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Confession Booth

The trouble with the trauma industry

Last fall, I taught my very first college class—an essay-writing course for freshmen. I was excited, but wary of first-time-teacher pitfalls, and so I asked my professor friends for as much advice as possible. After extensive feedback, I attempted to design my syllabus in such a way that I didn’t risk putting myself in the position of therapist. Other teachers told me that since I was a woman, and one who was younger than most of my students’ other professors (and who looked a bit younger still), I risked being perceived more as a peer or a caretaker than as an authority figure. Since my students would literally be writing their first college papers for me, I was worried that their personal essays in particular would yield an onslaught of pained confessional writing. My concern was that the impersonal demands of expository writing could prove daunting, or worse, for students who might be trying to deal with trauma.

This is not to say I avoided traumatic subjects or texts. I did purposely save Ariel Levy’s beautiful “Thanksgiving in Mongolia,” a devastating essay about the death of her baby almost immediately after his premature birth, for the day the draft of their personal essays was due, thinking that if they read it beforehand they would feel compelled to tackle subjects of similar gravity. During class discussion, I explained that I had guided their personal essays toward subtler, smaller stories rather than major life events, because the emotional nature of such a project often makes revisions more onerous—and possibly excruciating. I joked that I also didn’t want to have to grade “fifteen dead babies,” or their NYU-freshmen equivalents.

The survivor memoir is a fraught subject. It can be highly resistant to critique by virtue of its pathos. I remember vividly the deafening silences of a Literature of the Holocaust class I took as an undergrad (barrel of laughs, that semester), because who is willing to dissect the harrowing canon of Elie Wiesel or Primo Levi? Surely they have their critics, but the carapace of trauma often proves a vexing barrier to the meat of a book.

I see no conflict in discussing the way we talk about sexual assault while also maintaining support for the brave people who come forward to tell their stories.

We Believe You: Survivors of Campus Sexual Assault Speak Out (Henry Holt, 2016) is an anthology of trauma, an ethnographic study of the all-too-common sexual violence committed against university students. In a stand-alone quote occupying an entire page, survivor Abbi Gatewood best clarifies the philosophy that informs the collection: “To question my intentions in coming forward is to violate me once again. Do not ask me why I’m talking about what happened to me.”

The reasoning behind this overt resistance to interrogation is motivated by a rightful demand for dignity—the sort of dignity that’s often denied to victims of assault. By this measure, it would be most ethical not to review We Believe You at all; these survivors were courageous enough to come forward, so what sort of monsters would we be to dissect their project?

I have no intention of “grading” such a book as a literary project, just as I wouldn’t judge a documentary on the eloquence of its interview subjects. But if questioning the value or purpose of We Believe You can only mean attacking the victims once more, then we are at a critical impasse. Gatewood’s words present the book not so much as a text but as a monument—at times a shrine to a survivor’s spirit, at others a cenotaph dedicated to who a victim was before her assault. As readers, we are mostly encouraged to sit unquestioningly through this act of remembrance, pained and moved by its gut-wrenching reason for being.

I do not believe this approach to reading is productive—it creates a distance between reader and narrator that runs counter to what seems to be the activist aim of the book. I will attempt here to engage critically with the anthology as a project, since I see no conflict in discussing the way we talk about and interpret sexual assault while also maintaining support for the brave people who come forward to tell their stories. Indeed, the egregious failure of reporting that produced Rolling Stone’s since-discredited report of a brutal gang rape at a University of Virginia fraternity makes it clear that the personal account can be a fragile foundation on which to build a movement against assault—and that, however intrusive the demands of empiricism may be, they are indispensable in both documenting and remedying the risks of sexual assault on American campuses, and throughout the rest of our society.

The structure of We Believe You is arguably its strongest aspect. The book does not present one complete story after another; rather, it splits each individual’s experience into different time periods, drawing comparisons between the victims’ experiences as they unfold. It’s an artful presentation of stories that, in the spirit of solidarity, manages to unify the disparate experiences of many survivors, and avoids the potentially numbing effect of simply listing victim after victim. (Anticipating just such a dryly recitative structure, a friend and survivor quipped, “Just what we need, a coffee-table book about rape.”)

The first chapter, titled “Before,” is devoted to exposition, allowing survivors to give some brief background on their lives before college. It’s a diverse group, in terms of both demographics and narrative voice. The second chapter (“How It Happened”) covers the assault or assaults themselves, and manages to be candid without graphic detail. It’s been years since these assaults took place, and some of the accounts are incredibly sparse. A woman named Lauren gives an otherwise detailed narrative of the events before and after, but covers the entirety of her assault with “He used force on me. Then he said, ‘Text me,’ and left.” It is both blunt and affecting.

