QUEERING SEXUAL VIOLENCE & THE POLITICS OF HEALING
A talk given on April 18th, 2017 at Colgate University. Much appreciation to HAVEN for inviting me to offer a writing workshop & speak.
I’m really so very excited to be here with you all today, to talk with you about queerness, violence, harm, healing, and so much more. Thank you so much to Natasha, Denise, Ali, Dawn and HAVEN for making it possible for me to be here. This time is such a time of violence and one where it all has truly come to the surface in so many difficult ways. It’s a time where I’ve been in absolute protest, working to maintain and build interdependent relationships, and holding space for us to survive what often feels unsurvivable. I hope you’ve all been able to hold tight to care and community when and where you need to.
Today I’m looking forward to talking a little bit about Queering Sexual Violence, which came out nearly a year ago, but I’m also excited to have the opportunity to talk a bit more about my experience with healing: both personal and collective. In addition to editing Queering Sexual Violence, over the years I’ve been working with other survivors as an herbalist, a Breathwork facilitator (which is an active breathing technique incredible for connecting to our bodies) and as a writing workshop facilitator.
Queering Sexual Violence is an incredible collection of voices and experiences. There’s a huge variety of experience within it, and a huge variety of ideas about sexual violence, some intentionally in conflict with each other, because there is no single survivor narrative. It’s complex, it invites readers to think deeply about our individual and collective understanding of sexual violence and how we can push back on imprecise and limiting narratives. It’s hard for me to speak about this book as an individual, because it’s about so much more than my voice, as a white person who is read as a woman. I was talking to my friend Amalle Dublon about how I wanted to bring so many people into this room with me and she said “Oh, like less of a solo and more like a party” so I’m going to be partying with a lot of amazing writers, healers and activists today as I share this with you. I’m thankful to them for forever reminding me that anti-sexual violence work is always connected to all other movement work for justice and liberation.
Before I get into too much else, I want to share the ways I define and think about “trauma” and “healing”.
One of my favorite writers, Arianne Zwartjes, defines trauma as
“a shear in ordinary blacktop. A fissure in the everyday fabric. Like flannel being ripped. The shredding of each fiber in a mostly straight line. The frayed edges that result. The way the cloth loses its flat plane, becomes irregularly stretched and taut, gapping and baggy… Blooming wound on this terrain of skin.”
I think it’s a beautiful and useful way to speak about trauma, it makes room for the one-time ruptures and the on-going daily violences that so many of us often experience.
And healing— what a huge, often elusive, high-pressure, hard to pin down thing. People who have survived sexual violence know all about the expectations to heal. The demands to be well are endless, and can come from families, partners, institutions, friends, doctors, and communities. I’m thinking about all the ways we are told we are bad at healing, that we aren’t doing it the right way, that we are failing, our bodies are failing, that we aren’t doing it fast enough, that we need to move on already. Pressures to feel better in the right way can make “being healed” seem like an elusive destination, always just out of reach.
Realistically, there is no one way to heal and there is no timeline. I (and many other people) would argue that we are in a Healing Industrial Complex moment — the expectations and demands to heal are often completely out of reach, thanks to limited narratives, exclusionary spaces and institutions that do not have our wellness in mind.
When I think about being engaged in this work in the long-term, as both a survivor and a practitioner, I’m reminded of something Sean Donahue, neurodivergent anti-capitalist herbalist, teacher and witch wrote:
“It makes no sense to speak of healing people if we are not willing to address what is making them sick and ultimately killing them. I tell my students all the time that my prescription for everyone who walks into our clinic is the complete transformation of this society, and that anything else we do is harm reduction -- necessary and often life saving but not curative. And while I don't have a roadmap to guide that transformation, I can tell you one thing -- the first step is refusing to accept the cruelty and suffering around us as normal. Because the trouble with normal is that it always gets worse.”(1)
Queer, transgender, and gender non-conforming people, experience high rates of violence, yet find ourselves outside the dominant narratives about violence and, for a variety of reasons, also lacking institutional and medical resources in which to access care and healing. Compounded with further intersections of race, class, disability, immigration status, sex worker status, and more, violence is rarely a one-time rupture, but so frequent that we are unable to put our attention on healing because we are too busy just trying to survive.
