A Sex Positive and Transformative Justice Approach to #MeToo
This essay includes descriptions of sexual violence.
I thought this was going to be an essay about my first and most traumatic #MeToo story. The story of the time when I was 12, and held down on a bed by my mom’s then-boyfriend who told me he’d love to go down on me. It was going to be an essay about my fear and panic and how I didn’t even know what that phrase meant. It was going to be an essay about how heavy his body was on top of mine, how he felt like a plank of concrete, and how I could barely breathe through my weeping and begging for him to leave. It was going to be an essay about how he smelled like Listerine and gasoline and how the scent of each of them, to this day, fills my stomach with knots and bile.
But I realized that I don’t want to tell you more about that, nor the countless experiences I would have after of men touching me without permission, standing too close as a means of intimidation, commenting on my clothes or my body, fucking me even after I said no, (and so on).
I don’t want to talk about those things, because I hope by now you know that if you see a woman, you are, more often than not, also seeing a living history of those kinds of stories of abuse, assault, and terror. Too many people (women, trans and non-binary folks disproportionately) have borne the brunt of so much sexual and sexualized violence, that it has become part of our skin. It is why, I surmise, that when, in the yoga classes I teach, I press into the hips of women in half-pigeon pose, they tremble beneath my palms. We carry trauma in little pockets tucked awkwardly and persistently between our muscle and bones. We are all sewn up with these memories, clinging and wrestling below our surfaces. We know they are there. And now, finally, most others who have not experienced this personally (largely men) seem to be acknowledging this too.
So that’s not what this essay is going to be about. This is, instead, a story of the other times. The times when sex went right, when consent was enthusiastic, and also the times when it was somewhere in the middle. And I want to talk about these good times and these confusing times because I am a sex-positive prison abolitionist, and believe that putting transformative justice theory into action most commonly emerges in the most challenging, triggering, and seemingly egregious situations. And although it seems like perhaps there is an exhilarating shift in the tide — as men are finally being called out and women are finally being believed — I am not sure that this will ultimately eradicate rape culture either. But I do think putting these two frameworks — sex-positivity and transformative justice — in conversation with these abuses may provide us new and effective avenues for change.
In their edited collection, Yes Means Yes! Visions of Female Sexual Power & A World Without Rape, Jessica Valenti and Jaclyn Friedman argue that “no means no” as an anti-rape framework leaves little room for a culture to value sexual pleasure. They write that they want to explore “how creating a culture that values genuine female sexual pleasure can help stop rape, and how the cultures and systems that support rape in the United States rob us of our right to sexual power.”1 This book was an early lesson in my development as a sex-positive feminist, and I think the concept of “yes means yes” is worth revisiting, especially in this current moment.
I am not trying to argue that we shouldn’t tell these stories of harm, or that we shouldn’t hold men accountable. The recent call-outs and testimonies as one very important tool in addressing toxic masculinity.
But what would it look like if we also combatted the behavior of sexually abusive perpetrators with stories of men (and other genders) who do it right?
As one of my sex-positive, transformative justice heroes, adrienne maree brown, recently wrote: “It is humbling to realize that the majority of us are trying to reach pleasure through the complex trauma of transgression. In the onslaught of unveiling, I thought it would be useful to take a step back and address something crucial: the pleasure of consent.”
So what if, instead of sharing the story of when I was 12, I told you the story of how when I was 16, the 20-year-old barista who made out with me after punk shows told me he wanted to be respectful of my boundaries and when we started to have intercourse one night, he paused and asked if it was okay, and when I said I wasn’t sure, he stopped without protest? What if, instead, I told you about how when I did eventually start having sex with a different boyfriend that it was tender and protected and discussed at length in advance? What if I told you about how the first time I explored dominant/submissive dynamics, that my partner went slow and checked in all the time, and would back off in response to my body’s signals, even when I verbally (and unconvincingly) said it was okay to keep going?
Or what if we talked about the incredible heat of consensual foreplay; of hands on hard dicks, and fingers in wet cunts, and tongues desperate for mouths? What if we talked about explosive orgasms, and the silly and joyful pleasure of sexting? (What if we asked why these kinds of sentences are more often censored than sentences about sexual harm?)
And what if we also talked about the times that were neither entirely consensual but also not entirely abusive? Like the time, with a person I met at a party, when I was drunk and so was he and that although he fucked me and I barely remember it, it didn’t feel traumatic and I don’t consider it rape. (Which is not to say others wouldn’t be traumatized by it, or consider it rape, which would also be true, and which is why this is all very complicated.) Or like the time I was in a toxic relationship and my queer partner and I, at different times, pressured each other for sex, and how often we’d feel upset or confused after, and how we talked through those moments and cried and went to therapy and did the hard work of rebuilding trust in our intimacy. What if we talked about how I didn’t want to publicly shame and call-out any of the people from these in-between scenarios, but instead wanted to think through mutual complicity, and solutions on how to heal to do better moving forward?
This is where transformative justice comes in. According to the organization Generation FIVE, transformative justice “responds to the lack of — and the critical need for — a liberatory approach to violence. A liberatory approach seeks safety and accountability without relying on alienation, punishment, or State or systemic violence, including incarceration and policing.”
In the most simple terms, transformative justice acknowledges that “hurt people hurt people,” and that the causes of harm are largely structural rather than individual. Further, given that the State is the cause of so much of the cultural conditioning of harmful behavior, we should not rely on it to solve problems. Which is to say: throwing our rapists in prison does not stop rape, but it does further entrench a reliance on the prison industrial complex and the State more generally. Given that one of the biggest root causes of sexual violence is toxic masculinity, we ought to address the culture that breeds it, instead of excommunicating and disowning individuals who are products of it. And that we especially ought not try to address toxic masculinity through an industrial punishment system that is seeping with it.
