Deviation from the norm, from the ontological priorities that permeate society, increases the risk of sexual violence because the more you deviate the less your body is valued, the less agency you are granted to define and name your own life.
From Shay Woodall
CW: “me too”, Sexual Assault (SA)
It’s been an interesting couple of weeks watching the “me too” movement kick off on social media platforms. My Facebook feed has been filled with people sharing their stories with sexual assault (SA) and a lot of discourse critical of it. As a trans woman it’s been particularly difficult seeing how the language of many Me Too posts have unwittingly ignored trans, nonbinary, and intersex folks. And as a Jewish pagan, I think the topic of r*pe culture is particularly important when the pagan community so often doesn’t address abusers in our ranks. I recall an incident not long ago with a pagan community near me that did everything in their power to protect an abuser while gaslighting the victim, someone I care deeply about.
That dynamic isn’t an isolated incident either. Part of that problem has been a push from “mainstream” Pagans to turn our religion into something apolitical, but religion is inherently political. That our communities reflect the power dynamics of wider society, a microcosm of a macrocosm, is not a coincidence.
I’ve had time to reflect on this issue and a lot of the discourse and I want to take the time to give this the consideration it deserves in a way I hope embodies the compassion I have for my fellow survivors. This essay isn’t going to be an easy one, I know how traumatic this topic is, but sometimes to heal we must delve into the deep soil of our individual and collective traumas and dig out a space in which to plant a seed of healing. That’s the image through which I hope you read this and know that my solidarity is unyielding.
Please also know that this piece, like any of the things I write, is limited in understanding. All of our stories with SA are unique even as they are similar. I do not speak for other survivors, only for my experience. This is the beginning of a conversation and dialogue and I hope that to this thread which is my experience you add the thread of your own that together we can weave a tapestry.
I also want to thank all of the comrades who gave me feedback on earlier drafts of this and who sharpened my analysis of this issue. My gratitude on helping with this can not be understated.
I. Finding Roots
The “Me Too” movement began nearly a decade ago with activist Tarana Burke, a black woman. She is the program director for Brooklyn-based Girls for Gender Equity, a group dedicated to empowering young women of color. She describes the story of its creation when she was a camp counselor. I don’t think I can tell her story more powerfully than she can so I direct you to this article.
When white women and NBWOC take the labor of black women without centering their unique experiences it is a disservice to them and to our ideals of social justice. Let us do better in raising up voices so often erased. Tarana Burke said this which I think really cuts to the heart of this:
“On one side, it’s a bold declarative statement that ‘I’m not ashamed’ and ‘I’m not alone.’ On the other side, it’s a statement from survivor to survivor that says ‘I see you, I hear you, I understand you and I’m here for you or I get it.”
II. Digging in the Soil
There’s a branch of philosophy known as ontology that deals with the nature of “being.” Ontology tries to answer questions about “being,” what the world is made, what “exists.” To do that, ontology typically categorizes matter and often places some ontological category as being “primary” or “first.”In this way, ontological hierarchies create a system of values and “priorities.”
Take as an example how only certain experiences of SA are heard, that by existing lower in the ontological priorities, if at all, certain voices get erased. In society there exists a certain “ordering” of identities, a scale that places people and then assigns them varying degrees of agency. We could say that ontological hierarchies are very similar to animacy hierarchies, but that’s an article of its own. When we are applying intersectional critiques, at heart, we are putting forth a certain kind of ontology, or more accurately intersectional critiques seek to break down ontological hierarchies.
Perhaps the best way to understand this is to see what it looks like in action. We live bound under a capitalist super structure, what Marx described as the culture, institutions, political systems, rituals, state apparatus, etc and which he contrasted with what he called the “base.” or the ordering of and relationships made from the relations of production. Later critical theorists expanded this critique to point to the reflexive nature of the system, that base and superstructure are informed by and inform each other in a way that is inseparable. Seeing the role of ontological hierarchies play out in this superstructure under which we all live will hopefully be elucidating.
Capitalist ontological hierarchies situate the pursuit of wealth through wage labor as the default mode of being in the superstructure. In doing so the capitalist superstructure seeks several things. First, it normalizes the system by painting lack of ownership of the means of production as a default mode of economic and societal organization. Second it shifts the gaze of the working class off the wealthy so as to hide their accountability in the production of oppression. Finally it breaks down a unified class consciousness by subtly gaslighting the working class, having them believe that this system is the only one possible or even desirable.
