I think a lot about the people we leave behind in the movement. During our senior year in college, we had a campus campaign against sexual assault. It was sparked by L speaking out about her sexual assault experience, a violent event that resulted in her taking medical leave and having to leave campus. We demanded a review of the university’s sexual assault policy, a bolstering of sexual assault prevention, and a prioritization of survivors’ safety on campus. We persevered even when a lot of these demands were forgotten in the midst of the White Feminist takeover, which sought to collect charitable donations for a sexual health fund and to build an academic Center of Gender and “study” the problem out of existence. The rest of us supported survivors through recurring trauma, kept the pressure on the administration, and scraped together resources to increase visibility of the campaign. L stayed out of the spotlight, but spoke with reporters and did a lot of the work behind the scenes. She inspired in us a lot of awe for her wisdom and perseverance.
The very next year, the campaign debuted with a new face.
As the new anti-sexual assault campaign solidarity photos filled my Facebook wall, I wondered if anyone had reached out to see how L was doing. If anyone thought of her in the midst of their campaign. How people could repeat “survivor-centered” day and night without taking action to support those who constantly reopened their wounds throughout a campaign. I wondered what the purpose of our campaign had been, how it could have disposed of its people so quickly. I wondered what we had been really fighting for.
A close poet friend writes about their experiences with sexual assault and abuse. I went to one of their poetry shows, and after their performance, a crowd of friends gathered around per ritual to congratulate their performance. Person after person came up to tell them how much they loved the sexual assault poem and their war poem, and oh, the abuse poem, too. They also make sure to compliment the poet’s queer femme aesthetics. And as I stood in the back corner watching on, I wondered where we all had been for the moments they had needed us.
I don’t mean during the performance or the post-show laughter chitchats over finger food. I mean the nights alone after the incident, the days when their poems read like suicide notes, the nights when they face harassment alone on dark street corners, the times when they are unable to leave their house. Where are we during the pain leading up to the poetry / the pain that is the poetry? We as a community, what responsibility do we have to that pre-poetry pain / the pain not arranged in neat lines and steady rhythm / the pain before the blood is wrung out / the ugly and gruesome pain?
I wanted to believe that we would’ve all been there for them. I wanted to believe that we all saw the pain of the person behind the poetry. I wanted to believe that we did not feel a perverse enjoyment in the proximity to pain, without having to experience it ourselves. But I wasn’t certain. I couldn’t say for sure.
I’ve been holding onto these big and small thoughts since then, and they occasionally resurface in the “aftermath” of things. When I see leaves scattered limp after the wind has blown through. When I see people grieving after a successful campaign.
I wonder: What happens after the “end”? After their names have trended as hashtags? After the curtains fall? Who does the movement look after and who does it leave behind? How do we truly work to honor the pain and healing of survivors? When does the journey of a survivor truly end, and how do we accompany them along the way?
I ask these questions not because I want to paralyze the movement. I ask because I think this is the only way to know — what can come after the pain.