We can not even get close to ending sexual and other forms of violence unless we make room to acknowledge every act of violence: on college campuses, in dorms, by sports players, in bars and bedrooms, within families, within prisons, jails, detention centers, on reservations, on street corners, on military bases, in cop cars, in occupations, during war, by border police, at protests, in queer dance clubs and more. Centering these sites of violence means that we must also do the work to reimagine what justice looks like outside of criminalization and incarceration.
BUILDING A BRIDGE: ORIGINS OF QUEERING SEXUAL VIOLENCE
Before I launched the call for submissions in 2011, I was working as a rape crisis counselor in a hospital emergency room and as a community organizer and facilitator in a project focused on sexual violence prevention in three neighborhoods in New York City. When I began working on Queering Sexual Violence, it was largely in response to what felt like gaps in organizational work, community work and care.
CARE VS CURE
I feel very invested in building a bridge between prevention work and radical and accountable healing work; for survivors seeking direct care, for those of us doing direct care and for when those two intersect, as it does for so many of us. I burned out hard and fast when I was doing prevention work and it felt like there wasn’t a lot of access to the things that could have made the work sustainable. I left to work on the anthology--I wanted to put something together that made room for complicated narratives and something that could honor a fuller scope of survival and healing.
In thinking about building this bridge, I’ve been thinking a lot about care vs. cure— what it means to move beyond cure and instead into the expanse of care.
In the aftermath of violence and harm, which for many is ongoing in a world full of racism, classism, transphobia, homophobia, ableism, misogyny, transmisogyny and more, I find myself bouncing around inside between care and cure. Cure, in it’s most sterile definition means a return to before, a return to absolute wholeness and wellness and is often individualized. In Eli Claire’s recently released book Brilliant Imperfection: Grappling with Cure, Eli writes:
“Cure requires damage, locating the harm entirely within individual human body-minds, operating as if each person were their own ecosystem… it grounds itself in an original state of being, relying on a belief that what existed before is superior to what exists currently… it seeks to return what is damaged to that former state of being.”
Care, for me, on the other hand, means holding space for ourselves and others to access the wisdom of the stories in our bodies and meeting people where they are while honoring little and big shifts, as we come more into aliveness. It means validating the very real pain someone might be in because as writer and academic Sarah Coakley writes
“All pain is real— there is no such thing as imagined pain. Anyone ‘presenting’ clinically with pain— physical, psychic, or some combination is in pain.”
Moving towards trauma resolution, while acknowledging and moving towards very real and deep pain, can happen on a small or large scale and is happening all the time. And moving into an orientation of care, rather than cure, to me means honoring that care means different things to different people. The ways we care for ourselves and each other can be pathologized, criminalized, diminished and dismissed, while a cure, or the “right” way to get well, is forced on us as the only option to “get better” and to survive. I’ll speak a little more to this on a personal level later.
It wasn't until I was number of years into editing the anthology that I realized I hadn't even really taken care of the residuals of trauma in my own life and on some level I didn't know how to. I’ve experienced a wide range of violence, many many ruptures: first from my father in an abusive home, and then in my late teens, while I was visiting Penn State University, as a close friend became my rapist, then years later, from a date who physically assaulted me leaving me with broken ribs, me needing a restraining order, and years after that, about a year into working on Queering Sexual Violence, a friend in my small queer community who had planned to contribute, physically assaulted me after a verbal disagreement.
I spent most of my twenties and early thirties deeply disconnected from and mistrustful of my body and I was still very much working in crisis mode. I wasn’t finding what I needed in traditional therapeutic spaces or with medications and I could sense deeply that I needed a different orientation, something more embodied and holistic. I was nervous though. I wasn’t quite sure what I would find once I started engaging my body rather than numbing it out. But in an attempt to reconnect, I began trying to support my mental and physical health with herbs, and from there, I found myself returning to writing, in particular a somatic and body-centered writing practice.
