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Founder of Everyday Feminism speaks on intersectionality and sexual assault

Madeline St. John

News Editor

On Thursday, March 24, Sandra Kim, the publisher and founder of Everyday Feminism, a popular feminist website, gave a presentation and workshop in the Hyman Forum entitled, “Building an Intersectional and Inclusive Movement to End Sexual Assault.” Kim focused on how our society addresses sexual assault, the problems with how we address it, and how we can work to change the “culture” of sexual violence.

The event was co-sponsored by Goucher’s Social Justice Committee (SJC) and the Center for Race, Identity, and Equity. “We [SJC] choose topics based on what students are talking about,” said Yabsera Faris ‘17, who serves as the chair of SJC. “Last semester, students were meeting on Title IX, and there was a lot of talk about how it is only white women and a few men [who were coming to talk about Title IX]… Black women don’t even feel comfortable talking to administration. It’s racialized. White women are more vocal [in discussions of sexual assault].”

In her search for speakers who could start campus conversation around intersectionality and sexual assault, Faris found Sandra Kim of Everyday Feminism.

Kim began by speaking to her own experiences with this issue as someone belonging to several marginalized identities. “I was a sexual assault survivor advocate, so I had training,” said Kim. When it was happening to her, she did not recognize it as sexual assault. “The way that we think of sexual assault is normalized, so it is erased, and we don’t recognize it,” she said.

Kim presented a number of statistics about sexual assault, including ones that demonstrated how people with marginalized identities—LGBTQ-identifying, women of color, and people with disabilities, as well as several other groups—are more likely to be targeted.

“The more marginalized you are, the more likely you are to be sexually violated,” she said. “It goes hand in hand with power. There are studies that show that people actually think that black people actually feel less pain. We have a dominant narrative about sexual assault—it involves straight white females, who would never do anything to ‘ask for it,’ who are violated by men, either black or white. And it is harder to get acknowledgement that something has happened to you the farther you are from the dominant narrative.”

That dominant narrative prevents us from acknowledging certain cases as sexual assault. There are barriers to acknowledgement for male survivors, for partners in same-gender couples, and for those who have experienced emotional and verbal abuse, rather than violent or physical. Marital rape was not outlawed until 1993 and it is still not treated as harshly, even though many cases of sexual violence occur between intimate partners.

“I thought that the broad definition of what constitutes relationship violence was really important,” said Arthur Mutijima ‘18, who attended the presentation. “She was debunking the myth of relationship violence, that it’s not just strangers [who commit acts of relationship violence] but it’s people you know, people you can be in a relationship with.”

Often in cases of sexual assault, survivors may be blamed or blame themselves for what happened, especially if they did not try to resist when attacked. They may justify the violence.

Another problem persists in different forms of identity abuse. The perpetrator may threaten to “out” the victim’s sexuality to their family or they may question it. For instance, “Are you really a lesbian?”—or, for trans-men, “Are you really a man?” Undocumented immigrants may be threatened with deportation or, if they are the perpetrator, they may hold it over the victim by stating, “If you report me, I’ll be deported.” Victims may not report for fear of what will happen if they involve law enforcement. Increasing levels of racism and homophobia also prevent victims from reporting due to fear of worsening the reputation of their community.

With all of these barriers, what can a college community do to make change happen? Kim listed a number of possibilities: have explicit policies regarding sexual assault available online and mention all the possible identities and groups not in the dominant narrative in these policies; pull information from websites (like Everyday Feminism) and “put it out there”; increase training on these topics for faculty and students; make intersectionality and sexual assault conversations a part of freshmen orientation; have informal conversations on this topic; develop a campus culture around positive fun, and create a survivor-centered culture with access to safety, support, and confidentiality.

In a broader, big-picture sense, Kim also discussed the way in which the justice system should change. “Our penal system was designed with the idea that most people are law abiding citizens and that there are only a few criminals,” said Kim. “This is not the case with rape. People have been trained to think this way. How do we have people held accountable?” One way, Kim offered, is through restorative justice. Using the example of New Zealand’s elimination of juvenile imprisonment, Kim suggested that we create a “culture of accountability.” Rather than facing imprisonment, perpetrators should acknowledge the consequences of their actions, be educated, and make reparations within a system for long-term rehabilitation.

At a more personal level, people can work on verbally requesting permission to do anything sexual. “Somehow we’re just supposed to ‘know’ whether or not someone is okay with something,” Kim said. That just does not work, she concluded. “Talking about sexual desires can be really embarrassing for people,” she said. “Personally, I think it’s sexy.”

