Gay is calling for submissions for a collection of essays she’s pulling together written by women who have experienced sexual harassment, assault and abuse. The aim of the collection is to expose the way women are often told it’s not that bad after we’ve experienced one or all of the above, using the survivors’ own words. As Gay puts it:
Not That Bad is an opportunity for those whose voices were stolen from them, to reclaim and tell their stories. This anthology will explore what it is like to navigate rape culture as shaped by the identities we inhabit.
Contributing to this anthology is a chance to own your own narrative with all of the complexity of reality without shame or condescension. Because too many of us have lived this truth, there is no one way to tell this story.
Being told, it’s not that bad after sexual violation of any kind is a way for the culture to minimise the experience, and it’s also, I believe, a way in which others attempt to comfort us, albeit misguided. As a comforter, it’s not that bad is worse than useless, really.
However, my first thought on reading both posts was, this is a very exclusive offer to a relatively small demographic, and will exclude many survivors who aren’t academics or academically inclined.
Here’s a list of suggested topics:
Potential Topics (a brief list, not a prescription)
Testimonies of what “not that bad” looks like
Critical examinations of rape culture
What it’s like to negotiate rape culture as a man
How women diminish the sexual violence and aggression they experience and the effects of doing so
What “not that bad” looks like in popular culture—film, television, and music
Resisting rape culture
Combating sexual harassment, street harassment and cat-calling
How sexual harassment and violence erode women’s privacy
I’m an academic, and used a great deal of my experience of childhood sexual abuse as the basis for an interrogation of violence and power in my PhD. So I’m not complaining about being excluded from the project by its frames of reference and the language in which they are couched. I’m also very aware of the potential helpfulness of a theoretical framework through which a survivor can view her experience, if she is so inclined.
So why is my reaction to this proposal exasperation and anger?
The women whose essays will be chosen for this anthology are not likely to be women without a voice. Indeed, a woman will need to have found a voice, and an educated one, in order to qualify for inclusion. There is nothing innately wrong with this: women with educated voices suffer sexual violations of all kinds, and there is no argument for silencing us.
Yet I want a qualifier on this anthology. It isn’t simply an opportunity for women whose voices were stolen to reclaim them. It’s an opportunity for a very select group of women, who have voices that fulfil the editor’s criteria, to publicly own their narratives. It ought to be owned as such.
My irritation is with a feminism that speaks of “women” when what is actually meant is a certain category of women, to the inevitable exclusion of others. This feminism, far from challenging the culture actually props it up, in its embrace of social hierarchies rather than its contestation. So we measure the advancement of women by the number of us who sit on boards, achieve the status of CEO, and succeed in a patriarchal system.
Feminism, for me, is about contesting that system. A feminism that addresses itself to a particular category of women and does not own that, is a feminism that is patriarchal in its performance. It’s based on an assumption that other categories of women aren’t as significant, or that all women are the same.
There’s nothing wrong with Gay’s project in itself. The problem is with its claim to offer “women” a voice and an opportunity for ownership of our narratives. It doesn’t. It offers women who can intellectualise our violations, and write about them, the opportunity to be heard.
When I was sexually assaulted last year I saw a counsellor, and one of the things I said to her repeatedly was that I didn’t understand my reaction to this event, as I had dealt with so much as a consequence of childhood sexual abuse, to the extent that I’d based a PhD on the topic. I expected myself to know what was going on in me, and deal with it far better than I am.
Ah, she said. It’s one thing to understand events intellectually. But your body remembers. Dealing with it intellectually isn’t all there is to do to own the experience. Traumatic memories, ancient and modern, are not seen off by the intellect. It’s but one aspect of the situation.
So, while I could write a piece that would probably qualify for Gay’s anthology on navigating rape culture as shaped by the identity I inhabit (except that I’ve written this and likely disqualified myself) something in me, as a recently raped woman, baulks at this language and this framing.
I think feminists who practise elite feminism ought to expect resistance, because they are likely not respecting the existence of all women. It is, really, quite unacceptable to use the term “women” in such an unqualified manner when what you truthfully mean is: only women who meet the criteria need apply.