DISABILITY JUSTICE, HEALING JUSTICE & HARM REDUCTION
In the healing work I do, the ways I care for and am in service to other people is through a disability justice lens, healing justice lens, and a harm reduction lens. These are all rich areas of work that all deserve their own solo presentations but for me, they all weave in and out of each other and I’d like to share just a little about each.
Working through a disability justice lens means not only acknowledging the many ways people’s experiences of moving through the world are very different and have different needs and it also means that the work to dismantle ableism and de-center temporarily able-bodied (and minded) people is work that is never over. It’s not simply about inclusion but about building interdependence with each other, knowing that our liberation is tied up with each other, looking around the rooms to find who isn’t with us and committing to making changes so that they can be there in the future.
I look to Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha, Tina Zavitsanos, Park MacArthur, Carolyn Lazard, Reina Gossett, billie rain (who has a piece in Queering Sexual Violence), Mia Mingus and so many others for their leadership and wisdom in this work and I share their names to honor some of the legacy of this work.
Mia Mingus writes:
“With disability justice, we want to move away from the “myth of independence,” that everyone can and should be able to do everything on their own. I am not fighting for independence, as much of the disability rights movement rallies behind. I am fighting for an interdependence that embraces need and tells the truth: no one does it on their own and the myth of independence is just that, a myth.”
“Disability justice has the power to not only challenge our thinking about access but to fundamentally change the way we understand organizing and how we fight for social change. It has the power to bring our bodies back into our conversations. What do we do with bodies that have limitations, that are different (no matter how much we want to change them)? How do we acknowledge that all bodies are different, while also not ignoring the very real ways that certain bodies are labeled and treated as “disabled?”
I also relate personally. I know that complex PTSD shapes how I move through the world, shapes my capacity and the ways I show up to this work, to my relationships, and most especially to my body. It complicates everything. And I know that the relationships I have built with other survivors, the way we care for each other is tantamount to my survival. I could not do this alone.
I'm thinking about how often living through ongoing traumatic experience often means that our bodies carry the weight of it, the residue of it showing up in the clothing of chronic illness and pain. There is pressure from the outside to return to normal, to get back to before which is underpinned by capitalism as it often expects us, as individuals, to get well so that we can get back to being productive. And the answer to this, for me, is remembering that we are allowed to take care of ourselves and we are allowed to build interdependence with other people to receive care.
Healing is not disconnected from justice and it is imperative that we consider access and privilege when doing healing work. In a piece about Healing Justice writer, healer and disability justice activist Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha writes:
“The work of healing justice isn’t just to learn about and share what we know about herbs, massage, acupuncture, divination. It’s also about doing all that work to shift cultural ideas about healing and who gets to access it, to shift how classism and ableism and transphobia and racism and colonization have taught us that “healing” is a luxury for someone else… the work we’re doing is not just to provide the acupuncture or the divination, but to change the framework for how folks think about “healing” in the first place. Every healing justice worker – from hairstylists to community acupuncturists, sex workers to cranio-sacral therapists- who insist that healing is a right is doing the work and remaking the world.”
Healing requires persistence and patience. I think of dandelion that extracts toxins from wherever it grows, mugwort that grows through cracks in cement and through fences, ghost pipe that grows in the darkest part of the forest as it holds us at the edges, the datura, henbane and belladonna that remind us of the wisdom in places that others call poisonous, and Iboga that lets us feel the depth of pain and grief in ourselves and in the world. These, too, are some of my teachers and my guides in healing justice work.
Harm Reduction Coalition shares:
“Harm reduction is a set of practical strategies and ideas aimed at reducing negative consequences associated with drug use. Harm Reduction is also a movement for social justice built on a belief in, and respect for, the rights of people who use drugs.”
