Just over four years ago, a man who had been filmed gloating, “You can do anything. Grab ’em by the pussy,” made his way to the Oval Office as the 45th President of the United States. My fellow classmates and I sat side-by-side into the wee hours of the morning as the 2016 electoral map increasingly displayed an unnerving reality. The ensuing election result was not just disheartening and dumfounding; it was infuriating, single-handedly illustrating the ability of millions of Americans to discount, overlook, accept, and by way of vote, support the blatant objectification and violation of women. Many have emphasized that despite their vote in support of a “leader” tainted by such a vile track record, they disavow racism and sexism of all forms, and simply hoped for a “stronger economy” or, as the brazen campaign slogan touted, the return of a “Great America.” Defense in the name of ‘issue voting,’ however, is a pitiful camouflage, as prioritizing any given topic while turning a blind eye to the ultimate transgression of certain bodies, is inadmissible.
The 2016 election served as an international broadcast that depicted the ugly truth countless survivors have known for centuries, as their onerous stories crumble upon affronting the broken systems that have grown to protect perpetrators and disenfranchise survivors. The stark complacency, acceptance, and propagation of rape culture upheld by our patriarchal world has allowed countless leaders an elusive shield, which protected them not only in obtaining positions of power, but also in maintaining them. This bitter reality is dispiriting, and oftentimes propels us to consider whether such a battle will ultimately be of any avail. However, as I sense myself succumbing to despondency, I find hope in the incredibly brave, unwavering, and vigorous souls of people like Chanel Miller. A statement Chanel made in her memoir Know My Name reverberates throughout my mind: “We don’t fight for our own happy endings. We fight to say you can’t. We fight for accountability. We fight to establish precedent. We fight because we pray we’ll be the last ones to feel this kind of pain.”
Through the overtly tender process of sharing her poignant account, Chanel Miller has poked immeasurable holes in the patriarchal systems that have forever eschewed survivors into silence. Chanel writes, “For years, the crime of sexual assault depended on our silence. The fear of knowing what happened if we spoke. Society gave us one thousand reasons; don’t speak if you lack evidence, if it happened too long ago, if you were drunk, if the man is powerful, if you’ll face blowback, if it threatens your safety.” Nevertheless, countless survivors have continued to boldly narrate every inch of their personal stories in the public light, ever-conscious of the copious cards stacked against them. Chanel writes, “Each time a survivor resurfaced, people were quick to say what does she want, why did it take her so long, why now, why not then, why not faster. But damage does not stick to deadlines. If she emerges, why don’t we ask her how it was possible she lived with that hurt for so long, ask who taught her to never uncover it.”
As Christine Blasey Ford testified in front of the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee, I was saddened by the chastising probes and innocently cloaked remarks that Blasey Ford should have “remembered more” or “come forward at a different time.” While such allegations were disappointing, they were certainly not surprising. What stunned me most about these proceedings were the headlines which read, “Christine Ford who has nothing to gain and much to lose.” In a country that is renowned as one of the “safest” and “best” places to be a woman, and whose founding fathers built the very land on pillars of “freedom and justice for all,” I find this universal understanding jarring. Even in the rare cases that result in the indictment of the perpetrator, survivors who speak out do so fully conscientious of the reality that their allegation will entail divulging the most vulnerable and traumatic fragments of their existence repeatedly, while simultaneously subjecting themselves to the judgment and relentless scrutiny of others. The sheer recognition that speaking out against sexual assault and rape will never result in justice for a survivor, should call all of us to action.
Despite this cruel reality, survivors continue to fight against this broken system in the hopes that one day, it will allow for fair trials that also take into account the well-being of those brave enough to step forward. On resilience, Chanel writes, “I survived because I remained soft, because I listened, because I wrote. Because I huddled close to my truth, protected it like a tiny flame in a terrible storm. Hold up your head when the tears come, when you are mocked, insulted, questioned, threatened, when they tell you you are nothing, when your body is reduced to openings. The journey will be longer than you imagined, trauma will find you again and again. Do not become the ones who hurt you. Stay tender with your power. Never fight to injure, fight to uplift. Fight because you know that in this life, you deserve safety, joy, and freedom. Fight because it is your life. Not anyone else’s. I did it, I am here. Looking back, all the ones who doubted or hurt or nearly conquered me faded away, and I am the only one standing. So now, the time has come. I dust myself off, and go on… This book does not have a happy ending. The happy part is there is no ending, because I’ll always find a way to keep going.”
