Feminism Without Identitarianism
Content note: trauma, child abuse, sexual violence.
The other day I was waiting for my driving instructor to meet me at our meeting place. I’m 34 and finally learning how to drive. When he arrived and got out of the car, I was struck by the recognition that I really like my driving instructor and value our relationship. He’s a good teacher. He’s kind. He’s patient. He’s encouraging. And I actually enjoy learning with him. He’s taken me through major scary challenges like my first time on the highway, and he’s helped me build up my skill level slowly over the course of months. When I saw him get out of the car I realized, simply, that I like him and I enjoy the time I spend with him.
This simple enough experience actually reveals a massive change for me. For many, many years I could not have friendly, nice relationships with men. I certainly couldn’t have male teachers, and if for some reason I had to, then I was uncomfortable, afraid, and on the look out for threat the entire time. I was never able to simply enjoy relationships with men in a nonsexual context. I always sensed danger. I always assumed I was being sexualized and that this sexualization would interfere with any genuine relationship. I was never able to see or experience past the labels ‘man’ and ‘woman.’
I have complex ptsd resulting from a dysfunctional and abusive childhood, and in particular from sexual abuse I experienced from a male family member. Like many incest survivors, I was not supported or believed, and developed many maladaptive coping strategies to survive. Like many incest survivors my life took on a very specific trajectory: self-injury, suicide attempts, drug and alcohol abuse, compulsive sexuality, repeated traumas, intimate partner violence, and a total inability to assess threat. Threat seemed to be everywhere and at the same time, I was totally unable to prevent violence from happening to me.
In my late teen years and early 20s I was a street involved alcoholic. I was assaulted regularly, by men I was dating or sleeping with, or by strangers who took advantage of the fact that I was passed out on a park bench or so drunk that they could get away with hurting me. My sex life was one dehumanizing experience after another in which I acted out my compulsive sexuality with men who didn’t care about me as a human being and treated me like shit. I was in unsafe situations all the time. I was hurt all the time. And I was living with the incessant unbearable pain of totally unresolved complex ptsd, which lead me to constantly seek experiences that put me in further danger.
At some point along the way I adopted what I thought was a feminist worldview. I came to understand my experiences through a totally gendered lens. I understood that sexual violence and trauma were the defining experiences of my life. And I thought that these things happened to me because I was a woman and because the people doing these things to me were men. I eventually went to university as a mature student (having never finished high school) and in my women and gender studies program I learned about patriarchy, sexism, misogyny, gender oppression. I read articles and watched videos that described women living in constant terror of sexual violence, and I understood this description to be true because look at my life.
I eventually got therapy and got sober and my life started to change. But I still viewed every interaction with every man through the lens of threat. A guy talking to me on the street was always sexual harassment and sexual harassment was always the threat of rape. I believed ‘yes all women’, and when I said that, I genuinely believed that ‘yes all women’ had the types of experiences I had. I believed most women were incest survivors, most women were rape survivors, most women had been violently assaulted by more men than they could count. The feminism I was immersing myself in seemed to confirm this worldview. I found myself in a political culture that encouraged me to see the world as a landscape of sexual threat, to see men always first and foremost as men, and therefore as potential abusers. My complex ptsd was still running my life but now I was using political ideology to make sense of it.
I was now sober and in therapy. I no longer spent a huge percentage of my time black out drunk. I was no longer ever sleeping on park benches. I was no longer being targeted as a vulnerable, street involved addict. I was more and more able to notice red flags in dating relationships and make better choices about who to trust. My life changed profoundly. And while I have definitely experienced various forms of sexism and unwanted attention from men, I have not been sexually assaulted in the past nine years that I have been sober. My life went from being one experience of sexual violence after another to being totally free of sexual violence. And I am still a woman, and men are still men.
What this tells me is that, no, not all women have the experiences that I had. Women in fact have different experiences of sexual violence, due to various factors in their lives. Things like poverty, addiction, childhood trauma, and being street involved put women at a very high risk for sexual violence. Once those risk factors were no longer a part of my life, neither was sexual violence.
But the thing is, the identiarian ideology I was immersed in could not make sense of this. Like my complex ptsd, the identitarian worldview I had taken on invited me to collapse the differences between women’s experiences of sexual violence, and to collapse the differences between different forms of unwanted attention. I was encouraged to understand a guy asking me for my number as obviously and only sexual harassment, and then to allow that interaction to stand in as a symbol for all the violence and trauma and rape I had already experienced or that women generally have experienced. So for years in sobriety I still felt like I was under constant sexual threat. It took me years to notice that my life had changed and to enjoy the general safety that is now my reality.
It took me years to finally believe and understand that not all men want to rape me, not all men dehumanize me, not all men see me first and foremost as a sexual object. In fact, the majority of men I encounter are repulsed by rape, and don’t want to dehumanize anyone. That doesn’t mean that these guys don’t have various levels of unlearning to do to free themselves from whatever sexist socialization they were exposed to. It doesn’t mean I don’t ever feel the way gender roles and sexist assumptions are playing out. But it does mean that there are a wide variety of behaviours that result from sexist socialization and the majority of them do not result in the kinds of intense sexual violence I used to experience. And it is also true that men are capable of rejecting the sexism they’ve learned, and many of them actively do.