Harm Reduction is also a really appropriate lens for supporting people moving through harm and healing as it creates room to meet people where they are at and honor the various ways we cope in a violent world as well as supporting them to take incremental shifts. Taking a harm reduction lens in anti-violence work makes a lot of sense to me as it allows the harm and healing to have a more complex narrative.
Like Sean Donahue spoke to, as an herbalist, I often think about how I can offer all the tonics and tinctures and teas I can dream up but at the end of the day, we are living in a world that is not ready to hold and support all of us yet and “healing” means sending people back out into our fractured and violent world. A writing workshop or a tincture, or, caring for each other isn’t going to stop sexual violence from happening to any of us but it will help us acknowledge and hold us at the edges of very real pain that is on-going, which can literally, can save our lives.
Beyond the brilliant activists, writers, artists (and plants), there have been other teachers too, ones I have less use for these days. When I got to college and discovered the power of alcohol, I ran with it full throttle. I spent my twenties drinking heavily, pulling out my own hair (which is a stress response called Trichotillomania that I had been doing since I was a child), never drinking enough water or eating enough healthy food, in relationships that weren’t affirming, in and out of inadequate therapists offices, on a ton of anti-depressants, anti-anxiety and mood stabilizer pills.
I mean, drinking until we black out is poisoning and drowning ourselves, without a doubt. Using anything to drown out the tiny parts of ourselves that are deeply hurt is self-harm. Or when I was pulling out my own hair, an act of extreme dissociation as I could often lose hours, this was an old tool from my childhood and a way I escaped what felt inescapable. But now I very much view this through a harm reduction lens meaning I think in these harmful coping tools, this is also an attempt at self-care. Even when I was destroying myself, there was an element of myself that was doing this in service to me. These parts of myself knew my life’s history, they knew what I was holding in my body. And so they drowned it out as protection.
When we are engaging in what some deem as harmful behaviors, when we’re told we must stop them, have we asked ourselves what or who we're trying to protect? To quiet and console? What we would be losing if we were forced to give those tools up? We have to ask these questions and then listen to the answers. This is deep digging work that I take into the work I do with other people.
THE BEASTS & THE MONSTERS IN EACH OF US
Many people have imagined that as someone with complex PTSD and intersecting mental health and addiction struggles— I’m sentenced to a disconnected, dissociated life, very much inescapable. But this feels inaccurate to me. When I feel the old dissociation creeping in, I try to remember: I can never actually leave my body and even in what could feel like disembodiment, I am also embodied. We might try to safeguard ourselves from sensations, feelings and experiences but we do this always within and through the body, not outside of it. This hovering in between feels like an altered state, it can feel powerful, and full of so much wisdom.
Working with a somatic therapist who is deeply rooted in trauma work has allowed me to realize that I’ve had a lot of shame and anger at parts of myself that are still caught up in trauma response and self-blame. I recently came across this quote by Jeff Foster that was shared by my friend Molly Boeder Harris, who is the founder of The Breathe Network which, if you aren’t familiar is a really incredible online database of sliding scale healing arts practitioners for survivors of sexual violence.
“What if true healing is not the removal of, it's not the eradication of, it's not the stopping of the weather, but true healing is remembering the love that you are?... In which there is space. There is space for this sadness…And you start to realize, these are all your children - your thoughts, your sensations, your feelings - they are not meant to leave you. They are your children. They come to you. Not because there is something wrong with you, but they come to you for love. They come to you to rest in your vastness, they say, is there space, is there space for us? Are you vast enough? Do you remember who you are? Fear, anger, sadness, doubt - they don't come to you to be healed. They come to you to be held."
Or as writer Melissa Febos wrote:
“Love your beasts. Let them change you.”
In my own healing work, I’ve learned that the parts that I had cast off, that I hated, or the ones that resorted to drinking too much or yelling at people in a harmful way, these parts needed to be witnessed, needed to be heard, needed to be held. They needed care.
