I can almost see the stars… (TRIGGER WARNINGS: rape, war, capital, human extinction)
by Teresa Smith
Peace is not the absence of tension, but the presence of justice. ~MLK
In autumn of 2004, I joined the astronomy club at a small university nestled in the Cascade Mountains. Eager to share our view of the stars, we built a wooden cart for the school’s telescope (a high-powered soviet-designed scrappy-looking thing we lovingly called “The Light Bucket”), and every clear Friday, we wheeled our scope out to the footpath next to the Science Building and enticed passersby to join us: “Want to look at another galaxy?”
Some nights, the football team was practicing in the field next to us, and the sky seemed lost behind the blinding haze of stadium lights. That didn’t stop us.
“How can you see through all that light pollution?” confused passersby wanted to know.
“See for yourself,” one of us would reply. Such a jolt of surprise overtook the person when they held their eye to the little circle of glass and saw a stunning globular cluster, the rings of Saturn, or whatever delightful glowing mass we’d been gazing at.
“How am I seeing this?” they always wanted to know.
Unlike magicians, scientists always explain our tricks: “Our pupils constrict to protect themselves from the light, but telescopes don’t. These tools can see past the optical illusion of light pollution, reminding us that even under a seemingly blank sky, the light of the stars still reaches us.”
Ten years later and a thousand miles away, a rapist is at large in the East Bay radical community.
One of the collectives received an email warning from a comrade in a distant city, and now the rapist has been spotted at local infoshops and hacker spaces. Some of us are in a dilemma: “Do we ban him?”
So far, no formal decision has been made. No one wants to deal with it until we have to. Banning accused rapists is seen as a distraction from the real reasons we are here. And it can be, especially when it devolves into a “rape tribunal” lasting weeks or months in which people are driven away from boredom or by triggers.
While my friends struggle with the dilemma of whether or not to bar him from our space, I am faced with a rather different problem: I am grappling with the desire to kill him.
The sky is filled with rape, you know. The Greeks and the Renaissance astronomers painted the stars with abuse, naming so many of them after victims and their rapists.
As the lone literature student at astronomy club, I always looked forward to hearing the physics students raise their voices, clearing away these ghosts, explaining the simple, yet powerful laws that actually govern the glowing blobs of matter that populate our sky.
When I was seven, my head was torn open in a car accident, and after the experience of having my body repaired at a hospital, I was suddenly home again, with a face full of stitches. The problem was: I couldn’t feel at home anymore. I had fallen into a sort of Trauma Place. A place where time changes. The present dilates, the future is obscured. Catastrophe seems to lurk in every shadow.
Humans have deeply social nervous systems. The vagus nerve runs from the base of our brains to the seat of our gut, and it is stimulated by social interaction. When volcanoes blow, seas rise, or cars smash into us, we are confronted with the anti-social nature of our random universe, and the vagus nerve and other connected nerves and organs in the parasympathetic nervous system can freeze up and harden, impeding one’s ability to learn new things, remember the past, feel emotions, digest food, and repair tissue.
Luckily, after the car accident, a parade of my favorite people came to visit me. They gasped when they saw my stitches, and wanted to hear the tale of how I survived. This showed me that I mattered. Even though the universe is a chaotic, uncaring place, people are able to create bubbles of intention and care within that chaos. Bubbles of community. And sure, communities can’t guarantee your safety, but if you are hurt they will help pull your consciousness back from that place of chaos so that your nervous system can collect itself. Engaged by my community, I began to regain my sense of being at home, and I could approach the future again with curiosity and joy.
My senior year in college, I was raped by someone in a theatre community that I’d joined off campus. Reeling in the post-trauma bent reality, I sought emotional support from the people closest to me.
I called my foster mom, who promptly informed me that “this is why we shouldn’t be so friendly to people.”
Hoping for a female mentor to tell me I was okay, I went to my boss and a professor. Instead, they also informed me that my “friendliness” had brought it on.
I went to my friends and classmates, who asked questions like, “What were you wearing? How much time did you spend with him beforehand?”
I was starting to get defensive now. I began revising my story, trying to tell it in such a way that I wouldn’t be blamed. I tried leaving out labels like “rape” and “sexual assault,” and just described the bare details of being touched without my consent. Still, I was questioned, blamed every time.
The terror that I felt on that first day never dissipated.
I spoke to people in the theatre community about it, and they told me it wasn’t their problem, “Go get a restraining order.” So I did, and discovered that this wouldn’t prevent the rapist from going to the theatre meetings, and since the organizers of that community weren’t willing to deal with the issue, I was going to have to lose a community I loved. “Was there alcohol involved?” the judge insisted to ask repeatedly at the restraining order hearing.
