Who’s allowed to reclaim the night?
- Published: 13 November 2010
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14 November 2010
A few weeks ago I went to Melbourne Reclaim the Night – a yearly rally protesting violence against women.
This is an event that’s close to my heart and that I’ve helped organise in previous years. I’ve always understood it to be a protest about how the fear of violence is used as a form of social control over women’s freedom of movement.
I know now that that’s not all of its history, but to me that should be the point of the event. Violence against women at night in public spaces isn’t, in fact, particularly common – but most women fear being alone at night in public.
We live in a culture that propagates the myth that most sexual assault is perpetuated by strangers in dark alleys. It’s a cultural myth that obscures the reality of sexual violence, blames women who experience violence for their lack of “caution”, and hampers women’s freedom of movement.
The hard truth is that the boy walking a woman home as “protection” is far more of a threat to her safety than this hypothetical stranger.
In recognition of this, some portion of the event – often an after-dark march through the city – is usually women only.
Very often this provokes complaints from people who want the full participation of men. I value the solidarity offered by men and understand that women are not the only people who experience sexual violence.
But fundamentally, this is an event about one specific issue affecting primarily women. I would suggest that men who are committed to ending sexual violence look into one of the many other initiatives that seek their participation – like Amnesty International, CASA, White Ribbon Day, or a local grassroots collective.
I would also suggest that men who claim to act in solidarity with women should allow women to define the terms of women's political action.
But this year was a bit different—the whole event was women and trans folk only.
My understanding is that the reason for this is that the presence of men could trigger traumatic memories and associated feelings for some women at the event, given that something like 90% of perpetrators of sexual violence are men.
Trans folk who were not women were included on the basis that they often have an investment in feminism or have experienced misogyny in the past.
I really value all attempts to make spaces safer for survivors of sexual violence. However, I’m not in favour of this particular policy.
I think it’s totally useless unless you are seriously committed to avoiding a police presence. Especially because you have no chance of getting women-only cops to come out – I’ve tried.
I am much more scared of cops than men, and male cops particularly, and so are a lot of other people – many of whom have experienced actual or threatened violence, including sexual violence, from police. It’s a privilege to be able to see police as protectors rather than perpetrators of violence.
I think the policy promotes a sense of paranoia and boundary policing: is that person a man? Are they trans? Do they have the right to be here? A lot of trans people look like men to some people in some lights. Some of them are men.
But mostly I think it’s grounded in a transmisogynistic politic. Being pro-woman shouldn’t inherently mean being anti-trans women.
But get real, a “women and trans folk” event probably means 97% cis women, 1% trans dudes, 1% genderqueers assigned female at birth, 0.7% cis men who turned up by accident, and maybe one trans woman who feels uncomfortable and leaves after half an hour.
While there was no explicit transmisogyny at the event and trans women were nominally welcome, I know for a fact there are some people in the collective who organised the event who are happy to say, for example, that trans women who don’t pass as cis and/or haven’t had sex reassignment surgery are triggering.
Can we talk for a second about triggers? I don’t have a significant sexual assault history so I can’t speak to that but I do have a history of mental illness, self-harm, and disordered eating.
Here are some of the things that have triggered me in the past: other people’s self inflicted scars; specific celebrities; people who are smaller than me; watching/smelling/hearing other people eat; supermarkets; my birthday; particular people who induce social anxiety in me; arguments; in-depth discussions of nutrition; group exercise (watching or participating); hot weather; people commenting on my body or food choices, even positively; lots of other unpredictable things.
It’s impossible to avoid them all. I ask people who I’m close to be aware of them and be considerate. I don’t ask them to fuck up their lives for it, I don’t ask them to cover up their scars or change their bodies or not have friends I don’t like or never disagree with me or only exercise or eat in secret. In these cases I try to endure it and if I can’t I leave.
The point is, your trigger is not a carte blanche to violate the freedoms of others. And it’s definitely not a good enough reason to exclude a group of women who experience vastly disproportionate rates of violence – and who are one of the few groups of women who actually have a reason to fear street violence.
Actually, I think it’s a privilege to be able to completely divest yourself of male support. Most people need all the support they can get – especially if you’re marginalised in ways other than femaleness.
If you’re disabled, or of colour, or trans – just to name a few identities that are usually marginalised in radical feminist spaces – why would you want to align yourself with abled/white/cisgendered women over other people you share a struggle with? There’s not necessarily any compelling reason.
These days I am more into trying to build alliances across difference. Feminism will always be the core of my politics, the history and theory I build on, and women will always be a priority for me. But I don’t think I am automatically more oppressed than anyone who’s not a woman.
I think we probably have something to teach each other. I don’t think I am automatically connected to anyone who is a woman. Lots of women are fucked over by systems that benefit me and vice versa. Lots of women have shitty politics. The way Reclaim the Night has panned out across Australia tells me that.
My problems with the politics behind Melbourne Reclaim the Night, while serious, don’t lead me to conclude the event was worthless.
But I’ve heard that at Perth Reclaim the Night there was an enthusiastically received call out to protest the Scarlet Alliance conference for sex workers’ rights. I heard they actively demonised sex workers who choose the job, claiming they degraded the status of all women. I don’t see how this is distinguishable from any other form of conservative propaganda blaming women for the violence perpetrated against us.
Is this an event I want to associate myself with at all anymore? Only if it can overcome transmisogyny, whorephobia, and general over-simplification of the issues facing women.
I think it can. But only if we talk about it.
3P is a feminist from Melbourne who blogs at There’s Our Catastrophe.