Guest post by Féministe radicale francophone
Part II: A right and obligation to preserve ourselves.
Part I is here.
For many of us, feminism may be about the only thing that clings us to life and hope. Without sorority and feminism, many of us would be dead, would still be heavily controlled by men or have seeped into madness. This existential relation to feminism means that conflicts or treasons within our groups may be all the more difficult to cope with when they occur, because it threatens the little haven of safety and sanity we might have managed to create. Our wounds are still bleeding, our hearts scorched: blows may be fatal or devastating, and we often have nowhere else to go.
Therefore safety and integrity in our spaces must be a foremost goal if we want peace and freedom from violence to become reality, because only then will we be lucid enough to require a real truce and protect our interests without compromise. We cannot allow our spaces and projects to be destroyed, sabotaged or infiltrated over and over again. Our thoughts and actions cannot expand freely if within our space, we are constrained because of fear of what others might say, if we are afraid of going the end of our thoughts. Thus we have a moral obligation to protect ourselves and our sisters from external male violence as much as from token torturers from within, because our actions must lead us to victory, be clearly focused towards the dismantling of the oppressive system and removal of power from the oppressors, to make place for our empowerment. We have a right to a grounded, efficient, collective, successful, joyful, visible, powerful, outreaching, intelligent, free and loving movement!
The aim of Part II is to lay out and share the kind of practices and knowledge we learned through different women-only activist spaces and trainings, and helped us improve our activism by creating conditions of emotional safety and limiting the devastating effects of misogynist infiltration in our spaces. I hope this will be as useful to some as it has been for us.2
For purposes of delineating its two main points, Part II of this series contains two parts, A and B.
Part II. A. Identify the violence.
As mentioned in Part I, when men cannot reach for us in person because the space is reserved for women, female token torturers (or token abusers, in this case) play a fundamental role in sabotaging our capacity to organise our resistance and create lasting and indestructible bonds. Learning to identify the violence when it appears in our groups is a first step towards preserving ourselves.
Throughout the different group experiences we went through, we noticed that anti-feminist, women-hating ideologies or attitudes that were destructive to female solidarity were easily identifiable by the way they were exercised: through abuse or violence. Thus the “5 strategies of the abuser”, a list of characteristics systematically found in all sexist/sexual violence outlined by the Collectif Féministe Contre le Viol (CFCV), helped us a lot in identifying both abuse and male ideologies in our spaces. Because even if some of us might not have understood where there was something wrong with, say, intersectionality or queer ideology, the fact that it was systematically enforced through shaming and that women would only apply it because of fear of being shunned told us that its purpose was certainly antifeminist and that it should be immediately stopped and criticised. It helped us name the violence, put words on it and give sense to it, and therefore allowed us to act quickly before the abuse (and male ideology) could establish itself over time – either by getting away from the group if the status quo was unchangeable, or by neutralising the women doing the abusing if we were in a position of deciding the terms of the group.
The following outline of the “5 strategies of the abuser” (by Marie-France Casalis and translated from the French for the purpose of this article) served as a basis for identifying and protecting ourselves from misogynist mechanisms in women-only spaces:
“Whichever the form of violence exercised and the status of the abuser (stranger, close relative) we can find similar characteristics in the strategy of abuse implemented by the abuser against a women. First he chooses, selects his victim; then he organises the assault or abuse according to 5 main priorities:
1. Isolate the victim. Geographically, socially/emotionally, ideologically, from work, from family and resources.
2. Demean her, treat her like an object. Humiliate, denigrate, criticise, mock, insult, shame, weaken her. With the double effect: that she will lose her capacity to resist, that she will lose her self-esteem.
3. Revert responsibility. Transfer responsibility of the violence onto the victim. Recognise no responsibility in having resorted to violence. She provoked it, she wanted me to do it, she irritated me. Maintain confusion, disorientation: contrasting attitudes by alternating between periods of reprieve that foretell devastating periods of reprisal.
