Not just a number: age, power and abuse

[Warning for discussion and description of abuse of intimate partners.]

I’m thinking about a longer article about women who abuse women they’re in relationships with, but it might take a while.  In the meantime, I wanted to get some thoughts that I’ve been having about age out of my system.

Age is a characteristic which affects how much power you have in society, and how much power you have in relation to any partners you might have.  It’s a bit different to several other characteristics that kyriarchy uses to allocate power, because it changes constantly.  Unlike gender, for instance, where the messages we’re given in childhood are different depending on whether adults think they’re teaching a boy or a girl, we’re all socialised as children, and the powerlessness that is enforced on children.  And most of us, hopefully, make it to old age, and the loss of power that is then enacted on us.

However, I want to talk about age differentials in between, and at the upper end of childhood, and how that can affect relationships where abuse is obvious, and where power and control are much less.  Being older than your partner contributes to your having power over them, to a greater or lesser extent depending on the size of the gap, your actual ages, how much your social circles and society values age, and what other power dynamics are going on.

Some brief bits of evidence from other people, for anyone feeling skeptical:

When professionals are trying to assess the risk of serious violence and murder in domestic abuse cases, a ten-year or more age gap, in same-gender relationships, indicates higher risk. (Found here (PDF))

This big study on teenagers’ experiences of dating abuse found that for girls with male partners, having a boyfriend even a year or two older, while it brought financial and status benefits, also significantly increased their risk of sexual and other abuse.

[I hate the work risk when talking about abuse.  It makes it sound like a storm or something uncontrollable, unaccountable.   Abusers choose partners who are younger than them because it gives them greater power over them.  That’s a better phrasing.]

So how does this work?  There’s nothing intrinsically powerful about being older.  Here are some example of how society enables this tool.

  • Via stereotypes and prejudice.  E.g., it’s easier to see young people as crazy, as flakey (unreliable), as rash, as violent.  As unwise, naive or stupid: they don’t know what’s best for themsleves, sometimes they just need some firm manipulation guidance.  They are especially clueless sexually, both about how to behave sexually, and their own sexual desires and preferences.  They’re just discovering themselves, after all.  So they need to be pressured taught about these things.
  • Via money.  Due to age-based oppression in the workplace, older people are likely to be earning more, and they’ve probably been earning for longer, so may have savings.  Financial power has huge impacts on personal relationships, especially sexual ones.
  • Via external social power.  Older people are more likely to have more powerful friends, more sources of support.  Things in their life are seen as more important because they’re older, and because their age allows them to access things coded as important: better jobs, housing, marriage, mortgage, parenthood.  They. their choices, desires and lives are seen as worthy of more respect.
  • Via internal social power.  All of these ideas are likely to have been internalised by both parties, such that they both may also believe that the older person knows what’s best for the younger, or that their desires are more important, or that they’re more worthy of respect.  These beliefs can impact hugely, changing the levels of entitlement, self-esteem, self-blame, and accountability that people bring to the relationship.
  • Via insitutions and structures.  If the people share an institution of any kind (school, university, workplace, religious organisation, etc) chances are, that instiution has a hierarchy based largely on age, or which at least reflects age.

There are probably other ways that society creates and bolsters age-based power – feel free to add comments.

So, how might this power be used in a sexual relationship?

  • I’ve already mentioned how age-power can enable sexual abuse.  The idea of the more experienced person quite coercively initiating the less experienced (usually a man initiating a woman, but there are prominent gay and lesbian versions too) is so enshrined in our cultures as a positive, sexy thing.  This can be backed up by sexual emotional abuse based on greater knowledge and experience, like “if you were really in love with me/straight/not frigid/lesbian/kinky/submissive/a woman/poly then you would want to ____”, or based on age-related entitlement, like “I’m a man of the world, you’re not adventurous enough for me.”
  • Financial and related control, such as monitoring their spending, withholding money, making them ask for money or putting them on an allowance.  More subtly, it can involve presuming that the older person’s career or education should be prioritised.
  • Isolation: ensuring that all of the couple’s friends are the friends of the older one, or at least of that age group.  [Side note: isolation can be achieved in quite subtle ways, such as kindly advising them that a certain friend/group is not a good influence on them, or saying that a certain hobby or interest annoys them or is inconvenient, or making certain things a secret so that they can’t talk about the whole relationship with their friends.]  The isolating effect of secrets is particularly useful in relationships affected by other age-related power differentials, such as an older person having an affair with a younger one, or a boss having an affair with an employee.
  • General entitlement and self-esteem: especially if the older person is bringing more money and status to the couple, they may feel that this and their age entitles them to have the final word, to contribute less in other ways, be respected more, to teach/advise the other person, to generally be in control.
  • Accusing the abused person of abuse: see the stereotypes paragraph above.  It’s easier to believe that a younger person is violent, uncontrollable etc, and actions taken by a younger person against an older person are more likely to be seen as bad, disrespectful, and not how things should be.