Chapter three (“Trauma and Betrayal”) deals with the aftermath, which in some cases is more horrific than the assaults themselves. Colleges, intentionally or otherwise, often mismanage the assault cases reported to them. Police, prosecutors, and even health-care providers are often terrible. Racism and queer-phobia further extend the trauma in gratuitous and brutal ways. There are decent people, too, and little instances of justices won here and there, but some of the former students are still having difficulty adjusting, while others confess that they’re lost at sea. One woman ends her excerpt with “I do not feel strong.” Another, who dropped out of school afterward, ends with “I feel like I’m missing out. What am I supposed to do?”

The Trauma Club

It is here that the ethics of the project become questionable. Soliciting accounts from assault victims while they’re still clearly reeling from trauma can obviously be exploitative. There is certainly a case to be made for the therapeutic value of the confession, and there is a journalistic imperative to tell painful stories, but We Believe You is not a work of journalism, nor are its editors working in a therapeutic context—this is a book with a rather fuzzy mission statement. Despite the absence of graphic violence, the accounts of women who are still clearly in the midst of bleak depressions are emotionally lurid. The intended audience for such a book is not a bunch of doubting Thomases who deny the phenomenon of campus rape, so what is the purpose of poking at unhealed wounds? Though there may be several worthy reasons, I do not believe the editors offer one here, and I would argue that this is because the book is very much a product of its time.

Editors Annie E. Clark and Andrea L. Pino are no vultures; their book simply reflects the contemporary attitude toward the way we talk about trauma, particularly trauma that disproportionately affects women—meaning, we place a strong emphasis on confession and personal accounts. This is not to say that the female confessional voice is anything new. The feminist and classicist Mary Beard argues in a piece called “The Public Voice of Women” that the anguished woman is an archetype, bred of a history that values women’s voices only when they come from a personal place of pain. “Looking at modern traditions of oratory more generally,” Beard writes, “we also find that same single area of license for women to talk publicly, in support of their own sectional interests, or to parade their victimhood.” But recently, there has been an acceleration and intensification of this tendency, powered by the eager clamor of Internet content machines, who often exploit or work against the interests of those survivors who do speak out.

A recent Gawker article titled “Bustle and the Industrialization of Confession” uncovered the unique hiring practices of the successful “ladyblog” behemoth, which boasted 43.8 million unique visitors over a thirty-day period just a couple months ago. Bustle, known for its enormous output of women-oriented content, had started sending some of its bloggers a rather unconventional “Identity Survey.” Writers for the site were asked (but not required!) to “check all that apply,” from a long list that included:

• I am/was addicted to drugs or alcohol
• I’ve been to rehab
• I’m in a recovery program
• I see a therapist
• I have suffered from depression, or still do
• I’ve had an abortion
• I’ve had a threesome
• I’ve had group sex
• I’ve lost a child
• I grew up poor
• In an open relationship
• I like casual sex
• I don’t like casual sex
• I have been to jail/prison
• I’m a feminist

And, of course

• I have been the victim of sexual assault

Without even addressing the legality (or lack thereof) and horrific labor implications of such a survey (which, yes, also asked about religion and political preference), writer Rich Juzwiak nicely pinpointed the cultural conditions that produced this document:

Cases can be made for and against a survey that distills human experience and outright trauma down to a series of boxes to check, but what is inarguable is that this document is a sign of the times. I would add that it’s a fascinating one. The current media climate demands more life from writers than ever, especially if they aren’t interested in doing actual reporting. The market rewards personal storytelling with attention—the more lurid and specific, the better.

In view of this land rush of confessional female testimony, it’s well worth considering and questioning which voices and stories we favor and why. The confession of trauma is highly gendered. No matter how we may want to quarantine it from public inquiry, it is not apolitical or ahistorical, and the genre itself is well overdue for some critical engagement, though it would not be fair to levy too much of that criticism upon We Believe You, a project far more invested in victims’ welfare than a traffic-mad outlet like Bustle is.

And thankfully, the book’s fourth chapter—“Healing and Everyday Activism”—pivots pragmatically away from the most discomfiting stories in We Believe You. It sketches out some models of recovery and achieves in the process a reassuring turn in tone, while also stressing heartening moments of progress and growth. Chapter five is “Declarations of Independence,” a hodgepodge of testimony and affirmation, and at the end is a sliver of a sixth chapter dedicated to “Rights and Resources”: a few quick notes on whom to contact if you are assaulted—support groups, hotlines, an inexplicable page dedicated to quoting Title IX without elaboration—and a few notes on the fraught subject of “representation.”

