This was originally published at the girl-power site Off Our Chests.
My mother is a rape survivor. In 1970, when she was in her twenties, she came home alone one day with the groceries. As she was opening the door, a man came up behind her and forced her into the apartment, where he violently assaulted her. For years afterwards, my mother had Rape Trauma Syndrome — a type of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder that affects rape survivors — but neither RTS nor PTSD had yet been identified, and psychiatrists didn’t know what to do with her.
Later in the decade, my mother dumped one of her boyfriends. He then came to her apartment one night, broke in, and raped her. As he got in bed, she was in the middle of a flashback. She cried and said “No,” and he had sex with her anyway. When she tried to tell him later that what he’d done was unacceptable, he informed her that because she’d pursued him during their relationship — because she was the one who originally asked him out — a rape case would never stand up in court.
My mother met my dad many years after these incidents. Mom first told me that she’d been raped in my late teens, because she was considering telling her story to our church congregation, and she wanted me to know before she did that. The full stories came out during intermittent conversations in my twenties. I love both my parents with the fire of a thousand suns, and let me tell you, I’ve spent an unreasonable amount of time fantasizing about murdering the men who attacked my mother. I doubt I could find the first guy, but I could probably find the second, and in my early twenties I often imagined shooting him in the head. (Don’t worry, Mom, I don’t think about that anymore.)
Within the last few years, I started thinking about asking Mom’s permission to write about her experiences and my reaction to them. I always shelved the idea because I felt that it wasn’t my story to tell. Last year, the topic came up in conversation, and I finally asked permission; she said yes immediately. I double-checked her consent twice this year, and she said yes both times. Still, I was hesitant, and I only got around to it now — for Mother’s Day. I also asked her to review this piece, and to feel free to veto anything within it.
I am doing my best not to co-opt or appropriate my mother’s story. But her story and her life have shaped mine, intimately — including my views on gender issues, and my course as a feminist activist and writer. A few years ago, a widely-read Harper’s article by established feminist Susan Faludi asserted that the relationship between younger feminists and older feminists is like a battle between girls and our moms. I read the article with interest, but also with a sense of displacement. As a teenager I fought with my mom all the time, but she and I rarely argue anymore, and we never argue about issues of feminism or sexuality at all. If “young” feminism is about rebelling against our mothers, then I missed that boat completely.
In fairness, my mom’s not easy to rebel against. When I was 15, I asked her what she’d do if I ran off with a Hell’s Angel. She laughed. “I’d probably be jealous,” she said.
I started blogging in 2008 because I wanted to write about sexuality, particularly S&M. However, I identified myself as a feminist from the start, because I wanted to make it obvious that S&M and feminism are not mutually exclusive. The conflicts of feminism and S&M have been a major theme throughout the Feminist Sex Wars. I tend to repeat myself when I write about this, so I’ll just mention my favorite quotation on the matter; it comes from the German radical feminist Alice Schwarzer, who said that “Female masochism is collaboration!”
When I came out of the closet to my mom, I had been freaking out about my S&M identity for a while — but quietly. I told my parents about my sexuality because I wanted to go into therapy, but I wanted a Kink Aware therapist who wouldn’t shame me for my S&M preferences. The specific therapist I preferred was out-of-network for my health insurance, which meant I needed help paying for it. My dad was cool with it, but he didn’t say much. My mother paused when I told her… and then she explained that S&M is part of her sexuality, too.
I was shocked. I was also incredibly relieved. If my brilliant, independent mother was into S&M, then suddenly I felt much more okay about being into it myself. It turned out that she had explored S&M late in life — and she went through the same anxiety about feminism and S&M that I’d felt. “You’re not giving up your liberation,” she told me.
Mom also acknowledged the stereotype that S&M arises from abusive experiences. “I once worried that being raped made me into S&M,” she said. “But I remember having S&M feelings when I was very young, long before I was raped. I was like this all along.” When she said that, I caught my breath in recognition.
This is another topic I often repeat myself about, but that’s because it’s important. As it happens, the biggest and best-designed study on S&M found that there is no correlation between abusive experiences and being into S&M. There’s also plenty of anecdotal evidence within the S&M community that a lot of S&Mers, though not all, feel our S&M identities to be innate (sometimes described as an “orientation”). This is not to say that there’s anything wrong with understanding or processing abuse through consensual S&M. The psychologist Peggy Kleinplatz once published a scholarly article called “Learning From Extraordinary Lovers: Lessons From The Edge,” which discusses how therapists can help their clients by studying alternative sexualities. Kleinplatz included a case study of a couple whose S&M experiences helped them process their histories of abuse. However, abusive experiences should not be seen as the usual “creator” of S&M desires. (For more on this, check out my article on S&M and the psychiatric establishment.)
The stereotype that S&M “comes from” abuse is another reason I worried about writing this article. Basically, this is a prettily-wrapped gift to Internet commentators who enjoy writing posts or hate mail about how fucked up I am, or about how dysfunctional S&M is. I guess there’s no help for that.