That said: transformative justice does not shirk individuals of responsibility and accountability. And although there will be instances when transformation may be near impossible, it doesn’t mean we should dismiss accountability and healing work as a desperately needed tool in our fight to end rape culture.
In a discussion with transformative justice activists Miriame Kaba and Shira Hassan, Kaba states:
We have to complicate this conversation around sexual violence and see all the different ways that it is used as a form of social control across-the-board, with many different people from all different genders and all different races and all different social locations. If we understand the problem in that way, we have a better shot at actually uprooting all of the conditions that lead to this, and addressing all of the ways in which sexual violence reinforces other forms of violence. Our work over a couple of decades now has been devoted to complicating these narratives that are too easy, these really simple narratives around a perfect victim who is assaulted by an evil monster and that is the end of the story. The “Kill all rapists” conversation, which just kind of flattens what sexual violence really is, that doesn’t take into consideration the spectrum of sexual violence, therefore minimizing certain people’s experiences and making others more valid.
I echo Kaba and Hassan in this call for nuance, and am wondering what it might look like for the feminist movement to embrace complexity when thinking about sexual violence. And this is especially important for feminists who claim to be invested in fighting the carceral State—in other words, the way the prison system operates as a tool of governing. Can we actually be anti-prison activists who believe in the redemption of the abstract masses behind bars, and simultaneously call for the public disownment of perpetrators in our activist communities and families? This is the hardest work of all, especially when perpetrators are rich and powerful. But it might be necessary work, if we are truly committed to an end to sexual violence, to consider that people like Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, and Louis C.K. are actually human beings who are not only capable of doing better, but might even deserve some compassion. (I know, I know... it’s not easy; but being compassionate toward perpetrators as victims of patriarchy does not diminish compassion for victims. Compassion is not a finite resource.)
And showing compassion to abusers does not mean protecting them from consequences, or from confronting the harm they have caused. In fact, in affirming the humanity of perpetrators, we recognize, as Maggie Block recently wrote, that:
Rapists can be our children, our siblings, and our parents, rapists can be our good friends, or our partners, or a member of our church community. Because we live in rape culture, there are lots of people who think their actions are totally normal and acceptable, even when they commit sexual assault and rape. And we as their community members need to not only teach them better, but we need to hold them accountable. If someone we love, someone who shows us their best self, someone who we know to be a very good person is accused of rape, we must believe the accuser. Just because we love someone does not make them incapable of rape, and if we spend all our time fighting for them, all our passion worrying about how hard it is for the perpetrator- we make it harder for survivors, we further engrain rape culture, and we do nothing to help the perpetrators we love to be better people.
Transformative justice makes space for holding these multiple truths. That perpetrators can be good people who do bad things. That we should believe victims no matter what, and also that we shouldn’t silence abusers, so that we can begin to engage with what they did and didn’t understand about their behavior. That while traumatizing an abuser through public shaming is not aiding in healing the cause of harm, it is also not a victim’s job to do the healing. These sometimes conflicting truths and gray areas are not easy to grapple with, but to address a complex issue, we must respond with complex solutions.
So, I want us to think beyond public shaming and expulsion. I want us to think beyond the tools provided to us by the carceral State, and I want us to refuse to be content to only hear about women in relationship to sex when they are victims of harmful iterations of it.
Justice for women and other genders who are victims of sexual abuse should include a centering of their right to pleasure. I want a form of justice that not only teaches men (and other genders) how to not rape, but also teaches men how to make women (and other genders) feel safe and turned on and feel good. Justice means accountability and transformation, but also visions for a better world. And my better world is grounded in excitement about sex, not a fear of it.
A sex-positive transformative justice approach to fighting rape culture also includes centering the disproportionate impact of sexual violence on marginalized people, and how more harm towards trans and cis women of color means less pleasure for them as well. And how it’s a problem not just because of violence, but also because of a lack of good sex. For example, what impact might it have if more people who had sex with trans people talked about how good it is? (Hi! It’s really good!) What if we heard those stories, instead of only stories about trans people as victims of violence because their perpetrator could not bear their attractions?
In her book of essays, former sex worker feminist and economic justice activist Amber Hollibaugh writes:
We should be attempting to create a viable sexual future and a movement powerful enough to defend us simultaneously against sexual abuse. We must demand that our pleasure and need for sexual exploration not be pitted against our need for safety. Feminism is a liberation movement: it needs to fight with that recognition at its center. We cannot build a movement that silences women or attempts to fight sexual abuse isolated from every other aspect of our oppression...Feminism must be an angry, uncompromising movement that is just as insistent about our right to fuck, our right to the beauty of our individual...desires, as it is concerned with the images and structures that distort it.2
Indeed. In the end, our fight against rape culture is a fight for freedom. Freedom from fear, freedom from violence, freedom from coercion. But also freedom to flirt and be flirted with, fuck and be fucked, come and be part of others' coming, safely, consensually, and pleasurably.
This essay originally appeared on Raechel Anne Jolie’s blog, and has been adapted and reprinted with permission.
Raechel Anne Jolie is an educator, writer, podcaster, and activist. She holds a PhD In Communication/Media Studies with a minor in Feminist & Critical Sexuality Studies from the University of Minnesota. You can find more of her writing on her website and hear her on her podcast, Feminist Killjoys, PhD. You can also follow her on Twitter and Instagram. She currently resides in Massachusetts with her partner, perfect witch-cat, and adorable dachshund.