The Off-Campus Epidemic

As is de rigueur in these days of intersectional feminism, Clark and Pino have made a valiant effort at “representation”—i.e., giving a platform to women and men, queer and trans people, immigrants, and people of color. It’s an admirable initiative, but the issue of representation also raises a nagging and thorny question that the close-in portraits of disrupted young lives in We Believe You don’t address: Does it clarify or improve the discourse around sexual assault to segregate discussion of campus sexual assault from the sexual assaults of nonstudents—especially when the matriculated are actually less likely to be assaulted than nonstudents?

Guilt, pain, and confusion still linger; there is no exchange of ideas or perspective.

This is not to fault Clark and Pino, who are themselves survivors of campus sexual assaults, for failing to address the entire society-wide scourge of sexual violence against women. At the same time, though, we are now hearing so much about the campus “epidemic” of sexual predation that we risk overlooking the troubling fact that female American college students are graduating into an outside world that’s even less safe for them than their campuses have been—as well as the important point that many more women have been suffering from brutal sexual attacks in that world all along.

In 2014, President Obama launched the “It’s on Us” campaign, which asked “everyone—men and women across America—to make a personal commitment to step off the sidelines and be part of the solution to campus sexual assault.” With such high-profile university-centric appeals, it’s no wonder that many of us now simply assume that college is a premier site of sexual peril. The media has certainly managed to insinuate as much, with reports like a 2015 CNBC article on campus sexual assault, titled “One of the Most Dangerous Places for Women in America.” There is also the constantly repeated, but very misleading, “one in four” statistic, citing results from a nationwide survey supposedly showing that nearly a quarter of women who attend college have been sexually assaulted. The more accurate finding, while still enormously troubling, is that nearly one in four women experience “unwanted sexual contact,” which is defined in the survey cited as anything from touching to kissing to rape. But when some variation of “one in four college women will be sexually assaulted” is repeated by the New York Times, CNN, the Huffington Post, et al, it’s easy for the public to get the impression that no woman is safe on a college campus.

But that’s not the case. In 2014, the Daily Beast was one of a few publications to publish a corrective article, though it didn’t make any appreciable dent in the overall mood of crisis surrounding campus sexual assault. The piece, which bore the blunt title “College Girls Are Less Likely to Be Raped,” argued that the misunderstanding was the result of a failure of both reportage—the women whose assaults are most likely to be believed and reported tend to be college students—and data-gathering:

Women in college are less likely to be victims of any violent crime, according to the [National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS)], and women 18 to 24 who don’t go to college were 1.2 times more likely than their college counterparts to become victims of sexual assault. Non-students (65,700 on average per year) were the victim of roughly double the number of rape and sexual assaults as students (31,300). The differences in overall victimization are driven mainly by the incidences of completed rape. Non-students (at 3.1 per 1,000) were 1.5 times more likely to be a victim of a completed rape than students (2.0 per 1,000).

The article goes on to note that one widely cited survey highlighting the risk of campus sexual assault—a 2000 report from the Bureau of Justice Statistics titled “The Sexual Victimization of College Women”—used many behaviorally specific questions that compromised the results. The survey asked, for example, “When you were drunk, high, drugged, or passed out and unable to consent, how many people ever had vaginal sex with you?” (For good measure, the question also proceeded to define, in no uncertain terms, just what constitutes vaginal sex.) Not only is the data from that survey quite dated, but the specificity of such questions also produces higher rates of reporting. Nonstudent women were not surveyed with the same specificity—which renders any statistical comparison between the two groups deeply flawed.

So if college students are indeed safer from violence than their non-matriculating counterparts, why partition their experience from a larger dialogue? As many journalists have noted, there is a matter of privilege at play here: women who go to college enjoy a more elevated social standing than women who don’t, and are therefore more likely to receive media attention. (A similar dynamic plays out in terms of racial privilege, as any casual viewer of the cable-news subgenre of abducted or murdered women can readily attest.)

Of course, no one in We Believe You would argue that an assault on campus is somehow more significant than that of a homeless woman, a sex worker, a woman raped as a crime of war, or any other far more common context for assault. The women who have contributed to We Believe You are likely aware of their privilege, and I doubt any of them would invidiously contrast their experience with that of any woman of lower status. Nevertheless, the class bias is implicit, and feeds into the media’s fixation on allegedly heightened risks of on-campus sexual assault despite data to the contrary.

