A Feminist-Buddhist Commentary on Sexual Violence

Over recent days, amidst all the difficult news surrounding the Stanford rape case, I have been writing - from my precarious Feminist-Buddhist perspective - about the stories and impacts of sexual violence. And even from my safe little writing desk in the woods, I am deeply aware that not one of us will escape the devastation of sexual violence, until we all do.



When I began my feminist studies program many years ago, I found myself drowning in anger and resentment for all the times I had experienced sexual violence as part and parcel of life as a woman. My personal familiarity with sexual violence has ranged from overtly rough sexual encounters that would be considered consensual in a court of law but were certainly not what I wanted, to a number of attacks in public places – walking down the street in Santa Barbara, on a beach in Mexico, on a dance floor among a dozen friends in my home city, in the back room of a police station in Peru and on a plane in Mumbai. Nowhere in the world is safe. Not even for a strong, independent, conservatively dressed woman who is not afraid to fight. And fight I have. Except for the time when I was passed out drunk and the man who had sex with me was my boyfriend.

The danger for women is real and pervasive. And it does not just occur for the submissive, or the provocatively dressed, or the drunk, or the weak. It occurs for all of us. Every woman. More than 50% of the human population faces danger simply because they have a vagina. Full stop.

In my work I see many women who have experienced sexual violence in one form or another. And most have endured it more than once. The devastation that sexual violence causes for the victim is immense. But more, the healing crisis that occurs as a victim works to reclaim their life is terribly difficult and troublesome. There are wounds embedded in all the bodies – physical, mental, emotional and spiritual - and these wounds can seem impossible to heal.  The impacts of sexual violence manifest in a myriad of ways, deeply disturbing life. And for those that brave them, it often takes years upon years, countless dollars and unimaginable amounts of energy to become an open and loving human being again. Yet some of us never do.

Sadly, in many cases, the impacts of sexual violence go unaddressed because the re-victimization of a healing process seems much worse than burying the pain and building a wall around the heart and the body for protection. Or worse, there just aren't any resources available. And so the divide and distrust and fear between women and men deepens.

When I think about men like the Stanford rapist, or the 30 men who gang raped a girl in Brazil, or the husband who beats and rapes his wife behind closed doors, or the soldiers that commit mass rapes as a weapon of war, I want to hate them. I really do. I want to rage at the thought of their existence and curse the day that they were born. Sometimes I viscerally rail against the sexism and the violence and the lack of accountability. I mock the systems that allow it to continue and I pray that I will get home safe. But none of that ever makes me feel any better. And as it seems, nothing changes either.

As a growing Buddhist with deepening devotion, I am asked to don the lens of compassion as a way of being. And I often accept this as my greatest challenge in a world that allows horrifying levels of violence to continue and a twisted sense of justice to rein. But I am also keenly aware that I am part of that very world and so, I too am responsible. Just like you. Just like all of us. And when I think of it like this, that we are all in this together, I find compassion much more accessible, even for those who have done horrible things. Because although they may have a terribly skewed view of what it means to have a vagina, they did not come out of a vagina that way. We made them that way. And if I can forgive us for that, I must forgive them as well.  

Still, none of this offers a solution. And solutions are what we need.

I don’t believe that the systems nor institutions that we have in place are working. Sexual violence is just as rampant as always and is even morphing in new and disturbing ways through technology and the like. We can’t regulate it out. We can’t punish it out. We can’t campaign it out. And we certainly can’t force it out. We’ve tried all of this with terrorists, and drugs and cancer and it just doesn’t work. The war on the problem just makes things worse. We need a new way. And I do realize how problematic that is for the warriors of the cause. But I am convinced that the paradigm must shift, and that we must shift with it.

Sexual violence is so pervasive that we use it to sell things. Just think about that for a moment. This means that at some level, even subconsciously, we have been convinced that we like it. There are massively powerful cultural institutions that stop at almost nothing to cover up sexual violence in their ranks and have the ability to divert attention with their money and power. Our entertainment is filled with sexual violence and if we happen to bat an eye, it is quickly written off as an important part of the plot. The right to sexual violence is written into the laws of a number of countries where women who are victims of it are the punished. And these are only a few examples of how deeply entrenched it is, there are so many more.

Our global society is sick with it. And the only way to become un-sick, is to heal. And to heal our society is up to us.

And so, if you ask me about solutions I say this. We have to work as individuals and communities to shift our awareness and strategies from fighting to HEALING. To recognize that the mind of a rapist must be a terrible place to be. To restore our society by spending our money and time on things that support healthy relationships between men and women and all gender choices in between. To forgive ourselves for our complacency and promise to do better when given the opportunity. To speak kindly to one another about it, even when we are angry and overwhelmed. But to speak just the same.

Most importantly, we must raise children anew, as a global village – honestly and bravely, in a way that not only condemns the violence, but also condones the support of those who may commit it. We must teach young boys to love in safe and respectable ways. We must teach them to value life intrinsically no matter the genitalia. We must teach them about communication as a reciprocal experience and we must give them a safe place to work through the confusion without shame.

And for the little girls, we must teach them that it is their right to move through this world without fear. And then empower them to do it. And after all the times we have let them down, we must promise them again and again, despite all the horrific news, that we are doing absolutely everything we can to raise boys who will walk beside them in kind and decent ways.

It is up to us to heal this mess, and to forgive ourselves for letting it go on this long.

Om mani padme hum.