So that’s why it really pisses me off to see articles like this one at Autostraddle that celebrates relationships with a big age gap without mentioning the power imbalance or the potential for abuse.

Again, I’m sure that there are lots of other ways age-based power can be used – if you’ve got any ideas then do comment.  If anyone would like to share their own experience of abuse and/or shitty partners, then I promise not to approve (= publish) any comments which don’t treat those sharing with anything other than belief and respect.

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Ethical Alternatives to Being an Ally – Second Thoughts

[I don’t think this post needs any warnings, but let me know if I’ve missed something.]

Having seen some more conversations around ally behaviour, and done some more ally-ing and been allied-to some more, I’ve had a few more thoughts on how to navigate this area.  I’ve realised that my original thoughts missed and crucial dimension of what it means to act as an ally:

Power

Power is one of the pervading dynamics that we’re grappling with when we do anti-oppression work. We’re analysing which groups have power over other groups in society, and trying to reveal and counteract this. Power also plays out within all smaller groups, and this is deeply connected to the wider power politics. So a group that is fighting for their liberation is struggling against groups that hold societal power over them, and this will probably involve fighting against individuals or groups who wield that power on a more personal level.

What this means is that we need to recognise the power dynamics of the ally-oppressed person relationship. It is not neutral. The ally holds more power than the oppressed person, by very nature of the fact that they belong to the social group which is imbued with power. [Privilege is a term more often used in social justice circles, but I’m going to stick with power because of its focus on doing rather than being.]

Due to this unequal power relationship, a crucial part of the ally’s activism needs to be counteracting, and mitigating the effects of, the power they have over the people in the oppressed group.

This might be in individual ways, or group ways, or more structural ways. Even ignoring the effects of wider structural power on the two individuals, allies still have various advantages which give them more power and benefit.  For example:

  • We don’t *need* the movement: we can leave at any time.  This means we are more free to piss people off etc
  • Outsiders to the movement will reward us more.  We’ll be seen as more generous, heroic etc for our efforts in the movement, and probably given more respect, airtime and resources as a result.  Sometimes this results in really tangible benefits like research grants, book deals, employment.
  • Insiders in the movement will reward and value us more, knowing that outsiders will value us, and that therefore we’re useful spokespeople and a legitimising presence.  This means that sometimes we can get our way by threatening to leave.  Even without threats, people will be eager to appease and placate us.
  • Because we’re usually still able to access the various kinds of support and resources open to us outside the groups we are allies to, that means we have two areas to draw on, whereas non-ally activists have only their own communities’ support and resources.

The ideas which social justice communities have come up with around ally-ship, how to respond to call-outs etc can be understood as a code of etiquette designed to shift some of this power back in the oppressed person’s favour.  Because of this, it can feel very weird, and sometimes bad, to be an ally on the receiving end of these rules – they are designed to shift power away from you, and that’s never fun.  It’s basically like a super-diluted and time-and-space limited version of structural oppression: the rules are designed not to be in your favour.  Without seeing the context of the power balance already being in the ally’s favour, it can be very easy to feel shat on by these rules.  In fact, I think probably the less experience we have of being shat on by structural disempowerment, the more shocking and hurtful we’ll find these rules.

First I’m going to show how some of the more common ‘how to be an ally’ advice fits this pattern of shifting power away from allies, and why that’s a good thing, and then I’m going to add some more suggestions.

[Disclaimer: because no power structure works in isolation, there will be lots of cases where, although the people are talking about a structural oppression which the ally doesn’t experience, that ally experiences other structural oppressions which the person they are being an ally for, in that space, doesn’t experience. This might mean that the overall balance power is not in the ally’s favour, in which case some of the suggestions should be adapted or ignored.  For example, a black straight woman has a gay white male boss, and they’re talking about gayness.  The power is almost certainly in his favour, so some of the rules and suggestions will need rejigging.]

Common social justice rules and how they’re meant to shift power

‘Foreground the voices of the oppressed, don’t speak for us’
This is often framed in terms of getting the best information – the people who experience the sharp end of oppression necessarily know the most about how it works (and can also see the viewpoint of the oppressor, because their views are normative and widely disseminated). However, this is also an issue of power: silencing is both an active tool and natural consequence of oppression, so amplifying people’s voices is a way of handing some of that power back.

‘Don’t expect us to educate you
Many – though not all – structural oppressions are deeply tied up with labour. The oppressed group are forced/expected to work for longer, for less pay, on more horrible and less respected work. This literally disempowers them – they are left with less time, money and energy. Letting activism be one place where they can freely chose their work avoids disempowering them further.

