As with sexual and gender-based violence, breaking the silence is not an event. Neither happens nor dissipates in the snap of a disclosing moment, however revelatory or revolutionary.
This nudged at an old thought, namely that we do not problematise disclosure enough, least of all when it is locked into a binary with its evil twin, silence. Cue the widely accepted wisdom that testimony, and other confessional forms, are synonyms for breaking the silence.
Public health approaches to combatting the stigma attached to HIV has long been the paradigmatic case here. But it is not the only case. I think specifically of campaigns aimed at eradicating sexual and gender-based violence, including those that are led by the state.
“Don’t be a victim. Break the silence,” they say.
Yes, I get it. When being blamed and shamed into hiding is the norm, disclosure is potentially transformative — a tool to express agency and traverse the victim-survivor continuum. Indeed, this is a common theme in countless coming-out stories, with individuals reframing themselves as liberated from the regimes of secrecy, guilt and shame that help to produce and police their otherness.
Disclosure is also a solidarity chant, a voiceover for “why me?” — the question that keeps those of us who ask it in a chokehold of freak-fuelled isolation. It’s a whistle too, blowing the cover on a kind of violence that has become so domesticated it thrives even in the light.
All of this seeped into my own moment of disclosure. It stretched the meaning and significance of it, taking the mix of memories and wounds that were intimately mine beyond the limits of deeply personal experience. I thought: here I am, one of the collective that is evolving a movement. Tight links between age-old histories and current forms of sexual and gender oppression didn’t seem quite so inescapable. There was a sense of hope, victory — catharsis even.
But there was another side too. The decision to speak at the time that I did was sparked by several factors, not least the growing momentum around the #MeToo campaign. The media was all over it, every report renewing the promise that disclosure breaks the silence. And wrapped up in this promise, wearing it like a security blanket, I spoke. Odd that I’d had to shield myself to show myself. Yet not surprising. For all its benefits, the price of disclosure is high.
Ask those of us whose trauma becomes a dodgy balance sheet, audited for facts and logic, consistency and precision — on repeat. Ask those of us whose bodies are penetrated for evidence of lies and truth — how far, how deep. Ask those of us who are summoned to prayer to rid ourselves of our demons. Ask those of us who are termed abusive for fighting back, as if “fuck you” is profanity when misogyny is morality.
Ask those of us who are dragged for raging against the objectification of our bodies, the bludgeoning of our sexualities and the hijacking of our personhood so that broken men, men whose humanity is held hostage by their masculinity, can act out fragile egos and identities.
Ask those of us who are chastised for crying in our nightmares because suffering not suffered silently is inconvenient suffering. Ask those of us who are named as the problem: because we stayed, because we left, because we’re too clever or too stupid, because we didn’t know when to shut our mouths, because we wore something — anything.
Ask the 36 731 women who were raped and sexually assaulted in 2017 and 2018, including by police officers.
Ask those of us who come out only to be shut down over and over again. Ask the many that do not because they know that being shut down is the norm.
Ask us, because if “boys will be boys”, who else is there to ask? Ask us, because if nobody saw, nobody heard, nobody said, who else is there to ask?
Attributing the hidden dimensions of sexual and gender-based violence largely to the fact that those who have endured it do not speak is thus hugely problematic. Sexual stigma is not a sufficient explanation either. In fact, if we present the violated as the prime symbol of silence — as many breaking the silence campaigns do, then we are enmeshed in rape culture more deeply than we think. Why? For one thing, we fail to link the silence to normative ways of knowing sex, ways that reference structural entanglements between sexual and gender-based violence, patriarchy and broader cultures of secrecy.
These are ways that make it permissible to know not to know this violence as anything other than an absence. Think about how this is naturalised in the burden of proof that we carry. Ask why our truth-speaking authority is on trial to the extent that it is. Why our bodies are crime scenes to the extent that they are. Do we carry this burden alone because to bear open witness, whether at an individual, family, community, or institutional level, or even as the state, transgresses these ways of knowing? If so, then they too are absented.
Consider then, that our erasure, and the protection it affords to those who commit this violence, is not a consequence of our lack — of speaking out or anything else for that matter. It is because we are made evident as a lack through these ways of knowing and the kinds of knowledge that they create.
On some level, don’t the memes, jokes and banter that reference the broad spectrum of rape culture, do precisely this? In presenting sexist language, rape, groping and other forms of sexual and gender harm almost as play, entertainment, don’t these knowledge forms and practices render the horror ambiguous, easier to know covertly, or to unknow?
In addressing the silences related to sexual and gender-based violence, it is crucial to understand the complex social forms and practices that reference cultures of knowing and acknowledgement. This also means looking at the tensions between these cultures and prospects for change and restorative justice — which requires those who commit this violence to know and acknowledge what they have done for what it really is, and take accountability.
Which is why disclosure is not enough to break the silence. Not in its current form, where the call to action focuses mainly on those who have lived this violence.
Unless we are being called upon to speak only to ourselves. As if the silences and invisibilities operate solely on an individual level, a disease so uniquely ours that only we can cure it.
We cannot. Because what also matters is how we are seen and heard. Does disclosure collapse the difference between showing and telling and actually being seen and heard, especially as authentic and credible in our own terms? Does it dissolve the myriad ways through which those to whom we disclose know to not know us? Does it change the politics of value and recognition that legitimate these ways of knowing, ways that normalise the mass social deafness and blindness that exists when it comes to sexual and gender-based violence in our country?
Because, unmasked or not, this is how we are seen and heard — with deafening deafness and blinding blindness. This is the silence that fucks us into oblivion. Calling on us to disclose doesn’t change this; it just makes it our responsibility. In so doing, it tells us that we would be worthy of overt acknowledgment if we were better at making ourselves intelligible to our audience in familiar terms.
Isn’t this the patriarchy in action, deluding us into speaking its language? After all, if coming out is about making ourselves overtly present, if it is about countering the deleterious effects of sexual and gender-based violence by disrupting the normative ways of knowing that conceal it, then the old terms through which our audience knows to know us must change.
In disclosing, it is not on us to become intelligible in these old terms. If we do, we situate ourselves in the very cultures of knowing and acknowledgement that produce our invisibilities.
We, along with the interventions that are aimed at eradicating sexual and gender-based violence, should ask ourselves: Is this how we want to be seen?
Veronica Sigamoney is a social researcher and sexuality and gender are among her core areas of interest. She dedicates this article to her daughter, Talia