 22667, Seattle, WA In addition to these books about "speaking out" against sexual violence, we also urge you to look at the follow ing titles: No Fairy Godmothers. No Magic Wands: The Healing Process After Rape. JudyH. Katz (Saratoga: R and E Publishers [p.o. box 2008, Saratoga, CA Surviving Sexual Assault, Rachel Grossman, ed. (New York: Congdon and Weed, Inc., 1983); 1985).


the It is a woman's oretical orientation

Campus Gang Rape: Party Games?. Project on the Status and Education of Women (Washington, D.C.: Associa tion of American Colleges, 1985); Rape inMarriage, Diana E. H. Russell 1982); (New York: MacMillan, I Never Called ItRape. Robin Warshaw (New York: Harper and Row, 1988); Rape: The Politics of Consciousness. Susan Griffin (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1979); Conspiracy of Silence. Sandra Butler (San Francisco: Volcano Press, 1985); Violence Against Women and theOn going Challenge to Racism, Angela Davis (New York: Kitchen Table Women of Color Press [p.o. box 908, Latham, NY 12110], 1985); Feminist Ana Freeing Our Lives?A of Rape Prevention (Columbus: lysis Women Against Rape [p.o. box 02084, Columbus, OH 43202]); Surviving Sexual Violence. Liz Kelly (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota

sexual experiences violence: e.g. as deserved or un deserved, as humili ating for her or as perpetrator

will affect the that way inwhich she

55408], 1982);

Press, 1988); "Feminist Politicization: A Comment", inTalking Back: Thinking Feminist, Thinking Black, bell hooks (Boston: South End Press, 1989); The Courage to Heal. Ellen Bass and Laura Davis (New York: Harper and Row,

humiliating for the

1988). These are some titles on sexual violence written to speak tomen speci fically: Men on Rape. Tim Beneke (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1982); The Changing Definition of Masculin ity.Clyde W. Franklin (Plenum Press, Off Their Backs...And On Our Own Two Feet. New Society Publishers (Philadelphia: New Society Publishers, 1983).


95070], 1984);

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