Bear in mind that these two rules are set in the context of us really wanting to keep and appease allies, to educate and explain and to let allies be the more acceptable spokespeople for our movements.  And that for those of us with experience of allies who leave if they don’t get their way, we may be going out of our way to avoid that.

‘Behave decently when called out on something
Many of the behaviours which are commonly bad ways to respond to a call out are attempts to hold on to power. Properly apologising for something is an act which shows vulnerability. Letting another person have control over deciding what you did wrong, and how wrong it was, gives them a kind of power over you, however brief and limited.

‘Go learn about your power and privilege
You can’t hand something back if you don’t believe you’ve got it.  You can’t put the safety lock on a weapon you don’t think you’re holding.  If you’re having difficulty believing that you wield power, or have to option of wielding power, or that either of those things matters to acting as an ally, then you especially need to go and read stuff.

More ideas for how allies can hand back power

Consider not getting involved
There will almost certainly be ways we can help the movement as a whole, but some spaces will be more effective and more powerful without our presence. Not just the spaces already labelled ‘X-only’. Consider refusing offers of power: leadership, publication etc. Or, for instance, turn up to the meetings, but rescind your voting rights.

Do the things which are considered menial
Sign up for tea-making, photocopying, washing up, data-entry. Compile lists of resources to make it easy for others to educate themselves.  Not as ways to make friends and get known within the community/group/event, but as an end in itself.

Do things which allow more of that group to access the movement
Sign up for childcare, giving lifts, translation and transcription, etc.

Set up systems of accountability
Create way in which people from that group can talk to you about your behaviour and have control over that interaction. For example, let it be known that you will always try to respond to call-outs in a particular way. Or that you will leave the group if people request it. Or set up an anonymous feedback system on your blog.

Take instruction
If at all in doubt about a course of action, check with some of the relevant group, preferably those who will be impacted by it.  Better still, let it be known that you’re up for instructions, and wait until people give you some.

If your power is backed up by institutional power structures in your professional life, try to subvert those structures to hand power back
If you have an managerial power, for instance, use any influence you have on policy, training, recruitment, wages etc in the group’s interest. If you interact with the public in a way which gives you any power over them, set up feedback forms or patient advocates tailored for the group(s) in question, so that they can safely complain or otherwise institute change. Ideally, let people from that group set up the system.  If people from that group are contributing to your work, or you are otherwise benefiting from their existence or oppression (e.g. you’re doing research on them, writing a book about them, doing a programme on them etc) make sure that you share the material and non-material benefits you gain with them.  E.g. share the royalties, credit them, pay them upfront, etc.

If your power is backed up by institutional power structures in your personal life, try to subvert those structures to undo the leverage it gives you
If you are in a romantic and/or sexual relationship with someone of that group, think really carefully about what kinds of power you do, or might wield over them, and try to counteract them. For instance, you could try giving them more control over decision-making, or make it absolutely clear that you never expect sex from them, or that you won’t leave them if they piss you off or disagree with you. If you are the parent or carer of someone of the relevant group, you probably have even more power over them – think really hard about what steps you could take to reduce this. Giving them practical resources, external sources of support and as much freedom as is safe are probably good places to start.

So…

So, all of this might sound pretty scary, and kind of extremist.  If you’re like me – i.e. involved in different movements, some where I’m an ally, some where I’m not –  part of you might be going, ‘hell yeah!’ and part of you might be going, ‘holy shit, I can’t t do that.’

For me, the more I’ve come to learn about societal power and privilege, the more adept I’ve become at noticing it in my interactions, and the more uncomfortable I’ve felt noticing when I have them, and when I use them.  So taking some of these steps has actually increased my ease and comfort  – it decreases the guilt and feeling of responsibility that comes with noticing my power.  [N.B. I’m not trying to say that you should take these steps because they’ll make you feel better about yourself.  There are much bigger and more important things at stake in my behaviour as an ally than my feelings.  I’m just trying to show how the loss of power and benefit can have some good byproducts too.]

I also want to acknowledge the role that my own tendency towards feelings of guilt and responsibility play in my taking these things seriously.  For me, those feelings have a lot to do with what society has taught me about being a woman.  It’s a pattern I’ve noticed, that activism women tend to be better at taking on criticisms, suggestions and ideas about their own power and privilege than activist men do.  So that doesn’t mean that women are pathological or masochistic or shouldn’t take these things on board.  Instead, the responsibility is on men, and anyone else who’s not taking these things on board as seriously, to pull their weight.  And if we spot them doing otherwise, then we can use what power and privilege we do have to hold them accountable.

Understanding that ally-etiquette is about transferring power can also make life easier for us, because it explains why those rules feel difficult and disempowering.  It’s a way to channel our energy into truly supporting and empowering those you work with, rather than in being confused or beating ourselves up because we don’t feel like a good happy ally.

