Musings Monday: 3 Lessons on Survivor Culture
Content warning: discussions on rape culture and sexual abuse

Image Description: Four hands are holding each other's wrists in a square-like shape. Half the hands are dark-skinned, and the other lighter-skinned. In the background is a blurry field of pink flowers and green grass and greyish-blue sky. The text reads: "3 Lessons on Survivor Culture" and " -".

Every time there’s a media frenzy surrounding sexual predators, I inevitably get triggered and need to hide under a blanket cocoon with carefully catered books and Youtube videos and/or to visit a counselor. I toy with the possibility of spilling out my own stories of sexual assault, messaging my sexual abusers demanding an accountability process, naming my sexual abusers (one of which was a friend of a large number of people in my queer gamer polyamorous social circles in Ottawa/Odaawaa), or any number of things that, still, to this day, does not involve calling the police on anyone involved. I didn’t call the police before because of how the rape culture that surrounded me (and that I had internalized) insisted I was to blame and that I deserved it, and I don’t call the police now because of my prison abolitionist and transformative justice views (though no shame to folks that need to do it in dire circumstances). To this day, it isn’t the existence of sexual predators being highlighted in the media as the trigger for my flashbacks, but the rape-culture-fuelled reactions that send me spiraling into a world where I was taught my very dignity and safety was never mine to have.

Ultimately, I’m not interested in sharing with you my own story because I’m not convinced that it will be useful for me or for you. I think the only statistically concerning things from my experiences is that all of my perpetrators were white or white-passing, and possibly exotified me because of my “brownness” and/or “Asianness”. Many were cisgender men, and all had a relationship or identity with (toxic) masculinity. However, the reasons for violating me ranged from my perceived masculinity, my perceived femininity, or my perceived androgyny. I think discussing how whiteness, toxic masculinity, the objectification of transgender folks and/or femmes, and rape culture needs to be deconstructed is important work. But that’s not what I want to write about today, simply because I don’t have the energy or desire to, and I would rather see my white masculine allies who aren’t survivors doing this work among their social circles (though if my white masculine survivor friends feel this is part of their healing journey, I’d encourage them too). 

What I, personally, find helpful, is talking about survivor culture, and how it saved and continues to save my life. The three lessons I want to share today is about how focusing on survivor culture itself instead of rape culture is healing, how “being on the side of the survivor(s)” is complicated --especially when there’s more than one involved or they’re accusing each other--, and how sometimes losing community is part of healing.

Just finding each other is healing.

I think the first time I was introduced to survivor culture, it was through spoken word and poetry. Alix Olsen’s work, and then numerous poets at Ottawa’s Capital Poetry Slam (2004-2017) began to open my eyes to stuff like “victim-blaming” and “boundaries”. I began to actually start telling people close to me what happened to me from the ages of 16-22, and, after the death of one of my partners, I finally sought professional counselling and support groups in 2010. 

I’ve met survivors beforehand, and we’ve raged together and cried together, and sworn our secrets to the grave together. But survivor culture is different-- it wasn’t just about knowing that we’ve experienced similar terrible things and now looked at the world differently after the first time, or after each time. It wasn’t just about sharing our healing journeys. Survivor culture is about pointing at systems and at society, and saying that we’re all implicated. It isn’t just about the survivor having to be healed, or even about the abuser having to be healed, but every mechanism and structure that brought the whole damn mess into being. We weren’t “victims of fate”, we weren’t “asking for it” because of who we were or what we drank or wore or what jobs we had-- the system is messed up and we were going to do something about it by taking care of each other.

Just being part of a movement, a culture, like this, was healing for me. There were people that not only understood what I had gone through, but they could talk back to the nasty stuff I’d internalized about myself, and hold me through the process. They could pinpoint where communities and systems had failed me, and how larger histories of oppression, racism, and intergenerational trauma played into it-- thus successfully redirecting the rage I had at myself towards becoming fuel for policy, advocacy, and programming work. They also told me how to support them, teaching me, through their examples, the support I myself needed that I didn’t know how to express. 

I will forever be grateful to survivor culture, and to every single person that participates in the uplifting, healing, listening to, and care of survivor culture. 

I tried to choose the side of every survivor in the situation.

Despite how golden and rosy survivor culture can be at first, it’s also incredibly messy, and prone to a multitude of mistakes-- many of which I’ve made myself. These mistakes (or decisions that keep me up at night wondering if they’re actually a mistake) revolve around the question: “How do I centre the survivor(s) in this situation?”

Occasionally, I’ve been in situations where, later on, folks tell me that the survivor I am supporting is also an abuser, or is actually the abuser. Let’s call the survivor I’m supporting “A”. I then check in to ask them if the person that was harmed by A is also getting support and access to services. If they don’t, I try to give resources and find supports for them. If it’s clear they have folks supporting them, I ask the support folks what kinds of amends their person (let’s call them “B”) wants from A. We get into a quandary when B wants A to admit that they’re the one who is abusive and B is the innocent one. I cannot, in good conscience, ask A to do that because it would violate my tenet to believe and centre survivors. I also would not put myself as a person to organize a mediation or accountability process for these folks because I’ve already been doing support for A and am too close to the situation-- though I will support A if they want to be part of an accountability process. 