Chanel additionally outlines the important role that those of us bearing witness to such injustices must play. Specifically, Chanel declares it crucial that we lean into the discomfort that these stories bring forth. She writes, “Victims exist in a society that tells us our purpose is to be an inspiring story. But sometimes the best we can do is tell you we’re still here, and that should be enough. Denying darkness does not bring anyone closer to the light. When you hear a story about rape, all the graphic and unsettling details, resist the instinct to turn away; instead look closer, because beneath the gore and the police reports is a whole, beautiful person, looking for ways to be in the world again.” When Chanel recalls recounting to her partner the details of inexorable harassment on the streets of Providence, she notes that his reaction to such transgressions was far too commonplace: propose a euphemistic “workaround.” While well-intentioned, these suggestions aren’t solutions. In fact, they tend to be just as pernicious as the violence itself, acknowledging that it exists, while allowing it to persist. Chanel writes, “It also seemed like he’d said, if they’re bothering you while walking, why are you still walking? It didn’t feel like a solution at all; they’d forced me to seal myself off in a car. I didn’t want to give up my sidewalks.”
Chanel elucidates many crucial steppingstones that propelled her forward amidst a trying journey. For starters, she illustrates the importance of looking to history as a beacon of hope. She writes, “History is where you will find people who have been through what you’re experiencing. Not only been there but survived it. Not only survived it but changed it. Whose struggles informed them. History shows you what people have endured before you. History shows that if you were in the minority, if no one believed you, it didn’t mean you were wrong. Rather, it meant society was slow to catch up to you. And if those in the minority did not buckle, did not give up their truths, the world would shift below their feet.” Chanel also underscores the patience and tenacity social change requires from all of us who spend endless days and nights fighting on its behalf. Chanel writes about one of her pivotal advocates, Michele, saying, “… Michele understood how long things take. She’d been battling Stanford for over a decade. Social change is a marathon… Not a sprint. You do all you can in the time that you have. By time she meant lifetime, that over the span of our lives we may not see everything we want corrected, but still we fight.”
As we continue this battle, there must be a collective reckoning of our outlook on sexual harassment and rape. Why is rape on a college campus perceived to be vastly distinct from rape in a war zone? Why is it our default reaction to dissect and undermine the accounts of survivors, despite a universal human recognition of their pain and trauma in coming forward? Why do a leader’s tax returns incite greater reproach than the mounting sexual assault allegations filed against them? As soon as we’re able to critically inspect the role we play in a broken system, we will see change. Change will embody multifarious forms, and I don’t think we can truly fathom every one of them in our current state, but I do hope to build a future world in which girls will not be raised to believe that their bodies innately distract men; in which teenagers will not have to heed warnings of protecting their drinks or walking in pairs at night; in which survivors believe that their words are powerful. Because we must never lose our voices.
“And finally, to girls everywhere, I am with you. On nights when you feel alone, I am with you. When people doubt you or dismiss you, I am with you. I fought everyday for you. So never stop fighting, I believe you. As the author Anne Lamott once wrote, “Lighthouses don’t go running all over an island looking for boats to save; they just stand there shining.” Although I can’t save every boat, I hope that by speaking today, you absorbed a small amount of light, a small knowing that you can’t be silenced, a small satisfaction that justice was served, a small assurance that we are getting somewhere, and a big, big knowing that you are important, unquestionably, you are untouchable, you are beautiful, you are to be valued, respected, undeniably, every minute of every day, you are powerful and nobody can take that away from you. To girls everywhere, I am with you. Thank you.” ~ Chanel Miller