Transfering in 3, 2, 1…

I’ve just changed blogs, having decided to go with a less pretentious name.  I’m now going to import my pitiful number of posts.  If I can get it to work…

Linkpost for BADD 2012

So this is a linkpost for Blogging Against Disablism Day, with a few of my suggestions for temporarily non-disabled readers. (As one, I’m going to shut up and let disabled people do the talking). Disabled readers: feel free to suggest other links I should add, especially if you wrote them.

1) Something to start you thinking about disability and society:
An introduction to the Social Model of Disability, which explains the difference between impairment and disability, and why the latter is about oppression.

2) Building on that article, or for people already familiar with the social model, this longer article applies it and other models to some recent UK politics.

3) Privilege lists are always useful, including this one.

4) I wanted this link to be to something people could actually do – sign a petition, write to their MP/Lord, attend a demo, boycott someone.  I had a quick google and various things came up, e.g. via falseeconomy.org.uk, UKUncut or Avaaz, and there seems to be a quite big/important one called Pat’s Petition, but the link won’t take me through to it at the moment.  But I guess what I’m trying to say is that I feel uncomfortable prioritising these over other ones that I probably haven’t heard of – disabled readers, anyone feel like pointing me in the direction of something that needs our attention?

To be continued: I’m going to have a read of what other bloggers have done for BADD, and hopefully make another linkpost.

Talking the talk: the importance, history and limitations of the word ‘survivor’

Warnings: this article is about the use of the word survivor, so covers some issues around abuse/violence, dealing with its impacts, and how others respond.  I will not describe any abuse or other violence, but various victim-blaming and other negative responses are described in order to be refuted.

You may have noticed that some people, especially feminists, use the word ‘survivor’ instead of ‘victim’ to refer to people who have experienced some form of gendered violence,* most commonly, rape, domestic abuse, childhood sexual abuse, or prostitution. This article will explain why this is, the context and history of the term, and some limitations.

[Disclaimer: I write this from the position of having experienced certain forms of gendered violence, but none particularly extreme or the ones named above. I have the privilege of not being described by society as a ‘victim’, therefore I do not claim the word survivor for myself. So I write this as a privileged outsider, who may well say oppressive things.  Please call me on stuff if you feel confident to.  Similarly, I’m going to touch on how these issues affect women with various identities, some of which I share, some of which I don’t: if you know better, please correct me.]

‘Survivor’ is an excellent replacement for ‘victim’ primarily because it avoids the problems which ‘victim’ carries with it, in both social and psychological contexts. In particular, it communicates a fundamental passivity which is both inaccurate and damaging. At the same time, it carries connotations of blame: that the passivity is some how chosen.

Not a victim: social contexts

[warning for victim-blaming and other shitty responses]

So victim, the more ‘mainstream’ word, is used by lots of people.  The most common place I come across it is the police, and the media, those two famous bastions of resistance to rape culture.* On the one hand, its use often shows one positive thing: it at least recognises that someone committed a crime against this person, and that they were injured by it.  Getting this recognised is still a struggle: remember when a US lawmaker wanted women** reporting rape in the criminal justice system to be referred to as ‘accusers’ instead of victims?  As a society, we are particularly bad at recognising the victimisation of women who are coded as hypersexual, and therefore ‘unrapeable’, by our cultural norms, e.g. women who are poor, young, black, trans, prostituted, and/or bi.  (Side note: hypersexualisation is one thing society expects of all those groups, but they all have different extra myths and oppressions that further add to their being seen as unrapeable.)  So when ‘victim’ is used, we know they’re getting at least one thing right.

However, the word ‘victim’ is extremely disempowering. It is a noun which identifies a person solely according to what someone did to them: nothing about what they did to resist or respond, or anything about any other identity they may have. In this way, it also plays into our ideas about what a victim really looks like: passive, perfectly compliant with police and prosecutors’ demands, not angry, sexually pure (which isn’t just about her history, it’s about her race, class and other identities and what meanings are attached to them). This fits well with the standard treatment of ‘victims’ in the courts and media: investigate the crime by interrogating her to discover any deviation from this ideal, which must necessarily mean it wasn’t rape.  These problems aren’t caused by the word victim, of course, but it fits right in to this social context, and helps it to continue.

It also encourages others to see people who’ve experienced violence as pitiful, helpless and in need of rescuing. Clearly not capable of making their own decisions and looking after their own interests, they need a ‘normal’ person, a non-victim, to take control and look after them.  Hence the commonness of storylines where victims are coerced into (supposedly) therapeutic activities (e.g this House episode where House manipulates a woman into talking in detail about the rape, and this Desperate Housewives episode where a husband pressures his wife into getting counselling for the impacts of childhood sexual abuse). (Note: do not do this. Ever.  Even if you mean well. Please leave a comment if you would like me to write an article on how to support people who are dealing with the impacts of sexual abuse and/or other violence).

