Consent, Violation, and Indigenous Peoples

I spend a lot of time thinking about rape and sexual violence.  These are topics that I am particularly interested in as a feminist and an activist.  Lately, I’ve been hearing a lot of talk about the use of the word “rape” to mean something other than, well, actual rape, and I haven’t been quite sure where I come down on it.  I just read something, though, that parallels this discussion, and I think is particularly relevant when we’re thinking about how to conceptualize rape and, more broadly, consent and violation.

In her book, Conquest: Sexual Violence and American Indian Genocide, Andrea Smith talks about the many (many, many) ways native people in North America have been seriously fucked over by colonialism and modern (especially U.S.) government policy.  She includes a quote from a Native woman who belongs to a tribe that the government non-consensually experimented on by placing a nuclear reactor on tribal lands to see how much environmental radiation people can safely take in through “food, water, milk, and air.”  The woman describes the harm to her people, principally in the form of cancer cases, and then says “Is this what it feels like to be raped?”

It’s a really powerful way of putting rape in context, I think–I’m not necessarily saying that we should use the word “rape” to refer to a broader category of things, but I do think we should put rape in  context of a patriarchal, imperial society where forcing things on people without their consent is the norm.  Smith describes this type of force against indigenous people in forms ranging from physical and sexual violence to cultural genocide to environmental degradation.  I think it puts a broader lens on the fear many women feel as a result of living in a rape culture, and especially for white women who don’t experience similar fears every day in other contexts, it’s useful to think about the kinds of violations this society perpetrates on all its members, especially people of color.  As white women (and all women) fear the violation of rape, indigenous people have to live with the fear that come from not being certain what the government might have done in the past, or might be doing in the future, to harm a tribe’s welfare and the lives of indigenous individuals.  Similarly, many black men live in fear of police violence, immigrants live in fear of any number of abuses, and so on.  There are so many violations of autonomy that I can’t even begin to list them all, but what I think it comes down to is that in reality, our bodies, our property, our culture, our health, our families, our lives, are not sacred.  They can be violated non-consensually, and they are, often by the very government that “protects” our rights.  And in the US today, the likelihood of that kind of violation goes way up if you’re not a straight, white, cis-gendered, middle-to-upper class male.

Just some food for thought.

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