Aishah Shahidah Simmons Speech at SlutWalk Philadelphia
Those of us who stand outside the circle of this society’s definition of acceptable women; those of us who have been forged in the crucibles of difference – those of us who are poor, who are lesbians, who are Black, who are older – know that survival is not an academic skill. It is learning how to stand alone, unpopular and sometimes reviled, and how to make common cause with those others identified as outside the structures in order to define and seek a world in which we can all flourish. It is learning how to take our differences and make them strengths.
Black. Lesbian. Feminist. Mother. Warrior. Poet. Audre Lorde’s written words taught me that my silence will not protect me, and that silence is not golden. I am a Black feminist lesbian who is a survivor of incest and rape. When I was ten, my paternal (step)grandfather molested me over a period of two years; and when I was 12 the eldest son of a family friend fondled me. My rape happened when I was a soon to be 20 year old sophomore in college. I was on a study abroad program and broke all of the university-enforced rules to go out, very late at night, with the man who would become my rapist. In spite of my having second thoughts about going out with this new acquaintance, I was both afraid to articulate them and to turn around because my friends were covering for me. In the hotel room, for which I paid, I told my rapist “I don’t want to do this. Please stop.” I didn’t “violently” fight back. I didn’t scream or yell to the top of my lungs” because I was afraid. I didn’t want to make a “scene.” I blamed myself for saying, “Yes”…for breaking the rules…for paying for the hotel room.
The morning following my rape, I went back to where the school housed us and lied to my friends. I didn’t tell them that I was forced to have sex against my will. In an effort to both deny what happened on the night of my rape and to be in control of my body, I had consensual sex with another man that evening. When it was time to return home to the United States, I was pregnant and didn’t know which of the two men was the biological father. I was fortunate to have a safe and legal abortion at the Elizabeth Blackwell Health Center for Women in Philadelphia, PA.
And, before I continue, I want to be explicitly and unequivocally clear that I am NOT a lesbian because I was molested and raped. I am a lesbian because I’m attracted to and love women. So, please do not walk away making the homophobic and heterosexist comment “Oh, that’s why Aishah is a lesbian. It’s because she was molested and raped.”
If molestation and rape made women and girls lesbians, then most of the girls and women in the world would be lesbians. Just check the global statistics on molestation and rape.
I share what some of you might view as personal, private—and perhaps—seemingly unnecessary because the personal is directly related not only to the political but also the professional in my life.
Now, I admit when Executive Organizer Hannah Altman invited me to be a speaker at SlutWalk Philadelphia, I was very, very apprehensive. However, after quite a bit of thought and deliberation; and in spite of my many conflicting feelings as a Black feminist lesbian whose contemporary reality and ancestral lineage has been rooted in the legalized name calling/marginalizing/denigration of mind/body/spirit for centuries without too much recourse, I accepted the invitation to be a speaker.
I am here today because I want to see an end to the victim-blaming in my lifetime, and I’m 42-years old. No, victim-blaming is not going to stop because we are all here participating in SlutWalk Philadelphia. If only it were that easy. However, I believe it is important that the faces, voices, and perspectives of women of color (inclusive of all sexualities) and trans people of color are seen and heard. Documented herstory and contemporary reality has shown us that more often than not, it is our bodies that catch the most hell not only by the State but also by people in and out of our communities (however we define them). It is our bodies that have a demonstrated track record of being on the frontlines of the movements to end all forms of oppression.
I believe words are very, very powerful. At the same time, I really struggle with many who are hostile to the “SlutWalks” because they say it gives the wrong message. What is the right message? I think about Take Back the Night, which was founded in the early ’70s, when I was a toddler. As strange as it may seem today, especially now that Take Back the Night has become an “acceptable” movement throughout this country and globally, I know there was resistance. I’m sure some, if not many people took the position, ‘What do you mean take back the night? You shouldn’t be out at night!’
Personally, I do not embrace the word Slut at all… And, at the same time, I will not say or subscribe to the patriarchal and misogynistic thinking that “we can’t do this or that type of behavior; or wear this or that type of clothing and not expect to get harassed, fondled, and/or raped.
There are some places in the world that would say that presently, I’m not properly covered in what I view as very modest attire (by most US standards). There are many in the United States; and throughout the world who believe I should be raped, assaulted, and/or harassed for the mere fact that I’m an unapologetically OUT Feminist Lesbian.
Where do we draw the lines of who can and can’t be rape, assaulted, harassed, and/or called vicious and vitriolic names? Why are we okay with RAPE being the penalty for ANY type of behavior (including heterosexual women having multiple sexual partners) or for wearing ANY type of attire of clothing (including thongs and bustier? ). This line of thinking is inhumane, egregious, wretched, and should be unacceptable.
Sexual violence is one of the only crimes where the victim behavior’s determines if a crime happened or not. I could be in a drug-infested neighborhood with a lot of money on my person and even bragging about my money and showing it off. If someone steals my money, they are a thief, plain and simple. Yes, one could say “Aishah, what were you doing with all that money in that neighborhood. Are you crazy?” And yet, at the same time, it would be clear that I was robbed. If I left my macbook pro in Starbucks and someone stole it, we may think I was dumb for leaving it there, but that doesn’t take away the fact that someone stole my macbook pro.
How can we have more empathy for the loss of money or even the loss of a computer than the (hopefully, temporary) loss of one’s body for a few seconds, moments, hours, or even days? Why do we tend to be clear about the impact of the loss of material possessions in ways that we don’t want to be clear about the impact of the loss of the right to ones own body. For too many, rape has become a word, almost devoid of the horrifying experience from which too many of us never ever fully recover.
There is something very disturbing and painful that there is this widespread (as in global) notion that material possessions are worth more than a woman’s body… There is something wrong that too many of us believe that a woman doesn’t have the right to show or flaunt her body, if she desires… That a woman doesn’t have a right to agree to one form of sexual activity and not agree to another form of sexual activity. That she doesn’t have the right to say “yes,” and then have the courage or even the audacity to change her mind and say “no.” Whose body is it anyway? Contrary to global belief, it’s not the perpetrators body. And yet, too many of us defend the perpetrators RIGHT to violate the body of another.
When will we stop treating boys and men as if they are wild beastly animals or innocent toddlers (not sure which one) who can’t control their words and/or actions? When will we put the blame on the perpetrators? When will we stop saying “Well, women have to take some responsibility?” Take responsibility for what, men and boys being unable to control themselves resulting in them violating a woman or girl’s body because of what she said, wore, and/or did?
Again, I ask where do we draw the lines of who can and can’t be assaulted, harassed, and/or raped? As long as there is any group of people including but not limited to adolescent and teenage “fast” girls, women, trans people, queer people, and sex workers who are marginalized, then all of us are vulnerable both because it’s all subjective; and the lines of the margins shift all of the time. Who’s acceptable today may not be acceptable tomorrow.
We must stop subscribing to this notion that rape is the justifiable penalty for ANY type of behavior or attire of clothing that we may not like or even disapprove of.
We must centralize the margins of the margins of the margins of society so that ALL of us are free from assault, harassment, rape, and other forms of sexual violence. No One Is Free While Others Are Oppressed. NO ONE IS FREE WHILE OTHERS ARE OPPRESSED.
Aishah Shahidah Simmons, August 6, 2011
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, US
* Audre Lorde, Sister Outsider (The Crossing Press, 1988), 112