“I’m fascinated that you’ve adopted feminism so thoroughly,” my mother told me once. “I never felt like I was into feminism like you are.”
“What?” I said. “Are you serious?”
“Well, feminism shaped my life,” she said. “I really had my consciousness raised by some of my experiences. Not just being raped, but by other things, like seeing the anger and resentment among my mother and her sisters. Feminism helped me understand how women compete and put each other down because we’re put in that position by men who have power over us. Sometimes, we’re like animals who have been starved into fighting for scraps.
“But,” my mother continued, “I’ve never been sure about calling myself a feminist. There have always been a lot of feminist areas I didn’t feel welcome. Your dad was a card-carrying member of the National Organization for Women when I met him, and I refused to join. We used to joke about it. And you remember that recent article about the history of Ms. Magazine you emailed me? In the article, Gloria Steinem says that anyone could have walked into the Ms. office in the 1970s and gotten a job. But I certainly never felt like I could do that. I was actually living in New York when Ms. started, and I was even working in publishing… but I grew up on a farm in the midwest, and I wasn’t like the women who ran Ms. They felt like a club.”
My upbringing has not been like my mother’s. I grew up with a lot more privilege; my mother used to call me a spoiled “princess” when she was angry, and one of my ex-boyfriends used to tease me by calling me “East Coast Intellectual.” Yet in a lot of ways, it took me a while to get into feminism, too. Gender issues have always been a strand of my thinking, but plenty of feminist discourse never impressed me. In university, I felt like everything I heard from feminism was a tortured conspiracy theory. And although I identified as “feminist” from the very beginning of blogging, it was out of a sense of resistance rather than feeling included. I felt like: Goddamnit, I will show you that I can be an independent and rational woman who values voting and abortion rights and equal opportunity and consent — and be into S&M at the same damn time.
As I kept writing, I was looking at other blogs about gender and sexuality, too. The ones whose analysis really spoke to me were usually feminist blogs. And those were also, often, the bloggers who noticed me in return. My work was highlighted by a number of feminist writers who wanted to raise my profile. Talking to them, I began to understand some sophisticated critiques that I’d previously labeled “conspiracy theories.” I expanded my understanding of topics like rape culture, as well as “tangential” social justice issues like race and class. My mother said to me, long afterwards: “Feminism really reached out and grabbed you, didn’t it.”
In 2011, I heard from a feminist friend about organizations that train volunteer advocates for rape survivors. In Chicago and many other cities, when people who have been raped go to the emergency room, the hospital will ask if they want an advocate. The advocate’s role is to provide immediate crisis counseling and to help the survivor deal with complexities of the medical and legal system. The minute I heard about advocacy, I knew I wanted to do it.
In 1970, my mother didn’t have an advocate, for the simple reason that advocates did not yet exist. Rape Trauma Syndrome was first recognized by feminists in the 1970s, and assault advocacy was developed by feminists during that time as well.
I told Mom all about the advocacy curriculum while I was completing it, and she drank up every detail. “I never got support like that,” she said. “My boyfriend insisted that we go to the emergency room, and I guess he tried to advocate for me, but the doctors and nurses ignored me for 20 hours and then sent me home. It was worse that the nurses did. If sisterhood was powerful, then couldn’t they reach out to me somehow?” (Rape survivors — at least in Illinois — are now prioritized in emergency rooms, second only to life-and-death situations.)
Mom often regales me with tales about how things used to be. For example, when she became editor of her college newspaper in the 1960s, all the dudes on staff quit because they wouldn’t work under a woman. (Some returned later, rather sheepishly.) Other favorites have to do with menstruation. It turns out that back in the day, doctors — who were of course always male — simply refused to accept the existence of PMS. Apparently, it was accepted among doctors that a woman who felt cramps while menstruating was “making it up.” (Female nurses who attempted to describe the actual feeling were ignored.) It was understood that a woman who felt unusually emotional or even physical pain while menstruating was just being moody and hysterical. (You know how women are!) As more women became doctors and feminism gained traction and science advanced with a broader perspective and scientists discovered the actual physical causes of cramps, PMS became recognized as a real thing. Cramps were no longer “typical female hysteria.”
Which, of course, makes it all the more ironic that PMS is now often used as an excuse to discount women as hysterical. It makes me laugh, in my cynical way.
It’s kind of astonishing that a woman like my mother would disclaim a strong connection with feminism. And yet she does.
This year I had my first Full-On Internet Feminist Scandal, during which I received hate mail and hate comments from other feminists. (I name the event in capital letters because email from other feminists, some of whom I don’t even know, has told me that if you stick with Internet Feminism long enough, it’s basically inevitable that you obtain one of these.) The worst of it fell on a holiday when I was visiting my mother. Mom was helping out at church, and wanted me to attend the sermon. I sobbed for hours before leaving home; I managed to make it to church, but I was such a wreck when I got there that she put me in a back room so I could be alone to cry.
