It’s not easy for me to write this post, because it’s far more personal than we usually get on this site, but the saying “the personal is political” is a lot more than just words.
A study was recently published that concluded that feminists have healthier heterosexual relationships than non-feminists. This has been linked on many of the big feminist blogs—most have commented that they wish it weren’t so heterosexist, and Laudedhel at Hoyden about Town wrote two great, very critical posts, including a takedown of the study’s methodology itself. Most of the other blog posts, however, have been based on some variant of the theme “Well, DUH”:
Feministe: Feminists do it better
Feministing: I knew it all along
Pandagon: Cats around the world lodge an angry protest
Scanning the comments quickly, the “we knew it all along” theme, the assumption that it’s accurate, and even the “SO THERE” kind of attitude are pretty much de rigeur. But much as people can say we’re just having a bit of light fun with this article, I can’t help but feel like I have to call this out for what it is: feminist victim-blaming.
I’m not exactly new to this feminism thing. I spend a hell of a lot of my time and energy arguing against gender essentialism, higher expectations placed on women, portrayals of women on television (obviously) and, of course, victim-blaming. Of all the categories of sexist or anti-feminist comments, this is probably only one that I try to call out and deconstruct at literally every opportunity. I am an extremely well-educated woman and I’m pretty solidly versed in feminist theory. I know the power and control wheel, I’m familiar with the dynamics of an abusive situation, I understand the concepts of the patriarchy, male privilege and entitlement, and I try to recognize them in practice.
And yet somehow, I recently found myself victimized in a relationship again, in a way that I never saw coming and still don’t understand. So when Amanda Marcotte says something like this:
Make no mistake, there are some out there who get pissy and flip shit when they realize that you’re not groveling on the floor for their approval, but another advantage of being a feminist is that you don’t have to waste headache-inducing minutes trying to get said approval. Not that it’s all roses or anything, but I’ve often found in my life that the vast majority of problems I have with men can be traced back to a moment when I abandoned certain feminist principles, when I did revert back to my gender training and was deferential or passive aggressive.
Can you see how the she’s flipping it back to herself, to the woman, as responsible for creating or avoiding the “problems”? I’m glad she and all the other feminist bloggers and commenters announcing their healthy, non-stereotypical relationships have been lucky enough to avoid bad situations, and I didn’t miss the caveat that ‘it’s not ALL roses’. Isn’t it clear, though, that being self-congratulatory about it would seem to suggest that something other than not meeting an abusive asshole contributed to not being a victim? Can you see how I would take this and wonder what I did, again, to attract this individual? Was I too “deferential”, too “passive aggressive”, did I waste minutes looking for approval that couldn’t be had? Can I find the place where I compromised my feminist principles to trace this back to? And if I can how do I stop myself from compromising next time, so I can just be in control and not let this happen again?
This is how internalized sexism works. These are women who constantly talk about feminism, violence, rape culture and victim blaming, and then can’t see it when they’re doing it themselves, because damn, does that illusion of control feel good. Except that I’m the one who didn’t do it, I’m feminist victim that they’re kinda blaming. The paradigm is all around me—the one that places the responsibility for happy hetero relationships on some feature of the female partner, the one that says that ultimately, I can protect myself, the one that would prefer to talk about me and my actions rather than the man who victimized me.
Not only am I blaming myself, I’m accepting that there is something wrong with being a victim, as if I somehow chose that, too, or it marks me as unworthy of the feminist label. I hear people saying over and over “Don’t be a victim”, so I’m angry at myself for being one, angry at myself both for not seeing it coming and for being hurt by it. I hear people complimenting me on my strength, my ability to survive and keep moving forward, and I feel like I shouldn’t admit to feeling vulnerable, in pain, or exhausted. I hear them trying to comfort me by telling me I can get past the victim state, that I just need to muster up all those inner resources one more time and flip the switch to thinking of myself as a survivor/thriver/warrior/feminist, and I figure they’re right—that’s what strong means. Victims aren’t strong. Strong women aren’t victims.
Yes they are. They are if an attacker decides they’re going to be. Feminism represents strength and empowerment for women collectively, but it can’t provide a cloak and shield for individual women. At best, I’ve got some added knowledge of the early warning signs of abusive behaviour, but my feminist club membership kit didn’t come with a beeper that detects the “abusive entitled asshole” level in every individual I encounter.
I hate that being hurt makes me feel like I haven’t properly earned my feminist cred, and I hate the feeling of shame at my own gullibility, misplaced trust, and weakness. I hate that I don’t want to talk about this man, and this abuse, even though I’ve long since started talking about past violence, because I’m ashamed to admit that I still haven’t learned. My willingness to accept that blame is connected to structures of internalized sexism that can be really tough to see without examples. My sense of shame reaffirms a culture that says I have something to hide, something to confess or admit to, some flaw in my feminism or my strength as a woman that I just have to locate and eliminate. And feminist voices that I respect are helping to send that message.