“Say out loud why and how sexual violence happens”: A conversation with Kai Cheng Thom about media reporting on sexual violence and trans folks
“I am actually glad to see the term ‘rape culture’ starting to pervade public consciousness through the media,” says Kai Cheng Thom. “That term has specifically been used… in mainstream media and I think that’s amazing.”
For Kai, a writer, performance artist, and social worker, the fact that we’re talking about rape as a culture at all is “a massive shift from even 10 years ago, where rape was mostly considered an individual experience, an individual tragedy, or something only related to mental illness. Now we’re talking about rape as a culture or about rape as patriarchy, and that to me is a great sign because it means that feminism is at last starting to make it into popular mainstream culture of the day, which is awesome.”
The problem with this coverage though?
“A problem with that conversation, or something missing from it, is most, if not all, mainstream feminism only represents a certain kind of person. Of course, we’re talking about white, middle class people, able-bodied, cisgender women; but in a more complex way, the conversation we’re having represents marginalized women to a certain extent.” But too often, says Kai, marginalized communities such as trans folks aren’t given a platform to talk about the issues that matter most to them.
Kai Cheng Thom is based in Montreal and has performed in venues across North America. Her work has been published widely in print and online, in publications including xoJane,Youngist, Matter, and Matrix Magazine. She is currently a Feature Writer for Everyday Feminism, and completing her training as a licensed psychotherapist.
We spoke with Kai to learn more about how sexual violence and transmisogyny impact trans folks, and how media representation of these issues matters.
Interviewer: What are the challenges you have seen in mainstream media reporting on sexual violence and rape enacted against trans women? What changes would you like to see?
Kai: “That’s an interesting question, particularly right now because we’re in a moment of intense scrutiny of trans women’s bodies, particularly in the mainstream media, whereas in the previous 50-60 years since trans women have come to media attention, they were largely ignored, except to talk about the sensationalistic aspect of transition. So there isn’t a lot of discussion historically about trans women experiencing sexual violence and harassment. Now that we’re in this moment, the “transgender tipping point”, as Times magazine calls it, we’re seeing a lot of attention towards trans women’s experience of sexual assault. There is this statistic that appears that many trans women are sexually assaulted. The media doesn’t go too deeply into that. I can’t think of media stories about how trans women in particular experience sexual assault, how that happens…there’s only the numbers.
“What do I see happening wrong? First of all, there wasn’t a lot of attention about the experiences of trans women and now there is a lot of attention on this detail around transmisogyny happens, misogyny directed in general towards trans women, this experience isn’t really covered. Also, trans women are misrepresented in the media in any case, either as men who are trying to be women or as sort of these mentally ill victims of social violence.
“There’s no real mainstream reporting that comes directly from trans [folks], but that’s sort of starting to change. There’s some trans women being hired, there’s a friend of mine she just got hired by Buzzfeed. What I would really like to see is trans women talking about themselves and trans women talking to each other, it’s actually incredibly rare to see trans women talking to each other in the media about things that affect us…It’s very common to interview one trans woman at a time to get a sensationalist story. I would love to see the media gathering trans women and paying them to talk about issues that affect us the most. Also, I would love to see trans women experts or community workers or any other kind of trans woman professional as this experienced person talking, as expert consultants, instead of reaching into, and reporting from, statistics generated by academics who are not trans people.”
Interviewer: How would you like to see/have you seen trans women creating consent culture?
Kai: “I think a lot of great work has been done by trans women communities to help keep us safe from police brutality, from street violence, and from violence in the sex work industry although of course, we still experience a lot of violence. What I would love to see is trans women talking more about…what kinds of sexual culture we want to create between us and how trans men can become allies to trans women as we navigate through trans misogyny and patriarchy. I would love to see more attention and more funding come to the work of trans women who are organizing because traditionally trans men activists have gotten more funding and more attention, which I think we don’t need to divide resources between us, I think there’s enough for everyone; we just need to see more coming towards trans feminine folks. I think there’s a lot of great new writing coming out of trans communities writing and media about how we would like cisgender men to treat us, which is important. We’re starting to see new work coming out around how cismen with fetish guys or approach trans women on online dating apps and in the sex industry. It’s important to shine a light on all the violence that can happen there. I also feel like we can — a lot further, because as much as cisgender men are violent and damaging sometimes, I think that a lot of the time we skip over how there’s violence in queer communities itself and between trans people. I would love to see more of that.”
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?
Kai: “The easy answer of course is that media makers really need to make a conscious effort to be featuring non-white cisgender able bodied women in their work on sexual violence. Just saying I am going to go out and interview people who are not my ‘ideal victim’, that is a simple answer.
“There’s a more complicated issue there around how sexual assault is perceived to happen or not happen to marginalized women. There’s the idea that we are not, for a lack of a better word, ‘rapable’. Of course, I am sure you are already familiar with stereotypes around particularly racialized — particularly black and Latino women — not really being able to be survivors and victims of sexual assault because their bodies are constructed as hyper sexualized. This is true in a different way for eastern Asian women, I think in some ways we are protected by having skin privilege at the same time, racialized women in general are hyper sexualised, more so than trans women because cis-white-women are considered to have this sort of sexual purity to be attacked and violated, whereas racialized women are considered dirty or wanting it. This becomes sort of exacerbated when we talk about trans women because trans women are also considered to be hyper sexualised, and additionally.…we’re already stereotyped to be immersed in the sex industry. The logic that comes out of that is that sex workers cannot be assaulted because they are always asking for sex — which is not true of course.