To be clear, I definitely think that I’ve screwed up on some social justice issues in the past, and I’m sure that I will in the future. I am doing my best to keep myself honest and work on the areas where I’ve been called out. That’s a crucial part of social justice work, and it’s one I try to take seriously.
But I have to tell you, the piece I wrote that drew the biggest backlash was one that my mother loved. (In the interests of accountability, I’ll say that I do think a lot of the critiques are valid and important, like this one for example — and, for those in the audience who are familiar with feminist call-out culture, I recommend this insightful comment plus this other insightful comment from a brilliant Feministe commenter named saurus.) When I wrote the initial draft, I felt so uncertain that I asked Mom to review it, and she said: “I think this is one of the best things you’ve ever written.” Yet one key factor in many of these critiques is that I failed to make enough space for rape survivors. I plan to write differently about the topic in the future, but there’s real irony in the fact that the most important rape survivor in my life believes that one of my best pieces is the same one that got me hate mail for failing rape survivors. (Of course, I also received incredibly personal comments about my sex life. The Feminist Sex Wars ain’t over yet.)
Mom and I discussed it later, of course. She read some of the commentary online, and she came back shaking her head. “The things some feminists are saying about you really floored me,” she said. “But I’m not completely surprised. Feminism has always been one of those movements that eats its young. That’s one reason I never identified with it. I think there are a lot of people my age who started out living feminist lives, who now wouldn’t be caught dead calling themselves feminist. Women who had careers, who raised sensitive, loving sons and strong daughters… who find the baggage of the ‘feminist’ label distasteful.”
I’ve thought a lot about my mother’s comment that feminism “eats its young.” One 2009 New Yorker article about feminism by Ariel Levy offered an interesting analysis of feminist divisions, but included one offhand claim that isn’t explained or justified: “Revolutions are supposed to devour their young.” Is that so? Nobody told me. (Perhaps ironically, Levy presents this claim while stating that feminism has actually turned against its elders.)
Some commentators have told me that if I can’t take the heat, then I just shouldn’t write about feminism. It hurts to think it, but maybe they’re right. Somehow, the idea of being “a good feminist” has become utterly tangled up in my identity. It’s a weak spot and a sore spot, in a way that I didn’t anticipate and don’t fully understand. I find social justice criticism to be nourishing when it’s generous and constructive, sometimes even when it’s aggressive — but sometimes it feels so incredibly destructive. But as I said, I’m not the only feminist writer who’s cried for hours after an Internet Feminist Scandal. How much of the problem is the vitriol within some critiques, and how much is that feminism has become “who we are” rather than “something we do”?
I think we can all agree that it’s good to call out other people when they’re screwing up — but there has to be a way for us to build a movement without eating our young. Yet from what my mother tells me, we’ve never been good at that.
On the bright side, I don’t have to engage politically with feminism in order to be a feminist, or volunteer for feminist causes, or do feminist work. And it helps to understand that I don’t have to be “a good feminist” for my mother to be proud of me. (My dad’s another matter.)
During one of our recent conversations, I confirmed again with my mother that I had permission to write about her experience. Then I asked her if she’s out of the closet as a rape survivor.
“I don’t know,” she said thoughtfully. “I guess so. I don’t really think about it. I’m happy with my life now.” She paused and drank her tea for a moment. “I don’t think of myself as a rape survivor anymore,” she added. “By 1980, ten years after the attack, I really thought I was emerging from the cave. And I was, but I was still metaphorically covered in dirt and cobwebs, with grit in my mouth. In the first few years I was with your dad — the early 1980s — I had residual fears. I had become frightened by subways, elevators, and surprise noises, and he helped me work my way through those very effectively. By 25 years, it was simply no longer a part of my current self. I’d say I am wiser and stronger for it, but I think an experience so shocking is a lousy way to build character. And a waste of time! I lost too many years. I hope that things like victim advocacy saves people.”
I’m glad that my mother feels good about life today, and I myself don’t have the urge to track those guys down and rend them limb from limb. (Much.) Yet I wonder if the men who attacked her ever think about what they did. I wonder if the ex-boyfriend ever understood how thoroughly he brutalized someone he claimed to love, or how male privilege played a role in his actions. These days, I write a lot about masculinity, and I try to understand men’s perspective on gender issues. Writing about men and gender is tricky territory, though. What if I end up shoring up the entitlement that led those assholes to attack my mom?
Mom told me that she Googled her rapist ex-boyfriend. He has three daughters. She wonders whether he ever thinks about it, too.
Naturally, I also think a lot about feminism, and how we can make it both effective and welcoming. What does it mean when people call it a movement that “eats its young”? What does it mean that feminism has become so tied up in identity? What does it mean when a rape survivor who had a career and raised a feminist daughter won’t call herself a feminist?