A critique of hierarchy is central to the Anarchist model of social justice. We seek to break down to the deeper roots of oppression. Which is vital to breaking down r*pe culture and the endemic of sexual violence that haunts our world and so many of our lives. To make the link more explicit: kyriarchy (or the interlocking matrix of oppressive power structures like capitalism, white supremacy, patriarchy, etc) uses SA as a way of enforcing ontological hierarchies. Deviation from the norm, from the ontological priorities that permeate society, increases the risk of sexual violence because the more you deviate the less your body is valued, the less agency you are granted to define and name your own life. Therefore, I want to examine how these ontological priorities impact these discussions and the consequences that result by layering together four intersections: misogyny, cissexism, ableism, and white supremacy.
1. Misogyny and Cissexism
Within the patriarchy that we live men are “normative”, their experiences the ones by which all others are judged. Yet “men” are not a homogenous group, there are cis men, trans men, nonbinary men, intersex men, white men, men of color, abled men, disabled men. Likewise, women are not a homogenous group and neither is humanity in general; each of us occupies a complex set of identities informed by our own phenomenological experiences. By homogenizing the experiences of SA victims we necessarily erase the uniqueness of each individual experience and begin to hide the forces that shape and are shaped by r*pe culture.
The model of gender that permeates patriarchy is a binary between “male/men” and “female/women”. Several ontological priorities flow from this with devastating consequences for trans, nonbinary, and intersex folks (TNI). In the same way that misogyny centers men as being normative, cissexism centers cisness as normative. Many of the posts about me too have used cissexist and bioessentialist language (see here for more information on this) creating an ontological priority that decenters the most at-risk populations.
Take for example the ontological priority of cis women in many posts. By positioning, for example, trans women, as lacking some “essential” shared experience or quality with cis women it allows their priority to be weaponized as a way of erasing experiences deviating from the “norm.” SA itself is used to police gender and reinforce the structures that underpin the cishet patriarchy. Our queerness disrupts the ontological priorities of oppressive structures and SA becomes a way of forcing queer bodies back into the binary box.
Another insidious effect of this is that it drives a wedge through the heart of solidarity in this movement for social justice and community healing. When cis women, who are ontologically prioritized by cissexism, must make room for trans, nonbinary, and intersex folks, there is pushback and we are accused of “attacking” women. In other words, we are accused of being agents of patriarchy who seek to decenter the role of misogyny and the violence cis women face instead of being viewed as active contributors to the deconstruction of patriarchy. This implication, embedded into the language of many posts, results in trans, nonbinary and intersex folks feeling as if it is not our place to share our experiences with SA. And worse, this can result in a lack of resources, access to spaces, etc which can be potentially devastating.
Ontological priorities also weave together a narrative of there being a “default” sexual assault experience. Neuro-typical folks are granted an additional amount of agency to define their experiences not afforded to neurodivergent folks. Austitic people, and autistic women, such as myself face the additional burden of being gaslit by ableist structures in society that can be internalized. By denying us full agency through the reduction of our ontological priority our experiences can be erased or dismissed. I’m not “really” a victim of SA, I’m just “cr*zy”. I don’t “really” know my own boundaries, I’m autistic. In short ontological priorities can be weaponized to gaslight victims and cause us to gaslight ourselves.
3. White Supremacy
This section will feature two modes of analysis of white supremacy. The first focusing on anti-semitism, the second widening the scope to white supremacy more broadly and the urgency of the anti-blackness and settler colonialism that underpins it.
I’d like to begin by saying I am hesitant to write this section because I understand just how deep anti-semitism runs in leftist circles; I choose to speak truth to power regardless here in the interest of healing. I bring up Weinstein’s Jewishness, not because it absolves him of guilt, but rather because his Jewishness, animated by white supremacy and anti-semitism, becomes a shield to absolve whiteness from accountability. To be clear, Weinstein, like myself is a white passing Jew and that matters just as much in this conversation as his Jewishness. Jewishness occupies a nebulous category, orienting and aligning itself either with or away from whiteness. It is only through a complex and individual set of circumstances that white passing Jews become oriented away from whiteness as is the case here. (This article might help put some of this in context and why I choose to bring this issue up.)
What popularized the me too movement was Harvey Weinstein’s SA of women being brought to light. For those of you unaware, Weinstein is a Jewish man, and this is important to note because it reveals an ontological priority scheme not about victims but about perpetrators of SA, a scheme that *hides* the scope of the problem.
