Aishah Shahidah Simmons was the keynote speaker at the Five College Queer Gender and Sexuality Conference, which was be held March 2-3 at Hampshire College. The title of her talk was AfroLezfemcentric Perspectives on Race, Gender, and Sexuality.
In The News
For decades upon decades LGBTQIA anti-sexual violence activists have worked TIRELESSLY to stop the vicious homophobic and transphobic conflation of sexual violence with sexual orientation and gender identity.
Rather than focus on ending sexual violence routinely committed against children and adults, especially those who are the most marginalized, attention is focused on why someone is LGBTQIA.
This is one of many reasons why Kevin Spacey's coming out of the celluloid closet responses to being accused of causing harm 30 years ago to a 14-year old boy are despicable and unprincipled. What the HELL does his (FINALLY) living as an out gay man have to do with his attempted sexual misconduct with a minor twelve years his junior? These are separate issues.
I do not want to hear about sexual exploration and I write as a unapologetic Black lesbian/queer woman child sexual abuse and adult rape survivor who also explored her sexuality as a teenager. I want to hear about adult accountability. PERIOD.
LGBTQIA children and teenagers are some of the most vulnerable to being sexually violated by adults.
If you are looking for resources to help you get a grasp of sexual violence outside of the heterosexual cisgender man/boy harming the cisgender woman/girl, here are three of several: sibling survivor/comrade/friend Amita Swadhin's Mirror Memoirs project has collected over 40 (to date) oral her/hxstories/histories from queer and trans child sexual abuse survivors of color. What they are uncovering through this groundbreaking work is mind blowing. Sibling survivor/comrade/friend Ignacio G Rivera's The HEAL Project aims to prevent and end child sexual abuse by making visible the hidden tools used to guilt, shame, coerce and inflict violence onto children. Sibling survivor/comrade/friend Jennifer Patterson's edited award-winning anthology Queering Sexual Violence features multi-racial, multi-gender LGBTQIA survivors and activists whose writings are at the intersection of survivor status, race, sexuality, gender identity, mental health and disability.
Let's work to end ALL forms of sexual violence committed against ALL humans.
By The Feminist Wire Associate Editors
We write in celebration of our visionary sister and comrade/comadre, Aishah Shahidah Simmons, black lesbian feminist, cultural worker, filmmaker, incest and rape survivor, and the creator of NO! The Rape Documentary (2006). This feature-length, internationally acclaimed, award-winning film, with Portuguese, French, and Spanish subtitles, a two-hour supplemental educational video, and an accompanying 100-page study guide (funded by the Ford Foundation and published in 2007), which includes national rape and sexual assault resources organized by state and a bibliographic treasure box of over 90 recommended readings – urges us to call rape out and end it. The latter she notes as a “non-negotiable necessity.”
We want to pause and acknowledge Simmons and this black feminist labor of love not only because she is a pioneer of the contemporary anti-violence movement, but because her work, which began in 1994, helps ground current moves to raise awareness about rape, sexual assault, and other forms of sexual and gender-based violence. More, Aishah Shahidah Simmons provides an opening to center and make present the continuum of too-often invisibilized feminist labors against rape, in which her work is deeply rooted and from which it emerges.
Recently, the #MeToo online movement has made space for women, some for the first time, to share their experiences of sexual harassment and violence. Initially, the hashtag was incorrectly deemed to originate with actress Alyssa Milano, who tweeted, “If you’ve been sexually harassed or assaulted write ‘me too’ as a reply to this tweet.” Milano’s tweet was a response to rape allegations against movie mogul Harvey Weinstein. However, #MeToo was in fact created a decade ago as “me too” (not an online campaign) by Tarana Burke, who is currently program director for Brooklyn-based Girls for Gender Equity. And though the current iteration of #MeToo exemplifies a significant historical social media moment, it began as a grassroots social movement, with the aim of empowering young women of color sexual assault survivors.
#MeToo, though initially focused on young women of color, seems in the current moment to have transcended race. This matters. It matters because women of color have been doing the work of “me too” for a very long time. And yet even proper attribution, though important, fails to offer adequate recognition of so many other women. In contemporary viral moments, we routinely fail to note the intricate layers, nuances, and intersections of these voices and works across several decades of anti-rape activism. It also matters that Milano is an Italian American Hollywood actress, best known for television shows like Who’s the Boss?, Melrose Place, and Charmed. It matters that she is an actress/activist who happens to have the ear not only of Hollywood but many Americans. Milano’s tweet calls rape culture back to consciousness in a very particular time in history, against a very famous white man – with very famous and mostly white survivors – and within the context of a “pussy grabbing” white nationalist hetero-patriarchal misogynist capitalist trans-antagonistic POTUS. The wide-ranging and fiery response to Milano’s tweet may very well be a covert way of saying #HimToo.