Deeply tied into this air of pitifulness is the idea that victimhood is somehow chosen. This may extend to blame for the violence itself (e.g. ‘why didn’t you fight back?’***), or blame for their experiencing its on-going psychological impacts (e.g. ‘I can’t help her when she’s being such a victim’). These attitudes have a clear overlap with myths and prejudices about mental unwellness, and some aspects of physical unwellness, in general. One of the reasons it’s so common is because people want to believe in a just world, where they have control over the niceness of their life: believing that people are happy and healthy if they chose to be and work on it is a protective belief.  But that doesn’t excuse it.  Needless to say, expression of these attitudes, and the support which using ‘victim’ lends to them, is really harmful to people dealing with the impacts of violence, and props up rape culture in general.

These connotations of pitifulness and passivity can be particularly hurtful for women with identities already seen as those things by society, e.g. women who are disabled and/or young.  Perhaps white women also belong in this category, I’m not sure.  The connotations of blame for mental dis-ease and general screwed-up-ness can be used against women with mental illnesses particularly powerfully, and women who do things which are pathologised in a victim-type way, e.g. women who are submissive BDSM practitioners and/or adherents to certain religious traditions and practices.

Not a victim: psychological contexts

These meanings of passivity and blame which accompany ‘victim’ should also be avoided because they are inaccurate. Both during and after sexual abuse and other violence, women use active strategies to reduce, avoid and recover from the harm done to them. For instance, some people use dissociation* to limit their contact with the experience and reduce the damage done by it. Other may imagine a better life, plot revenge, or keep some aspect of their life and thoughts safe from the abuser. Even what may look like a passive response is usually a crucial survival mechanism. (See the link in the *** note at the bottom).

An important part of dealing with the impacts of sexual violence is honouring these often-ignored acts of resistance. Many women’s organisations work along these lines, treating the people who come to them not as an ‘object’ that has been acted upon negatively, and must be acted upon positively in treatment, but as an ‘agent’ who has already responded effectively to violence, and can continue to. Other crucial parts of working with people in this way include revealing and rejecting language which, under rape culture,

“(a) conceals violence, (b) obscures and mitigates perpetrator responsibility, (c) conceals victims’ resistance, and (d) blames or pathologizes victims.”

From Coates & Wade’s article Telling It Like It Isn’t: Obscuring Perpetrator Responsibility for Violent Crime, published in 2004 in the journal Discourse & Society.  (Or, more accurately, I got it from Wikipedia.)

So instead of phrases like “unwanted sex” we say ‘rape’; instead of “she was raped”, we say ‘he raped her”; instead of “why didn’t you tell anyone?” we ask, “how did you cope with that?”; and instead of seeing psychological distress as ‘effects’ of abuse, we see them as responses following abuse, which are often useful coping strategies.*  And instead of ‘victim’ we say ‘survivor’.

These ideas are common in feminist organisations working against rape and abuse. One place where these ideas have been solidified into more respected professional practice is in Response-Based Therapy.

Where does this come from?

Using the term ‘survivor’ to refer to people who experienced abuse probably arose from the early radical feminist activism against rape and childhood sexual abuse. Kathleen Barry has been called the first person to advocate for this usage in the late 1970s , but the term itself cannot be attributable to a single woman, especially working in movement where collective action was so crucial. So, right from the start of the feminist ‘discovery’ of rape, domestic abuse and child sexual abuse, when radical feminists set up the first refuges, held the first speak-outs and first joined together in consciousness-raising groups, the agency and power of women was recognised and highlighted.

So, for instance, Barry writes (in Female Sexual Slavery, 1979) that before widespread rape and abuse began to be recognised, it was essential to prove the non-complicity of women in these acts, and hence passivity was stressed, and the label ‘victim’ claimed. However, due to the meanings which a pro-rape culture attaches to that term (see above), the ‘victim’ can become a term to describe a person’s identity and attitude, and “in doing so, contributed to the continued objectification of that person which had commenced with the act of sexual violence.” (From Breaking the Silence: Restorative Justice and Child Sexual Abuse by Shirley Jülich, which is downloadable as a PDF.) Instead, Barry advocated using the term survivor, which acknowledged the agent-hood of the child or woman, and the strategies they had constructed to resist and deal with the impacts of sexual violence.

Today, the word survivor is much more common, and this is largely due to the efforts of feminists working against violence to publicise the word and our need for it, especially those working in Rape Crisis centres and similar feminist organisations.

