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Being a feminist in another language is not the same. Words shift and change and disappear in translation. So it is that the linguistic resources I have access to in English become something different in French.

Living as a francophone, I’m finding holes in my vocabulary where there once were signifiers for important categories and concepts. The carefully-mapped out vocabulary of identity politics I once used as an anglophone to structure and understand my life as well as those of the people around me has simply ceased to exist. The language of intersectional feminism that I invested so much time into learning is no longer available to me here.

I am presented with some peculiar problems. Like searching for French equivalents to words for which there are extensive discourses attached in English. Is there a phrase for rape culture? How do I respectfully refer to sex workers? What if these words and concepts just aren’t a thing? Maybe there are more extensive discourses around other ideas, each with their own set of buzz words, so translating ‘rape culture’ might not even be useful anyway. Sex work is illegal here, so does a respectful word even exist? So what now? God, it’s hard. It’s not just a matter of literal translation, but of translation that is relevant to the conversations happening about feminism in France. Sociolinguistics, or something.

Then there is the problem of intensely gendered grammar. Only now do I appreciate English’s genderless articles. Oh, our simple adjectives and verb agreements. What luxury it is to rattle off entire sentences without the need to refer to gender until pronouns come into play. Alas, the grammatical necessity of modifying entire sentences for a person’s gender in French means that binary gender is more enforced than ever. So how do I express gender-neutrality if there are only two choices? How do I refer to queer and gender-variant friends? Surely there are queer feminist discourses around this, but until I find those discourses, I risk alienating people with language.

I feel like a baby feminist again, with all the passion but none of the tools. I see when things are wrong, but don’t have the vocabulary to make a challenge or articulate my feelings. I have to opt out of conversations I’d love to have for lack of words. With diminished language has come diminished power, and it’s super-frustrating. Words, once my favourite weapons, are now a struggle of their own.

The solution is, bien sûr, to stop fraternising with the feminists and start talking to the féministes. They can tell me where the French lexicon is at. It is impossible to translate in isolation. Our feminist vocabulary is the work of the collective, so ’tis there I must go. I need to unsubscribe from some anglophone feminist media and, in between mouthfuls of bread and cheese, read some féministe conversations instead. I’ll see what words the féministes are dropping on tumblr, what fancy hashtags are circling the twittersphere.

So I’ll work on it, but it’s weird right now. It’s like I’m sixteen, learning the word misogyny for the first time. I only just learnt to say ‘fuck the patriarchy’ in French (J’ENCULE LE PATRIARCAT). It will be worth the struggle and social media digging. Because language is so ridiculously powerful, and god, I want that power back.

[Trigger warning: sexual violence]

“Frape” is the generous contribution of Gen-Y (or something) to the social media lexicon, and also one of my least favourite social media buzz words. In the absence of any other words with which to describe a very specific, modern phenomenon, “frape” has become essential internet vocabulary. It’s prolific, and it’s awful.

I hate “frape”. I hate it as a verb, as a noun, and basically as every form in which it’s possible to hate a word.

I hate “frape” for the same reasons for which I hate rape jokes. Because “frape” is a rape joke, despite having slipped through the rape joke radar into common usage. “Frape” isn’t a grand punchline – I mean, it’s just a word – but the word is supposed to be novel all the same, always said with a little titter. It’s said every time like it’s clever and silly, because it’s so hyperbolic and ridiculous to compare Facebook pranks to sexual assault. You see. Har har.

Do you remember when we all agreed that rape jokes are a bad idea? Circa 2011-ish, the feminist blogosphere exploded with articles explaining the reasons for which joking about rape isn’t funny. There are lots of amazing resources on rape jokes, but here’s my favourite bit from my favourite piece, circa 2009:

For those of you who wonder why rape victims get all super sensitive about rape jokes ‘n shit, well, this is why. Before you’re raped, rape jokes might be uncomfortable, or they might be funny, or they might be any given thing. But after you’re raped, they are a trigger. They make you remember what was done to you. And if the joke was about something that wasn’t done to you, not in quite that way, you can really easily imagine how it would feel, because you know how something exactly like that felt. Rape jokes stop being about a thing that happens out there, somewhere, to people who don’t really exist, and if they do they probably deserved it, and they start being about you. Rape jokes are about you. Jokes about women liking it or deserving it are about how much you liked it and deserved it. And they are also jokes about how, in all likelihood, it’s going to happen to you again.

