Sisterhood in application (Part One)

by Guest Blogger

Guest post by Féministe radicale francophone

Article I of III: Taking into account the imprint of devastation on our collectives. 

What took me to write this series on sisterhood is a situation of emergency, in which our solidarity and collective resistances are continually under threat or sabotaged by the rifts men have created in ourselves and between ourselves.[1] Men not only attack us externally but corrode us deeply from the inside so we fissure internally and then displace the violence onto ourselves and other women.[2] This way men make sure we never have the strength and cohesiveness to build a viable alternative to their necrophiliac system, so we don’t become solid enough to put their war to an end – let alone have the material capacity to do so. Although this issue is as old as men’s rule over women, the amnesia, genocide and erasure of women[3] means that the emergency seems to be as new today as it was yesterday: with much despair, I have seen collective after collective bitterly imploding, being infiltrated or taken down by those robotically defending men’s war against us.

Sisterhood can create beautiful, indestructible bonds against male invasion, but this is no easy task. While the success of our movement depends very much on how successfully we relate to each other, building a domination-free community between women requires lots of work. As Janice Raymond says, we need to be critical, rigorous and discerning about our relationships.[4] Yet to turn back to our integral and original selves, to life, freedom, peace and be-ing within this system of atrocity (Mary Daly) is perhaps the most difficult mission given to us in our lives.

So in this series I’d like to share some of the important things my small circle of radfem friends and I have learned from the past few years of women-only activism, in the hope that the mistakes and lessons we’ve made will be useful to other women engaged in fighting male supremacy. I’m aware that some of it might seem redundant or obvious to older or more experienced radfems, but given the little guidance there is out there combined with the fact that any positive female identification is robbed away from us by men, I hope it will be beneficial to some. These articles are the sum of many women’s wisdom that was kindly shared with me, the fruit of long and profound discussions I’ve had with radfem sisters on feminist organising (namely with Binka, from féministes radicales and many other activists, workers or bloggers from various backgrounds and ages), of trainings on male violence against women and on traumatology, and lots of reading. Janice Raymond’s wonderful book A passion for friends is probably the most complete essay on female-centred relationships, and it has been of much help. All of this has guided us a great deal in dealing with exercises of domination, intimidation, harassment or violence within women-only feminist groups.

In this series I will use the term “violence” very often so it’s worth clarifying what I mean by it. Although both male violence against women and women’s violence against women support men and male power, they must be distinguished and treated very differently. So when I refer to violence in women-only self-identified feminist spaces, I use it to mean horizontal violence or displaced anger by women on other women. I define it as emotional abuse, usually justified in the name of feminism and taking the form of insults, verbal intimidation, harassment, installment of a climate of fear and insecurity, shaming (especially public shaming), silencing tactics and the use of such strategies to dominate other women or control what they say or do. If a group includes lesbians, the emotional abuse may also be combined with intimate partner abuse or sexual violence, particularly in the case of lesbian BDSM practices.

The imprint of devastation

All the trainings I have had and the knowledge that was shared with me on traumatic memory was invaluable in helping me understand the extent and ways in which men’s continued sexual, physical, ideological, economic and emotional violence against us deeply imprints and fractures our souls – and hence our collectives. Looking at the emotional damages of male violence on us within patriarchal power structures helps us understand how we may reproduce mechanisms of male violence even in women-centred and radfem spaces: it is crucial that we create safe spaces free from emotional, sexual or physical abuse, yet we have very little guidance as to how to identify and neutralise abuse between us when it occurs, so safety and freedom can become a reality. So I’m going to take some time to (try to) explain the theories in traumatology and abuse developed by Muriel Salmona and the Collectif Féministe contre le viol (CFCV), and how we’ve applied it to understanding and improving our experiences in women-only organising. I’ve organised the article in a way to outline what appeared to us as the most serious obstacles to female affection and sisterhood. Please visit Muriel Salmona’s website, blog and articles for more information, as well as the resources on the CFCV website.[5]

–Traumatic Memory[6]

Each violence subjected to us, though systemic and patriarchal, has a pattern which is specific to our own experience. When this violence was not properly processed or exorcised, because the violence was too overwhelming, we develop a post-traumatic syndrome or traumatic memory as a natural survival mechanism. This may be the case with any form of intentional violence committed against us throughout our lives, with varying degrees. Since intentional destruction (which could range from normalised hatred or denigration to more severe forms of violence and threats to our survival such as rape, and torture), threatens our psychic or physical integrity and cannot be made sense of by our psychological system, we experience it as an inescapable threat and our system naturally reacts by dissociating  – by creating a state of emotional anaesthesia (see PTSD mechanisms in Salmona’s webpage)[7]. This is a useful immediate survival mechanism, however it has disastrous consequences: because of the disconnection, the memory was unable to process the experience in the “hard drive” or conscious memory and it remains “stuck” in the limbic system (emotional or unconscious memory)[8]. This means we continue to live as if the threat were still present, reliving the same sense of fear, despair or terror we experienced during the attack at any stimulus reminding the traumatic event. It is like a time bomb that can explode at any time.

