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Stranger sexual assaults are only part of the constant threat of sexual violence

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A few weeks ago, I received an interview request to comment on the numerous stranger sexual assaults that have recently taken place in Metro Vancouver. From Vancouver to Burnaby to New Westminster, stranger sexual assaults have been making headlines and deeply concerning both the public at large as well as the various police forces tasked with investigating these crimes. To date, there have been few arrests made, save for that of a 16 year-old boy who was taken into custody following two attacks on women in Vancouver in early March.

When this interview request was made, I turned it down, not only because I didn’t feel suited as the best person to comment at that time, but also because I honestly have no idea what to say anymore.

What am I supposed to say about events that are seemingly still shocking to many, but are simply part and parcel of a culture of cautiousness and fear that, whether in big ways or small, influences the daily lives of many Metro Vancouver residents, particularly women? What am I supposed to say about the kind of story that I've been hearing about since I was a young child, and was handed out warning flyers at elementary school about vaguely described sex offenders roaming the streets in white panel vans? How should I comment on the same advice I've received over and over and over again? "Don’t walk alone. Don’t walk at night. Carry mace. Invest in any one of these numerous items created by the boutique rape-prevention industry: drug-detecting nail polish, anti-rape underwear, personal alarms, and sports bras with special pockets designed to store a knife."

I could say some of the standard things. I could say that rape culture exists, and that male-perpetrated sexual violence in particular is nothing new to us. I could say that we need to tell perpetrators to stop raping and assaulting, instead of telling potential victims to prevent their own attacks. I could say that walking in pairs at night is a nice thought, but out of the half-dozen sexual assaults I've experienced, none were at the hands of strangers in dark alleyways. So, unless I was supposed to bring mace to my high-school classroom or wear a concealed knife in my bra to that holiday party, that kind of advice has never exactly helped me, nor will it help the majority of survivors who experience assault at the hands of people they know.

What I want to say, after much reflection, is that I am tired of these headlines and that I am tired of sexual assault happening every day, every hour, and every minute. I am exhausted by the fact that when so many of us live with the constant threat of sexual violence in our lives, be it at home, in our workplaces, or on the streets (even in broad daylight), that it is impossible to ever truly relax in our bodies, or to ever fully heal from past violations. 

When I was much younger -- and before I was assaulted for the first time as a teenager -- I mistakenly believed that sexual violence was one of those incredibly-awful-yet-statistically-rare kinds of things. You know: strangers in the bushes, the kind of thing that is so rare and so shocking that it is deemed worthy enough of making headlines. After I was assaulted for the first time, I convinced myself that awful things happen, maybe even to a lot of people, but that surely there must be an awful-things lifetime quota. What I have learned -- even as recently as a few months ago -- and as I have been reminded through Svea Vikander’s incredible month-long project here on rabble, is that there is no lifetime quota for sexual violence. Some of us will experience more or less violence than others, particularly at the various intersections of identity that connect us to systems of oppression. Some of our experiences may impact us more or less: in my own life, some of the less physically violent assaults are the ones that don't ever fully leave my visceral memory. And very few people, I believe, are able to totally escape the pervasive ways in which the spectrum of violence makes its way into and onto our bodies and spirits.

So when I see and hear news of yet another stranger assault, this is what I want to say. I want to say that I worry about the survivors, most of whom are women. I want to say that am deeply concerned about whether or not they have enough support. I want to say that I am upset that the assaults that make the headlines may not be the only ones they have experienced over the course of their lifetimes. I want to say that I worry that like one of the women assaulted by a stranger on the UBC campus, they will have to overhear strangers talking about their assaults and questioning what they could have done differently. I want to say that I wonder how many other women are wondering "am I next?" and I want to say that I am pissed off that this is a question that I myself even have to sit to contemplate. I want to say that if or when I experience more sexual violence, I might think "well, here we go again." 

I want to make it clear that I am not resigned to sexual violence as a fact of life. I am not nonchalant, nor am I apathetic, although my sheer exhaustion regarding the issue may sometimes appear that way.

What I am is tired. I am so very tired. I am tired like so many of us are tired, and not because the battle against sexual violence is finally won and I can join the legions of other survivors and activists in getting some hard-earned rest. Rather, I am exhausted by the knowledge that for the forseeable future, there will seemingly always be more headlines of stranger assaults, and also by the knowledge that for every sexual assault that makes headlines and prompts interviews, there are thousands more that don't.

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