By Invitation
Towards a Just Memory: Remembering Survivors of Sexual Violence through Memorials

In September 2017, a memorial dedicated to survivors of the "comfort women" system was unveiled in downtown San Francisco. As the largest modern sexual slavery system, the "comfort women" system was created and overseen by the Imperial Japanese Government between 1931 and 1945. An estimated 200,000 girls and women from areas occupied or colonized by Japan’s Empire fell victim to this system.[1] Created by the "Comfort Women" Justice Coalition (CWJC), a multi-ethnic and multi-national feminist grassroots group based in San Francisco, this memorial depicts South Korean survivor Kim Hak-sun (1924-97), one of the first to publicly testify against Japanese military sexual slavery, gazing with empathy at three young women who represent victims from China, Korea, and the Philippines [Fig. 1]. According to CWJC, "few memorials speak of women, even fewer of their suffering, courage, endurance and determination to achieve justice."[2] Countering this problematic trend, this memorial is explicitly dedicated to "eradicating sexual violence and sex trafficking throughout the world."[3]

Just one month after the memorial’s completion, the #MeToo movement came into being, igniting new discussions about sexual violence worldwide. As CWJC’s president Judith Mirkinson aptly notes, "it was fitting that the [San Francisco] statue was unveiled at a time when many women are feeling more emboldened to talk about sexual assault - and when statues have become lightning rods for political debate."[4] While much has been written on literature, media, and art exhibitions dealing with sexual violence, memorials to survivors of sexual violence have received considerably less attention. In this essay, I want to call our attention to an emerging genre of transnational memorials against sexual violence. I argue that commemorating sexual violence survivors through memorials is historically and socially significant for two reasons.

First, throughout human history, hundreds of thousands of memorials have been dedicated exclusively to so-called "great men" deemed to have made significant contributions to human history and civilization. The triumphal arches of Roman emperors and Mount Rushmore stand as some of the most representative examples. In contrast, rarely have women and their experiences been represented in public memorials. The representation of female victims of sexual violence in memorials, therefore, challenges a long-existing tradition by giving visibility to women.

Furthermore, sexual trauma has long been seen as a personal and private injury inappropriate for public representation and memorialization. Notably, memorials to sexual violence survivors tend to be placed in public spaces such as parks and streets. This ensures that they are highly visible to members within a given society. By asserting their presence in public spaces, these memorials not only urge onlookers to consider sexual violence as a systematic problem requiring urgent public discussion, but also contribute to the normalization of critical discussions of sexual violence.

By unapologetically representing women and their struggles, memorials commemorating sexual violence survivors contribute to the shaping of what Viet Thanh Nguyen calls "just memory." As Nguyen sees it, "a just memory constantly tries to recall what might be forgotten, accidentally or deliberately…[it] is only possible when the weak, the poor, the marginalized, the different, and the demonized, or their advocates, can influence or even seize the industries of memory."[5] Since critical discussions of sexual violence have historically been suppressed, there exist many occlusions in our understanding of women’s experiences.[6] Memorials to sexual violence survivors serve as a thread connecting these dots and weave them into a story of women’s struggle, rage, and resistance throughout history.

The first memorials to sexual violence survivors emerged in 2010 with the global "comfort women" redress movement. "Comfort women" memorials take diverse forms ranging from statues to plaques and gardens, and they can be found in many countries including Canada, China, Germany, South Korea, and the United States. The San Francisco memorial discussed above is one example. Whereas most "comfort women" memorials depicts victims from a particular country, the San Francisco one stands out in that it portrays victims of multiple ethnic and national origins tightly holding hands and standing in solidarity [Fig. 2]. Such an artistic representation emphasizes how sexual violence has been a predicament faced by all women regardless of their ethnic, racial, and national identities.

Figure One: Memorial in San Francisco, CA. Photographed by author.
Figure One: Memorial in San Francisco, CA. Photographed by author.
Figure Two: Memorial in San Francisco, CA. Photographed by author.
Figure Two: Memorial in San Francisco, CA. Photographed by author.