4. Install a climate of fear and insecurity. Present oneself as all-powerful. Use threats and put some into effect. Retaliation on relatives, domestic animals…
5. Act in a way to set up and ensure one’s impunity. Recruit allies. Organise a coalition against the weak. Implicate the victim in the unfolding of events. Give her something, ask her for help, or offer to help her. Impose a law of silence and secrecy so the victim never tells.
If the analysis of a situation of violence demonstrates that one or more of these characteristics are present, it is easier to make appropriate decisions for feminist intervention, and to provide evidence that this does qualify as violence, that is: acts with the intent to harm a person. It is then possible to base the intervention on the protection of the victim and punishment of the abuser.”
While this outline refers specifically to male violence against women, we noticed that the strategies used by the token abusers who promoted anti-feminist ideologies or attitudes in feminist groups had a similar pattern to those used by male sexual abusers, and as a general rule reproduced patriarchal mechanisms. I have most often seen these misogynist strategies used against women who denounced men’s sexual violence, prostitution, pornography, or generally rejected male ideologies disguised as feminism (postmodernism, marxism, liberalism, queer theory, intersectionality, male-centred analyses of racism, etc.) and promoted a women-centred, radical feminist vision of our oppression.
This may seem obvious to many radical feminists but for younger feminists who arrive to such groups unprepared, unconfident and with very little access to radical feminist knowledge, these tactics are very difficult to decrypt, and very efficient in either paralysing them into fear or driving them away from feminism and sisterhood. At worst, they will be hoaxed into promoting those male ideologies themselves and participate in the bashing of other feminists. The loss this represents for our movement and for our liberation is terrible. I hope that outlining the different tactics by which male ideologies operate in women-only feminist spaces will help some women recognise more easily the violence of those tactics and thus be better prepared and protected against it. If this happens to you, there is nothing wrong with you. It is not right to be shamed, guilt-tripped, smeared, insulted or harassed: this is a politics of destroying feminism. Hereunder is how we revisited, through discussions and group work, the CFCV’s outline to apply it to situations of horizontal violence in women-only spaces.3 Please take a look at Joreen’s excellent and moving article “Trashing” for a more complex description of the different ways in which such strategies take place.
Token abusers select and choose who will be their target according to the strategy and male ideology they use, so as to make the reversal appear more credible. For instance, if a woman uses “classist” name-calling as a strategy to silence other women, it is likely that she will select a woman who she perceives as having more financial and educational resources.
Isolate the victim:
Abusers usually target women with little support or allies. When this is not the case, they find ways of creating a void around the victim by pitting her allies or friends against her – by purges. In general however, feminists are often socially very isolated and easily develop a sense of dependency on the group because it might be one of the few resourses we have for our emotional or physical survival, and this pre-existing isolation makes it easier for the abuser to obtain what she wants from the victim. Because there is so few of us, to fear being permanently excluded from feminism if things go bad increases the likelihood that we will accommodate certain degrees of abuse or exploitation of our work, time and energy.
Demean the victim:
In feminist spaces, especially those that are less radical or women-centred, misogynist demeaning mostly takes the form of insults or trashing (either in collective meetings, public gatherings or on forums or blogs, for others to see). As Joreen says;
It is not disagreement; it is not conflict; it is not opposition. These are perfectly ordinary phenomena which, when engaged in mutually, honestly, and not excessively, are necessary to keep an organism or organization healthy and active. Trashing is a particularly vicious form of character assassination which amounts to psychological rape. It is manipulative, dishonest, and excessive.
The most common form is to adopt a veneer of anti-oppression discourse, and to address it so as to qualify the woman’s essence rather than her behaviour or something she said.4 As opposed to a genuine concern for the reality of oppressed peoples and a desire to further our mutual understanding of oppression, these women use anti-oppression language as way to bash other women. When a normal activist accusation would be to focus on attacking the political standing, action or argument of the opponent, women trying to gain control over a group focus on attacking the person. It can be easily identified because the words are used as an ad hominem attack so as to qualify the whole person, as if it said everything about her and stained her entire being, erasing everything else about her and the things she does or says. In such situations, women are made to feel shameful for being “white”, for being “privileged”, bourgeoise, “cis”, “racist”, “Islamophobic”, a “bad feminist”, “transphobic” etc (some of these qualifiers are pure inventions, but the quotation marks indicate that in these contexts they are unfounded). When asked to clarify their position, answers are usually vacuous and pretexts are given not to enter in the debate, such as “it is not my job to educate”. Such attacks are mostly unfounded, based on rumour or behind the scenes smearing, and their politics are based on self-nomination and individual identity rather than the reality of our experiences.
