Elite feminism. Enough, already.

24 Oct

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Ever since I read this piece by Clementine Ford on this venture by Roxane Gay, I’ve been struggling with the reaction both posts have provoked in me.

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.

 

 

 

 

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12 Responses to “Elite feminism. Enough, already.”

  1. rabbitwithfangs October 24, 2015 at 4:42 pm #

    While I agree with you re; the qualifiers for the essay, it’s probably worth remembering that Gay is very intersectional in her feminism and will probably do her best to include a variety of voices.
    I am bothered by your choice of image. “Respect Existence Or Expect Resistance” is a pro-life slogan often used by anti-abortion offshoots of the Anonymous political group. I was a bit horrified to see it on your blog. The idea of violence towards women contemplating terminations is abhorrent.

    Like

    • Jennifer Wilson October 24, 2015 at 6:30 pm #

      I’m absolutely opposed to violence of any kind towards women, including anti abortion violence.
      I had no idea that slogan had been appropriated by pro life groups. I know it in very different circumstances.
      Thanks for alerting me.

      I think the criteria for submission excludes a lot of women.

      Like

  2. hudsongodfrey October 25, 2015 at 5:45 pm #

    I suppose that “Not that Bad” is meant as an opportunity for men to listen rather than speak to a subject that we’re very much on the flipside of. It could be an opportunity to move the conversation onto a better plane that just talking about deterrence and how to get “tough on crime”. That might be a good thing to stir a bit of empathy among those of us who find it challenging that the topic is occasionally presented in too sterile and theoretical a fashion to spare the victim’s from reliving it.

    In response to Clementine Ford’s piece I find myself asking on behalf of victims not only never to be told “its not that bad” but also not to be told how to feel at all. By that I mean that going about telling raped women that it IS “that bad” is surely just as bad an idea. People are different, and I have heard some women report experiencing repressed emotions leading to conditions akin to survivor guilt. For their sake I hope they know proper therapy can’t be replaced by a blog.

    Even if we can rule out the part of victim status reinforcement that speaks of slut shaming there are subjective qualia involved that can come and must only come from victims as opposed to well-meaning intellectuals. It seems to me that Ms Gay may be plugged into that sensibility in a way that could do some good.

    So what is the purpose of Gay’s blog, who can it help and how? If it seems elitist and/or tends to exclude men then what a big mistake I think she’d be making. I think men are generally the ones who need to read about what the harm of being violated feels like to help us gain an emotional sense of consequence around behaviours we shouldn’t want to engage in.

    Whether it can similarly help women begs several questions about the nature of the place you put yourself in when you write about such a subject. I’d hope it wouldn’t be a kind of search for sympathy that lacks authenticity, as in a bunch of respondents locked in a knot of “ain’t it awful” horror story one-upmanship. If we come away from it drawing comparisons between different accounts that lead to a sense any violation short of ritual brutalisation can be branded “rape-lite”, then YES written off as “not that bad”, clearly we’re just as far back to where we started from as we’d be if we sanctimoniously condemn all sexual assault as if it were exactly the same.

    So in conclusion, whether we like it or not a project like that demands a good editor and perhaps a skillset that goes way beyond qualifications in feminist theory and might in fact benefit from the input of a trained psychologist instead.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jennifer Wilson October 25, 2015 at 6:48 pm #

      I just asked Roxane Gay if she had experienced sexual assault. She replied “rude.”
      I thought that as she’s asking f0r submissions for her anthology, it would be decent of her to own her experiences.

      Like

      • hudsongodfrey October 25, 2015 at 7:36 pm #

        Was this on twitter or some other social media? In that case I might giver her the benefit of the doubt that she’s not taken the time to check out who she’s talking to. I imagine with her public profile she might attract her fair share of trolls and thus be a bit dismissive.

        I agree it isn’t a rude question in light of the context you’d have meant it in, but I’ve no frame of reference for what she knows and doesn’t know when she’s being so dismissive.

        I don’t think it matters if she hasn’t been a victim herself. Its a matter of somebody having a good idea and curating it such that it isn’t a skewed point of reference but way to take something useful away from a series of negative experiences. Frankly the more I think about it I’m seeing it work better as a book than a website.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Jennifer Wilson October 25, 2015 at 8:05 pm #

          The proposal is for a book, an anthology edited by Gay and one other person.
          I asked her the question on her personal website, which has a category titled “Ask me anything.”
          I’ve since followed up explaining that my intention was not to be rude, but to enquire as to her experience.
          I have some discomfort about a woman inviting other women to disclose sexual assaults etc with the goal of raising awareness, if the woman in charge of the project isn’t willing to disclose her own experience.
          I don’t think its necessary at all for the woman to be a survivor, but I do think it matters that she be willing to be as open as she is asking survivors to be.
          Walking the talk, I guess.

