When I think of being young I think of being scared. I was scared all the time. I remember lying in bed, listening out for sounds, or watching for faces to change and if one face in particular changed, it wouldn’t change back, not soon enough.
I used to blame my brother. I thought that if he didn’t get hit, I wouldn’t get hit. I thought he caused it all. Then I blamed my mother. I thought that if only she’d let my brother get hit enough for all the hitting to be “done,” it would end and none of it would spill over onto me.
I never blamed the person who did the hitting, obviously. You just don’t. When it comes to blame it has to be women and children first.
When I had a breakdown in my teens I tried to speak about what was wrong. Unfortunately, people who have breakdowns are a bit like rape victims who drank too much, or women who’ve been called TERFs. They are not credible, not to friends, not to doctors, not even police (god knows why I tried the latter, but at least it was only the once – when I think back, my overwhelming feeling is not one of anger but embarrassment, for being so bloody naive). People did want to know “the key” to what was making me distressed but not that key; the answer I gave was incorrect. It felt like being in a dream in which you’re trying to shout and no sound comes out.
Why are there bruises down her back?
She doesn’t eat enough and she drinks too much. They just appear.
“You need to cover up,” my mother said, “it makes us look bad.”
So I stopped talking and carried on drinking. You can’t fight for validation forever, even if that feels like the thing that would make you safest. You swallow it all down and a bit of you won’t be the same but perhaps the rest of you can be preserved.
Ten years later I was sexually assaulted by a stranger when I happened to be extremely drunk (as I often was back then). When I went to the police (I know, stupid) it was the same feeling of opening my mouth and no sound coming out, even though there were words, real words. Not being believed is an empty feeling. You might as well not exist. Another bit of you goes.
These things – physical violence, sexual assault – are more than mere words but it’s the words that hurt too. I don’t believe you can be the worst phrase of all. And sometimes it doesn’t matter whether what they don’t believe you about is an online rumour or a fist in the face.
Over the weekend The Washington Post featured a piece by Michelle Goldberg arguing that feminist writers are “so besieged by online abuse that some have begun to retire.” It offers a great deal of insight into just how hard it is to be a feminist voice in a misogynist world. However, it makes the mistake of treating online abuse and real-life misogyny as either/or, as though female commentators are, as if by magic, in a position to choose:
.. stories today about Internet abuse inevitably elicit cliches about heat and kitchens — demands that women toughen up and grow thicker skin. Punditry and activism, after all, are relatively cushy gigs. […] … the creator of Feministe, Lauren Bruce, no longer has an online presence at all. “I had to completely cut that part off in order to live the rest of my life,” she says. “In order to work, have a nice family and feel like I was emotionally whole, I could not have one foot planted in a toxic stew.”
Many of us have sought refuge from and understanding of real-life abuse within feminism itself. There is no real distinction between those who write about misogyny and those who experience it because most of those writing about it are women. Many of us are still in the “toxic stew” or still recovering from the trauma of having been there. This is why the current backlash against feminists who complain of online abuse is nothing more than misogynist bullshit. It’s the replication of patriarchal patterns of disbelief. Contrary to what some would like to suggest, there are no women to whom you’ve earned the right to say “we don’t believe you, your experience of misogyny is imaginary and you’re not really oppressed.” If a woman says a word is a slur and a threat is a threat, it’s for you to deal with your knee-jerk disbelief, not her “phobia.”
Online rape threats don’t cancel out real-life experience of rape.
Tweets threatening violence don’t cancel out real-life beatings.
The “privilege” of writing about male violence against women doesn’t bring with it the real-life privilege of never having experienced it.
Online misrepresentations and lies don’t cancel out all those times you complained about real-life abuse and no one believed you or, at worse, dismissed your voice as sick, hateful or vindictive.
No-platforming doesn’t replace all those other experiences of being literally left outside.
Using words that misogynists describe as “violence” does not grant you superpowers to fend off actual violence. It doesn’t stop you feeling afraid, not just about what you might read but of what might break your bones.
It’s not just that all this is triggering (although quite obviously it is), it’s that it is the very same dynamic, the same entitlement, the same dehumanisation, the same disbelief when you try to make your case. It’s the same dreamlike speaking without being heard.
When women are disbelieved online or are told that their complaints are motivated by sickness (***phobia) or spite (bigotry), it’s a replication of the way in which people in the “real world” might accuse them of lying about rape or emotional abuse. You’re vindictive, you’re unreliable, you’re not well. And the chances are women have faced not one or the other of these, but both. It’s how male violence sustains itself and online discourse surrounding “mistrustful” or “unaccountable” feminists is seeping back into the real world, endorsing the age-old view that women are pampered princesses who lie about their fears and make up stories just to spite men. It’s a view that hurts all women.
I think it is fairly safe to assume almost every woman who has faced online dismissals of her ideas, false accusations of bigotry and crude acronyms has also been a victim of some form of male violence and/or assault and/or sustained emotional abuse. If speaking out against male violence made us magically immune to male violence then there’d be no need for refuges at all. Just say the sort of things misogynists dismiss as “violence,” become magically privileged and that’s it sorted. Alas, it doesn’t actually happen like that because guess what? Women have been trying that for years.
When you decide that a woman is “too privileged” to talk about feminist approaches to sex, gender and violence, what are your criteria? Were her bruises not dark enough for your liking? Do you need more evidence that she has experienced sexual assault (perhaps a male witness who is a pillar of the community)? Is she just not credible, what with other people telling you she’s a slag/slut /TERF/SWERF/[pick your own one-syllable female credibility eraser]? Would you believe her if you hadn’t seen her hanging out with “the wrong people” and hence asking for it? Is an opinion the short skirt of the internet unless it’s the wrong opinion, in which case it’s all a grey area and she might have provoked it, you never can tell…? What would make her lived experience of misogyny credible: more rapes? more beatings? death? Would you need to be on hand to watch, just to make sure? (Or would you merely interpret the very act of dying as passive-aggression on her part?)
Because if these are your criteria – if you replicate the aftermath of real-life violence in your attitude towards online abuse and public misrepresentation – then you are re-traumatising women due to your own misogynist assumptions regarding female authority and credibility. You have decided that female experience is either/or, helpless victim or privileged bitch who deserves taking down. You can’t imagine that a victim might not base her whole identity around victimhood and could instead have the strength and perspective to discuss the structures that perpetuate it (you might use the word “survivor” yet when women show signs of actual survival, empathy evaporates). Online abuse is not the great equalizer, doling out shit to women who you’ve decided aren’t getting enough misogynist abuse in real life (and the same goes for the harassment and misrepresentation of female academics and feminists speakers. If that’s your idea of activism – spreading shit around and adding to it, rather than trying to clear the whole think up – then you don’t like women. And you’re certainly not speaking truth to power in any way whatsoever).
Despite what men do to women again and again, women are not either utterly crushed or in need of a good crushing. We stand up again. That is, I think, what offends misogynists the most and forces them to create the myth of the real-life-abuse-immune feminist with no right to speak. How can we have done that to you and still you’re able to talk back? You must have been missed off our list.
No, we weren’t. We were always on your list. You never miss anyone out.
And if you’re the kind of feminist who doesn’t like women who don’t appear sufficiently crushed, you’re no feminist at all. Stop making us swallow your shit.