I honestly believe that sisterhood and constant appraisal of whether we are being careful enough with one another as feminists and as women are crucial to any kind of movement for our liberation. Which in fact, makes it feel both essential and incredibly difficult to write this post. As women, we all experience oppression and violence from men, and navigating the trauma we’ve experienced along with trying to forge productive directions in our activism can be absolutely fraught. If I had a pound for every bitter dispute in a feminist space which left one or both parties feeling vulnerable and triggered with regard to their experiences of male violence, I could give Rape Crisis central funding for ten years, which would be quite fitting, really!
However, as careful as we may be, and as respectful as we must be of how other women process their experiences, we have to remember that feminism is a political movement. That we shouldn’t collude with women, despite or even because of their experiences, when their interpretation of those experiences is one which damages other women. We may empathise and we may support, but a woman who feels that other women should be told not to do ‘insert X here’ because it makes her feel safer from further violence is not making a feminist argument. The personal may be political, but our personal, on a singular level, is not THE political. Self blame can be protective for women and may at some points be their only option for dealing with their trauma – this does not mean that we advocate it. I believe that the prevalence of male violence in all our lives means that our experiences are always relevant on a political level, but it doesn’t follow that all of our responses are ones we should suggest to other women, or that we always have a universal understanding of women’s experiences.
This means that contextualising our experiences of male violence is essential for our understanding of the violence that women experience as a class. When used to inform our knowledge, I believe that our experiences can deepen and strengthen that knowledge, but there will always be more for us to learn. On this level it concerns me deeply that lately I’ve seen swathes of women making sweeping assumptions about other women’s experiences of sexual violence. If you’ve ever been involved in a heated debate about rape in a feminist space you might be familiar with the following scenario: Woman A argues with Woman B. Things get heated – neither think the other understands. Woman A discloses that she has experienced rape and therefore she would have thought that Woman B would listen to her. Several of the other women watching wince because they’re aware that Woman B has also experienced rape. It’s a crude example, but it highlights not only the danger of making assumptions but also the fact that in this situation, it’s very likely to be the safety and sisterhood in feminist spaces that makes women feel that others WILL agree, and that if they don’t they can’t possibly have had the same experiences. I wish this was true: it’s not. On a personal level, I was horrified and upset by the discussion over Rape Crisis South London’s campaign against rape pornography – I find the idea that tolerance for it could be feminist deeply upsetting both in terms of ideology and in relation to my own experiences. But clearly, given the vast numbers of articles beginning along the lines of ‘as a rape survivor, I oppose the campaign’, we don’t all agree. And really, why should we? There’s very little more disturbing to me than the idea that having a man’s penis forced inside you without your consent should turn your opinions into the clone of every other woman with that experience. Really, to me it sounds like something a perpetrator would think.
So I disagree with the premise of ‘as a survivor, I believe’ on the basis that one woman can’t speak for such a huge, diverse group of women. I’ve also observed it silence women who feel unable or unwilling to disclose on several occasions. I’m absolutely not opposed to open discussion and disclosures around male violence, far from it. But not every woman discussing her views will be equally able to place her experiences on the table as evidence of her knowledge. Work commitments or needing to keep the information from family or friends can intervene even if a woman wants to disclose. I was raped a few months ago – you won’t know this on Twitter. Why? Well, why on earth would I talk about something so recent on social media? But I’ve certainly been told since then that I’m undermining rape survivor’s experiences with my beliefs on pornography, or witnessed blanket statements made on behalf ‘of survivors’ that I fundamentally disagree with.
Fundamentally, I wonder if the shift towards talking ‘as a survivor’ highlights the way in which that concept has moved towards an identity rather than an empowering spin on ‘victim’. I’m biased as I personally detest the word, and I’m aware that the concept helps many women – on a personal level I completely respect their interpretation of their experiences. But when we are speaking as women politically, does it help us if we move towards this paradigm of what is done to you becoming what you are? (and apparently, what others are who have experienced similar).
I would never want my behaviour now to be constantly judged in the context of abuse and violence that I’ve experienced in the past, and when women refer to their experiences almost as references for their beliefs and explanations for their behaviour, I wonder if that’s almost the opposite of empowerment. It may well be encouraged by the ‘survival’ narrative, but I believe we are all stronger than that – we can simultaneously take care with one another and process our own experiences. It is distressing, it is difficult and yes, sometimes we will want to sit on the floor and scream (I almost did this last week, actually!) – but the way to do it is together, in sisterhood. If we hurl our traumatic experiences at one another as pawns and are lightning quick to presume about the histories of other women, where are we heading?