          Like

          • hudsongodfrey October 25, 2015 at 11:07 pm #

            Yes I agree that you’d want to sound out the potential handler of any such personal account if only to find out where’s she’s at, and what fuels her interest in this doing this project. If she expects others to voluntarily lay their past bare so she can preside over a bestseller and reap the profits to boot, then she needs to offer some quid pro quos.

            Liked by 1 person

  3. Tamara October 25, 2015 at 8:06 pm #

    Roxane Gay has written and spoken about her sexual assault as an adolescent.
    http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/aug/02/roxane-gay-bad-feminist-sisterhood-fake-orgasm

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jennifer Wilson October 25, 2015 at 8:14 pm #

      Thank you, Tamara.
      It only makes it more odd, really, that Roxane would respond to my inquiry with the single word “rude.”
      Anyways, I’ve explained to her that it wasn’t my intention to be rude, but to find out if a woman calling for submissions from sexual assault survivors was a survivor herself.

      Like

  4. samjandwich October 26, 2015 at 10:35 pm #

    Jennifer, you might be aware of http://projectunbreakable.tumblr.com, which is now inactive but for some time published submissions from (mostly) women, about the things that rapists said to them during the actual act or during the extended time they were being abused (and it’s pretty instructive to note how many accounts come from people who were raped as children).

    Intuitively I feel as though Roxanne Gay’s heart is in the right place. I think it’s really important to give uninhibited opportunity for women who have been sexually assaulted to be listened to, and for them to have their experiences taken at face value. But I agree that the conditions Gay is placing on what will be accepted may well exclude the people who have the most to say… whereas Project Unbreakable’s approach of taking all comers, and allowing them a platform to put their own perspectives across un-photoshopped may well be more valuable – and again I appreciate your discussion of what it often takes to advance information that’s taken seriously in academia vs viscerally emotionally meaningful material.

    And I’m sorry but I can’t stay silent on this point: I don’t consider Clementine Ford to be a feminist. Rather I believe her to be a misanthropist (or let’s say it out loud: a loser), who blames her gender for the things that haven’t worked out in her life… and who is misappropriating feminism to claw back whatever it is she feels she’s been denied. Viz, she appears to ascribe meaning to the statements of rape apologists and to feel they deserve some kind of intellectual rebuke, rather than to dismiss them out of hand as the criminals they are.

    We all know that any unwelcome sexual activity is unacceptable, and that attempting to measure the harm caused is completely deleterious, since every person’s perceptions and reactions are unique to them. And while I support Roxanne Gay’s project to explode some myths, it seems to me that if handled insensitively then it may well serve to perpetuate some more.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jennifer Wilson October 27, 2015 at 6:48 am #

      Ah, thank you for reminding me about Project Unbreakable, Sam.
      I’ve clashed with Ford on occasion so…
      Actually I seem to have clashed with a few people, oh well.

      Like

  5. Ben Cook November 11, 2015 at 6:12 pm #

    Indeed Sam whilst the proposed anthology is well-intentioned, I passionately feel you are right to identify the narrow circle of voices it truly seeks to represent. It seems, to me at least, symptomatic of a broader failing in the gender equality movement at present; namely, people seeking to speak *for* other people. I believe we must recognise this is at the heart of the epistemological and ethical problems of patriarchy, and then act upon that understanding by seeking to empower ourselves with new semantics marked by inclusivity, tolerance of divergent points of view, and conspicuous efforts not to inscribe our voices onto others.

    It’s kind of how I feel vis a vis angry campus socialists and the like, who tend to appropriate the language of power and hatred (‘smash the state’ etc) to attack a system fundamentally built on the same linguistics. Foucault flies over most Marxists’ heads. It’s called fighting fire with fire – it doesn’t ultimately work!!! So to conclude this little diatribe, I agree, and hope others join in my clarion call for a greater injection of (true) empathy into the debate and indeed the entire movement towards gender equality (as opposed to sympathy or opinions/identities inscribed from above for their political utility).

    Like

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