When I first read this article I had not been sexually assaulted. These words were pertinent, but they did not apply to me. Now, post-sexual assault, they describe my everyday reality, in which most mentions of rape elicit flashbacks. “Frape” is one of these things. It turns my experience into a punchline, and it’s a punchline that hurts me.

Every careless out-of-context mention of “rape” risks making a survivor of sexual violence feel a little more certain that what happened to them isn’t that big of a deal. All rape jokes are potential triggers. Every casual rape joke makes more rape jokes ok. Dropping “rape” in a sentence because it’s ridiculous and fun to exaggerate might make you happy, but it’s not worth the trade-off of mental agony for the survivor of sexual violence you might be talking to. And statistically, that might be a quarter of the women in your newsfeed.

And so, you say, what are we to do? If survivors of sexual violence are to get all persnickety about every little thing? If only they weren’t so sensitive. (Victim-blaming ugh ugh ugh). Of course it is quite impossible to avoid the word “rape” altogether, or to flag every discussion with a trigger warning, but when we know language hurts people, let’s do what we can. We know that “frape” hurts people. “Frape” might not be upsetting to every survivor of sexual violence, but it sure is for a fair few, and that’s too many.

Let’s work to make the lives of survivors easier. Let’s try not make rape jokes; let’s try not trivialise something that’s actually really traumatic and serious; let’s try not make it more ok for sexual violence to happen. Please, “frape” is one word we can live without.

[Trigger warning: sexual violence]

Most women don’t report their rape or sexual assault. In conversations about female sexual violence, people often deplore this state of affairs. Silence means perpetrators escape punishment. Silence also means the rate at which incidences of rape and sexual assault occur is unknown. Silence around experiences of sexual violence creates a culture in which these acts are permissible, or at worst, encouraged. See: rape culture.

Silence around incidences of rape and sexual assault is worrying. Safety concerns, patriarchy concerns, all the concerns. I worry about the silence, but I also worry a lot about the way in which our conversations about the need to report incidences of rape and sexual assault affect the victims of these acts. I worry that when we encourage survivors to be vocal about their experiences, we might accidentally make a lot of women feel inadequate for not being “strong enough” to make a report. Like survivors need any more emotional strain.

I am a survivor of sexual assault, and I feel guilty for not having reported what happened to me. I sometimes feel like a fraud of a feminist, because I talk so passionately about ending silence around sexual violence, and yet I can’t even find the courage to tell people, let alone authorities, about my own experience. The trauma of the assault is enough, but add to this the shame I feel at my own inability to deal with it “the proper way”, and it’s all rather unbearable.

People who don’t report their experiences of sexual violence often have very legitimate reasons for not doing so. I didn’t report my assault, and although I instinctively resist calling my own reasons legitimate, I know that they are in fact valid. Why didn’t I report my assault? Here’s why.

I feel like it was my fault.

It’s a victim-of-sexual-violence cliché to feel like what happened was your fault, but it’s the truth. I feel like I put myself in a bad situation, and allowed things to happen to me that I shouldn’t have. I feel like I failed at policing my own boundaries. I didn’t resist, so I made it hard for him to know that what he was doing was wrong. Consent was murky, and I should’ve made sure it wasn’t. Nevermind that the lack of a no doesn’t mean yes, and that consent is a two-way deal.

It took awhile for me to actually label what happened to me as assault, and even now I struggle to call it that. Calling it “assault” places the blame quite definitively on one person, whereas I feel like what happened was at least in part my fault. Using the word “assault” is in part an exercise in convincing myself that I am not to blame, and that this was not something I asked for, but something that was done to me.

I feel like it’s not a big deal.

Somehow, I don’t consider my assault important enough to talk about. No need to cause DRAMA. Being so emotionally low maintenance most of the time means I’m more inclined to work through the trauma by myself than ask for help.

I’ve had so many near-misses with sexual assault that this didn’t feel too out of the ordinary. I tolerate being abused and sexually harassed on the street, so when an unwanted finger was pushed inside me, it was just something I tolerated: collateral for being female and submissive. My understanding of what is ok behaviour is so fucked up that I didn’t even realise it was inappropriate when it happened.

