Things aren’t black and white. Life is complicated. I’d like to think that these are obvious truths, but how do we express them, how do we understand them, how do we work towards them? Especially while identifying as part of a movement that is, arguably, a blunt ideology … such as feminism?
Some of my most valuable feminist experiences arose from being trained as an advocate for sexual assault survivors. Advocates are called in for crisis counseling and to help survivors understand the options they have for dealing with assault. My training instructed me to foreground three themes while interacting with a survivor:
#1. I believe you.
#2. It’s not your fault.
#3. You have options.
The point is to help survivors cope, and help them find resources. But while these principles seem clear, it’s never even close to un-complicated. A survivor’s story is never reducible to stereotypes or easy choices. The advocate’s role is to be there and listen without judgment — to try and help find a path through a thicket of pain, confusion, stigma, medical problems, and legal issues — and to support the survivor in their choices even if the advocate doesn’t agree with them. The point is to understand, not to judge.
I’m pretty sure that this is the kind of activism I am best suited for: understanding, communicating, building. Telling stories, where appropriate (and keeping confidence, where appropriate).
Of course, there are plenty of people that it’s very difficult to feel empathy for, as a feminist. Rape survivors are a group that feminists are expected to have empathy for, and expected to recognize as having complicated stories; we all know that’s crucial. On the other hand, I recently published a book about pickup artists (a subculture of men who trade tips on how to seduce women), and I’ve taken heat from feminists who feel that I’m over-sympathetic to those guys. Don’t get me wrong: I’m certainly not an “advocate” for pickup artists in the same way that I want to advocate for assault survivors. But I believe that there’s value in empathy here, too.
As one of my feminist friends observed while we discussed the pickup artist book, I am arguably providing a valuable service by giving the men in that subculture a non-judgmental space to look at feminism. Also, by giving them — as my friend put it — “space to be ambivalent about some of the problematic things they do.”
When trying to encourage a person to question what they’re doing, it helps to understand that person first — and to offer them a sense of that understanding. I think there are a lot of icky things about the pickup artist community, and some terrible people in it. But it’s not black-and-white, and there are decent guys who learn the tactics too. If a guy is trying to learn tactics for seducing women, is he doing it out of loneliness? Or perhaps out of desire for a strange revenge on the “opposite” sex? What about both? How would these different motives change my interactions with him, perhaps even enable me to influence the way he thinks about women? With me, could he have the space to heal the damage he himself has retained from our broken social norms around sex and gender? And how does understanding his perspective make my own richer — how does it make things more complicated?
One of the exciting things about being an Internet writer is that my old writing never goes away. It’s always there, cached and mirrored and easily found by both friends and enemies. Obviously, this is also one of the most un-exciting things about being an Internet writer. It’s rare that I completely disagree with an older article that I’ve written; but there are some old articles that make me feel self-conscious, because I understand the complexity of those topics much better today, and my opinions have become much more nuanced.
An example would be the way that I’ve written about BDSM and abuse. I write a lot about my experiences with consensual BDSM — Bondage, Discipline, Dominance, Submission, Sadism and Masochism — and I’m a feminist, but BDSM has always been a controversial topic within feminism. Sometimes it’s been controversial enough that BDSMer-feminists have been silenced: an editor at the iconic feminist magazine Ms. once threatened to leave if the magazine published an article by a masochistic woman, and thereby successfully buried the topic. Sometimes it’s been controversial enough to inspire non-consensual violence: a group of radical feminists literally attacked a lesbian BDSM club with crowbars sometime around the 1980s, claiming that they did it in the name of ending violence against women.
So being a BDSMer-feminist makes for defensiveness, and I began from a defensive position. My first post about BDSM and abuse was called “Evidence that the BDSM Community Does Not Enable Abuse,” and outlined initiatives within the community that oppose abusive BDSM. Around the same time, I remember making comments I now regret, comments that I believed were critical but were actually harsh towards survivors — or comments that gave too sunny a view of the BDSM community, which is far from flawless. My next post on the topic, eighteen months later, was more empathic and complex. It was called “The Alt Sex Anti-Abuse Dream Team,” and outlined how I would personally create an anti-abuse initiative that was friendly to alternative sexuality abuse survivors.
Now, these posts seem simple to me, but I was growing out of my defensiveness. I started feeling like I was genuinely moving the conversation forward when I wrote a post called “Thinking More Clearly About BDSM vs. Abuse,” in which I wrote specifically about examples of abusive behavior within the community, and used radical feminist theory about abusive relationships to reflect on how a non-abusive BDSM relationship could look. Building bridges; creating synthesis rather than antithesis.