Another memorial honoring victims of wartime sexual violence was installed in London in July 2019. Entitled "Mother and Child," this sculpture commemorates Vietnamese victims who were sexually assaulted by South Korean troops during the Vietnam War as well as the children born as a result of wartime rape. Between 1964 and 1973, somewhere around 320,000 South Korean soldiers were deployed to South Vietnam to fight alongside South Vietnamese and US troops. Tens of thousands of Vietnamese women were raped by South Korean soldiers, resulting in the birth of thousands of multiethnic children who were given the derogatory name "Lai Đại Hàn."[7] Living as pariahs in postwar Vietnam, these women and children have bravely spoken out, demanding an apology from the South Korean government. Commissioned by the London-based organization Justice for Lai Dai Han, this sculpture simultaneously celebrates their courage and resilience, and honors "all who are survivors of sexual violence in conflict."[8]

In addition to memorials dealing with the issue of wartime sexual violence, we have also witnessed the emergence of memorials addressing incidents of sexual violence occurring in daily life in times of peace. In October and November 2019, two anonymously installed plaques appeared on Stanford University’s campus at the site where Chanel Miller was sexually assaulted by convicted felon and former Stanford swimmer Brock Turner back in 2015. Both plaques are engraved with the same passage taken from Miller’s influential victim impact statement: "You took away my worth, my privacy, my energy, my time, my safety, my intimacy, my confidence, my own voice—until today"[Fig. 3].

The idea of constructing a memorial at the site where Miller was assaulted was first proposed in 2016 by Michele Dauber, Professor of Law at Stanford University. According to Dauber, "using architecture to create historical memory can be a very powerful thing…Other students who have experienced sexual violence will see this and realize that they’re not alone."[9] This project received positive support from many members of the Stanford community. In 2017, the site, which formerly housed a dumpster, was re-landscaped into a contemplative garden featuring two benches and a fountain [Fig. 4]. The sign at the garden explains that this space "seeks to honor and support survivors of sexual violence and remind us of our obligations to the safety and wellbeing of all in our community." Phone numbers for 24/7 sexual violence helplines, both on and off campus, are also included on the sign.

As one of the first memorials in honor of survivors of campus sexual violence, the contemplative garden honoring Miller is of great significance. By turning the site of trauma into a site of reflection and support, it not only draws attention to the prevalence of campus sexual violence, but also calls on the campus community to take it upon themselves to collectively create a safe environment.

Figure Three: Memorial in Stanford, CA. Photographed by author.
Figure Three: Memorial in Stanford, CA. Photographed by author.
Figure Three: Memorial in Stanford, CA. Photographed by author.
Figure Four: Memorial in Stanford, CA. Photographed by author.

In October 2020, Minneapolis welcomed a memorial in honor of sexual violence survivors. Tarana Burke, activist and founder of the #MeToo movement, was among attendees to the unveiling ceremony. Entitled the "Survivor’s Memorial," the 30-foot-wide memorial features three 12' mosaic panels and a circular seating area [Fig. 5]. The mosaics symbolize that "broken pieces can be put together to create something whole and beautiful."[10] The initiative to build such a memorial was launched by Sarah Super, a Minneapolis-based rape survivor, activist, and founder of Break the Silence, who was inspired by the stories she had heard from other survivors. According to Super, "the Memorial is one way community members have taken a stand and voiced their support for those who've been victimized. Our goal was to break the silence and respond to sexual violence and rape culture as a community in solidarity with survivors."[11]

