Take Back the Night – Again
I was invited to present the keynote speech for the April 17, 2014 Burlington Take Back The Night Rally, March & Speak Out Against Sexual Violence. I would like to thank the organizing committee, folks from the University of Vermont, HopeWorks, and Saint Michael’s College, for this opportunity. It really got me thinking. Here’s the text of the speech:
39 years ago –Microbiologist Susan Alexander Speeth left her office on an April evening to walk home. She was alone, and she didn’t make it. She was stabbed to death by a stranger just a block from her house. Her murder in Philadelphia sparked the first Take Back the Night march.
39 Years ago and WE ARE STILL HERE—- what do you think about that?
What can I say that hasn’t been said over the past four decades—or is it the past few thousands of years? Talk about patience…..perseverance….resilience.
When it comes to sexual violence against so many of our bodies: women, trans, gay, lesbian, sex workers, those incarcerated, or in the military—men and women—-we are all still up for grabs. The elderly, the infirm, children too. We must continue this march and rally.
I am amazed at our patience –yeah—- I know change takes time……. THIS is a long, LONG time— and I want to say we need to start thinking differently about our approaches.
Talking about time —-Here is a little bit of my story—a little bit of why it is so important for me to be here tonight with you:
I attended my first march with other ten and twelve year olds in Woods Hole, Massachusetts one summer. It was against the war in Vietnam and we were kids and proud of our effort. It would be a few more years before that war was “over.”
It would be another few years before I understood how important our voices were for speaking out about women and gay liberation. Abortions were not legal and women died cloaked in silence. Gay bashing was a sport, also drenched in silence.
I walked down city streets in a boy’s cap and baggy pants. I counted on my androgyny and converse sneakers to protect me. I experienced date rape thinking it was my fault because I was drunk and I’ve been beat up by a girlfriend because I was leaving. I quit drinking and to this day, I am still learning to speak up.
In my first teaching job an older student talked about her upbringing, the abuse she encountered as a child. I encouraged her to write about her childhood. She chided me, adamant that her experiences were not interesting— “Why should I write my story? Sexual abuse is an occupational hazard of being a girl.”
NOT ANY MORE!
It is important to me that we are together—telling our stories, realizing we are not alone—refusing to accept that date rape, sexual abuse, rape, domestic violence and murder is just the way it is and
living in constant fear is inevitable, to be expected. But too often it is still true.
We now know too well that sexual and physical abuse is equal opportunity-perpetrated upon all people. So this belongs to all of us! The Soccer moms I hung out with the other night *yes—totally— I am one! * were talking about being wary of running alone. One of them — a forty-something traditional woman, her hair getting just a little gray, talked about a van that slowed down next to her on a dirt road near her house, and she heard a voice from inside, “Never mind—she’s got a dog.” Yes—this is Vermont—and this story is so global.
We’ve accomplished so much through legislation, political awareness, and education— We wear our seat belts, don’t smoke so much, don’t pollute so much. We recycle, eat less salt, fat, sugar. Gays and lesbians can even marry—at least for the moment. We know legislation doesn’t always equal change—the real open mind and heart kind of change. That takes time, doesn’t it?
But when it comes to sexual violence, we are all vulnerable.
No mother raises a son to be a rapist, an abuser, or a violent criminal. A whole convergence creates the individual who harms another—and this convergence is where we have to incite our new revolution—we have to come together—queer, straight, trans, fundamentalist, fragile, male, female, macho—parents, neighbors, social workers, health care workers, government officials, bus drivers, educators—we have got to cross all barriers of thinking and believing to get to the root of this culture of violence, harm, and disregard.
Let’s gather the voices of the fathers of daughters and sons who have been raped. We need to hear the ER doctors and nurses who dress the wounds of violence. We need to inspire every teacher from preschool to college, the dentists, the mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, uncles, aunts, grands and friends who know the violence exists, who know from their own experience or the experience of loved ones, that this violence, random and premeditated—happens—and give them the courage to fight against being held hostage—being so afraid.
EVERYONE is harmed and all of us hurt—
Sexual violence is older than these hills, and we won’t snap into a new era overnight–however—
This pandemic of power is impacting all of us. There are messages all over the place dedicated to the eroticization of violence—how sexy to carry an automatic weapon, how cool to play with guns, gaming with killing, singing along with lyrics about sex that is demeaning and objectifying our bodies. And there also seems to be a renewed insistence on gender codes from the fashion and toy industries. Have you been shopping lately for kids’ clothing or toys? You know—all that PINK and camouflage……
Bully attitudes prevail -and paralyze- our democracy, our school hallways– and…. what do we call it????—this, this pandemic of power over –over— –over all of us—
How can we be creative and incite change?
How do we counter all of these messages—how do we be cool without the humiliation and violence?
Let me tell you a story—
My children, (teenagers now) at the ages of 3 and 4 were singing ‘Eric and Annie sitting in a tree, k-i-s-s-I-n-g in a tree’….and I interrupted asking if they realized how heterosexual the song was, no baby had to come of kissing, protection is easy (So you see I started my safe sex and awareness training very early) and my daughter –all of 4—listened and sighed, “MOM—it is just a song.”
Little did I know then what we’d be listening to now! Like Blurred Lines—
“But you’re an animal, baby, it’s in your nature”
You all know how it goes…..
“I’ll give you something big enough to tear your ass in two.”
…..It is just a song…….
It’s just a song, it’s just a movie, it’s just a word….and it gets passed down generation to generation, it is ‘just the way it is’…..and it has been 40 years and it seems the violence has only spread.
So how do we think outside the boxes we are popped into at a very early age?
How do we learn to cross the divides that have kept us from working together, kept us from hearing and knowing one another’s story?
Good beat/ denigrating lyrics—do we buy it? Literally and figuratively!
How do we claim our power, resist, create our own media messages?
How do we think carefully about our everyday assumptions –and even acceptance –of all this violence?
There is something happening that’s taking our nights and days. We are here on a college campus to learn. Okay, so let’s GO! Let’s learn. Let’s figure this out.
People in my generation have been working at this for at least 40 years, we need your fresh thinking. So here’s my challenge to you – take this question back to your dorm rooms, your apartments, your classrooms, ask each other the question: what is going on? How can we change it? You can find the way—create the right conversation—figure out new approaches—
Here’s an idea to start you off — You all know social media — can we turn that sword into a new ploughshare?
OH…and by the way I don’t want us to just take back the night—I want all day too—-we have work to do and —it will take all of us—-