Gender Trouble in Take Back in the Night

Around this time every year, we start thinking deeply about the relationship between gender and sexual violence at Take Back the Night (TBTN), the anti-violence group I co-coordinate. We are in the thick of planning our annual March and Speakout and for the last few years, we’ve organized it as a women’s led march (that is, we’ve constructed a safe space in the front of the March reserved for individuals who identify as women). This year we’ve been revisiting the issue. It’s been a controversial topic for some time—the March has changed a lot over its 22 years at Columbia—and has became one of my obsessions.

While the majority of the TBTN group members support the idea of a women’s only space, I have tended to feel strongly that the march should be gender-neutral. I’m uncomfortable with the idea that we might symbolically devalue the voices of male, trans, and non-gender defining survivors of assault and also deny the support of our allies. I’m worried that the women’s space calls on us to define and police gender boundaries. I’m unsure of what it means to highlight women in the March, even if women are disproportionately affected by sexual violence. While I’ve come around to the fact that some female survivors need this space to feel safe—and will not attend the March if there is no women’s space—the fact that we have not found a perfect solution to the problem still bothers me.

I actually cannot overstate how much it bothers me. I’ve spent hours trying to reconcile the importance of gender neutrality and the importance of honoring survivors’ needs and have lost sleep over it. I’ve talked about it with my friends, family members, co-workers, and classmates. I’ve talked about it with male and female survivors of assault, with trans-rights activists, and with people who had never thought about these issues. I’ve tried to get many diverse opinions and ideas on the problem, searching for an answer, The Answer, that would help me create the most inclusive, least problematic March possible.

I finally realize that The Answer doesn’t exist and that my frantic search has been the real problem. When I was discussing the issue with volunteers at Columbia’s Rape Crisis/Anti-Violence Support Center, one person commented that it sounded like I was trying too hard to please everyone. She advised that I instead focus on being practical: that we at TBTN find a workable March configuration and then move on. I was very struck be her remark, because she was so right: my inner people-pleaser couldn’t stand the idea of making people upset and so obsessed over finding a way to accommodate everybody.

While I don’t necessarily think it’s a bad thing to want to be accommodating, especially on such emotional issues, I know there is no way to accommodate everybody. And the Good Girl in me hates that. I hate it because, no matter what TBTN decides, we’ll face criticism from some person, group, or community. It’s the criticism that I’m dreading: I know angry people won’t bother to ask questions before slamming the March, even though I care so much and have thought endlessly about these things. I don’t want people to be dissatisfied—I want it all to be perfect.

But again, my fear of criticism is the problem, not the criticism itself. After hearing my concerns, the head of our Sexual Violence Prevention and Response Program told me that I am not responsible for everyone’s happiness. She said that it’s ok if people critique the March—it doesn’t mean that it was a failure and it doesn’t even mean I have to act on their complaints, only open the space for conversation. And she’s right: people will complain, judge, critique. If I think about it in another way, that’s actually pretty cool–it means people are interested in these issues enough to voice their opinions. And that’s one of the goals of the March in the first place: to generate concern, passion, anger, and awareness. It’s taken me a while to realize that I don’t need to have The Answer; I just need create a space for people to talk about the issues. Most of all, I need to stop obsessing, for the good of TBTN and for myself.

At our last meeting, the group came to a consensus and decided that we want to give the women’s only space another try this year. Ok, I thought. I took a deep breath, heard their opinions, and am moving on.

Image thanks to:

  1. Liane


    I am so proud of you! Your need to please is still something that I struggle with personally and professionally. As you mom, it makes me so proud to see you, at the tender age of almost 20, be able to identify this issue and articulate it so beautifully. With much love, M-bean

  2. Anonymous

    As a male survivor I must admit I’m troubled by the gendered space in the march. That said, you are still doing great work and you should get to feel good about it instead of stressing out inordinately that you haven’t made everyone happy. I’m happy for you and commend you. Just don’t lose sight of Judy B’s critique!

  3. Anonymous

    I’m glad that you have found a way of emotionally living with the difficulty of pursuing gender politics Lauren! As a male survivor i have to admit I’m troubled by the gendered space, but this is still a very valuable public event and I commend you for your hard work.

  4. Rachel J Simmons

    Lauren, awesome post – very heartfelt and personal, too, and I thank you for being so transparent about your process. I think it’s so key to become aware of your Good Girl stuff. Awareness is a big part of moving past it. Sometimes we are just gripped by anxiety or fear about conflict but don’t go deeper. Making the link between your fear of criticism and the decision at hand is what gives you the power — or perhaps the choice –to rise above it and reframe it as you have done so nicely. Thanks again for this – and good luck with the march!

  5. Steph

    Yay Ren! Word.

    I felt similarly when I ran the Bryn Mawr College Women’s Center. I struggled to determine whether the name “Women’s Center” was exclusive of the trans community, whether our sexual assault support group should be open to all genders, whether we should have a trans only or cis women only space — in my opinion, it’s good to keep struggling with it, even though sometimes there is no perfect solution.


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