Listen to Sexual Assault Survivors of Colour
More and more, we’re hearing stories of sexual violence being told publicly and receiving sustained media attention. We see mainstream media using the phrase “rape culture” — used for decades by anti-sexual violence advocates — to talk about the system of beliefs and attitudes that props up abusers while tearing down survivors of violence.
This is, arguably, a turning point in the national conversation about sexual violence and gender-based violence in Canada. But whose stories are being included in the conversation? Which survivors’ voices are heard?
A report on low-income women of colour in Toronto found that young women were “becoming dependent on their sexual relationships with boys for their sense of self worth. Low self esteem and lack of community and social supports for their independent pursuits also encourages them to internalize sexual violence and abuse in their relationships and families as being their own fault.” Despite this trend, there is an “absolute lack of discourse on sexual violence and gender inequalities that exists in most poor areas” (Khosla, 2003).
We sat down with advocates Andrea Villanueva and Chenthoori Malankov to talk about how the conversation on sexual violence can centre communities of colour.
Andrea Villanueva is a Mexican-based artist with a permanent disability. She studies Cinema and Human Rights at York University. When she was 15 years-old she co-founded an organization called Project Slut.
Chenthoori Malankov is a student at York University who uses the power of community to connect, reflect and educate. She was raised in Toronto, but is a daughter of Tamil’s diaspora. Utilizing alternative platforms such as arts, education models she designs and facilitates workshops in schools throughout Toronto on issues revolving around gender-based violence and wanting to create more spaces for marginalized voices. On her spare time she enjoys spending time with family, her special puppy and constantly striving to make this world a safer place.
Chenthoori: “There is no representation of women of color in media because media is not a safe place for survivors or women of colour. When women of color are represented in the media it [is implied] that family violence or sexual assault is something that happens in our culture. Our cultures are [portrayed as] barbaric [and] our stories are sensationalized. Our communities are [further] silenced by the state. For example, right now [I do work] around Bill S-7 and Bill C-51.
“I would like to see acknowledgement [of] women of color, black women, and transwomen who have been doing this work before white [cis]women started running the show. I would like to see a shift [to] investigating the root issues as to why violence happens in the first place, [such as] mental health and poverty.”
Andrea: “We get scapegoated, as if race [is] the reason why we get raped or why sexual violence happens to us. They don’t know how to investigate issues that happen in communities. They say “Oh [in] this community men were very masculine, very machista, and lots of women get assaulted.” They scapegoat my community which makes it harder for women of color to come forward.”
Interviewer: How would you like to see/have you seen women of color creating consent culture?
Chenthoori: “I have seen women of color creating consent culture all the time. [However] it is hard to have these conversations in my community, specifically around [what] consent looks like. The root cause of sexual assault and gender-based violence is silenced and it’s almost okay that it’s happening to us. We [are told we] should be quiet about [it]. It’s reliving trauma for the rest of our lives.
“I would like to see women of color hold men accountable. In my community, patriarchy is at the forefront of almost all movements. Constructively criticizing actions happening in our communities [is important]. Family is complicated when we talk about family violence; [that is also the case] with consent culture.”
Andrea: “Women [speaking out] on a true thing that happened is [linked to] a movement in the community [where women say] “I’m neither seed or a slut.” You’re either a whore or a stereotypical motherly Hispanic figure. Hispanic women saying “I’m neither a seed or slut” and “my experiences are valid” is a giant “fuck you, you don’t get to limit how much I can say.””
Interviewer: Often survivors are portrayed as white, straight, cisgender, able-bodied women. How can the media avoid minimizing stories about sexual violence against survivors that no not fit this description/narrative?
Chenthoori: “Media is very white-owned. It is a matter of humanizing women of color. There is stigma attached to women of color in the media, referring to us as refugee women or Muslim women or Tamil women. Why can’t I just be a normal human? It always comes back to culture or that we’re immigrants. It’s never about validating my experience. It’s letting white women take up space and taking [it] away from women of color. Why [are] women of color sensationalized? Why is my culture the narrative of what happened to me? Violence against women is in every culture. It’s about making me human and writing it as I say.”
Andrea: ““Racially charged” stories should be [delivered] with truth and compassion, [not used to] further marginalize and re-victimize. Ask people within that person’s community how [the story] impacts them. If [you are] concerned about delivering a story and [you] don’t know how to address that, just ask. Ask how they feel about [how] they’re being represented. Investigate. [Ask] experts in communities. Look outside your professional circle. Ask a professor. [You can] deliver a story without further victimizing anybody if you ask how is this going to affect others.”
Interviewer: Statistics show most survivors do not report. Why is it important to have diverse representations of survivorship in media reporting? E.g. challenging the notion that there is only one “correct” way to survive, heal and access support.
Chenthoori: “Representation is important, especially diverse representation of survivorship. [It would] be powerful if I saw Tamil women speaking out of [their] experience. When someone [speaks out] it restores hope for survivors who don’t feel safe or comfortable [doing so]. Someone coming and reporting increases visibility. It opens dialogue [for] community organizations lacking funding. Why is there not enough space in women’s shelters, or enough free legal aid?”
Andrea: “It’s difficult for different communities to navigate the legal system, the police, etc., without being re-victimized. It’s difficult to get a conviction. So it’s important to represent [this reality] because the ideal survivor is [not] the norm. We validate only survivors that [try to] “to get a verdict and to put that man away”. We need to show women that don’t go through a reporting or legal processes because that reinforces to other women [that] violence did happen to you.”
Interviewer: There has been a swell in media coverage of rape culture in recent months. What conversations are you glad to see happening, and what do we still need to address – specifically on the topic of reporting on sexual violence against women of color?
Chenthoori: “Because of students and [community] activists the provincial government is creating an action plan to stop sexual violence. This is a tipping point for youth engagement. It’s always experts that talk about these things; not enough representation of lived experiences. A lot of people should be involved.
“In the Cosby and Ghomeshi cases, the women were never really validated. The amount of women that came forward, yet still [the] innocent until proven guilty [narrative]. When Ghomeshi and Cosby [were] charged, there was never a follow up about how the survivors are doing, what the community is doing, what supports and resources are accessible to survivors. Media [needs to take] ownership [for] failing women of color in the survivorship stories they take on. It is [mostly] white, straight, cisgender, able-bodied women.”
Andrea: “Big news people [need to first] take accountability for the times they made a mistake. If they wrote an article “The Times We Failed”, that would [show] accountability by recognizing that, in the past, they haven’t been compassionate.
“In my community there are women circles and we share. It doesn’t have to be experts. Our communities are powerful. I would like to see [stories about how] we [can] heal ourselves to some extent.”
This blog is part of a series of interviews femifesto is publishing on media reporting and sexual violence in diverse communities across Canada. femifesto is a grassroots feminist collective that works to shift rape culture to consent culture.