In short, Milano’s tweet likely caught on as it did not because critiques of rape culture are novel, but because hashtag activism makes anti-violence resistance accessible, easy to grasp, and contagious, and because who tweets about what, how we imagine the survivors, and who we visualize the perpetrator/s to be, matters. Still, online activism, with its tendency to strike quickly and then fade in response to moments such as this, is often ignorant of its historical precursors. Grounding viral moments in their historical, theoretical, and movement-based genealogies is critical, both to name the labor that made the moment possible and to ensure that discussions and actions continue beyond the Internet.
To be sure, online and hashtag activism may generate benefits, including providing discursive space. A great example is the Black Lives Matter network, which was first introduced to many of us as a hashtag. Notwithstanding BLM’s successes, some of the challenges of online and hashtag activism more broadly are that it erases herstories, movements, complexities, and laborers. As Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor argues, #BlackLivesMatter developed out of longer and continuing movements of and for Black liberation. So too do contemporary incarnations of the anti-rape movement.
#MeToo was not created in a vacuum. It is not a single story. And its focus is not limited to rich white cis men who victimize. The anti-rape movement is about the eradication of heteropatriarchal white supremacy writ large and its specific manifestations of sexual, gender, and racial violence. And if we look at the contributions of radical diverse women who have been fighting against rape culture for two centuries, we see the herstories of sexual violence across inter-racial, intra-racial, and intra-communal lines. It’s easy to critique white supremacy and white feminists for erasures and white men for rape. It’s more difficult to provide complex and winding history that forces us to broaden the map of violences and resistances, and engage intra-communally and historically.
It is not lost on us how the works of first-, second-, and third-wave black and of color feminists have been left out of the current discourse, or how Burke’s initial focus on young women of color and intra-racial rape in communities of color has been excised. Rape culture impacts all women. But what cannot be ignored is how the emphasis on “all women,” particularly in hashtag activism culture, tends to decenter black women and women of color, and how each have herstories of intersecting oppressions and violences that are overwhelmingly increased because of race, ethnicity, and gender reinforcing each other. Further, some women’s narratives of sexual violence have historically been disbelieved, and are still suspect now.
In fact, as Kimberlé Crenshaw argued in 1989, sex discrimination laws were put in place to protect white female sexuality/chastity (from black men), not to protect black women. Yet sexual violence was often the pretext for terrorizing black communities. She posits, “sexist expectations of chastity and racist assumptions of sexual promiscuity combined to create a distinct set of issues confronting black women.” That is, gender makes black women and girls susceptible to sex domination and violence, while blackness denies them state or local protection. Crenshaw notes that some courts went as far as to instruct juries that black women were not to be presumed chaste, leaving them to fend for themselves. Of course, the erasure of some survivors over others is nothing new. Similarly, the blotting out of black and of color anti-rape activists is not innocuous.
We understand anti-rape activism as the resistance to sexual coercion in daily practice and its institutionalized forms. Because rape, as Angela Y. Davis argued in 1978, is the social relations of capitalism and a capitalist interstate system infused with patriarchy and racism, its existence is historic, intentional, and pervasive. Historically, anti-rape activism is present in the contexts of state-sanctioned sexual, gender, and racial violence during colonial and imperial conquests and acts of war; within institutions such as slavery, marriage, prison, health care, immigration, and education; and in the daily acts of our socio-economic and political interpersonal relationships. Anti-rape activism is fueled by and exists alongside sexual violence, be it within survivors alone, or in collectivity with others who strategize against harm. The politicization of our contemporary anti-rape movement is grounded in the global histories of decolonization and Third World Liberation, anti-slavery and abolitionary struggles, and U.S. anti-war, Black Power, civil and labor rights, Indigenous sovereignty, and feminist movements.
The 1960s and 1970s are central to historic understanding of U.S. anti-rape activism, particularly in its institutional formations. The anti-violence work of these decades was deeply informed by Indigenous and Black women’s activism against white supremacist sexual coercion and exploitation that extends back into U.S. settler colonialism and slavery. These efforts developed hand in hand with women’s liberation movements toward greater economic, reproductive, sexual, and cultural autonomy. Anti-rape activism became entangled with other movements, including white middle-class women’s economic empowerment, in ways that made some pathways possible for these women while closing off opportunities for women of color and poor women.