The traumatic memory thus takes siege over our body and mind, distorting our consciousness and the way we relate to ourselves, to other women and to the world – we no longer evolve/spiral freely towards our selves and the world but remain trapped and constantly pulled back in a destructive pattern that keeps repeating itself in circular form, like a broken disk – so long as it is not healed. Most often the traumatic patterns express themselves in such ways that we are not conscious of their relation to past or present external violence, because of dissociation, amnesia, normalisation of male violence or victim-blaming. The symptoms may take the form of anxiety, hypervigilance, behavioural disorders, somatisations, chronic pain, phobias, insomnia, nightmares, addictive disorders, repetitive exposure to violence or abusive relationships, cognitive disorders (etc) for which we usually internalise the blame and have very little recourse.[9]

These traumatic mechanisms which are the most frequent and most severe emotional consequences of male violence may cause permanent states of suffering or psychological emergency, and are also obviously disabling, impeding healthy relationships with ourselves and other women. Men have left us with serious emotional wounds and sadly, this is a reality that we have to face and deal with when relating to each other, individually and collectively. It is something we need to take into account in our actions, so our resistance and justice also become a form of healing. Or so that that we can find ways of healing that are political, that transform our lives and the lives of other women so to free ourselves from male occupation.

–Dissociation

Conveniently for men, the ubiquity of their violence and everything they set up to maintain our subordination has the effect and intent of keeping us as dissociated as possible, so we can’t make the connection between male violence and the suffering we experience, and therefore, can’t liberate ourselves from it. Dissociation, as a symptom and cause of trauma/violence, is perhaps one of the most severe consequences of living in a women-hating world, since it is very efficient at preventing us from breaking the cycles of male violence and sustaining positive connections between ourselves and other women.

As we have nowhere to go to escape from male violence or the threat of male violence, the only option that is left to us is to escape from ourselves, that is, to dissociate. We are an exiled people, exiled not only from the world but also from ourselves. Betty MacLellan talks of a particular form of alienation which she calls “psychological homelessness”, I think this concept describes our worldless condition very well. She gives two definitions for psychological homelessness: “Estrangement from society; feelings of being an outsider, foreigner or outcast; and estrangement from oneself, feelings of unreality or depersonalisation (Miller and Brackman Keane, 1987).”[10] More generally, by dissociation I mean any form of emotional anaesthesia, which is the fact of no longer being connected to one’s emotions, because they are too difficult to bear.[11] It is anything conscious or unconscious that helps us anaesthetise from violence, anxiety, fear or overwhelming terror on a daily basis. Dissociation can vary from blanks in the mind, a sense of unreality or numbness, of not feeling there, of lack of sense of self, to taking drugs, self-harming, to actual splitting from the body and severe fragmentation of self. Binka’s powerful article “Briser tous les écrans que les hommes forment en nous et entre nous” (shatter the screens that men form in ourselves and between ourselves) forms the basis for this part on alienation: much of what will follow is paraphrasing her post.[12]

Because of the legitimacy and normalcy of men’s violence against us, we have learnt from very early on not to trust our feelings when we feel invaded or threatened, and in particular we have learned not to consider them as serious attacks to our dignity, or to consider our emergencies as important. To survive in a world at war against us, we have to tolerate high degrees of violence at the cost of losing our capacity to identify abuse when it comes – while it enables us to better cope with ongoing violence, it at the same time prevents us from getting away from it. This is very unfortunate and a serious obstacle to resistance. Dissociation combined with the hatred that continually weighs on our existences means that we lack the necessary self-love to instinctively prefer ourselves in front of the abuser and fight back, or flee, whether this person is a woman or a man. Instead, violence enacted against us often confirms profound experiences of annihilation and self-hatred (feelings of illegitimacy to exist) to which we react by being numbed or wanting to disappear.

