Tag Archives: activism

Links: things to read and do

First the good news: a major (and fantastic) radical feminist blogger nails her colours to the mast regarding the fact that transsexual women are sisters in our shared struggle.  In her usual inimitable style:

Forget it! Gender is not to be trifled with. It is the most deadly serious social construct ever invented. The gender-binary police state doesn’t accept, no way no how, that gender can be fluid. Before granting a sexception, they require that a person literally be in emotional crisis, and demonstrate an irrevocable commitment to the Establishment by subjecting herself to the medical industry for barbaric surgical procedures. And when I say barbaric I’m not jokin’ around. Do you realize that vaginoplasty essentially takes a peen and turns it inside-out? I mean, I’m hardly one to cry out “oh dear what about the peen?!” at every turn, but Jesus in a jetpack, that’s gotta smart.

In the comments she spells out her views:

Women-only zones are vital to feminist revolution. This may seem to contradict what I just wrote about free-wheelin’ genderosity, but in the context of feminist discourse the definition of “woman” I like to use is “person whose female-identification results in measurably curtailed personal sovereignty.” Male-identified persons, on the other hand, accrue privilege that impedes women’s liberation such that their “unique male perspective” is a detriment to feminist discourse.

Oh yes.  Hooray for Twisty.

Now for the bad news: (warning for institutional violence against women) in case you haven’t heard, two women died in horrific circumstances this month.  Firstly, Jackie Nanyonjo.  She was deported to Uganda because, despite evidence from her partner, the UKBA didn’t believe that she was a lesbian.  She died, not due to violence when she arrived, but from the ‘security’ guards hired by the UKBA to control her on the plane.  More details here.

The second incident of violence against women was against Lucy Meadows. The Daily Male bullied and outed her in the national press; she has now taken her life.  The largest petition is here, and there is a vigil tonight outside the newspaper’s headquarters (Northcliffe House, 2 Derry Street, Kensington, London W8 5TT) at 6.30.

One Billion Rising is probably better than nothing

Please only read this if you are a woman committed to women’s liberation.  If you link or share it, please include that request.

Natalie Gyte, at the fabulous Women’s Resource Centre, has beautifully explained some of the problems with the content and tone of Eve Ensler’s One Billion Rising ‘campaign’: it covers up the real causes of male violence, it hurts women by implying that we can (and should) ‘rise above’ violence and its consequences, and it is part of a much wider colonialist pattern of white saviour complex.  Go read her piece, it is excellent, and the points she makes are more important than these ones.   I  just want to add a reason about why the very form of One Billion Rising is colonialist.

Most obviously, Ensler’s project takes its name from the Million Women March, and perhaps also from Million Women Rise. What’s that? You haven’t heard of either of those events? Could it be that’s because neither of them have a hugely successful and well-known white person pushing their carefully-crafted brand across the world?

“The Million Woman March was a protest march organized on October 25, 1997, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. It was founded and formulated by Phile Chionesu, a grassroots activist, human rights advocate, and Black Nationalist/Freedom Fighter. After several months of underground organizing, Dr Phile’, as she is lovingly called, asked Asia Coney to join her and she became the third National Co-Chair. The march was envisioned and intended to help bring social, political, and economic development and power throughout the Black communities of the United States, as well as to bring hope, empowerment, unity and sisterhood to women, men and children of African descent globally regardless of nationality, religion, economic status, etc.

Speakers at the event included Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, the ex-wife of Nelson Mandela; Congresswoman Maxine Waters, Sista Souljah, Jada Pinkett Smith, Attallah and Illyasah Shabazz (daughters of Malcolm X), Dr. Dorothy Height, and a message was read from Assata Shakur from her exile home of Cuba. The Million Woman March, (MWM) as it is known, was the largest gathering in the world of any women anywhere. It has been considered a “social phenomenon” due to its unconventional and unique way of organizing and has influenced several mass gatherings by demonstrating a grassroots approach that had not been employed before. The Million Woman March was the launching pad for the development of the first global movement for women and girls of African descent throughout the Diaspora.

Estimates of attendance vary widely… Police sources gave numbers varying from 300,000 to 1 million.[2] Organizers estimated an attendance of 2.1 million.”

Yes: a genuinely grassroots movement of, by and for Black women.

Million Women Rise, meanwhile, is a UK-based, grassroots, self-funding, women-only march against male violence, led by Black and other BME women.  You’re going to have to take my word for it; they are so grassroots they don’t even have a wikipedia page.

So Ensler took Black women’s work, and turned it into a very successful, professional* brand (in addition to her very successful V-Day and Vagina Monologues brands) which she has exported all over the world.  It has also carried her name everywhere with it.

Even if Ensler came up with the name entirely independently (which seems unlikely, since she was politically active at the time) and forgot to research similar names, she is still working off the backs of BME women’s work.  (And other women’s work).  OBR has been spread around the world by existing feminist organisations doing actually effective feminist work (rape crisis centres, refuges, consciousness raising groups, activist groups of all stripes).  OBR gives these women and their groups a chance to use a slick and patriarchy friendly (look! We’re not prudes, we’re dancing!) brand, to raise some media attention and hopefully some funds.  But once the OBR ripples fade away, they’ll be back to the actual work.

To paraphrase one tweeter: I too feel blessed to be part of a global movement to end violence against women and girls.  We work under various banners: feminism, womanism, radical feminism, women’s liberation, the women’s movement – all of which make excellent hashtags.  We don’t need #1billionrising or, indeed, #danceyoassoff.

I feel bad hating on a women’s initiative, I really do.  I don’t like criticising other feminists in front of men and other non-feminists, hence the request at the top.  Generally speaking, I’d prefer that there was bad feminism happening to no feminism: for instance, I know that Ensler’s play, for all its problems**, has helped fund various bits of vital feminism. But sisters (especially my white western sisters): we must do better than this.

 

* I have some vague thoughts about how the OBR video reveals some of the problems with the project: its use of sensationalised explicit violence (without trigger warnings), its victim-blaming (all they have to do is stand up), its slickness (how much money?), and its portrayals of BME women (subjected to the ‘worst’ kinds of violence).  Feel free to write that up more coherently, if you can bear to watch it.

** Most notably: (from here, warnings for descriptions of rape/abuse and rape apologism)

Another very painful contradiction I noticed in the show was the treatment of rape and consent.  The two most prominent examples of this are, “Because He Liked To Look At It,” and, “The Little Coochi Snorcher That Could.”  Both are portrayed as positive, healing experiences, but both stories lack explicit, enthusiastic consent.  ”Coochi Snorcher,” involves underage drinking and what amounts to statutory rape; I’d hardly call that a healing experience.  Even if the legal drinking age is an arbitrary number, the younger woman’s intoxication mixed with the older woman’s “insistence and thoroughness,” means explicit consent was almost assuredly not given.  I think it’s worth noting that the monologue originally called this, “a good rape.”  What more needs to be said?

“Look At It,” was just as bad; during the woman’s sexual encounter with “Bob,” she clearly states both, “no,” and, “stop,” as he undresses her.  Those words should have been a HUGE stop sign for Bob.  Even if the woman in this monologue learned a positive lesson from the experience, the encounter should be called what it was: rape.  (Side note: it was also really troubling when Bob said he wanted to, “see her,” in reference to her vagina.  It’s not that he wanted to see a part of her, or even an important part of her.  He wanted to see her.  This reduction of a woman to her genitals is squick-inducing at best (and millimeters away from transphobic at its worst)).

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.

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’.