Regardless of whether the woman targeted did say something offensive, anti-feminist or racist, the reaction is always disproportionate and the intent is to cause shame of what we are. It causes nothing but guilt, silence, reduction of activism to auto-observation, or violent reactions that only reinforce the presumption of guilt. We are particularly vulnerable to such attacks as women activists because they instrumentalise an already present (and rational) fear of annihilation, and the fact we have been groomed to internalise insults or external negative judgements, rather than trust our judgements or feelings.
I would really recommend reading Janice Raymond’s chapter on “The Politics of Guilt and Guilt-Tripping”, in A Passion for Friends. This is the example she gives:
“Guilt… produces guilt-tripping. This is evident in women’s groups where some women berate other women for racism, classism, and/ or heterosexism. It fosters a policy and style of antiracist, anticlassist, and /or antiheterosexist consciousness and behaviour that is based on terrorising other women in both an intellectual and social way. Guilt-tripping is usually expressed in the negative; for example; a woman may say that another woman has “no analysis of race” rather than expressing an educative and affirmative position on race herself.”5
Reversal of responsibility.
In women-only feminist spaces, we noticed that reversals often worked in the following way :
- the abuser recognises no responsibility for her actions by constant self-victimisation. She presents herself as more victim than others (“I’m doubly, triply more oppressed than you are”) or as the ultimate victim, as a deliberate way make women feel guilty about criticising her stance and to silence any dissidence to her political agenda. Examples of this: “I’m a sex worker, how dare you question what I’m saying”.
- the way the token abuser transfers responsibility onto the victim is generally through guilt-tripping and accusations: she accuses other women of being an agent of oppression, of oppressing her individually or of being the incarnation of the violent, hateful oppressor. Example: “I’m butch and your femininity oppresses me”.
Whatever she says, she is always right because of her “X” status, and whatever you say, it will be interpreted as “X”ism. You will appear as guilty no matter what. These forms of accusations combined with self-victimisation are particularly lethal in feminist spaces because they exploit our weaknesses enforced through years of patriarchal grooming and violence: our over-developed, sacrificial empathy and systematic preference for the other over ourselves – this is especially true for women involved in fighting for social justice or against oppression; our constant feeling of guilt for what we are, for existing, breathing and merely taking space; the fact we are made to blame ourselves for men’s crimes and atrocities; our alienation from the world, which causes us to believe that the only action we can have is on ourselves, rather than on the outside world and on male systems of oppression; the denial and derealisation of our own suffering.
The incoherence or contradictory nature of the accusations, the speed at which they are spread to other women and the flood of accusations or dismissals that may follow are highly confusing to the woman who is targeted. It makes it very difficult to make sense of what is happening and our reaction is generally to panic, to feel despair and to do anything to make it stop, including submitting to the abuser’s orders in a desperate attempt to appease her. Confusion and disorientation is increased because the token abuser alternates between contrasting attitudes such as rewarding women for “behaving correctly” (such as publicly confessing “faults” of racism, classism, elitism, or assimilating to the correct gang alliances, etc.) and shaming for “thoughtcrimes”, “essence crimes”, “tone crimes”, “betrayals” and the like.
Install a climate of fear and insecurity
Public shaming of one or two women, often taking the form of “trials” where the woman is publicly reviled for her mistakes, is especially lethal and efficient in terrorising all the women in the group or collectivity, because all the women, even those who are not targeted, will fear this will happen to them too. As Joreen mentions, “Trashing is not only destructive to the individuals involved, but serves as a very powerful tool of social control.”