In fact the only violence we are groomed to fear is the violence emanating from ourselves when we need to protect ourselves from blows, insults or attacks – which leads us to fear the legitimate self-protection, strength, assertiveness and emotional/physical safety we need for our survival. Hence our tendencies to cede to abnormal levels of infiltration, exploitation, power-grabbings, vampirism, guilt-tripping (or any other forms of abuse) which sabotage our collectives.

The only legitimate subject in language, culture and ideology is a male one, and male culture designates women as the hated, despised, non-human Other. Culturally, we do not exist outside this hateful projection of male paranoia. This universal women-erasing male-centredness means that the only subjectivity we can identify with – the “I” in a patriarchal world – separates us from our suffering selves as women in patriarchy and isolates us from our sisters as an oppressed people. Male-identification lies at the root of our amnesia, of our colonisation by male agendas, our dis-identification from women as a class and from ourselves as women, and the derealisation of the atrocities against us. In feminist collectives, this dissociation from women often translates as an incapacity to recognise prejudices other than those affecting men (class or race oppression as experienced only by men), as blindness about the most pressing emergencies for ourselves and other women, as designating other women as the enemy rather than male rule over us or focusing on destroying women serving patriarchy rather than directly attacking male power; all of which are lethal to building solidarity with different groups of women on the basis of our oppression and mutual affection.

–Displacing anger on other women

Dee Graham defines displaced anger in the following way: “victims of chronic interpersonal abuse, fearing retaliation if they express their anger at their abuser for the abuse done to them, will displace that anger onto themselves and others who have less power over them than does (or did) the abuser”.[13] Indeed, power structures in patriarchy make it almost impossible for us to dismantle male supremacy or confront our oppressors individually. In this context, displacement of anger on ourselves or on other women (or children) is both the most immediately accessible outlet and the only legitimised option that men leave us with to make up for our powerlessness, abandonment and individual lack of control in our lives.

One major symptom of displaced anger on women is seeing women as the enemy, not men. Hetero-reality pits us against one another to compete for male attention, so men make sure we project our rage, rancour and hatred – provoked by the everyday abuse and deprivation – on ourselves or on other women rather than on our oppressors.[14] Most feminists are aware of how this works, yet we do sometimes see this competitive-destructive behaviour in some feminist spaces, where competition for male attention is replaced by competition for women’s attention and reward (for our feminist actions), perceived as a scarce resource to cling on to dearly. Other feminists become treated as competitors threatening access to this resource, to be punished for their success or skills. Gangs or assimilationist alliances may result from this as a way to protect ourselves from being bashed down by other women or on the contrary to guard a perceived recognition or status gained by the feminist actions. This of course benefits men and male power because it keeps us all down, derails us from uniting against the oppressor by fostering distrust of women and makes it appear that women are worse than men, so we stay loyal and indebted only to men, or become embittered by feminism.

Displaced anger is also often related to the degree to which we are held captive by men and/or the degree to which we have been forced to take on men’s perspective to survive. This is especially the case for virulent anti-feminist reactions. If a woman is unable to take a different perspective from the abuser because doing so would cause retaliation and threaten her survival (especially if she is emotionally or economically dependent on her male owner), it is likely that she will control not only herself to comply to the abuser’s demands, but also try to control the other women around her so they don’t disrupt the strategies she put up for survival. This might mean taking men’s defence and silencing women for taking certain feminist views.[15] Basically, the kind of misogyny a women internalises might reveal the kind of violence she is subjected to or alert us that she’s in danger.

Or it might simply be too painful to abandon the rationalisations we have created to accommodate everyday male violence. Refusal to go to certain points of feminism may be a way of protecting ourselves from having our world crumble down all at once, because we are not ready to deal with it yet. It is important not to underestimate the extent to which our resistances to feminism are most often driven by fear, survival mechanisms and resistances to confronting our own trauma in a context where we are unable to escape male surveillance and violence, or where we would have nowhere safe to go if everything bursted out at once. While silencing tactics are unacceptable and should be condemned in feminist spaces, we also need to help each other break these barriers with empathy – if it is safe enough – rather than through public shaming, because this further isolates the victim from women and therefore increases men’s control over her, and us.