Women with strong and different sexual desires exist, and especially with the Internet, we can’t be permanently silenced. (Although even on the Internet, there are still some attempts; my comments are often deleted on sites associated with radical feminism, such as the Anti-Porn Men Project, though I do my absolute best to comment inoffensively.) But I try to push aside my self-righteousness, because I really don’t want this to be a fight where all I do is scream “BDSM can be feminist!” I want to acknowledge and deal with real problems, like how BDSM might be used as a cover for abuse and how we can deal with that. I want to be established in cooperation, not resistance. I want to move things forward; I want to make things more complicated.
Sex-positive feminists — the BDSMers, the sex workers, the pornographers, et cetera — we have so much up-close-and-personal experience with the complexities of consent, the beautiful and ugly realities of desire, and with the edgy cases where consent can become confusing. Feminism needs us! But within feminism, our actual experience is so often stereotyped and discounted — as in this debate with anti-porn feminist Gail Dines, who sneers about “young women who strip, wax, and fuck themselves into empowerment.” Could activities like stripping or waxing or fucking perhaps be more complicated than “empowering” vs. “not empowering”? Apparently not.
The most frustrating part of this particular feminist split is that someone like me couldn’t exist if radical feminism had not existed first. “Radical feminism” has become a widely accepted term for a specific type of feminism, a set of ideas that emphasizes systemic inequality and community organizing. It’s sometimes viewed in opposition to “sex-positive feminism,” which talks a lot about individual experiences and personal choices, and would include me. But these categories are recently constructed and are not always cleanly delineated. And the analysis of radical feminists, as well as the work they’ve done, is what established space for women like me to be who we are.
The pioneering sex-positive feminist Susie Bright was attacked by radical feminists, but upon the death of the infamous Andrea Dworkin, Susie Bright wrote a sad obituary: “I have tape recordings from colleges where I would go listen to Andrea lecture in rapt attention and turn my little cassette over to capture every word. I never dreamed that I would one day become one of the people she vilified. … I know it’s strange that I have such a tragic affection for her, when she apparently only had loathing for my kind.”
This very vilification is a large part of why it’s so hard to acknowledge complication. We are forced, again and again, to take such simplistic and adversarial stances. I don’t think that all stripping or waxing or fucking is empowering, I think it’s so much more complicated. But instead of getting into that, I’ve wasted too much time defending my right to make love consensually without feeling terrible about myself and/or being dismissed as a brainless perverted whore.
I don’t want you to think I believe “my side” of the so-called “Feminist Sex Wars” is “blameless.” The brilliant sex worker activist Audacia Ray recently wrote an amazing piece in which she called out sex-positive feminists for our own, sometimes simplistic thinking. For example, when people are talking about coerced and trafficked sex workers, that is not usually the best time to for a consenting sex worker to talk about how much she loves her job. Sometimes “our side” horns in on those conversations inappropriately, though.
In many ways, making a simpler case is more marketable; campaigns deal in soundbites. When it comes to the law, there must be bright lines before which an act is unpunished and after which it is a crime. And often, movements are established in resistance. Part of feminist progress can be laid at the feet of a willingness to be simple about things. Slogans like “No means no” paved the way for work like my anti-rape advocacy.
Yet the minute we actually start creating organizations and institutions, we must be willing to complicate things, or we will serve people badly. If I’ve learned this lesson anywhere, I’ve learned it in international charity work, wherein rich countries throw money at poor countries and few real problems are addressed. Where does the money go? How is it spent? Who gets bribed, who gets shorted? Does the Third World even want the “solutions” we think they want? These questions are just the tip of the iceberg. So many charity organizations have incredibly simple slogans for getting cash, after which the money disappears into a black hole of conflicting social forces. It’s all very well to send a billion dollars to people in need, but the extensive problems and complexities of these international aid systems has been well-documented — see, for example, Letting Them Die by Catherine Campbell or The Wisdom of Whores by Elizabeth Pisani. (Pisani also has a blog.) If only those of us in the donor countries would talk more about the complications.
For me, when I personally oversimplify what I’m trying to say, I admit that it can feel slick and clever and fun in the moment. But it’s almost like a drug; I feel hungover later. (It is so hard to write punchy prose that’s complicated. Ironically, when I am more willing to simplify my message my writing is often more successful; some of my most successful pieces are, I believe, far from my best.) I feel so very exhausted with the simplification of these conversations — yet I acknowledge that sometimes it’s my own fault, my own defensiveness, including the reflexive anger and mental blocks that arise from my defensiveness. (And there are still people I won’t try to understand, like anti-feminists who think women shouldn’t vote. I’m okay with viewing that as uncomplicated BS.)
One of my feminist friends has told me that I am a philosopher, I’m not really a feminist. And yet one of my writer friends has told me that I am clearly an activist, not an aesthete. I keep finding myself in the middle of these continua. I worry sometimes that it is really not possible to be an activist who seeks complication. Yet it seems to me that if anything can save the world, it’s empathy. And empathy requires us to allow people’s stories to be complicated.