At the same time there exists a double standard in how Weinstein, a Jewish man, is held to further account than white folks who commit the same harms. Where was accountability for Brock Turner or Donald Trump or the myriad of other white abusers? And underlying this is an ontological hierarchy that masks the systemic structures of who is held accountable. By refusing to wrestle with Weinstein’s Jewishness it hides the ways white supremacy permeates r*pre culture, erases POC victims and survivors, and helps protect white men from accountability of their own actions. The ontological priorities weaponized to hold only certain groups of men accountable for their actions, rather than holding all men accountable, and further all perpetrators of SA, furthers r*pe culture, not undermines it.
•Anti-blackness and Settler Colonialism
Before I begin it is vital to recognize that I am, in social justice parlance, stepping outside of my lane. My proximity to whiteness and the myriad ways I benefit from it necessarily limit the scope of my understanding and perspective and so this section is going to miss a *lot*. Despite my own uncomfortability in writing this I will not shy away from it either as to do so increases the burden placed on POC comrades, asking them yet again to bear the brunt of the labor in the dismantling of the system which they face the brunt of. With these limitations in mind I ask you read the following as a stepping stone and that we all recognize just how vital it is to center the voices of POC, particularly the work of black and indigenous femmes and women. The following is born from a conversation I had with Raven Raines, a black activist friend (and a lot is going to be lost in translation from their experiences to my own understanding).
Black women and femmes along with indigenous women and femmes face the greatest risk of sexual violence in r*pe culture. The security to be open with experiences of sexual assault, to seek justice and healing, is far less than for white or white passing folks. The confluence of anti-black stereotypes (for example that black folks are inherently more dangerous and violent) combined with the prison industrial complex serves to silence black and indigenous SA victims and survivors. More insidious yet is that male and white notions of black liberation see silence as a necessary condition of that very liberation.
That silence is also weaponized in unique ways against black women and femmes. SA becomes a tool of white supremacy to lessen the ontological status of black women and femmes by dehumanizing and “animalizing” their bodies. It becomes under the system of white supremacy an impossibility to r*pe black folks because they aren’t seen as human, as deserving or having bodily autonomy and consent.
In the words of Raven:
“Regardless of the white supremacist source of the Jezabel stereotype it is used to further insist that sexual abuse done to black women and femmes is both wanted and desired. To call it sexual abuse, when sexual availability is considered the very nature of black people, is seen as a joke in itself. A riotous one for those suffering under the brunt of mosogynoir”.
III. A Seed of Healing and Hope
So how might we move forward in a way that better captures the spirit me too was created in? We can use inclusive language for one, language that seeks to disrupt narratives of an “universal” SA experience. We can learn to see the sharing of these critiques and experiences as weaving the bonds of community in shared suffering. We can begin to make space for those whose voices get left behind. We can strive to lessen the material consequences faced by those placed at the bottom of ontological hierarchies. And most of all we can seek an ontological “parity” that breaks down the categorizations and priorities of the system. Breaking down, utterly destroying, the ontological hierarchies cuts to one of the core problems underpinning r*pe culture, and allows us to see all our multitude of experiences as “real”.
We can open these conversations in the spirit of communalizing trauma, where we build a culture that values consent at the deepest level and where we get real with our humanness. I think moving forward I’d like to build on that idea of a consent culture and how we can help cultivate it in ourselves and in our communities. It’s also important that as we share our traumas communally we do so in a way that gives power to victims and survivors of SA and in a way that doesn’t mask the systemic structures at play.
Different notes, different voices, different experiences joining together doesn’t have to form a cacophony, it can be a symphony if we put in the work.
PS: I’d also like to take an aside to point out one of the limitations of the me too movement. Not all SA victims and survivors are able to share their stories if they even want to. It’s important that even as we share in communal healing found in me too we don’t forget the very real forces that silence people’s stories. The onus is not on victims to share their story, the onus is on perpetrators of abuse to change their behavior and the r*pe culture they built.
It’s also important that we do not attempt to mask the power dynamics, racial, gender, etc, by using absolutely neutral language. Doing so only serves to mask the ways systemic issues are reflected in our personal experiences.
Shay Woodall is a Jewish Priestess and Pagan working to weave a queer and decolonized magic with radical politics. You can find her work here.
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