Finally, sadism, harassment, emotional abuse and willingness to take power over other women in feminist spaces may be a way to palliate or ease our own wounds. Being violent to those whom society legitimates violence against (women or children) is an unethical but easily accessible means of limiting the self-destructiveness of severe trauma. There is a small minority of abusive women in feminist spaces but they can do incredible harm and are usually very effective in silencing women, creating confusion and fear. I have seen this happen over and over again. Contrary to men, we do not learn to dominate or to desensitise from our aggressiveness as part of our grooming, at least not in a systemic way. We learn primarily to be subordinate to men and to desensitise from the violence that is done to us and to other women. So when a woman becomes abusive, we can be almost sure that she learnt to abuse from her own abuser, by being victimised herself (Note: understanding this does not justify the violence nor does it remove the women from the responsibility of her acts). It is easy to tell by studying the strategies she uses to keep other women under control: they will most likely reflect the same strategies of demolition that were – or are still – used against her.[16]

Our way of explaining it is that “the coloniser is still occupying the victim”, that is, the traumatic memory and fear caused by the violence are still effective. But instead of dissociating through self-destructive behaviours or re-victimisation, these women learn to dissociate or gain a semblance of control over their trauma and lives through violence against other women. Both can have the same dissociating or addictive effects, with the difference that violence against others slightly increases protection from harm and requires the choice of harming others to ease personal pain.[17] So in the absence of any means for healing and protection from violence, this does actually limit, albeit very marginally, the destructiveness of trauma, because it limits further re-victimisation, although it doesn’t heal at all.

Being abusive generally happens to women who still internalise women-hatred, accept power-over as a given and perceive masculine violence as the only way to escape the consequences of male sexual violence. These women choose to control other women because it gives them a sense of being in control, of controlling their emotions, of having surpassed the hated state of “victim” or “women”, so as to avoid confronting their own emotional pain and loss of self. Obviously it is a very bad and destructive form of self-protection, and is extremely destructive of feminist collectives. The violence must be stopped immediately, and the abusive women deprived of their capacity to harm.

Where men can’t reach women because the space is women-only, these women, most of whom are deeply damaged, serve as the perfect Trojan horses and cannon fodder for the destruction of feminist spaces. To use Mary Daly’s term, they are men’s “token torturers” in feminist spaces, doing men’s dirty work of demolishing women’s capacity for resistance.[18] In most cases, pseudo-feminist (masculinist) practices or ideologies are the perfect terrain for such abusive behaviours because they give both the sense of legitimacy and individual rationalisation for them. Token torturers within feminist or women-only spaces almost always justify their continual acts of women-bashing with male-identified ideologies disguised as feminism, and some may be more obvious than others. This is particularly true for pro-prostitution positions, BDSM practices, pseudo anti-racism, intersectionality, male-centric anti-capitalism or leftism, focus on male institutions or law, queer theory, butch-fem ideology, radical lesbianism, and the “phobia” ideologies (Islamophobia, etc.).

These positions and practices work best in non-radical feminist spaces but it does matter to all of us because this masculinist abuse and bashing effectively drive a considerable amount of active, intelligent and potentially engaged women out of true feminist activism, into political immobilism or worse – women-hating propaganda. It cuts us from a great potential political base. We do need to develop efficient strategies of dealing with such anti-feminist strategies to prevent the leakage and stop the violence before it destroys the feminist group. Emotional safety in our spaces is absolutely necessary and fundamental for building together a road to peace, freedom and integrity.

****

Other emotional consequences of male violence such as abandonism (fear of losing existence or sense of self without the other, tendency to relate to others through intense emotional dependency – otherwise called Stockholm Syndrome) also form serious obstacles to building solidarity between ourselves. Unfortunately I won’t have the time and space to address them all, so I chose to focus on those that seemed to be the least addressed in feminist blogs or books. Despite this dark depiction of the consequences of male violence on our capacity to organise resistance and transform our lives away from patriarchy, the following parts will be overwhelmingly positive and focus on the things that helped us deal with all the issues above.

About the author, Féministe radicale francophone is a full-time radical feminist activist for the last few years, organising mainly against pornstitution and all forms of sexual/reproductive violence, and particularly interested in questions of trauma, political healing and relationships within women-only collectives.

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[1]See Binka’s article « Briser tous les écrans que forment les hommes en nous et entre nous », http://www.feministes-radicales.org/solidarites/briser-tous-les-ecrans-que-forment-les-hommes-en-nous-et-entre-nous/

[2]Dee Graham, Loving to Survive: Sexual Terror, Men’s Violence and Women’s Lives, p. 47.