In such situations the token torturers, through threats, insults, libel, spreading rumours, manipulations, public guilt-tripping or sometimes even through physical intimidation of some women, install a climate of insecurity in which most women are in a constant fear of being shamed or excluded from the group. In the hope of gaining recognition and preventing reprisals from the abuser, victims of such mechanisms will organise their activism, writing and thoughts around avoiding to “offend” the other women for doing “the wrong thing”.
Act in a way to set up and ensure one’s impunity
This is mostly done by building coalitions with more influential women, recruiting allies within the same circles of the targeted women, using ready-made ideologies or rationalisations to make the attacks appear legitimate or sound, and smearing the victim’s reputation before she has the opportunity to defend herself.
Impose a law of silence and secrecy so the victim never tells
All these strategies certainly have the effect of silencing women in feminist groups and preventing us from expressing our criticisms openly. In this case, feminist activism is more likely to be driven by assimilationism and subsuming the self to a group, rather than by freedom of thought and integrity.
Part II.B. Intervene to protect ourselves, our sisters and install a climate of security
An important thing we learnt from dealing with aggressive women infiltrators or token abusers is never to negotiate with them alone in the hope of reasoning with them. It is especially unsafe to deal with abusive persons when isolated, and at best, it will be a waste of energy because an individual attempt to appease and reason with her is unlikely to have any impact on the noxious power she has on the other women of the group, which is the essential problem. If it is done in a one-to-one setting, this advantages the abuser who might try to trip us in her manipulations or wind us up in endless contradictions or incoherences, and if it is done alone in front of the group, the risk is that she further accuses you in front of the others and uses this as an opportunity to increase the general climate of fear and power over the other women. Nor is it useful, at this point, to try to help the abuser to deal with her own trauma in the hope that it will “unlock” the violence. Any kind of negotiations can only be done after conditions of security have been put into place and she no longer has the capacity to harm (she has unarmed) and is ready to accept this kind of help. I very much like Joreen’s take on this:
Although only a few women actually engage in trashing, the blame for allowing it to continue rests with us all. Once under attack, there is little a woman can do to defend herself because she is by definition always wrong. But there is a great deal that those who are watching can do to prevent her from being isolated and ultimately destroyed. Trashing only works well when its victims are alone, because the essence of trashing is to isolate a person and attribute a group’s problems to her. Support from others cracks this facade and deprives the trashers of their audience.
Concerted, collective intervention, on the basis of the situation and the agreement that all violence is unacceptable in this feminist space, is necessary to counterbalance the power structure. It is important in this case to briefly but firmly “reassert the law” (you have no right to do this, it is violence and it is wrong, please stop immediately or go to another group), neutralise her capacity to harm and openly disapprove of the abuse, so it is known by her and the other women members that these kind of behaviours are not accepted in the group. Because we’re dealing with a woman, we must remember she is still our sister and a potential future ally: eventually, we want her on our side and she may have many great qualities for our movement. Therefore as opposed to dealing with men, it is crucial to do this with respect and empathy, without shaming and distinguish between behaviour and essence, so as not to reproduce the same mechanisms of abuse ad infinitum.6
If no collective action can be taken because the status quo is in favour of the token abuser(s) or male ideology and there is no chance of changing the power structure as it is, the best solution is to protect yourself and get away from the group without delay. Any negotiation must be refused and dropped in a climate of insecurity. I’ll say it again: protect yourself and get away from the group. A group that is inherently destructive or emotionally unsafe cannot be changed unless the destructive persons are no longer present and no longer decide the terms of the group, and it is not possible to be safe in these conditions, even if one has decided that “this doesn’t affect me”, or “I can handle it by myself, I’m tough”. It is unproductive and un-feminist to sacrifice ourselves in the name of feminism and we cannot afford not to preserve ourselves from harm, because the effects are too lasting to be taken lightly. Recovering from an abusive situation may take months or years, whereas projects can easily be continued in a different form or with a new group or team, or put to a break while we find better conditions for them.
Hereunder are the CFCV’s guidelines for feminist intervention with female victims of male violence, which was also a helpful tool for intervening in abusive situations in women-only groups, especially with the women targeted by abuse.7 It helped a great deal with our interactions with women in general.