I hear stories like mine quite often, but rarely are they tagged as “assault”. I must remind myself that what happened to me was abuse.

It was BDSM.

One way to really complicate your feelings about an experience of sexual assault is for it to involve BDSM. When the line between pleasure and pain is already physically and emotionally blurry, it’s almost impossible to determine the storyline of the actual assault. If you happen to derive sexual pleasure from the experience of feeling like a victim, it’s difficult to know when you actually are a victim.

BDSM is also difficult to explain. Any disclosure of my sexual assault to an individual not involved in the BDSM world would require substantial background information. There are not only the intricacies of consent to grapple with, but also basic principles like “sometimes people can hit each other and it’s actually ok”. I don’t want people labelling me a victim for the wrong reasons. I’m a victim because a man hit me without my consent, not because sometimes men hit me and I enjoy it.

I balk at the thought of trying to explain these things to actual police people. Not only is BDSM complicated, but it could also be subject to legal scrutiny. I don’t know the laws, but I know they’re unsound around BDSM practice. Reporting my assault could actually be risky.

I knew the man who assaulted me.

I met the man who assaulted me a month before the incident. It was not a stranger danger case of sexual violence. I didn’t know him particularly well, but we were acquainted long enough that I would feel awkward about having him arrested and put in jail, even if he did violate my consent (or assume it where it was not). It would not be easy to face him across the court room, knowing he would resent me for reporting what happened.

I acted like everything was ok.

In the aftermath of my sexual assault, I did not scream or cry or say something. I was amiable with the man who had assaulted me, and even met up with him again a week later. I did not tell him that he had sexually assaulted me. I did not tell my friends that he had sexually assaulted me.

It’s hard to back track and revise the narrative to say that everything was not ok.

I don’t want retribution.

People assume that retribution is a priority for all victims of sexual violence. It is not. Sometimes rape and sexual assault is tied up in love, friendship or acquaintanceship. It can also be tied up in complicated feelings of shame, blame and guilt. Different circumstances lead to victims feeling indifferent or strange about retribution.

I’m too unsure of the circumstances to feel strongly enough about retribution. I blame myself too much to passionately declare that my attacker deserves a jail sentence. All I want from the man that assaulted me is that I never have to see him again, and so far that is going ok.

Reporting my assault means reliving my assault.

I once tried writing out an unofficial report for what happened to me, but when I got to the box where I had to describe what happened, it was too much to relive the assault. Thinking about my assault makes me feel embarrassed, shameful and gross. A blog post is about the limit of my strength. A police report would be mentally exhausting.

Conclusion

When people tell victims of sexual violence to “report him!”, it is not always supportive. What matters more than reporting a perpetrator of sexual violence is respecting the wishes of the victim. Reporting the attacker is not always safe or ideal or even what the victim wants. Yeah, the silence around victims’ experiences sucks because it feeds into rape culture. But we can fight that in other ways. Ways that don’t compromise the recovery of a survivor of rape or sexual assault.

We need to be careful not to shame women who don’t have the strength to report what happened to them. Not having the strength is fine. If someone discloses an incidence of rape or sexual assault to you, don’t tell them to report it. Tell them to report it if they feel safe and ready, and if they don’t, that’s ok too.

My very belated response to this insufferable article published by The Daily Telegraph on 21 April 2012.

Just in case you haven’t seen enough Huggies ads lately, The Daily Telegraph published a stirring reminder of women’s ovary-induced weakness for things like cuddles and babies. The condescending little memo came in the form of an article about the “fight for equality” in Australia’s armed services, which, rather than being a neat bit of good PR for women’s rights, instead came out sounding something like “rah rah rah, women might cry if we let them have a gun”.

The article doesn’t get off to a good start:

AUSTRALIANS are not ready to see women kill or be killed in combat and some females serving on the frontline live in fear of being raped or tortured if captured.

Maternal instincts could also hamper fighting abilities and operations may be put at risk by mentally fragile troops looking for a shoulder to cry on, potentially igniting a battlefield romance.

The first sentence is mildly annoying; the second sentence is just awful. Apparently women, those silly PMS-ing young things, might get distracted by their uterus mid-battle. Quelle risque ! Or else they’ll have an emotional breakdown, no doubt brought on by the final season of Sex and the City, and need a dashing military officer to make out with them in the trenches. All this is DANGEROUS, don’t you see? Dangerous!