Kim also discussed the language that we use to talk about violence and sex, and how the two overlap. “When we want to threaten someone, we use rape language, like ‘fuck you’,” she said. “And a lot of dating language is rape-related, like ‘hit on,’ or ‘smash that’.” If we want to change the way we think, we should think about the language we use, Kim suggested.

“[Kim’s] piece about language was really powerful,” said Mutijima. “I never thought about how curse words are deeply sexual, like ‘fuck you’ and ‘suck my dick’…. It made me see how sexual violence and rape culture is the culture, in terms of the language that you choose.”

After her presentation, Kim ran a short workshop on intersectional/empathetic listening, as opposed to privileged/biased listening. This was similar to listening to survivors’ stories, but is also more broadly applicable. When engaging in “biased listening,” one assumes that they know what the speaker is talking about, dismisses their concerns or feelings, moves on to another topic, or listens with “weariness and judgment.” “This often happens when you’re talking to someone you care about because you don’t want them to be in pain,” said Kim. “You ask questions like ‘but you’re okay, right?’ because you want them to be okay.”

On the other hand, when one engages in “empathetic listening,” they realize that they will never really understand what the speaker is going through, but they acknowledge the speaker’s reality and accept them where they are. “Just receive and affirm, receive and affirm, receive and affirm,” said Kim. “Being intersectional is really just about being a caring human being.”

Alejandra Rocha ‘17, appreciated this portion of the event. “It would have been good to focus more on the listening part, like if that had been the entire

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,” she said.

After the presentation, Kim held a question-and-answer session, and then stuck around for a while talking to students one on one. “These kinds of events are important because they open up the space for dialogue to happen,” Kim said afterwards. “People just come up to me and tell me things because I have put it out there that I work on these issues. You need to be proactive, and let people know you are there to listen to them.”

Faris echoed Kim’s belief that change needs to happen at the individual, informal, everyday level. “It’s easy to say that Goucher has a problem, but change starts with students challenging each other, and then administration,” she said.

Faris suggested that students become more involved in working on Title IX. “It is hard to get students to come out for something so entrenched in legal matters, but [administration] need[s] to make sure that the students giving input are coming in from diverse places, that they have multiple identities… Administration should reach out to marginalized student groups…and they should just ask students for their input, as not everyone is part of groups.”

Faris also reiterated Kim’s idea of inclusive language by pointing out the idea of putting descriptors in Title IX such as having the documents refer specifically to black women and Asian women, among other marginalized groups. “People think sexual assault is a ‘white thing’,” she said. ‘When in reality, in the U.S., black women are more raped, [as are] people who don’t fit the binary.”

Regarding the discussion of Kim’s presentation, some students felt that she should have focused more on specifically on “intersectionality.”

“[The event] used the word intersectionality but did not really substantiate it,” said Mutijima.

The definition of “intersectionality” can also be fuzzy. “People say intersectional and they aren’t really sure what it means—like, it’s become a buzz word, like ‘problematic’. Like what does that even mean anymore? It’s lost its meaning,” Rocha said. For Rocha, intersectionality is about “taking into consideration all identities all the time. It’s about constant self-awareness and reflection.”

“There is a popularity of the word intersectionality,” said Faris. “People were using it as an ‘additive’ term.” They need to be asking, ‘How do these work together to oppress marginalized communities?’ Even though there are a lot of events around it, [‘intersectionality’] is used as a very additive term, and [the events are] not talking about how these [racism, sexism, homophobia, etc.] work together to perpetuate inequality.”

Faris used the example of the recent “Vagina Monologues” discussion, which was held at the end of March. “[In their discussion], they need to be more descriptive as to what we mean by ‘women’,” said Faris. “Once we were talking about just ‘women,’ the people who decide to participate are white women. Without a descriptor, neutrality in the U.S. means white. Also on campus, there is also a lack of conversation about other women of colors. There is this whiteness and blackness discussion, even though anti-blackness exists in other communities. We just don’t talk about it.”

“Intersectionality” is about “the ways in which specific identities and social constructs work together to oppress people,” Faris further explained.

Faris also commented on attendance at Sandra Kim’s presentation and workshop. “I expected more people to attend [the event]. It’s interesting because intersectionality is a very hot topic, but there were maybe 40 max,” she pointed out.

In the question-and-answer session of the presentation, someone asked about requiring people to learn about these topics: “What do you do about people who don’t want to listen, who don’t want to come to a talk like this?” Kim replied, “Not everyone is going to be on board, but we don’t need everyone. We just need a critical mass.”

Kim also noted, “We don’t need to wait for the whole community to change… we can start with conversations.”

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