Anti-rape activists for decades have worked, together and sometimes apart, to raise awareness of sexual violence and to strategize against it. Interventions have targeted “private” lives and political institutions, while at the same time challenging the divide between public and private. The Combahee River Collective, Flo Kennedy, June Jordan, This Bridge Called My Back, and many other anti-racist efforts pushed to account for the whiteness of the 1960s-1970s anti-rape movement, grounding the work in a more expansive understanding of slavery, settler colonialism, and imperialism that targets Black, Indigenous, Third World, women of color, and queer and gender non-conforming bodies. The movement was refigured again by the spread of neoliberalism and inclusion of anti-rape efforts inside institutions via Title IX and sexual harassment law, moves that reframed anti-rape as largely a middle-class white women’s concern. How, scholars and activists have asked, can the movement remain radical when funded by the State?
NO! The Rape Documentary (and its supplemental materials), as it explores the transnational operations, reality, and effects of rape, sexual assault, and other forms of violence committed against women and girls, and as it deploys first-person testimony, spirituality, activism, and the academic and cultural works of Black folk, is a continuation of historical work, particularly the intersectional lessons of Black feminists who laid the groundwork for anti-rape activism in Black and other communities. Simmons’s cinematically groundbreaking work is significant because it forces us to think about rape through BLACK women’s experiences and intra-communally. That is, it pushes us to call out and resist not only the Weinsteins in every industry but the Bill Cosbys and R. Kellys, too. It refuses invisibility, marginalization and/or tokenism and demands a social, political, cultural, ideological, structural, institutional, and interpersonal shift.
Earlier this year, Simmons gave a powerful presentation to students of all genders and sexualities at King-Drew Magnet High School in South Los Angeles, a predominantly Black and Latinx campus. Simmons’ presentation was followed by student-led workshops on sexual violence, harassment, and rape culture conducted by youth from the Women’s Leadership Project. Simmons’ statements on the connection between white supremacist hetero-normative violence and racialized sexual terrorism against girls of color resonated strongly with WLP students. Twelfth grade student Drea Wooden noted that normalized sexual violence against Black girls and girls of color is seldom discussed on most school campuses. Tenth grader Cheyanne Mclaren stressed that Simmons’ talk reaffirmed that “sexual violence is an important issue for communities of color because women of color are seen as lesser in value than white women and women of color aren’t getting the justice they deserve.”
WLP students, peer educator Issachar Curbeon, Aishah S. Simmons & TFW’s Sikivu Hutchinson
We are celebrating Simmons because her work marks a pivotal moment in anti-rape activism. Because NO! “let’s you know what you need to know fast” (“Because We”), and has inspired new generations of womanists and feminists to resist and take action against a global regime of sexual violence. Because she reminds us that all oppressions are linked. Because she holds us accountable to how we respond to sexual violence. Because she charts an Afro-futurist path for collectively doing things differently and imagining and realizing communities free of rape, assault, and incest. Because this work was created in community for community. Because NO! centers and hopes to heal black and brown sacred flesh. Because Simmons has shown up for us and for survivors everywhere. Because when and where she enters, she brings all the anti-rape feminist and womanist foremothers, co-laborers, and survivors with her. Because Aishah Shahidah Simmons taught us that NO! is a complete sentence that not only explicitly names rape, which may sometimes be cause for erasure because language is political, but unequivocally refuses it and calls us and our communities to action.
What an honor for me to present about #LoveWITHAccountability, share and learn at WomanPreach!, Inc. and Children of Combahee's For the Sake of Our Children: Confronting Sexual Violence in Church Spacesgathering. It was a sacred, safe, and welcoming space for this Black queer Sufi Muslim raised, Vipassana Meditation practicing child sexual abuse and adult rape survivor woman to wade in very deep conversation with my Christian sisters and brothers. We listened, shared, and explored how to best address those horrific sexual violations of the body/mind/spirt that, if spoken at all, are often spoken in hush tones and on the margins. Full body deep bows to Rev. Dr. Valerie Bridgeman, Ahmad Greene-Hayes, Sister Rev. Jené Colvin, and the entire organizing team for their unwavering commitment to break the unspeakable silences.
[AUDIO] “How do you move beyond sharing about your trauma to healing it?” asks child sexual abuse survivor, adult rape survivor, NO! The Rape Documentary producer/director and #LoveWITHAccountability creator Aishah Shahidah Simmons on Episode 2 of Feral Visions: a decolonial feminist podcast with producer/host Anjali Nath. Feral Visions is also available as an iTunes podcast
***The interview was conducted on August 14, 2017 and released on October 19, 2017. Aishah and her father were finally able to have a seismic, transformative conversation on October 16, 2017.***
Links to resources referenced in the interview.
