After working in the field of sexual violence for decades, I was certain that the dark, broken aspects of the world I’ve seen had squeezed the last vestiges of naivete out of me. So I didn’t think I could be shocked by the aftermath of the October 7th attacks.
But, I was.
Not by the carnage and the inhumanity of the attacks Hamas murderers, torturers, and rapists perpetrated against their Israeli victims. Such horrific tactics have been used since ancient times and have made a strong comeback in the Middle East over the past decade thanks to ISIS. Rather, I was shocked by the reaction of specific people whom, I want to believe, have red lines, integrity and compassion.
So many who champion human rights, feminism and social justice – some of whom I have long considered friends or looked up to for their moral courage – have been bending over backwards to justify atrocities and rationalize rape with “BUT…”
“But, you need to remember the broader context…”
“But, Israel has…”
“But, you have to understand the anger caused by…”
No. There is no “but…”
The issue of sexual violence has long been shunted off into the shadows and victims more often than not are dismissed as delusional, vindictive liars or shamed for their “role” in the suffering that was perpetrated upon them.
This tragic reality is why so many women and men whose lives have been shattered by sexual violence feel withdrawn or isolated as they attempt to function despite their trauma. It is why the modus operandi of the sexual assault crisis center where I work is to believe survivors of sexual violence. It is why our motto is “You are not alone.” It is also why the central pillars of sexual assault crisis centers the world over are:
- We are not there to judge anyone’s story, rather we are there to listen, support and stand with you.
- NO form of sexual violence – rape, sexual assault, sexual harassment, molestation or incest – is acceptable or justified, ever.
There are no “Buts…” No exceptions. No caveats. No addendums. In over 30 years in the field of sexual violence support and prevention, I have never heard a support professional in the movement questioning the veracity of someone’s rape.
At the Sexual Assault Centre at The University of Alberta in Edmonton last week. Samantha Pearson, who until a couple of days ago served as the center’s director, signed an open letter, which, among other things, questioned the veracity of accounts that reported that Hamas committed acts of sexual violence during the October 7th attacks on Israeli civilians.
I so fervently wish Ms. Pearson was right.
I wish the horrific scenes of dismembered bodies that had been brutally raped, images that are seared into my soul and the souls of first responders who witnessed the massacres’ devastating aftermath, hadn’t happened. I wish that those women and girls who were assaulted and then escaped or left for dead were not having to carry the crushing weight of this trauma. I wish I had not seen videos of Israeli hostages being taken off a truck in Gaza with telltale signs of sexual assault – blood dripping down from their private areas and soaking their ripped pants. I wish that this was truly all one big hoax as Ms. Pearson seems to believe.
While I am grateful that the university has now terminated Pearson’s leadership of the Alberta Centre, the sentiments that she expressed are ones that are both overtly and covertly being echoed extensively among people whose roles are to be supportive of ALL survivors of sexual violence, not just those who conveniently fit into their worldview or political agenda.
I’m not going to write counterpoints regarding context or the complexities of this geopolitical conflict – I’ll leave that to experts in political science. I’m not going to go into the details of why first responders who were desperately trying to aid the injured, evacuate survivors and identify thousands of bodies among the carnage strewn across an active battleground didn’t meet the 48-hour window necessary to properly process a rape kit or cordon off the crime scenes – I’ll leave that to the first responders. I’m not going to explore the many, many first-hand accounts, videos, and post-mortem findings that point to mass rape – I’ll leave that to the police and pathologists.
Instead, I’m going to address the second assumption that rape crisis centers are supposed to hold: sexual violence is never justified. There is simply never an excuse for rape.
Yet, over this past month, I heard again and again the view that as Israeli women, the victims somehow brought this on themselves…that they deserved to be violated. I’ve even heard others call rape a valid tool that can be used on the path to freedom. Sometimes it is unspoken. Sometimes it is whispered. Sometimes it is shouted. Sometimes it is lurking underneath the veneer of feminism and social justice.
To those who share Ms. Pearson’s beliefs, I ask you, aren’t these supposed to be the exact issues that we have been working against in our shared hopes for a world free of sexual violence?
Such a stance takes victim-blaming to a whole new level and excuses the calculated abuse of women. Do we stand against sexual violence, always, regardless of race, creed, orientation or politics, etc.? Or do feminist ideology and human rights suddenly stop being applicable because the rapes happened over the Israeli border? If so, what other red lines can be crossed? Women and girls who did nothing to provoke their attacks other than to exist as Israeli civilians were brutally raped, yet we can’t validate their suffering?
If you are claiming that they were never raped or questioning the veracity of their experiences, ask yourself honestly: Are you making these claims just to make sure things fit neatly into a black-and-white version of reality where the “good” side has done nothing wrong? If so, what does that say about the moral compass of the feminist and human rights movements, which have always inspired me so deeply?
There are documented cases of the red lines that should be flashing scarlet to everyone, regardless of political viewpoint. Those who value social justice must understand that this is not just a sound byte that can be overlooked, “contextualized away” or disbelieved.
Please ask yourself: In my attempt to be compassionate to everyone, am I playing into the hands of those who are not just willing, but actively seeking to use rape as a ‘legitimate’ weapon?
While we try our best here at The Tel Aviv Sexual Assault Crisis Center to uphold our “You are not alone” motto, Israeli survivors of sexual assault and all those working on the struggle against sexual violence feel forsaken, betrayed and abandoned each time they see suffering doubted, disregarded or justified.
We feel very much alone.
If you, or anyone that you know needs support from sexual violence or the triggering of post-trauma, please contact the sexual assault crisis hotlines at 1202 for women / 1203 for men / 02-5328000 for religious men. You are not alone. We are here for you. https://www.1202.org.il/en/local/tel-aviv