One of the common arguments within feminism is around the victimhood of women.  It is usual to hear some feminists criticise radical and/or second wave and/or violence-focused feminists of clinging unproductively to victim status, and denying women’s power and agency (e.g. Naomi Wolf’s idea of ‘victim feminism’ vs ‘power feminism’. I hope I’ve shown here that this is a completely strawfeminist.

Limitations

At the end of the day, the word survivor, is, like victim, a noun. It describes a person according to their experiences of (and resistance to) violence, and nothing more: it is one-dimensional. I have heard some women who have experienced violence reject it for these reasons: they felt that it limited and patronised them. So I try to use phrases like ‘women who have survived childhood sexual abuse’ where possible.

Another limitation is that the replacement of ‘victim’ with ‘survivor’ can be seen as a complete rejection of ‘victim.’ Instead, the word victim should be able to be reclaimed by anyone who feels it applies to them. Stripped of the additional meanings it is given by a kyriarchal and pro-rape culture, it simply means one who had violence done to them, and as such must be freely available to be used by anyone in that position.  More than that, we need to completely change our culture so that victim no longer carries those negative connotations, because we recognise women’s strength and lack of culpability in crimes committed against them.  Rejecting ‘victim’ and everything that goes with it can be particularly harsh on people with identities such that society expects them to be strong, e.g. black women (see this excellent post).

Something to beware of with ‘survivor’ language is the ‘victim-to-survivor’ discourse and how that can play right into the problems I covered in section one.  I think this is too big an issue to deal with in one paragraph here, so I’m saving it for a future post.

The last limitation is a big one: for all that getting language right matters, it is not the be-all and end-all. At the moment, the use of survivor usually marks people who ‘get’ this to some extent from those who don’t, and so can be useful for anyone seeking solidarity or support, but it does not always accompany good understandings or good behaviour. I have heard the term survivor used by: abusers, politicians co-opting the anti-rape movement for their own gain, politicians slashing funding for survivors’ services, and police and other professionals trying to show that they have understood the issues, when they really, really haven’t.

So, what can we actually *do* to make survivors’ lives easier? [This list is intended for people who have not experienced sexual abuse or other violence, but obviously everyone else can join in too if you’d like!]  Disclaimer: not everyone is able to do everything on this list, and that’s totally fine.  Also, just because you *can* do something, doesn’t mean you should run yourself into the ground doing it.  Activist self-care and all that. (More on that story later.)

  • Get in contact with your nearest Rape Crisis centre, women’s refuge or other political anti-violence organisation, and find out if they need anything you can give. E.g. campaign against cuts to their funding, fundraise for them, or help to publicise them.
  • Go and make sure you’d know how to react if someone disclosed their experiences of abuse or other violence to you. Read everything you can, taking care of your own emotional health as you do.  When you’re confident you wouldn’t be a wombat, and have supported a couple of people in this way, start asking the question.
  • Look for online activism: sign some petitions, send emails to MPs, share things, write complaints.
  • Find out if your workplace/campus has a decent sexual assault policy, and if not, campaign for one. (Get in touch with the women’s branch of your union if you think this might get you in trouble).
  • Talk about these things. Once you’ve read/talked enough to be angry, and confident of some facts, start spreading the word. Get into arguments. Online or off.  Bear witness to rape culture and women’s experiences of victimisation and secondary victimisation.  Doing so won’t just (hopefully) persuade a few ignorant people, it will let any survivors listening know that someone’s on their side.

*Other vocab I use in this area, like gendered violence, rape culture, coping strategies or dissociation could be the topic of another article like this: would you read such an article?

**Referring to people who have experienced sexual abuse, rape and other gendered violence I use female and gender-neutral pronouns and nouns interchangeably.  I use female ones because persuading people that the vast majority of people targeted by rapists and abusers are female is a struggle we have not yet won.  I use gender-neutral ones to acknowledge that, because these crimes are a cause and consequence of inequality, other inequalities are relevant, so for example, boys, and men who are imprisoned, disabled and/or queer are targeted as well.   It also includes non-binary gender and agender people for similar reasons.

***This is never an acceptable question to ask someone who has experienced rape or other violence; it is unacceptable to interrogate their behaviour rather than the attacker’s. However, it may be useful to point out that there are many social and interpersonal limits on people’s resistance to such attacks, such as not wanting loved ones to hear, and having been taught (generally or specifically, by the attacker or by others) not to resist authority. Beyond that, there are often also physiological limits on physical resistance, which kick in regardless of what the person decides: you’ve probably heard of the neurological responses to threats known as ‘fight or flight’, but you may not have heard of the other three responses known as ‘freeze’, ‘flop’, or ‘friend’.

Link post: 4 to read and 1 to do

[Warning: mention but not description of rape, transphobia]

A good article on how prison rape in the US affects gender ratios of people who have survived rape.

