Book Notes: Queering Sexual Violence

The new anthology Queering Sexual Violence (Riverdale Avenue Books, 2016), edited by Jennifer Patterson, is a must-read for social service providers, activists, policymakers, and anyone who studies child abuse and intimate partner violence. It includes personal essays, poems, artwork, and hybrid-genre pieces by Sinclair Sexsmith, Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore, Sassafras Lowrey, the late Chloe Dzubilo, and 32 others.

The book fills a gap in the common understanding of abuse as something that men do to women and children, and as a social problem best solved through legislation and policing. This familiar picture excludes survivors for whom the carceral state does not routinely offer justice: people of color, the disabled and neurodiverse, and of course the many LGBTQ people who hesitate to out themselves to the police and the courts, fearing that their victimization will only be compounded. (Think, for instance, of the Orlando Pulse shooting victim whose homophobic father refused to claim his body.) QSV is first of all intersectional, with a diverse list of contributors who explore the ways that both victims and perpetrators may need liberation from the web of oppression that binds them together.

Some of my favorite pieces confronted the question, taboo in mainstream “Born This Way” LGBTQ discourse, of causal links between trauma and sexual orientation/gender identity. Lately I’m haunted by the question of whether I’d be genderqueer if I hadn’t been abused by my mother, particularly her controlling and shaming of my gender presentation and sexual maturation. Who is that mythical woman I might have become in a happy family? Am I allowing my mother to steal my womanhood along with my childhood? Is my lifelong wish for my uterus to wander away forever a self-harming trauma reaction?

Funny thing, though, I never ask myself (nor am I asked by anyone else) whether I’m legitimately heterosexual, or whether my disinterest in sex with women is a trigger that I should overcome. Both trauma and queerness are stigmatized, deemed to be in need of explanation, and so I’m always tempted to split or disclaim these parts of myself. As Pam Mack writes in her piece on “Mother-Daughter Sexual Abuse”:

While I believe that my personal development was harmed by the abuse [by her mother and grandmother], I can still claim as mine the preferences I have evolved, whatever combination of innate, abuse-conditioned and the product of growth and healing they may be. And I can let them change over time, if I want. Knowing this hopefully provides another way of moving towards a culture in which a wide range of choices are seen as valid, even ones that may have been shaped by abuse… It is freeing not to feel I have a responsibility to make myself as normal as possible. Aren’t we all shaped by pain? (pg.57)

Jennifer Patterson’s essay “These Bones” also showed me I wasn’t alone in this struggle:

The conscious and unconscious ways people pervert sexual and gender identity through the lens of abuse has been something I have experienced consistently since I began identifying as queer and a survivor. Those who wish to render me deviant search for sources of my “illness,” a root for my queerness. They quickly find it when they learn I am a survivor. Not only is my queerness “understood,” then, it is sometimes challenged for validity. As in: maybe I am not really queer, maybe I am just damaged. I reject all of the judgments placed on my body and my relationships. The need to validate my sexual identity did not exist when I was in “straight” relationships with cisgender men…

…To believe that people “become” queer by way of violent exposure also informs a false idea of safety within our queer communities. When people imagine that I “became” queer because of the violence I experienced, not only do they believe that violence made me queer, it’s as if they believe that queer people don’t experience or perpetuate violence. This is not even close to being true. (pg.105)

(I think she means “perpetrate” rather than “perpetuate”; the book could have benefited from more careful copyediting and proofreading.)

Amita Yalgi Swadhin’s essay “Queering Child Sexual Abuse” considers flipping the causation around:

…[Q]ueer people who are willing to be out about our sexual orientation are already seen as non-normative. In a way, we have less to lose by also coming out as survivors of child sexual abuse than straight people do, since survivorship is in and of itself a queer (non-normative) identity.

And therein lie our opportunities.

We now know that, regardless of sexual orientation, people who exhibited gender non-conforming (or genderqueer) behavior in childhood were at a much higher risk of sexual abuse to begin with… The risk of experiencing sexual abuse for gender-non-conforming boys is especially alarming, at rates two to six times higher than gender conforming boys… If more queer survivors tell our stories publicly, we may be able to bring this data to life and pressure prevention and intervention efforts to account for the higher risk of sexual abuse that genderqueer youth (many of whom are not straight) face. (pg.219)

Meanwhile, Jen LaBarbera’s essay “Welcome Effects: When Sexual Violence Turns Girls Queer” embraces her attraction to women as one of the good things that came out of her abuse by her brother. She challenges both LGBTQ and survivor communities to drop the respectability politics that de-legitimize her experience.

The anthology includes many other good pieces on the healing aspects of kink/BDSM, alternatives to the prison-industrial complex, the intersection of personal and societal trauma from racism and poverty, and how we can keep ourselves safe without handing over our perpetrators to an oppressive system. Follow @QSVAnthology on Twitter for related articles, giveaways, and news of upcoming readings.

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