“The media either…doesn’t care to report on these stories because it doesn’t believe [trans] women. And then when it does report on them, [trans women] it is distorted so that the narrative of assault becomes less serious, or that the sexual assault involved is…turned into a social issue that is not necessarily sexual violence. At the same time I don’t want to leave out the narrative about disabled folks, disabled women in particular, not being able to experience sexual assault because they are disabled and [therefore viewed as if they are] not sexual. And then there’s this whole idea that men, particularly queen men, to not be [able to be] sexually assaulted because they are men. It boils down to only white women cisgender abled bodies are pure, are beautiful, are fragile. Everyone else is dirty, is sexualized, is not valuable enough to report on.
“We really need to highlight these narratives when we do media. We need to say out loud why and how sexual violence happens to survivors who are marginalized. There is this one more interesting issue that is uncomfortable for active marginalized communities…that for women…and for queer people to talk about their experiences of sexual violence within the community, is to betray the community and demonize racialized men. This sort of backlash happened to Ntozake Shange after she wrote her famous choreopoem for coloured girls who have considered suicide. There’s a huge amount of backlash against her from particular male writers from American black communities. Same thing happened to Amy Tam after she wrote her Joy Luck Club book. Both of these are pieces of work about racialized women experiencing sexual assault in their communities. It’s receiving this quite vicious backlash from men within the same communities.
“We bring this to a very contemporary moment: I am talking not so much about cultural communities but about activists, social justice communities — there’s this idea that if we talk about how queer people, in particular, experience intimate partner violence within the movement, then we are somehow betrayed the men of the movement or playing in the stereotype that marginalized men are more sexually violent than white men, which of course is not true. At the same time, we can’t remain silent about these things. It’s really about capturing these stories and to make a focused effort to look at who is not being spoken of and to make a commitment to telling the truth, even when the truth is uncomfortable.”
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.
Kai: “I am speaking from experience that I’ve had as a social worker around supporting survivors. It’s important because the mechanisms that we have in place in the mainstream, particularly in the legal system, are either not enough for most people, most survivors I should say, or because the systems actively contribute to the harm and silencing of those survivors. That is to say, survivors don’t report for any number of reasons, but some of them include people who are non-status [who] don’t want to be seen with the police, people who belong to marginalised communities [who] may not want to report because they fear retribution from the police, or that the police would harm their partners or harm the perpetrator of assault more than they wish it to, because hospitals and the legal system remove control from the survivor, from the proceedings, because a lot of the times survivors are not believed, are forced to testify, or have to through all kinds of legal and financial challenges that access support. So those are reasons why people don’t report and why it’s necessary to have other forms of representation of survivorship: so that we can widen and more creatively imagine mechanisms for supporting and giving power and agency to survivors as they need.
“I want to talk specifically about trans women and trans men of colour, because this is where I come from and it’s so important. Trans women do not report sexual assault mostly because, and I think this is a similar truth for lots of [marginalized communities] such as sex workers, maybe racialized women in general to a certain extent, but particularly with trans women, who are often also sex workers, who are often also undocumented. There’s this intersection of experiences…The reason they don’t report is because they are not believed. We return to this idea that certain women cannot be raped or sexually assaulted because we’re constantly asking for it. When you [report] to the police, police first of all don’t recognize necessarily the gender and actively, violently [treat} those people.
“We need to have representation of trans women survivors in media because so many of us are survivors. The matter of fact is that at some point trans women will experience sexual assault during the course of their lives . [We] can’t hold up this idea that there’s only one way to survive because the way that white women of the middle class are able to survive and heal from sexual assault just isn’t available to trans women of color and marginalized women in general.”
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 trans women?
Kai: “We hear all the time about racialized women experiencing sexual assault in war zones across the world, we hear about trans women a little bit. What we don’t hear enough about is actually, first of all, the way legal and social systems are shaped to prevent certain women to accessing control of their own representation. When is it that trans women or migrant women, or trans men or migrant men, when do they get to speak about their own experiences and control the way which those stories are told? Why are we always waiting? Why do we have to wait for mainstream media to come to us and ask us to tell the stories?
“We shaped this conversation around the concept that there is a patriarchy out there, a single patriarchy without a face that’s oppressing all women the same way, that’s attacking all people the same way. That’s simply not true. We experience patriarchy in different ways according to our social location. There is really not a discussion about, for example, how women perpetrate sexual assault and harassment against each other, or about how trans people do the same thing or can do the same thing, how sexual assault is perpetrated in queer communities, how rape culture plays out where there isn’t a male or man identified person involved, how it affects children. What we see in the mainstream conversation about rape culture is mainly women on college campuses, white women on college campuses, and it’s a really important conversation but not one wide enough to capture what sexual assault, sexual harassment, intimate partner violence, all these kinds of violence and abuse mean to the larger and more complex understandings of what society is.
“One last thing: what I would really love to see happening, and this is a bit of a complicated thing, is a more nuanced conversation about what it means to be the perpetrator in sexual assault. I do see some small conversations about this happening but I would really love to see a conversation in the mainstream media, grounded in feminism, that talks about why people perpetrate sexual violence and sexual assault. We keep on talking about survivors and victims, and it’s really important, but we don’t necessarily talk about how we as societies, as communities, are implicated in the creation of sexual assault. We think about the perpetrators as this “man out there” who did something horrible or as a “psychopath”. We use all these words about mental illness or predatory nature, but we don’t talk about who this perpetrator is and how this behaviour is condoned, particularly when the perpetrator is not a man. That’s so important because a huge percentage of sexual assaults are committed by people who don’t identify as men, even though rape culture is still descended from patriarchy. I think we need to have a more careful conversation about how these things happen, how communities can work towards educating children toward a culture of consent, and also all kinds of social violences that may contribute to the creation of rape culture that extends beyond the individual perpetrator.”
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.