Everywhere I went for support, I was put on the defense for my clothing choices, my personality, my behavior. Even the people who blamed the rapist said things like, “You should have been able to sense he was going to do that.”
I was back in that Trauma Space I’d briefly fallen into after that car accident as a child. But now, catastrophe seemed to lurk inside all other human beings. Anyone could violate me—anyone could bypass the will of my mind and touch my body without my consent—and I would be blamed for it.
I am no longer a friendly person. Fear has settled into my bones, and I’ve found that I become exhausted if I spend too much time in the presence of others. My entire community had rallied, one by one, in their own ways, to show me that rape was supposed to happen to me.
In her writings on war, Judith Butler explains that English-speakers have invented rhetorical devices like “War Zone” to make it seem okay when a bystander dies in an armed conflict. We tell ourselves, “That’s what you get for living in a War Zone.” This rhetoric lets us normalize the catastrophe that is war.
I believe we also have created a nasty rhetoric of Rape Zones, which is someone has decided that there are circumstances that make it okay to touch someone without their consent. In that person’s mind, anyone in those circumstances is zoned for rape.
After my rape, I learned where everyone in my community had laid the borders of the Rape Zones in their minds, based on the types of questions they asked me as they attempted to assign blame. Some people believed being friendly to someone birth-gendered differently than you makes you zoned for rape. Others will tell you drinking alcohol or attending music festivals zones you for rape. I’ve spoken with people who believe that when a woman gets married, she is now zoned for rape by her husband.
It is the subjectiveness of it all, the way the borders of a Rape Zone expand and contract depending on who you are talking to, that make it all so terrifying.
I am terrified for certain bright-eyed young women in my community here in the Bay—women who, when I see them, the first thought that pops into my head is “looks like she hasn’t been raped yet.” And I realize I am thinking this because I know all too well that according to some people, acting friendly and loving in public makes you zoned for rape. I am terrified for these women—sometimes at political and social gatherings, I spot creepers lurking around them. That is when I make my presence known, and flash my hate-filled eyes at the lurker. And then the adrenaline release, and the urge to kill.
Perhaps the desire to escape these socially constructed Rape Zones is why we’ve seen the rise of “sexually sterile zones”—suburbs and artificial communities marketed in such a way that it seems rape could never happen there. But anyone with their eyes open in the burbs will tell you otherwise.
After spending my teen years in the East Seattle sprawl, I’ve come to think of the suburbs as “Rapetopia” because I knew so many kids in their perfect-looking middle-class suburban families who got raped or assaulted by their dads, neighbors, church deacons, grandfathers, bosses. Of the dozen or so people who spoke to me about their experiences of assault, only two of them chose to report it publicly.
It’s the wall of silence that allows Rapetopia to continue—people keep buying into the myth that they can move to a “rape-free zone,” but it is in those spaces, lacking any kind of community cohesion, in which rapists end up having the most power over individuals’ lives.
Before the rape, I used to travel alone, by Greyhound, by train. I hitchhiked in Alaska. I made friends easily, and made a point to talk to strangers, to pull people into loopy philosophical conversations. I read a book a day or more and dated people of multiple genders. I was also very protective about how and when my body was touched.
After the rape, I no longer liked being with people, but being alone was even worse. I moved in with one cis-man after another and pushed them into protective roles. I continued volunteering, but my role in community was very different. My conversations became linear and didactic; I was afraid to display my propensity to wander. I stopped traveling, and didn’t like to leave the house alone. I couldn’t concentrate: reading, watching movies, so many pleasures fell away. I didn’t care how my lovers touched me anymore. My body was the site of my betrayal, it no longer belonged to me.
The human animal is at such a beautiful, but dark point in our evolution. Only 50,000 or so years ago, our ability to use tools blossomed into a region of the brain known as Broca’s area, the seat of language. Mix that with our highly-developed prefrontal cortices (which facilitate planning), and you get a creature with the uncanny ability to hold symbolic tools inside its head, and to use those symbols to direct its actions. This ability has allowed us to travel to the moon, but it comes with a dark underside:
After I was raped, I thought my rapist was simply insane. But as I’ve slowly come to chart the borders of Rape Zones, another possibility has lodged itself in my mind: he likely did not know he was raping me. He was likely interacting with symbols in his head, rather than checking in with me so I could communicate what I actually wanted.