From San Francisco to London and from Stanford to Minneapolis, memorials discussed in this essay seek to commemorate, support, and lend visibility to survivors of sexual violence. However, such an intervention into memorial culture does not come without backlash or hostility. As the intensifying debate over Confederate monuments suggests, public space is increasingly becoming "a representational battleground, where many different social groups fight for access and fight for control of the images that define them."[12] Similar struggles can also be observed in memorials to sexual violence survivors. For instance, in protest of the San Francisco memorial, in 2018 the Japanese city of Osaka surprised the world by terminating its sixty-one-year sister city relationship with San Francisco. This decision came after Osaka’s repeated attempts to prevent this memorial from being constructed. In an open letter dated October 2nd to San Francisco’s mayor London Breed, Osaka’s mayor Hirofumi Yoshimura accused the memorial of spreading "an unconfirmed, one-sided view" of the "comfort women" issue, severely tarnishing Japan’s reputation.[13] Another example concerns the vandalization of the Survivor’s Memorial. The Memorial has been vandalized twice in 2022, causing damage to two of the three pillars. In particular, in one mosaic panel, a Black woman's face has been completely scratched out [Fig. 6]. This defacement is interpreted by Lori Greene, the mosaic artist of the Memorial, as "an attack on women, the BIPOC community and survivors."[14] Incidents like these reveal that the mere existence of memorials in honor of sexual violence survivors have made some people feel threatened and offended. These people’s existence shows just how important it is to continue constructing similar memorials.

Collectively, memorials examined in this essay strive to raise awareness about the pervasiveness of sexual violence both in times of peace and war, encouraging onlookers to reflect on what we each can contribute to the ongoing fight against rape culture. If you live near one of them, please take some time to visit it and reflect. If you do not live near one, still reflect and ask why, and if you are especially inclined, see what it would take to bring one to your community. It is my hope that such memorials will continue to grow and flourish across different locales and communities.

Figure 5: Memorial in Minneapolis, MN. Photographed by author.
Figure Five: Memorial in Minneapolis, MN. Photographed by author.
Figure 6: Vandalized memorial in San Francisco, CA. Photographed by author.
Figure Six: Vandalized memorial in Minneapolis, MN. Photographed by author.

[1The number 200,000 is recognized and used by the United Nations and is widely cited in global media coverage and scholarly research on the "comfort women" issue, though not without debate. Due to the dearth of official documentation and systematic reports from victims and eyewitnesses, there is no way to determine precisely how many girls and women were caught up in it. Historian Yoshimi Yoshiaki argues that there were from 50,000 to 200,000 victims. See Yoshimi, Comfort Women: Sexual Slavery in the Japanese Military during World War II (trans. Suzanne O'Brien, New York: Columbia University Press, 2002), 93.

[2"SF Memorial," "Comfort Women" Justice Coalition (website).

[3] The descriptive plaque next to the San Francisco memorial.

[4Jacey Fortin, "'Comfort Women' Statue in San Francisco Leads a Japanese City to Cut Ties," New York Times, November 25, 2017.

[5Viet Thanh Nguyen, Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2016), 17.

[6It is important to point out that sexual violence does not just affect women. On the contrary, sexual violence against men occurs more frequently than is commonly assumed. Since none of the existing memorials to sexual violence survivors address male victims, this issue is beyond this essay’s scope.

[7"Lai" is an offensive word meaning "mixed-blood," whereas "Đại Hàn" refers to South Korea.

[8"Sculpture to Honour Lai Dai Han and Victims of Sexual Violence Installed in Central London," Cision PR Newswire, July 30, 2019.

[9Courtney Douglas, "Scenic Spot Replaces Dumpster at Site of Brock Turner Assault," The Stanford Daily, October 4, 2017.

[10"Press Release," Survivors Memorial (website).

[11] Ibid.

[12] Kirk Savage, Standing Soldiers, Kneeling Slaves: Race, War, and Monument in Nineteenth-Century America (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2018), 5.

[13] Hirofumi Yoshimura, "Termination of Sister City Relationship," City of Osaka, Japan (website), October 2, 2018,, 6.

[14] Tommy Wiita, "Sexual Assault Survivors Memorial in Minneapolis Vandalized Again," Bring Me The News, October 21, 2022.

My Colloquies are shareables: Curate personal collections of blog posts, book chapters, videos, and journal articles and share them with colleagues, students, and friends.

My Colloquies are open-ended: Develop a Colloquy into a course reader, use a Colloquy as a research guide, or invite participants to join you in a conversation around a Colloquy topic.

My Colloquies are evolving: Once you have created a Colloquy, you can continue adding to it as you browse Arcade.