A thoughtful article on what the white media’s coverage of Whitney Houston’s funeral tells us about race and religion in the US.

On the most recent transphobic ad campaign in Ireland, including a link to complain. [Warning for transphobia in the video] I don’t recommend watching the video since it boosts the company’s stats.  Alongside the transphobia, as a gambling company they profit from desperation and addiction, so don’t give them any more revenue.

Latest Avaaz petition to save lives in Syria [Warning for brief description of violence and oppression]

Bearing Witness: Ethical alternatives to ‘being’ an ally

[Warning: this article contains mention, but not discussion or description, of gender-based violence and numerous other oppressions.]

In various social justice circles, ‘ally’ has become a common way of referring to people who do not share a particular oppressed identity, but who nevertheless have given up oppressing that group, and instead position themselves as supporter of their cause. While it has various advantages, important critiques have been made of the behaviour of such allies and of the concept in itself (e.g. serious critiques and fun ones).  The failure of the concept of ally is best seen, I think, in the number of ‘how to be a good ally’ lists which start by describing ways to stop actively oppressing the group in question (e.g. this bi one or this disability one). This shows the commonness of people claiming the title who still haven’t forsaken their oppressive behaviours, let alone adopted useful ones.

So to replace, or work alongside the word ‘ally’, I suggest using ‘bearing witness’, which I think solves some of the problems. This article describes how.

1. It centres the right voices (or should do)

The best witnesses are those closest to the thing being witnessed: this language automatically acknowledges the superiority of the knowledge of people who have experienced oppression first-hand.  I’m proposing that we use ‘bear witness’ as an activity which is primarily an activity of people who have experience of that injustice, i.e. are members of the oppressed group in question, so it’s not a straight replacement for ally language.  I suggest it as a term that we can secondarily apply to those doing liberatory work on behalf of other people, and those who fall in the margins between those two groups (see section 6 below).

Much of the criticism of so-called allies has focussed on the way we tend to use our privilege to speak over or silence members of the marginalised group in question.  Bearing witness language hopefully makes obvious the idea that in any situation, we need to listen most, or exclusively, to the best witnesses.  The role for the secondary witness then, is to speak up in spaces where there are no primary witnesses, or where they do not feel safe to speak.  The second job being to make those spaces safer and less exclusionary to members of those marginalised groups.  So for example, responding to rape jokes when no-one there is out as a survivor, or awareness-raising about race in environments which are still 100% white. Even when relevant people are around, if they’re not being listened to, we can use our privilege to get others to realise that they’re not listening to the right people, or amplify the right voices.

However, bearing witness language does have the risk of ignoring the very people we ought to be centring: it would be possible for a load of white people to bear witness to racism as an almost abstract concept, using evidence distanced from black people’s experiences (e.g. stats). So this is not a perfect construct, and we still need to keep each other accountable.

2. It’s not about you

The language of ally-ship (like a mothership!) ties activism to identity, to who you are: we say “She’s an ally” rather than “She does useful thing x.” This seems like an advantage, since presumably if you can get someone to identify as a supporter of a movement, you can ask more of them. They have tied their self-image to their involvement with the struggle, so they would seem to have a greater incentive to be involved. It also neatly mirrors the emphasis on oppressed identities within social justice circles: you can see why if oppressed group X are organising based on their identity as X, then other who want to be involved are going to look for an identity, a noun, under which to organise and join in.

In my experience, lots of people who work with/for marginalised groups they’re not part of already have very strong emotional and identity-type links to that work anyway. This might be because they are close to someone in that group: a parent, a partner, a friend or child. Or they may have witnessed an event or worked in an environment where oppression was obvious, and have strong memories and emotions which inspire their work. Even nothing like that initially inspired them towards that work, if they have build up a reputation or indeed a career around it, they’re going to be deeply emotionally invested in their identity as an ally. My point is that the links to personal identity are already dangerously strong, and people’s strong feelings which inspire this work are often already taking centre stage: we don’t need to encourage them.

The identity language of ally-ship can also be pretty misleading, and conceiving of our identities in that way can be deeply unhelpful. If my self-image as an ally is inspiring my liberatory work, then I’m doing it for the wrong reasons. I’m also not going to react very well to criticism, because it will speak to the heart of how I see myself: I’ll be unwilling to acknowledge my oppressive behaviour because to do so would undermine my good opinion of myself. There are other ways in which identity-ally-ship makes me concentrate on me and my feelings instead of the people I’m meant to be working for. For example, in my own life, feeling guilt-ridden because one action meant I ‘wasn’t a good ally’ has got in the way of repairing the damage done by that action. Jay Smooth has an excellent talk here on how focussing on the person and their identity doesn’t serve justice, and a follow up here putting the responsibility where it should be, i.e. telling us how we can avoid focussing on our own identities when our behaviour is challenged.

