Around this time every year, we start thinking deeply about the relationship between gender and sexual violence at Take Back the Night (TBTN), the anti-violence group I co-coordinate. We are in the thick of planning our annual March and Speakout and for the last few years, we’ve organized it as a women’s led march (that is, we’ve constructed a safe space in the front of the March reserved for individuals who identify as women). This year we’ve been revisiting the issue. It’s been a controversial topic for some time—the March has changed a lot over its 22 years at Columbia—and has became one of my obsessions.
While the majority of the TBTN group members support the idea of a women’s only space, I have tended to feel strongly that the march should be gender-neutral. I’m uncomfortable with the idea that we might symbolically devalue the voices of male, trans, and non-gender defining survivors of assault and also deny the support of our allies. I’m worried that the women’s space calls on us to define and police gender boundaries. I’m unsure of what it means to highlight women in the March, even if women are disproportionately affected by sexual violence. While I’ve come around to the fact that some female survivors need this space to feel safe—and will not attend the March if there is no women’s space—the fact that we have not found a perfect solution to the problem still bothers me.
I actually cannot overstate how much it bothers me. I’ve spent hours trying to reconcile the importance of gender neutrality and the importance of honoring survivors’ needs and have lost sleep over it. I’ve talked about it with my friends, family members, co-workers, and classmates. I’ve talked about it with male and female survivors of assault, with trans-rights activists, and with people who had never thought about these issues. I’ve tried to get many diverse opinions and ideas on the problem, searching for an answer, The Answer, that would help me create the most inclusive, least problematic March possible.
I finally realize that The Answer doesn’t exist and that my frantic search has been the real problem. When I was discussing the issue with volunteers at Columbia’s Rape Crisis/Anti-Violence Support Center, one person commented that it sounded like I was trying too hard to please everyone. She advised that I instead focus on being practical: that we at TBTN find a workable March configuration and then move on. I was very struck be her remark, because she was so right: my inner people-pleaser couldn’t stand the idea of making people upset and so obsessed over finding a way to accommodate everybody.
While I don’t necessarily think it’s a bad thing to want to be accommodating, especially on such emotional issues, I know there is no way to accommodate everybody. And the Good Girl in me hates that. I hate it because, no matter what TBTN decides, we’ll face criticism from some person, group, or community. It’s the criticism that I’m dreading: I know angry people won’t bother to ask questions before slamming the March, even though I care so much and have thought endlessly about these things. I don’t want people to be dissatisfied—I want it all to be perfect.
But again, my fear of criticism is the problem, not the criticism itself. After hearing my concerns, the head of our Sexual Violence Prevention and Response Program told me that I am not responsible for everyone’s happiness. She said that it’s ok if people critique the March—it doesn’t mean that it was a failure and it doesn’t even mean I have to act on their complaints, only open the space for conversation. And she’s right: people will complain, judge, critique. If I think about it in another way, that’s actually pretty cool–it means people are interested in these issues enough to voice their opinions. And that’s one of the goals of the March in the first place: to generate concern, passion, anger, and awareness. It’s taken me a while to realize that I don’t need to have The Answer; I just need create a space for people to talk about the issues. Most of all, I need to stop obsessing, for the good of TBTN and for myself.
At our last meeting, the group came to a consensus and decided that we want to give the women’s only space another try this year. Ok, I thought. I took a deep breath, heard their opinions, and am moving on.
Image thanks to: http://www.columbia.edu/cu/tbtn/images/march.jpg