This is not to say that universities are not a unique space with potentially specific concerns. They’re often home to a large population of relatively cloistered young people who usually have little to no experience navigating bureaucracy; these young people are perhaps more likely to defer to the para-judicial processes of the school administration, who clearly do not always have the victim’s best interest at heart. Then, too, there’s a strong vision of the university as a community in and of itself (which is rather unique to the United States). Much of the activism surrounding campus rape is an appeal to the university administration to create a safer space for students. It is to its credit that the stories collected in We Believe You rather definitively dash the illusion of a benevolent administration acting in loco parentis. Regardless, when a violent crime occurs in the streets or (as is statistically more likely) the home, there is a feeling of disconnect, or perhaps just helplessness. Domestic violence is regarded as too private, too charged, to tackle at the same level of social concern (if you doubt this notion, just see the lumbering way in which our professional-sports leagues have been dragged, kicking and screaming, into addressing the domestic abuse committed by their players), while street violence is addressed as a social ill crying out for immediate remedy via criminal justice. American universities, whether public or private, are somewhat communized and autonomous, and a learning environment that’s also devoted to navigating the social (and sexual) passage into adulthood seems like a natural testing ground for reform. It stands to reason that universities, as organizations supposedly beholden to students and parents, would have both the power and incentive to protect students.

Beyond Confession

These points serve not to indict the book’s decision to zero in on the campus, but only to highlight the unexplored reasons behind this choice. No doubt it arises in significant part from the authors’ simple investment in bringing the issue to light: Clark and Pino’s ambitious national reporting project was the focus of the influential (if also controversial) CNN documentary The Hunting Ground. Again, though, the focus on campuses does, however inadvertently, mislead the audience: a title like The Hunting Ground is exactly the sort of sensationalist language that implies campuses are the problem, as opposed to a largely violent wider world that college administrators don’t appear either capable of, or interested in, protecting their students from.

Unfortunately, the pros and cons of presenting sex crimes in the context of specific cultural backgrounds is not a subject We Believe You ever engages. Beyond the brief note on “representation,” the book rarely zooms out politically, sociologically, or philosophically, save for its own rather decontextualized references to Title IX, the odd statistic, and some praise for Obama’s efforts to highlight the issue of campus rape. It certainly never develops the reasoning behind compartmentalizing sexual assault into a student ethnography—though clearly there are valid justifications for doing so.

Without some broader interpretive framework, the contributions meander and proceed haltingly from entry to entry. The end result is that We Believe You reads like the transcript of a rather mercurial consciousness-raising session, minus the analytical work that second-wave feminists considered part and parcel of any discussion of sexual assault. Interspersed throughout the book are free-form poems and letters to daughters and grandparents that will never be sent. While these acts of public testimony are crucial, and therapeutic, for survivors, readers of We Believe You are curiously left asking much the same question that one of the victims here raises: “What am I supposed to do?”

And the cumulative effect of the material compiled in We Believe You is, unfortunately, a claustral and rather depoliticized reading experience. Guilt, pain, and confusion still linger; there is no exchange of ideas or perspective. The reader is an outside observer, discouraged by the book itself from engaging in any sustained way with the people at the core of the project, yet also unable to glean anything theoretical from the collection. One woman has moved to the wilderness with her support dog. Another now sews her own lingerie. A trans woman says she’d counsel survivors not to call the police. (Indeed, anything approaching real advice throughout We Believe You seems to come with an implicit disclaimer that this is all simply personal preference, and there is no wrong way to handle your assault.)

The book’s preface is a brief quote: “It’s true what a mentor once told me: ‘Being a survivor is being part of a club that nobody wants to join. But once you’re in it, you’re in it for life. And it’s the strongest group of people you could ever imagine.’” To demonstrate this strength, the book oscillates between literary experiment, group therapy, and barely extant empiricism, leaving the reader sympathetic but somewhat directionless.

I would argue that if we are to engage with the trauma of sexual assault and the words of survivors—both as readers and as human beings—it is necessary to dispense with our culture’s perfunctory reverence for confession. Yes, testimony can create solidarity, but it can also isolate us. And efforts to discourage honest inquiry can be still more distancing, compounding the literal isolation of a geographic focus that does not acknowledge a harsher outside world. And yes, testimony can heal, but it can also exacerbate pain, particularly if the subject isn’t ready to talk, or if their story isn’t handled with care and expertise.

We Believe You is an ambitious book with entirely good intentions, but I do not believe it serves the interests of survivors to refrain on principle from interrogating the discourse surrounding sexual assault. As Mary Beard’s “public voice of women” has recently mutated into Bustle’s “industrialized confession,” the sudden profusion of women’s voices can be deceptively encouraging. Still, though, certain speakers and stories are privileged over others. And most troubling of all, the stories themselves are largely processed and packaged to conform to an age-old model of women’s victimhood—one that sells.