Mirror Memoirs - http://mirrormemoirs.com/
Signs - Journal of Women in Culture and Society invited Jaclyn Friedman, Kelly Oliver, Claire Potter, Aishah Shahidah Simmons, and Lisa Wade, PhD to respond to Laura Kipnis's controversial (at best) new book 'Unwanted Advances: Sexual Paranoia Comes to Campus' for their "Short Takes- Provocations on Public Feminism." Additionally Kipnis responds to our responses. All of which is freely available on Signs' website.
An excerpt from Aishah's response: "The Personal Is Political and Academic":
[...]I share a part of my (rape survivor) story because for many people who don’t have any understanding of what rape is, they would not define what happened to me in March 1989 as rape. Frankly, after reading Kipnis’s deeply troubling Unwanted Advances, I’m not sure she would define what happened to me as rape.
While reading Kipnis’s book, I found myself asking, why this book now? I’m assuming she wrote the manuscript before the (alleged) sexual predator in chief was elected to govern the United States. Perhaps she and her mainstream publisher thought it would be a very provocative and insightful read during a Hillary Rodham Clinton presidential administration. It might have been. However, in the current political climate, where conditions and interventions that can follow a sexual assault are at risk of becoming defined as preexisting conditions under the proposed American Health Care Act, which recently passed in the House of Representatives, her book is a very frightening and I believe dangerous read.[...]
Read all of the responses in their entirety here.
I once heard that while child and adult rape, molestation and other forms of sexual violence, are horrible acts, they are not as bad as murder because a rape victim can get up from a rape.
I wonder if that's one of the many reasons why the righteous ire about rapists and molesters getting away with rape and molestation is often silenced in the name of the greater issues at hand - white supremacist violence. It's hardly ever both/and and almost always either/or.
Can we IMAGINE if Cosby was accused of murdering one fraction of the women who came forward?
Why are most victim/survivors of all forms of child and adult sexual violence #BetterOffDead in order to receive communal outrage and empathy?
They talked about Aishah's deeply personal and very public #LoveWITHAccountability work, the rigors of healing work, and reflections upon the pending Cosby trial's larger societal implications.
Aishah Shahidah Simmons (Philadelphia) was one of the participants who reflected upon and participated in an ArtsEverywhere global roundtable assembled by Kholoud Bidak (Cairo) and Coumba Toure (Dakar), The other participants were: Akwaeke Emezi (Brooklyn), Kagure Mugo (Johannesburg), Lucia Victor Jayaseelan, (London), Kutlwano Pearl Magashula (Johannesburg), Pia Love (London), Rokhaya Gueye (Dakar), Sheena Gimase Magenya (Nairobi), and Thato Poelo Semele (Johannesburg). The roundtable asked artist/activists Africa and the Diaspora to weigh in on "What is Wellbeing?"
“[...]Convening this roundtable for ArtsEverywhere presented an opportunity to share the point of view of some people who care about changing ideologies of oppression through their work; we were very keen to share the voices of African/coloured, artists/activists, gender non-conforming individuals, women, lesbians.
The issue of wellbeing is one of our main challenges in the work of activism, either for those who work with NGOs, art, community organizing, or any other channel. It gets more complicated if a person still struggles for essential needs and rights.[...]”
Read in its entirety here.
Aishah Shahidah Simmons weighs in on Trump and violence against women in the New York Times:
The offensive video of Donald Trump talking with Billy Bush and other men is the latest reminder that the work being done to end violence against women is never-ending. These vulgar and egregious conversations about women happen regularly throughout this country: What’s unique is that Trump and Bush were caught on tape.
But despite the overwhelmingly negative response, and the immense progress women have made over the past 40 years, the threat of violence against women is still a very serious problem in this country.
While many have jumped to condemn Trump, others have sought to dismiss his comments as mere "locker room talk" or, even more disturbingly, just "what happens when alpha personalities are in the same presence." These excuses illustrate how this violence is perpetuated when powerful men are not held accountable for it.
When high-profile white men assert what they see as their right to do what they want to women, it sanctions all men to do the same. This type of behavior becomes normal, excused as a “boys will be boys” phenomenon. It transcends race and culture because it’s about dominance over women, but more often than not, it is the most marginalized women who suffer the most. Men may not be able to degrade a famous actress to her face, but if they feel free to speak in such vulgar terms about her in private, imagine what they might feel they could say or do to another woman without the same visibility. Or, more broadly, imagine if Trump's defense of "locker room" language is accepted by judges or those who end up on the jury of a sexual assault case.
This "locker room" talk has trickle-down consequences.
Not only do attempts to brush off Trump's comments minimize the everyday experiences of survivors of sexual harassment and sexual assault, but it buries our fight under an extremely dangerous excuse — that this is just how the powerful talk.
Wealth, privilege and power are never excuses for any type of violence, against women or otherwise.