This is a chilling thought for me personally. Then I think about how so many of the worst abuses–abuses that may end most life on this planet–are rooted in a failure to communicate.
“I was raped quite badly in my teens,” a sex worker friend recently told me over tea. “First by a stranger, then by the friend I went to for support.”
“How have you kept your sanity?” I asked.
“The sex work really helps,” my friend said cheerfully. “Personally, I think sex work may be the key to ending sexual violence.”
She explains that in her work, she sets her boundaries upfront: she is paid beforehand and can walk away from a client if she no longer feels comfortable. Intimacy is no longer an ambiguous space for her, but a clearly communicated transaction between an empowered businesswoman and a client.
As she speaks, I wonder if this is the shadow of the future—a future in which the circumference of the market is everywhere, and ambiguous interactions are not to be found. A future in which children are educated to be business-owners of their own body-commodity. Perhaps this is the role trauma plays in what Marx calls “primitive accumulation”—the fencing off of the commons, the moment of taking things that were once free and turning them into commodities, creating a society where people must sell their labor to buy things that were once free.
This is capital’s cruel bargain: As sex flees rape, it metamorphoses into exchange. In a world ruled by capital, where else does it have to go?
“Capital is coercion,” I say to a group of young men. I’m visiting a permaculture farm in Oakland, and a group of permies, all male, in their early twenties has gathered around me. This place is known for sexual harassment, and I’ve been quick to route the conversation towards economic theory as a way to avoid the ambiguity that might allow things to get weird. Since their attention is locked on me anyway, I begin to perform a reverse magic trick my favorite Marxist once taught me.
“Would you rip up this $20 bill?” I say, passing around a Jackson twenty. “Feel the weight of it. It’s not like ordinary paper. It’s been blessed as capital.”
I take the bill back and hold it up, “What is this?”
“It’s people!” a young man ventures.
“Right!” I say. “This is congealed human labor! With this, I can access a system that compels someone who doesn’t even know me to make my shoes or grow my food.”
We’re all getting excited now.
“Man!” a welder among them is on a roll: “How many people do you think each of us is coercing to labor for us each month? How big is your invisible slave cloud? Ten people? A hundred? All those people out in the burbs who only use money to get things, I’ll bet if you add all the hours up, they’ve got slave clouds of thousands of people. And they don’t even know it because this money stuff stands in for the labor—for the real human connection of wanting to do stuff for each other.”
In the excitement, one of the young men offers me a bottle of homebrew, “I made this myself, I insist!”
I take the gift and I thank him, but my face contorts with fear. A gift.
A common tactic used by rapists is forcefully giving things to their targets.
In the month leading up to him raping me, the guy from my theatre group started forcing favors upon me – fixing my computer without asking, buying me random food items, giving me gifts – more gifts than I was able to contemplate reciprocating.
In The Gift of Fear: Survival Signals That Protect Us from Violence, violent crime investigator Gavin de Becker warns women to watch out for gifts and favors—rapists use gifts and favors as a tactic to disarm their targets, to make them feel guilty, like they owe something to the rapist. This makes it easier for the rapist to swoop past their boundaries, enter their homes and spaces and assault them.
This is also the pattern in the logic of colonial invasion: “We’ll come in and give you books, Human Rights – we’ll even give you democracy, the greatest gift ever!” And watch the local people’s shock as tanks roll in, as armed soldiers are shooting their teenagers, drones dropping bombs on their dinner parties.
Is capital really congealed labor? Or is it a symbol of the tension between those who wish to give, and those who take without asking?
I still haven’t been able to forgive my rapist, though I’ve run circles inside myself trying. The emotional pain seems to be stuck in my body. It could have been released with the help of my friends, but they weren’t ready.
Not long after he raped me, my rapist became general manager of the volunteer theatre group. I later pieced together that other women were raped by him during his ascent. All of us left after being raped—it is insanity to be in the presence of your abuser, especially when you both know they could do it again anytime they want and no one would care or believe you.
What has been mindboggling is the prevalence of this pattern as I have moved on to organizations and projects. So, so many community spaces are held by a league of abusers and their apologists. As I move through the communities in the Bay, I inevitably meet the victims who were pushed out of those communities. They are many. I am losing my trust for cis-men in power. Every time I meet a charismatic, forceful man in charge of something, I immediately wonder how many women aren’t in the room because of him.
Why do I want to kill rapists? That much should be obvious by now.
Why do I bother to hope? That is the bigger question.
Anarchy is self-control. Before I came to think of myself as anarchist, I saw these words carved into the cement near my home in NW Portland.
