On February 14, a special kind of love letter will flood the internet.
A grassroots campaign by Emmy-winning filmmaker Tani Ikeda, she describes #SurvivorLoveLetter as “a chance to celebrate our narratives of what it actually looks like to survive violence.”
Each Valentine’s Day, the project appears on Tumblr, Twitter, Instagram and other social media platforms, where survivors and allies share messages, photos and hand-drawn cards, all full of love and support for survivors of sexual assault. A cousin to PostSecret and sibling to the Dear Sister anthology, #SurvivorLoveLetter is part art project, part collective healing and wholly personal to many who participate.
Valentine’s Day 2014 was the anniversary of one of Ikeda’s sexual assaults. She was thinking about everything she had done to survive, and the ways we honor anniversaries but overlook the daily labor and exhaustion inherent in living with PTSD or depression, two behavioral health diagnoses commonly associated with sexual violence. Ikeda wrote herself a letter of love and support, recognizing all that she had accomplished. She signed it Survivor Love Letter.
“When I started it, I felt so isolated. From this project I have gained an incredible network of friends around the world,” Ikeda says. “On a personal level, this project has become a container of healing for myself and expanded into something that can hold and hopefully sustain so many people and survivors in a way that I couldn’t have imagined.”
Notes posted on the #SurvivorLoveLetter Tumblr speak directly to survivors with declarations of strength and understanding.
“I know your pain. I know your doubts. I’ve felt the same misplaced shame. I’m walking the path you’re on. You’re not alone. I’m in front of you to guide, beside you to strengthen, and behind you in case you fall, as so many others have done for me.”
“You were forced into the darkness and you came out the other side, covered in scars that show you SURVIVED! Those scars are not ugly. They are not signs of failure. No, my dear, those scars show you went through fire and are here to tell the story.”
For Ikeda, the connection to other survivors has been crucial. “I can really be my truest self when I’m with other survivors. … And it wasn’t until I started Survivor Love Letter that I was really able to meet all these other survivors. It’s opened up the floodgates to these incredible relationships with all of these women. They’re finally giving me permission to be just my baddest self in the world, as an artist, as an activist, as a human being.”
The choice of Valentine’s Day was personal for Ikeda, but it resonates for other survivors, too. Many people experience sexual violence from an intimate partner, and even when perpetrators are strangers, the lasting impact of sexual violence can make sex and intimacy problematic for years to come. All this can come to a head on Valentine’s Day, a triggering time when survivors are in need of extra support and self-care.
Actor Akemi Look, a former rhythmic gymnast, was introduced to Ikeda and #SurvivorLoveLetter by a mutual friend. At the time, Look was private about her status as a survivor of sexual violence. Only a few close friends knew then what the world knows now: that Look was one of the more than 200 victims of former USA Gymnastics physician Larry Nassar.
This year, Look is posting Survivor Love Letters on her Instagram, as she has in the past, hoping to offer a sense of fortitude to other people who’ve experienced sexual violence.
“Because the healing journey is so deeply and utterly personal, it can feel like you’re walking the path alone,” Look said. “The encouragement and wisdom from other survivors is like a light in the darkness. They’ve walked this path before you, and they’re like spiritual guides.”
Both women say connecting with other survivors plays an important role in the healing process. Look says the project “opened up a door for me to healing and connecting with other survivors and really hearing how they walked through the fire, because I was so deep in it and still am. I just realized how powerful collective healing on this level can be.”
Since its inception, the campaign has also been championed by queer women of color, a group whose contributions are often overlooked. “In this watershed moment, there are so many eyeballs on sexual assault and how we can transform our culture,” says Ikeda, the founder of imMEDIAite Justice, a nonprofit that helps girls share their stories. “We should really be looking towards people who have been innovating the culture around that. They have been sex workers, they have been folks of color, they have been trans folks. So, I do want to uplift those stories. And that’s really why [Survivor Love Letter] was created in the first place.”
Famously, longtime activist Tarana Burke, a black woman, created the #MeToo campaign years before white actress Alyssa Milano made it go viral. On a smaller scale, Ikeda says she’s seen the same thing happen with #SurvivorLoveLetter, with publications “whitewashing” the project through the imagery they choose.
Another aspect frequently overlooked is the costly ongoing mental health services that so many victims need. The harsh reality is that not everyone survives, Ikeda points out. That comes sharply into focus in light of #MeToo and #TimesUp. “That’s the thing about these movements, sometimes they become so big and such a big news story that we forget how personal this is. It has ruined lives. It has taken lives.”
Until the discussion includes the emotional and mental health effects of trauma and sexual assault, we’re not fully grasping what the movement is about, Ikeda says. “To make it palatable for the masses is almost a disservice to it. It is a double-edged sword, because on one side, some people really needed to hear all of the details in order to realize how bad it actually is. And then for those of us who actually experienced it, it was so traumatizing.”
Moving forward, Look says, we need to prioritize survivors. “What are we going to do now, and how can we express our support and love and give our energy to survivors? What is it they need right now? And what are the systemic changes that we need right now in mental health care, in the workplace, and all other aspects of daily life that can make it easier for survivors to keep on surviving?”
For Ikeda, “My hope is that I continue to hold space for survivors.” And given how exhausted many in the movement are, she says, “this year I’m trying to be a lot more joyful. What I’m hoping to bring to Survivor Love Letter this year is a sense of wonder … I want survivors who have been fighting so long against institutions who haven’t recognized their pain and their suffering, I want them to experience joy of equal measure.”
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