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Stop Excluding Trans Survivors From Discussions Of Sexual Violence

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"I'm actually glad to see the term 'rape culture' starting to pervade public consciousness through the media," says Kai Cheng Thom. "That term has specifically been used in mainstream media and that's amazing."

For Kai -- a writer, performance artist, and social worker -- the fact that we're talking about rape culture at all is "a massive shift from even 10 years ago, when rape was mostly considered an individual tragedy, or something only related to mental illness. Now we're talking about rape as a culture or about rape as patriarchy, and that to me is a great sign because it means that feminism is at last starting to make it into popular mainstream culture, which is awesome."

The problem with this conversation though?

"Most, if not all, mainstream feminism only represents a certain kind of person. Of course, we're talking about white, middle class, able-bodied, cisgender women." Too often, says Kai, marginalized communities such as trans folk aren't given a platform to talk about the issues, like sexual violence, that impact them.

Kai is based in Montreal and has performed in venues across North America. Her work has been published widely in print and online, in publications including xoJane,Youngist, Matter and Matrix Magazine. She is currently a feature writer for Everyday Feminism and completing her training as a licensed psychotherapist.

We spoke with Kai to learn more about how sexual violence and transmisogyny impact trans folk, and how media representation of these issues matters.

Interviewer: What are the challenges you have seen in mainstream media reporting on sexual violence and rape enacted against trans women? What changes would you like to see?

Kai: "Now that we're in this moment -- the 'transgender tipping point,' as Time Magazine calls it -- we're seeing a lot of attention towards trans women's experience of sexual assault. There's this statistic that appears that many trans women are sexually assaulted. [But ] the media doesn't go too deeply into that. I can't think of media stories about how trans women in particular experience sexual assault, how that happens... there's only the numbers.

"There's no real mainstream reporting that comes directly from trans [people]. What I would really like to see is trans women talking about themselves and trans women talking to each other. I would love to see trans women as expert consultants, instead of reporting from statistics generated by academics who are not trans people."

Interviewer: How would you like to see/have you seen trans women creating consent culture?

Kai: "I think a lot of great work has been done by trans women communities to help keep us safe from police brutality, from street violence and from violence in the sex work industry --although, of course, we still experience a lot of violence.

"What I would love to see is trans women talking more about is what kind of sexual culture we want to create between us, and how trans men can become allies to trans women as we navigate through trans misogyny and patriarchy."

Interviewer: Often survivors are portrayed as white, straight, cis­gender, able-bodied women. How can the media avoid minimizing stories about sexual violence against survivors that don't fit this narrative?

Kai: "The easy answer is that media makers need to make a conscious effort to feature non-white cisgender able-bodied women in their work on sexual violence. Just saying, 'I am going to go out and interview people who are not my 'ideal victim,' that is a simple answer.

"There's a more complicated issue there around how sexual assault is perceived to happen or not happen to marginalized women. There's the idea that we are not -- for a lack of a better word -- 'rapable.' The media doesn't care to report on these stories because it doesn't believe [trans] women. It boils down to only white women cisgender abled bodies are pure, are beautiful, are fragile. Everyone else is dirty, is sexualized, is not valuable enough to report on.

"We need to say out loud why and how sexual violence happens to survivors who are marginalized."

Interviewer: Statistics show most survivors do not report. Why is it important to have diverse representations of survivorship in media reporting?

Kai: "As a social worker [who has supported] survivors: the mechanisms that we have in place in the mainstream -- particularly in the legal system -- are either not enough for most survivors, or the systems actively contribute to the harm and silencing of those survivors.

"The reason [trans people of colour] don't report is because they are not believed. When you [report] to the police, police first of all don't necessarily recognize the [person's] gender and actively, violently [treat] those people.

"We need to have representation of trans women survivors in media because so many of us are survivors. [We] can't hold up this idea that there's only one way to survive because the way that white women of the middle class are able to survive and heal from sexual assault just isn't available to trans women of color and marginalized women in general."

Interviewer: There's been a swell in media coverage of rape culture in recent months. What conversations are you glad to see happening, and what do we still need to address?

Kai: "What we don't hear enough about is the way legal and social systems are shaped to prevent certain women from accessing control of their own representation. When do [trans and migrant people] get to speak about their own experiences and control the way which those stories are told? Why are we always waiting? Why do we have to wait for mainstream media to come to us and ask us to tell the stories?

"We shaped this conversation around the concept that there is a single patriarchy without a face that's attacking all people the same way. That's simply not true. We experience patriarchy in different ways according to our social location."

This blog is part of a series of interviews femifesto is publishing on media reporting and sexual violence in diverse communities across Canada.

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