“What will guide our intervention in helping victims is simply to do the exact opposite of what the abuser has tried to achieve:
1. He wants to isolate her: I come closer, I manifest my interest for her, I seek contact, I do not let silence slip between us, I help her identify who in her surroundings could support or help her when in need.
2. He humiliates her, treats her like an object: I encourage her, I highlight each of her actions and honour the efforts she had made for her survival: she is brave, she is looking for solutions, she considers alternative possibilities. I praise all the skills she has: in her work, with her children, with her family, and all the initiatives she takes for her protection. I invite her to make decisions for herself and validate those decisions.
3. He blames her for the situation: I base my intervention on criminal law [in our case, on ethics and analysis of facts] to attribute to the abuser the entire responsibility of his acts. “You are not responsible for this and he had no right to do this to you. It is violence and it is a crime”.
4. He reigns over by terror: I look for solutions with her to ensure her safety while demonstrating how dangerous the abuser is for her. I resist to be overwhelmed by fear and for this I base my reasoning and statements on the law that punishes such actions and protects the victims.
5. He tries to ensure his impunity by recruiting allies: I remain vigilant not to be recruited amongst his allies. This is maybe the most difficult part of our mission because the entire social and cultural system is on the side of the abusers, the strong and the powerful. We need to resist our knee-jerk reactions to deny the seriousness of the harm, to resort to fatalism, to refuse to confront the dominating persons out of laziness or to prefer procedures that tend towards mediation, accommodation or reciprocity between the abuser and victim.
In a situation of violence: it is no longer time for negotiation but time for law which gives to each person his/her place and status: there is a victim, there is an abuser. The support and help of women victims must be oriented so that justice is made.”
To this list of counter-abuse strategies, I would add:
6. His violence dissociates and fragments us: we reconnect to ourselves, to our emotions, feelings and body, to our individual and collective memory as women and as survivors. We no longer silence the signs of our body that say “pain”, “sorrow”, “rage”, “fear”. We see our symptoms, disorders, fears and somatisations as linked to his violence and find ways of freeing ourselves from the ongoing consequences of violence on our psyche, soul, and body. We truly break away from the state of living-dead towards living life.
Reassociation (as opposed to dissociation) is fundamental for our protection from further exposure to violence, whether it be in our feminist groups, in our (or men’s) homes, or at work. Our body never lies. If we learn to pay attention to our feelings of discomfort, unease, fear, physical pain, anxiety, sorrow, despair, exhaustion or burn-out and link them to the situation we are in rather than ignore our signs of physical and emotional pain, we are much less likely to tolerate ongoing situations of abuse, exploitation of our work or violence. We are much less likely to lose ourselves and our work in endless and destructive, harrowing conflicts. We are more likely to get away from it at an early stage if we can, or simply not get involved in a group that is destructive, and choose activist spheres and co-workers that are right for us and correspond to what we can do and offer.
I believe reassociation or reintegration is crucial for our liberation, and so far have been amazed to see the transformative power this has had on collectives who adopted this as one of their moving principles. Only if we are in touch with our emotions can we have a chance to heal our wounds and transform them into something positive in our lives, together. We need to recognise this collective need for reparation and healing as women survivors of violence, and integrate this need for emotional safety within our collective actions. Our processes must be collective and lead to justice, and our actions for justice must be healing – not stressful, bitter, exhausting and isolating. To be able to prefer ourselves, to decolonise our minds, to move forward together with trust, respect and love, we need to be whole, we need to be inside our bodies and know who we are, what we need, and how to express these needs and listen to them.
As a final note, the cement of male supremacy being women-hatred: we place love of women as the driving force of our lucidity and our movement. Only when we love our selves do we have the strength and instinct to prefer ourselves in the face of the abuser. Love of self protects us from the insults sinking under our skin, from believing the abuser’s judgements that we are worthless. I will end this second part with the following quote from Andrea Dworkin:
“First [of all], I love, cherish, and respect women in my mind, in my heart, and in my soul. This love of women is the soil in which my life is rooted. It is the soil of our common life together. My life grows out of this soil. In any other soil, I would die. In whatever ways I am strong, I am strong because of the power and passion of this nurturant love.”8
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.