When I started to come into a political awakening that the idelogies I was wrapped up in were highly identitarian (they reduced complex political, economic, and social issues to matters of identity alone), I started to explore different ways of thinking about things. I started to question the assumptions I had about men, which were justified by identitarian ideology, but ultimately were grounded in my complex ptsd. I started to question the way that women my age were encouraged by this ideology to dehumanize men, to see men as always dehumanizing them so it was okay to dehumanize them back. For example, I noticed that a lot of bisexual women expressed a lot of fear about initiating sex with women because they were super scared of crossing a boundary, but didn’t feel the same way about men because they assumed men were always pretty much down to fuck.
I started to challenge myself (after years of work in therapy) to be mindful in my daily interactions with men, to pay close attention to my feelings and to what was happening. I started to notice interactions with men that were friendly and kind. I started to notice that something could be annoying and kind of sexist without being a serious threat. And so I also started to better be able to discern what is a red flag of serious threat. I started to be able to have real relationships with men. Small normal mundane relationships like my relationship with my driving instructor or my French teacher or the guys I know at the dog park. I started to be able to become friends with men. I started to be able to separate behaviours I didn’t like from the entire person enacting the behaviour, and from the entire gender that person was a part of.
And I finally could truly understand my life history and what happened to me. All that violence that happened to me did not happen to me simply ‘because I’m a woman.’ If that were true it would still be happening because I am still a woman. The violence I experienced happened to me for a few reasons: because complex trauma landed me in dangerous situations where I was vulnerable, because drugs and alcohol combined with complex trauma prevented me from noticing red flags and effectively protecting myself, and because street involved, poor, addicted women are targeted for violence in ways that other women are not. This doesn’t mean that any random man is more likely to assault a woman sleeping on a bench. What it means is that men who want to assault women are more likely to pick a woman passed out on a bench, because they are more likely to get away with it.
And extremely importantly: none of this means that what happened to me is my fault. None of this means that the responsibility for ending sexual violence falls on the shoulders of vulnerable women to transform their lives so that they aren’t assaulted anymore. What it does mean is that our efforts to end sexual violence need to be more nuanced and specific than the reductionist worldview offered by identitarianism. It makes no sense to tell women who are not at high risk from violence from strangers to live in utter terror of it. The women who are at high risk for violence from strangers have other risk factors and we should be addressing those: by making comprehensive trauma therapy free and widely accessible, by making housing an irrevocable human right, by creating shelters and resources that don’t turn people away for being drunk or high, by coming up with effective strategies for intervening on child abuse. There are many many things we can do to help women at high risk for experiencing sexual violence and we should be doing all of them.
The other piece is that we should be encouraging women to feel empowered rather than to identify with perpetual victimization. We should be teaching good consent practices to all people regardless of gender. We should be teaching how to discern the difference between annoying and dangerous. We should be be practicing boundary skills and good communication skills. We should be teaching de-escalation and self-defense. We should be teaching all people across gender how to have sex and dating lives based in mutual respect, good communication, and care. We should not be reducing anyone to stereotypes based on their identity categories and we should be creating the conditions for true solidarity and camaraderie across gender and all identity categories.
I don’t want to live in unnecessary fear. I don’t want anyone to live in unnecessary fear. I want accurate information to discern my level of safety. Identitarianism doesn’t give that to me. Feminism, to me, is a movement to end sexual violence of all kinds, and to create the conditions of solidarity and equity across gender. It does not need to nor should it rely on the oversimplifying, homongenizing, essentialist framings of identitarian ideology. I am a feminist. I want to entirely abolish sexual violence. I want to create a world where all people can be as safe as possible, and where all people are empowered to make the best possible choices for themselves.
And I want all people, especially traumatized people, to enjoy the simple pleasure of friendship and respectful relationship. I don’t want us to encourage each other to live in a trauma response and call that feminism. Reality is way more complicated, and also way more beautiful than that.
The other day a guy passed me on the street and asked me if I would give him my number. I said: “No, but have a good night.” And he went on his way. In the past I would only have been able to understand that as sexual harassment and I would have experienced it with the weight of all my past traumas. Today I think it’s fine to come on to a stranger, as long as you do so respectfully and can handle hearing no. Today I can confidently say no without excuse or apology. Today I can wish a dude well who was just trying to make a connection and move on with my day.
Thank you for subscribing to The Wild World Itself is Holy. There is also an option to support me financially, if you feel so inclined. I appreciate the support as an independent writer.
Here are some new things:
A new episode of my podcast Fucking Cancelled: Identity Crisis: Everything’s Made Up and the Points Don’t Matter
An upcoming workshop, happening on June 25th at 12pm EST (which will be recorded if you can’t made it to the live): Disorganized Attachment is a Fucking Trip
The preorder for my new book, which should be released in July: Trauma Magic
This was so refreshing for me as my own ADS (Automatic Defense Systems) were constantly running and putting myself at a constant disadvantage and victim state. It's hard sifting through my own critical voice and an unpredictable world but everyday it's getting better - one interaction at a time. TY
yes yes yes yes yes. A much needed perspective...