I think one of the hardest things that I, and think many survivors experience is self-blame which easily turns to self-hate. When we try to understand why these things like childhood abuse and rape and violence have happened to us, we usually find a young part of ourselves that determined: “Oh. I must be bad, I must be a monster... why else would this happen to me?” Bad things happen to bad people, as we have all been told. Bad people deserve what they get. And in believing we are bad we often miss opportunities for love and connection with others because we believe we could never deserve it. In these times of reflection, I’ve had to stare straight at these wounded places. Sometimes I am terrified by my reflection. Sometimes a monster is staring back and I can’t quiet her no matter how hard I try. A monster person is a terrible reflection to have and yet, as writer Clarice Lispector considers, is being a monster what it means to be human?
So the opposite of this self-blame and self-hate is self-love, and yes, loving even the beast and monster parts, which contrary to all of the lists and articles on the internet is not as easy as taking a bath or eating some chocolate, it requires welcoming and listening to all of our parts without making some of them bad or wrong. To me, trauma work is about witness and resolution and not denying, forgetting, ignoring, or just “getting past” and getting through it. It’s honoring where we’re at while we’re in it. It’s allowing the pain and grief to bubble to the surface. It’s finding that deeply hurt place and listening. It’s integrating all the splintered parts, letting the parts know about each other and teaching the parts how to care for each other. It’s knowing somewhere deep within ourselves that it won’t always be like this and that so many other people know this place. That we aren’t alone.
WHEN HARM IS HOME
Harm easily and often show up in our intimate relationships. As resources, I wanted to suggest Queering Sexual Violence and also the Revolution Starts at Home for digging into this more deeply because it is a huge and complex conversation. Harm is all around us and also within us and it is up to us to seek out those places in ourselves, too, that are wounded and needing care so that we can show up to the work. Being deeply invested in our own personal healing can have a powerful impact on how we can show up to work with others, how we can shift harm in ourselves and our communities. It allows us to fully witness someone else.
I’ve dated a lot of people with really complex trauma histories and being that I’m also someone with a really complex trauma history, many of my longer term relationships have veered on the edge of harmful and unhealthy. I have often loved a person with a complicated history; I love discovering the beauty in what many consider ruin. Maybe this love, in a way, honors my own complicated history; it creates room for me to believe I deserve love too.
When we grow up in a families where there’s violence, it rocks our individual and most basic understanding of love. I think about the long history of pain and violence in so many of our families (perhaps maybe in all families), how this history shapes our lineage and our lives. I’m reminded of a line from Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarainha:
“(h)ow the story of my family kept speaking in me."
How hard it can be to shake this history, or unlearn it and how necessary it can feel at times to bear witness to it while also seeking accountability, especially when people who have harmed us are our family members or our partners with their own trauma histories who might be very unable to hear and hold our pain while simultaneously holding their own.
In a world where justice is so often unattainable, it feels important to have more complex narratives around what “justice” means and how accountability-- meaning having the person who committed the harm acknowledge and witness the harm and make amends--while necessary, is sometimes impossible to get. The act of harm can never be taken away, on some level is is forever out of balance. Sometimes it’s felt like if I can’t make the person who harmed me believe they harmed me, then it never happened. And so when I’ve been unable to get accountability from family members, ex-partners and institutions, I do my own work of acknowledging. I find a friend who unequivocally believes me. And I believe myself, I try to not diminish my own experience or let someone else define it for me or tell myself it wasn’t that bad. I make it real.
I’ve very much struggled with being able to name and acknowledge the harm, the patterns that play out over and over. So a lot of my healing has been naming and maintaining boundaries while also acknowledging my own harmful patterns as I reach toward trying to reimagine what love is. I’ve struggled a lot with feelings of abandonment in relationships which turns me into the controlling, critical, demanding, clinging monster I’m most afraid of being. One who is terrified of losing. After years of personal work, it is easy for me to see this as a response to the violence I’ve experienced, beginning in childhood, and it’s up to me to be ever present to seeing it, naming it, taking responsibility for it and shifting it. It’s being committed to not allowing harm to thrive in any of my adult relationships, which is ongoing work and work I’m still learning.
