As a SARU advocate, I have had many opportunities to observe student responses to sexual assault advocacy on campus. A large part of SARU’s peer education activities are tabling events that attempt to educate students about consent, how to support survivors, or Title IX and Clery rights. During these activities, we generally receive some expressions of support for our work, with a few people eagerly asking questions. For the most part however, people slink by uncomfortably or giggle awkwardly when we attempt to engage them in conversation or pass on a flyer. In the worst cases, we have people that approach us with intent to dispute our displayed statistics or poke holes in our logic (“You say it’s not a girl’s fault if she gets raped while she’s dressed promiscuously, but would you say the same for a man who gets robbed while waving his wallet around?”) While we as activists regard this work as important, it can be draining and disheartening. Our conversations following such exchanges reveal a feeling of stagnancy: it seems we are having the same conversations over and over again without much progress. Furthermore, because many of us are survivors ourselves, it can feel like we’re constantly having to argue for our basic rights to safety and respect, even as others view these conversations as theoretical abstractions.
The daylong display of the Monument Quilt marked a palpable change in this atmosphere. Students stopped their daily routines, interrupting their walks to class to meander between the 450 quilt squares, respectfully reading survivors stories. Not more than 10 ft. away, in clear view of the campus’s central walkway, survivors gathered at an outside table to free-write and create their own quilt squares.
I’ve spent a long time reflecting on the space created by the Monument Quilt and attempting to dissect the radically different mood it brought with it. I kept coming back to a question raised at the Monument Quilt Leadership Retreat: to what extent is this project political versus therapeutic? After witnessing a display and facilitating workshops, I would argue that the innovation of the Monument Quilt is that it dissolves the usually distinct barriers between these two categories. In past SARU activities, we’ve sharply delineated our role as peer educators from our role supporting survivors. Our tabling events seeking to bust myths of rape culture or explain affirmative consent are held in different spaces and at different times from our closed “safe spaces” for survivors to share and receive support. The intention behind this division is to insulate survivors in the process of healing from the inconsiderate and at times hostile remarks from the general student population.
While I do believe there are contexts in which survivor-only spaces are healing and valuable, the quilt display has pushed me to consider the ways in which partitioning function and space can be harmful. Limiting advocacy to the public sphere and healing to the private sphere risks reproducing the problematic spatial politics of sexual assault in America. As the Monument Quilt website points out, our society “relegate[s] the process of healing from sexual trauma to the private realm.” Most resources, even the best ones (women’s shelters, rape crisis centers, therapist offices), are located away from the public eye. This lack of public representation of survivors and their on-going healing processes feeds several harmful misconceptions: that experiencing rape and abuse is shameful and must be dealt with behind closed doors, and that survivors don’t exist, are few in number, or look a certain way (ignoring people of color, people with disabilities, LGBTQIA people, elderly people, and men).
Monument Quilt displays explode the traditional boundaries of spaces for advocating on behalf of survivors and spaces for their personal healing. By taking the model of the safe space and expanding it to the size of a football field the therapeutic becomes necessarily political. The quilt creates a space where survivors can come together for support but also where they can function as political actors, publically appearing as survivors and thereby challenging the social stigma associated with their experience.
Such a space asks us to challenge our idea of survivors and the general student body as separate entities. People can approach the display and workshop as survivors, secondary survivors, or allies, allowing them to find their own way of seeing themselves in the issue. As a result, the quilting workshop drew students who had never set foot in previous activities directed more explicitly at survivors.
The space felt profoundly different for me as an organizer. I spoke with another activist following the event and we both shared a feeling of resolution between our roles as survivors and activists. We realized that as activists, we speak about abuse and sexual assault daily, but feel that we must censor our own experiences in an effort to appear objective and be taken seriously. The MQ challenges this assumption that good activism needs to be removed from personal experiences and instead suggests that we derive our power from our own subjective and emotionally charged connections to these issues. Activism can be healing and healing can be activism.