Anarchy is self-control. These words were a glimmer of hope that stayed with me, and after a partner’s job led me to move with him to the Bay Area, I found myself seeking out Anarchists, joining the Slingshot collective, moving into cooperative housing.
Gradually, I’ve come to realize that Anarchy is not just self-control.
Three years ago, I spent some time at Hellarity House. It was my first experience of a radical open-door squat governed by anarchist consensus process. At my first house meeting, I saw an amazing thing: a traveler was asked to leave—without malice or punishment—because he had touched someone without their consent. Over the next few weeks, this happened several more times. There were never tribunals questioning either party, or moments of forcing the target to “provide evidence” (consent violation, by definition, can only be expressed as the word of one person against another anyway). Watching this process, I saw the women in the house becoming stronger, more outspoken. I felt stronger. Even though the space was filled with rowdiness, arguments, and all sorts of spontaneity and danger, I felt drawn there because I knew that if I asked someone to back off, they’d respect me, and if they didn’t, they’d have to leave.
A few years later, I found myself at the Sudo Room hackerspace, and similarly witnessed a consent violator being asked to leave. There was no malice—this wasn’t an punishment thing—it was simply a way to respect the target for speaking up. It meant the community could be a space for victims to heal, rather than harboring their abusers. And in these spaces, it wasn’t just one person or group upholding the safe space—cis-males were as vocal and committed as everyone else to creating consent-based community, and it was the cis-men who often did the hard work of asking people to leave.
This new wave of anarchists understands that addressing abuse is not some afterthought, but is the core of creating post-capitalist communities. But like any policy, consent-based safe space could easily be overused. As one space-keeper explains, “Safe space shouldn’t be treated as a philosophy, but as a problem-solving tool.” Safe Space practices are not a cave to climb into, but something to help us see through the haze in those moments when abuse does arise.
Some people are afraid of safe space practices, afraid they will be misused by liars. They are justified in that fear, because that risk is always there. But if we fail to create equitable and thriving self-supporting communities, we stand facing a far bigger problem.
The myth-weavers of capital dazzle us with a pseudo-mathematical fantasy world of random chance, a world of competition that is supposed to be “natural,” even though it defies our deeply cooperative evolutionary disposition. We are forced into this system because our food, clothing, shelter, and care is held hostage by it. But many of us choose to enter this system because we are afraid of individuals, and we don’t trust our communities to protect us from abuse. Capital offers easy shelter by sterilizing the whole messy chaos of social reality, and distilling it into a single question: “How to I assist the creation of profit?”
So, collectively, we scrape the tops off of our mountains. We create famines throughout the Global South. We tear out the public rail systems and replace them with roads. We inflict armed occupations within our borders and around the world. We raze forests, and pump poison into our air, into our water, into our minds with advertisements. We violently inflict unfair trade laws upon entire nations, leading droves of people to cross our borders to take back the value that’s been stolen from them.
Abuse is one of the strongest motivating forces that compels us to invite capital into our lives. Capital feeds upon the force of fear and produces an artificial randomness. It holds us in a place of stasis, walking dead, traumatized, trapped in the fantasy of “profit is the only thing that matters.” As we organize ourselves to compete for profit, it is the bullies, rapists, and murderers who rise to the top, directing us as we destroy each other and ourselves–with the destruction of our planet’s life support system as “collateral damage.”
Imagine for a moment that the apocalypse isn’t something in the future, but something that is happening right now. It is something that has been happening since humans gained the power to justify raping and murdering each other. Look into our past, and you’ll see there never has been a golden age.
Archaeological sites new and ancient show mass graves—horrors beyond our wildest nightmares—we are just becoming aware of this apocalypse.
From this nightmare we are only just now waking up.
I want to write the word in the sky every day for each person I’ve known who was hurt or raped.
Can the defense of single word, a single concept help bring back light back into the eyes of the traumatized, help us reactivate our parasympathetic nervous systems?
Sing life back into our species with a single word.
Wake up! Here is a splash of cold water in the face:
Pray for consent.
Ask for consent.
Destroy the logic of the Rape Zone, the War Zone—no one deserves to be touched without their consent. We need to dismantle the cultural myths that are holding the last remnants of the apocalypse in place.
Consent, consent, consent.
Uphold consent in your spaces. And as the haze of abuse diminishes, watch as communities emerge from beneath capital, like the stars coming out after the lights are finally shut off.
For another great article about consent culture by someone else in the Slingshot collective, check out Shit People say to Survivors by Joan.