WRITING & (DIS)EMBODIMENT
This residue of trauma often transcends language making talk therapy simply not enough for when we need to deal with trauma. Trauma puts down roots in the body, so often refuses to leave before digging into our muscle, bone and skin. Building spaces for us to revisit the residue and it’s impact is partly why I offer somatic writing workshops. In these workshops we engage in somatic practices, we enter into our bodies and we write from inside them rather then just write about them.
I love this quote from Timothy O’Leary:
"In order to use your head, you've got to go out of your mind."
This “going out of your mind” can mean a lot of things but in this moment, for me, it means going beyond what we think we know and going into the full wisdom of the body, letting the wisdom be deeper than what kind of sense our head or mind makes of it.
Writing has always been an outlet for me and it’s also one of the ways I believe we can access a little bit of healing, both individually and collectively. In working on the anthology, it was a wild process to see how people’s bodies responded to the editing and revisiting over the 6 years of work before publication. Wow, it was so so much labor for us all. I remember absolutely wimpering through line edits for hours with my friend and dedicated editor, Sam Barrick (who also has a piece in the anthology). I just could barely get through it, what was first in my body and now on the page. I began to realize how somatic writing is, meaning how very of the body it is. Giving language to the trauma of sexual violence is not just remembering it or replaying it in one’s mind in order to write; it’s the feeling, the remembering in the body. And yet, doing this work of translating embodied experience into language is so incredibly transformative too.
WOUND DWELLING WORKSHOPS
As I shared earlier, I've been facilitating writing workshops over the last couple years in many places including LGBTQ centers, veterans hospitals, anti-violence conferences, colleges and I just finished up a 6 week one at a harm reduction clinic called NYHRE in New York City which was offered for the second time. NYHRE is a needle exchange for people who want to reduce the harm of active injecting drug use and they also have an incredible healing arts program where people can access a host of modalities including acupuncture, writing workshops, spiritual groups, energy work and more. The community is largely people of color, many are LGBTQ, many are houseless and either searching for work or underemployed, many are survivors of abuse in childhood, many are living with HIV. Many have been incarcerated, where they have experienced even more violence. What I've witnessed is the merging of personal violence and institutional violence, how these violences mirror each other and are so frequent and ongoing, making healing from any of it feel difficult.
I’ve been calling the workshops I offer “Wound Dwelling: Writing the Survivor Body(ies)”. This work is about tuning back into our bodies, most especially because we often learn to mistrust our bodies. It’s a space to re-learn what our bodies have always known, to dig a little deeper, to find ways to trust and hold ourselves in community. I feel incredibly lucky to be offering writing workshops in a space that is so dedicated to meeting people where they are at, to honoring each person’s humanity, to build spaces where people can access their own internal healers and do so in community.
The workshop process is similar to what we did yesterday together, if you came to the writing workshop. It’s a drop-in series, and in that space we write for one hour a week, we read other writers’ work and if we’re feeling brave, we read our work to each other. Participants often share that after, they feel lighter, that a load has been taken off their shoulders, like they felt heard and witnessed, like they understand themselves better, like they created something beautiful. It is an incredibly powerful space to be in.
In so many moments over the years, it has become clear to me that each of us needs a person, a group, a space, a room, someone or somewhere that welcomes all the parts that will show up, welcomes us wherever we are at. A space that honor the resilience that showing up and working to heal requires. Something that holds space as a witness, guides us through the hurt parts of ourselves, guides us into the deep knowing of trauma and grief and anger and sadness that lives in our bodies. Finding these people and places is no easy task but in them, we learn, that sometimes being witnessed is enough. Or at least a start. These spaces remind us of how interdependent we are, how our individual healing is all tied up with each other, especially in these times of continued harm and violence, when so many of us are already worn and weary.
I wish these spaces for everyone. These spaces act as touchstones in the much longer healing journey ahead.
(1): Please note that a year and a half after this piece was written, Sean Donahue admitted to harm and exploiting the power imbalance between a teacher and student, among other harms. This quote was included in the original talk and so has been left as it was shared in 2017.