This flight of journalistic fancy recycles the classic vision of the fragile hormonal woman in direct opposition to the emotionally steely macho man, which, needless to say, isn’t very helpful for dismantling the patriarchy and all that. It isn’t an accurate depiction of a lot of women, nor is it a very flattering one: women as frivolous and flighty workers, more likely to be ovulating or daydreaming about romance than paying attention.

Next up, The Daily Telegraph decides not to use any legitimate evidence to back up its gross generalisations:

These aren’t the findings of the latest government study. They are the real-life opinions of female Diggers currently serving in the army, including in Afghanistan.

More like the real-life opinions of a small, conveniently-selected sample of women soldiers who all seem weirdly anti-gender equality. They have this to say:

In a series of revealing interviews with The Daily Telegraph, female officers have spoken about their fears of bullying, “big boys clubs” and giving up “almost everything that it means to be a woman” to maintain the necessary physical fitness.

It’s a shame the article doesn’t care to expand on the issue of bullying, or the armed forces being described as “big boys clubs”, because those totally sound like Things We Should Actually Be Worried About. Unfortunately, the article goes on to elaborate on the less pertinent part of the sentence: “almost everything that it means to be a woman”, also known as “having a baby”. “Warrant Officer Class 2 Claire Parker” reminds us that women ought to get a-reproducin’ so as not to waste their “physical peak”:

Warrant Officer Class 2 Claire Parker doubted women were up to the job physically.

“The infantry soldier has a very hard life. They must be at the top of their game. To maintain that physical peak you are almost giving up everything that it means to be a woman – including having children,” she said.

Another interviewee alludes to the cultural anxiety around women in combat:

Medical officer Flight Lieutenant Lisa Maus, 31, based at RAAF Williamtown north of Newcastle, said the nation was not ready for women to die fighting.

“I hate to think what will erupt when a woman dies for the first time,” she said.

“I’m sure there is a minority of women who are capable of killing but I don’t know any who would be up for it. It’s not the norm.”

It seems like a reasonable hypothesis. Being seen as “fragile” has the side effect of sentimentality. There’s a reason ladies got first dibs on the Titanic life boats. There’s a protector complex, wherein men are given all the responsibility of fighting the people, ice bergs, whatever, in an effort to “save” the weak. Of course this complex disadvantages both men and women (conscription, yo), but here it means women aren’t taken seriously in the military as they continue to be seen as victims, not aggressors.

Seems legit, but this is all awkwardly backed up with the testimonial of a single woman (oh Daily Telegraph, you have a way with research methods). She doesn’t want to join the infantry, so apparently all women are afraid of joining the infantry:

“I would be quite happy to go and defuse bombs but I would not want to join an infantry battalion,” the mother-of-one said.

Also note the reference to motherhood (no male interviewees referred to as “father-of-one” – so gendered ugh).

At least there’s actually some acknowledgement of more genuine and important issues concerning women in the military. Lisa Maus talks about the dangers of women entering war zones in culturally-conservative places:

She said women may be an asset to special forces in some cultural settings but a risk in others.

“The risk of torture and rape is a huge concern. Culturally, in the Middle East they don’t have the same values and respect for women,” she said.

Yay, two whole sentences of greatness. Unfortunately “Coalition defence spokesman David Johnson” then goes on to invisibilise female experiences of oppression with the claim that all the challenges identified are not “gender-related”, but rather “cross the gender divide”. Check yo privilege.

Coalition defence spokesman David Johnson said many of the issues raised by the women were not gender-related but were challenges that all people in the forces faced.

“Issues such as bullying, balancing family and career, risk of injury from heavy equipment – they are issues that cross the gender divide.”

After all that, I took a deep breath and tried to settle my rattled feminist nerves (“You take delight in vexing me! You have no compassion for my poor nerves!”). Alas, such a spectacle of wildly gendered analysis. I know, I know, I shouldn’t really expect quality journalism from a newspaper that publishes stories like “Rihanna’s date night, with a woman” under ‘Breaking News’, but I think deep down, I always had hope.

A fool, I was!