So, using ‘bearing witness’ instead of ‘ally’ can avoid making it about my identity. I can’t hide behind my status as a Good Person™ to avoid accountability, and those feelings are less likely to distract me from the task in hand. It’s a label not for a person, but for an action.

3. It’s about action

If allyship is about what you are, not what you do, it’s easy to get complacent. I’ve seen lots of ‘how to be an ally to X’ lists which stress this point, that you have to go and do the work to earn the title. I suggest that instead of labelling the person, who may or may not be doing the work, to varying degrees of effectiveness or oppressiveness, and instead label the work.

I’ve seen various books and articles accompanied by an author biog which includes their status as an ally up front and centre: “Example Author is a trans ally and…” Bearing witness language would label the work instead: “This book bears witness to transphobic bullying…” If they really wanted something to put in the biog then maybe “Author writes on various topics including bearing witness to children’s experiences of transphobia…”

With this phrasing, no-one can rest on their laurels. Well, we can, but only if they are won fairly, and labelled with the race we ran, rather than our ‘identity’ as runner.

4. It’s not about their identity (or doesn’t have to be)

Lots of social justice work focusses on identity, and much of this is fantastically productive. Identities are extremely useful banners under which to organise, give emotional connections to the work, and facilitate human rights analyses of oppression (e.g. you can’t control your identity, therefore discrimination is unfair). It also speaks to one of the truths of many oppressions, that people (often) commit oppressive acts because of what they think a person is, not what they do. It allows us to talk about the status we’re given on the basis of identity. It also, importantly, allows us to celebrate aspects of our identities, the histories of those who shared it, and to cultivate a sense of pride in it.

However, I think an over-reliance on the concept of identity to analyse oppression lacks a few things, and in some areas can have negative effects. For example, sometimes people focus on identity when experience is a more pertinent measure: not everyone who shares an identity will have experienced certain forms of oppression based on that identity. Identity language can also erase the differences between the people who share a characteristic, often in oppressive ways: focusing on one identity tends to minimise the other oppressions felt by people in that group, or invisbilise their membership. For example, focusing on woman as an oppressed identity in a vacuum tends to create a norm that women’s issues are a separate thing from black issues, and to centre the experiences of white women, invisibilising many women’s experiences of racism, and of sexism and racism combined. (See ideas about kyriarchy and intersectionality).

The language of bearing witness can accommodate both diversity and the importance of experience, since the focus is on the oppression not the identity. There is still a risk of assuming that oppressions only strike one at a time, but I think talking about ‘bearing witness to the racism in/of…’ has less of a risk of this than ‘being an ally to black people’.  In centring the injustice it makes no implication of a unified community who all share the same needs and goals.

Also, In focussing on oppressions instead of identity, we can open up the language to include specific types of oppression, e.g. gender-based violence.

5. But it (could) make people disclose privileged identities

It’s easy to invisibilise your privilege with use of the word ally: you can avoid using ‘white’, ‘without disabilities’, ‘straight’ etc. You can hide behind assumptions of neutrality and un-markedness: you don’t have to disclose privileged identities because they are the norm, the ‘unmarked’. Instead, if you want to describe yourself as bearing witness to something you don’t experience yourself, you have to actually disclose your position: “as a white person bearing witness to racism” or “I’m aiming to bear witness to the endemic sexism in this industry (insofar as a man can).”

6. It’s not a binary

One advantage of ally language is that it describes a fundamental difference between those who work against an oppression having suffered it, and those who haven’t.  This is an important distinction and one we should never lose sight of, and bearing witness language doesn’t do that job, although it hopefully centres those with experience.

However, it does allow for more flexibility in distinguishing people in this way.  This will be useful for people whose identities or experiences are often deemed liminal (i.e. on the boundaries) in terms of allyhood: for instance, mixed-race people, non-binary gendered and agender people (with regard to feminism), women who have experienced some forms of gender-based violence but would never call themselves a survivor of rape or abuse, people whose identities are closeted or invisible and so do not experience the same kinds of oppression as visible members of that group.  Such people can be recognised for their bearing witness to the realities of oppression without designating them either as allies or as members of the oppressed group.

But…

There are some problems with allies and ally-language that bearing witness language doesn’t address.  For example, nothing about it makes clear that it’s unethical to make any kind of profit from that work, or to pit marginalised people against each other to get the outcomes you want and lead from behind (what A.J. Withers calls “Leadership Shopping”).  Also, the concept of ‘ally’ implies reciprocity and a degree of equality, both of which fit badly with the way we currently use it.

So people, what do you think? Pros and cons? What have I missed? Could you fit ‘bear witness’ into your sentences?