Sometimes these situations get suspicious to me, as a survivor. Like, for example, B wants A to admit B’s innocence and that A is the sexual abuser, yet there’s a clear physical power imbalance between the two, and there are multiple accusations of B’s abuse by different survivors and no discussion of them ever working on themselves, while A has gone to multiple counselors and support groups, working on their own harmful behaviours as well as healing from abuse. Other times, I’ve been in situations where cops were called on people unwittingly, either because a third party got involved or because people didn’t know who was after them, and this was used by social circles to ostracize survivors or demonize the groups trying to protect the survivors-- my stance on this is clear: this isn’t transformative justice, or anti-oppression, or survivor culture. When I see survivors who are multiply marginalized targeting other multiply marginalized survivors and using anti-oppressive language to justify their actions, I understand this as rape culture pitting us against each other.  

What it boils down to is me trying to make sure that the survivor is supported based on how they want to be supported, as long as I’m not asked to do anything unethical according to my own values. Sometimes it looks like I’m asked to support the abuser’s healing so that the survivor can get closure. Sometimes it looks like I’m asked to cut off all contact with the abuser. Sometimes it looks like I do emotional support via text message, Facebook messenger, video chat, or on the phone for the survivor(s). Sometimes it’s organizing an extraction from an abusive situation that the survivor specifically asked for help with. In situations where the survivor is an abuser also or the abuser insists they are the “real” survivor (like the ones I mention above), the minimum I can do is make sure that everybody has some kind of support that reminds them of their humanity and that they didn’t deserve what happened to them, especially making sure that I’m not the one supporting everyone involved. If asked, I’ll encourage solutions involving healing and transforming the culture to one of consent. I won’t actively support attacking or calling the cops on other survivors, even if they are also abusers, but neither am I going to shame folks on the decisions they’ve made in crisis. 

Sometimes it seems impossible to centre survivors in a given situation. However, every time I need to ask myself how to centre the survivor while asking others the same question, it still reinforces survivor culture. I’d rather choose to participate and build in that, instead of the culture of violation and objectification that brought about the situation in the first place. Even if it seems impossible, I’d at least rather try.

I accepted loss of community as part of the greater ideals of boundaries and healing.

Closely related to my second point, sometimes centering the survivor requires that I cut off contact with their abuser. Sometimes centering the survivor means they want to cut off contact with me because I’m too close to their abuser, or I’m the abuser.

I am fully ready for folks to cut me off if they need to do that for their healing, especially if they don’t have the energy to tell me I’m too close to the one that’s hurt them, either because I’m doing support to get their abuser to be accountable, or because I’m unaware of what their abuser has done. I am less accepting of cutting people off from resources that can help them change, such as community programs and services focused on healing, accountability, and rehabilitation. This is only because I want a door to still be open that, if the abuser decides they want to change and stop harming people, there’s a way for them to do that. I also don’t believe that folks are disposable.

In cases where I’ve done harm or have been accused unfairly, I accept the loss of community as a consequence of an oppressive system and rape culture, not because the entire community is messed up or the survivor is at fault. If we had other supports in place, that raised us and gave us options not to be abusive or toxic to each other, that had ways to seek redress and accountability without fearing police brutality and prison-slavery, maybe there wouldn’t be a situation where someone I’d harmed needed to have me ostracized for their safety. In this situation, I’d want to limit my contact with others in the first place, until I know the root of the behaviours that have harmed people, and how to get them to stop, so that I don’t continue to make folks that have had to “survive” me. I go public about my process as a way to support survivor culture and transformative justice, so that folks who are also abusers can find another way, and other survivors can have frameworks that they can ask their abusers to go through, if they’re willing. 

Also, I accept this loss because once a boundary has been violated, that loss reverberates throughout the community, and what I’m feeling is an echo of what the survivor has already gone through. 

In survivor culture, loss already is a part of how we relate to each other-- we are grieving, raging, and growing from our losses. We are counting our losses against our gains. We are figuring out every day how to make a loss into a win. Being respectful of a survivor’s wishes in this regard also makes me a better support to survivors in general, because they see I’ve learned to follow boundaries. I especially provide hope to other survivors who are struggling with abusive tendencies themselves.

Accepting loss does not have to be a negative process. To me it is just a process that’s part of a larger mechanism, where survivor culture is the stepping stone away from rape culture into something new and wonderful, where there are no more survivors, where consent is the norm, where there are ways we can hold each other accountable without causing further destruction to our communities and families. I understand that other folks may not agree with me at all on any of the lessons I’ve learned in survivor culture, and I’m okay with that. I wanted to share what I’ve learned, and am still learning, with the communities that have held me accountable and also supported me, as we grow together, moving inch by inch towards the promise of a world without sexual abuse.

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