The popular feminist discourse around BDSM is all about choice. Sexual submission and associated acts of degradation all get the feminist stamp of approval because they are quite decidedly “a choice”, and who is patriarchy to tell us we can’t have them. Who indeed? We can dismantle patriarchy, be slapped in the face by our lovers, have our delicious cake and eat it too. Any discrepancies between our great loves of feminism and power exchange are explained away by the all-mighty magic of “choice”. Quite marvellous, really.

But I can’t help but wonder what it would mean if we don’t actually get to choose our desires at all. Because I don’t think I chose mine. A certain feminist fantasy of BDSM seeks to remove us from the influence of patriarchy altogether, but I don’t think dear patriarchy is so easily rid of. Our desires don’t develop in a vacuum. Patriarchy weaves its way into most places, so it’s kind of fantastical to imagine that we’d elude all our classic assumptions about sex and gender in the bedroom of all places (…kitchen, laundry, dungeon, library, whatever). “My thoughts, desires, insecurities, and behaviours are not suddenly cordoned off from a larger culture once I close the bedroom door.

To quote liberally from this article:

To me, I just can’t see the point of being a feminist if I’m not going to ask ‘why?’ about most everything. I ask why I keep shaving my legs, why I’m unable to eat food for the entire day before a first date (I get nervous, you guys!), why I think buying shoes will make my life better, and I ask why I feel or think or do the things I do in bed with a man. Sometimes I even think about why I go to bed with men in the first place. Is this biological or social? Would I be a lesbian if I hadn’t been conditioned towards heterosexuality? Some of these questions I have answers to, others I’m not quite sure about. But I know this: much of my sexual history and behaviour has been determined by factors including my growing up a girl in a man’s world.

So it is that lately I’ve been asking myself why my sexual desires are what they are. Is it just a coincidence that they’re so complicit with patriarchy? Basic submission can perhaps be explained away, but it’s harder to convince yourself that you legitimately chose to lust quite specifically after a sick “know your place” sort of patriarchal power exchange. As a feminist, it’s difficult to come to terms with the fact that your vagina is really into reenacting your own gendered oppression: worshipping hegemonic masculinity, being humiliated for your womanhood, the “eroticisation of a vastly horrific social order“. Excellent, just what I wanted. I endured patriarchy, and all I got was this stupid orgasm.

I can’t pretend like my desire to be demeaned and humiliated in a specifically gendered way has developed entirely independent of patriarchy. Perhaps reenactment is a way of dealing with trauma? Perhaps it’s all in the taboo? Whatever it is, it wouldn’t exist without patriarchy. Even when I’m fucking I can’t escape the blasted thing. When I think about it enough, it doesn’t seem like much of a choice at all.

Thankfully, even if it’s not entirely a choice, it doesn’t mean it’s wrong – and oh my Germaine, I don’t think it makes me “a bad feminist” after all. To quote liberally from here once again:

 “We can recognize our influences while still liking what we like.” We don’t have to have sex in any prescribed way simply because we are feminists. But to say that “sexism doesn’t get to dictate what I can and can’t enjoy” isn’t entirely true. Because in many ways it does and it has. All the fucked up ways I behave in my life were, as far as I can tell and in one way or another, determined by my experience being socialized in a patriarchal society. That doesn’t mean I need to hate myself for it. It doesn’t even mean I need to stop behaving in those ways or thinking those weird, unhealthy things about my face/life/body/boyfriends. But it sure doesn’t hurt to recognize how sexism factors into the equation. In fact, I think that understanding the way that sexism has messed with my head is the only way to overcome it (eventually).

So I shouldn’t feel guilty about my sexuality, and I shouldn’t stop spending my Friday nights over men’s knees, but I should definitely acknowledge what has influenced my desires. Identifying where patriarchy has tampered with us is part of the struggle to dismantle it.

I think it’s ok that patriarchy totally makes me wet. Different people’s desires have obviously evolved differently under the watchful eye of patriarchy, but mine are what they are as a (mostly) hetero cis-gendered female/femme who has lived with sexism as her constant companion, and they’re not dangerous. I’m thankful for sex-positive feminism, because it tells me not to be ashamed. I’m mindful too of the privilege that makes it possible for me to at least have the illusion of choice at all. But I’m starting to think that feminism and submission are not best reconciled by choice in the end. Alas!

As this lovely feminist writes, “You aren’t fucking in a bubble and yet you also can have your desire. Have it without shame.” That’s how I’m trying to have mine.

Michelle

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