[4]Janice Raymond, A passion for friends : A philosophy of female affection

[5]Muriel Salmona’s website : http://memoiretraumatique.org/

Her blog : http://stopauxviolences.blogspot.fr/

The Collectif Féministe Contre le Viol http://www.cfcv.asso.fr/

[7]Muriel Salmona, « Mécanismes: définition » http://memoiretraumatique.org/psychotraumatismes/memoire-traumatique.html

[8]Muriel Salmona, « Description de la réponse émotionnelle » http://memoiretraumatique.org/psychotraumatismes/origine-et-mecanismes.html#titre32-2

[9]Muriel Salmona, « Les troubles psychiques liés aux psychotraumatismes », http://memoiretraumatique.org/psychotraumatismes/generalites.html#titre31-5

[10]Betty MacLellan, “No Place to Call “Home”: A feminist ethical inquiry into women’s experience of Alienation”, Coalition for a Feminist Agenda, Presented at International Conference on Conflict Resolution: Peace and Development on 28-29 October, 2003, http://www.feministagenda.org.au/No%20Place3.htm

[11]Muriel Salmona, in a radio talk on Tuesday May the 15th, http://stopauxviolences.blogspot.mx/2012/05/emission-pas-de-quartier-sur-radio.html

[13]See Dee Graham, Loving to Survive: Sexual Terror, Men’s Violence and Women’s Lives, p. 47

[14]Hetero-reality is a term created by Janice Raymond, in A passion for friends. I prefer this term to “heterosexuality”, which is a pure male invention that essentialises the ownership of women by men.

[15]See Dee Graham and Stockholm Syndrome.

[16] Most men who exercise domination against women on the other hand, are normal blokes who apply the basic protocol of conventional masculinity. They do not need to think about it, it is part of every man’s normal and expected behaviour. This protects men’s integrity as it greatly minimises the social and emotional costs of being violent and the social rewards are considerable. This is not the case for women, who do not benefit socially by being against other women.

[17]See Muriel Salmona

[18]Mary Daly, Gynecology

6 Responses to “Sisterhood in application (Part One)”

  1. What an excellent post this is – thank you for posting it here. And I can’t recommend Raymond’s “A Passion for Friends” highly enough; she dissects so many of the problems that seem to occur whenever women try to create successful, meaningful women-only spaces. I have no doubt that analyzing these kinds of issues will give us a valuable head-start. 🙂

    Looking forward to part two!

  2. This is a wonderful post. I really like where you explain that we need to overcome the the issue of token-torturers (address it, deal with it somehow) in order to mobilize women, that we are losing ourselves a political resource. It reads to me as quite a hopeful paragraph.
    I’m looking forward to reading part 2 and 3, especially if they are “overwhelmingly positive” 🙂

  3. thank you for this. anti-poverty and other service providers are apparenty just starting to realize the effects of “secondary trauma” on their employees/volunteers — the stress up to and often including full-blown PTSD that providers experience by dealing with victims of severe trauma and institutional violence as part of thier jobs. this occurs primarily through listening to client histories of violence and abuse, including the graphic details. this has been understood before as burnout, “high turnover” and other euphemisms for what is in actuality severe traumatization but the truth of their own “vicarious trauma” has historically been unacknowledged amongst providers, even as they are trained to be very empathetic to their clients and aware of thier clients severe trauma. and in many cases, sadly, the providers are *not* provided even that basic level of training about how to deal with clients who are severely traumatized, or the extent of and manifestations of the trauma, such as not showing up for appointments, lying or misleading, and other “time wasting” behaviors or “acting out” that are quite aggravating for time-strapped workers who often deal with extremely high-volume caseloads. there seems to be a lot of ignorance of and around trauma generally, and this is not really a surprise considering that its almost always men and male institutions which are perpetrating all of it. its difficult to deal with something you are not even allowed to name, or recognize, or hold anyone accountable for.

    but to identify and name that all women are severely traumatized and even broken simply by living in a woman-hating culture is *never* acknowledged anywhere in the mainstream AFAIK. the aggravation, futility (like when clients dont show up) and even vicarious traumatization that seem to be inherent with dealing with traumatized people is starting to be acknowledged in other contexts, and recognizing how much collective trauma we are dealing with when we have women-only spaces with the sole purpose of serving womens needs is frankly devastating to me. what an enormous obstacle we have in front of us to being successful at anything we try to do, or to do long-term. thank you for naming this, and going so in-depth with it. looking forward to parts 2 and 3.

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