On Being an Activist Even When You Don’t Like Yourself

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Activism, by its very nature, involves opening oneself up to scrutiny. In challenging dominant social structures and ideologies we, intentionally or unintentionally, invite criticism and debate from those who wish to maintain the status quo. Sometimes that criticism is fair and is an invitation to examine a piece of evidence that we overlooked or a flaw in our reasoning. Sometimes that criticism is loaded, reactionary, and even abusive. The prevailing wisdom is to just laugh it off, ignore it, and feel confident in the fact that we, at least, are creators of important content while the abuser is just a pathetic troll.

However, the call to activism often emerges from trauma. Within feminist circles, it is common for many women to identify not only as activists, but also as survivors of rape, intimate partner violence, and psychological abuse. Many of us mobilize for causes because of initial personal experiences that are later bolstered by statistics and academic theories. In sociology, we often refer to C. Wright Mills’ concept of “the sociological imagination”, a mechanism by which we explore the relationship between “private troubles” and “public issues.” A single act of sexual violence, for example, could be considered a private trouble that can be managed through therapy and other supportive services for a victim and an intervention of some kind for the perpetrator. The prevalence rate of sexual violence in the United States, wherein 1 in 5 women will be raped or sexually assaulted in her lifetime, is clearly a public issue. It raises questions about the culture we live in, the perceived consequences of being a perpetrator, and the relative social value and roles of women and men. A woman is raped and applies the sociological imagination to see her individual trauma playing out on a broad scale for millions of other women in her country. She is angry, not only for herself, but for all of her fellow survivors, at the society that is complicit in allowing and advancing this collective gendered violence. This may be her call to feminism.

The world of feminist activism can be a hostile and emotionally dangerous place for a survivor of trauma. Rape and death threats are common, sometimes including brutal details. This is clearly egregious and generally the kneejerk thing that people react to when stories are written about online abuse. But there are more subtle, insidious discouragements as well. There will be people who question your right to speak at all, about anything. They will gaslight you and tell you that you’re crazy. That no one cares about the issue but you. They will calmly tell you that your voice doesn’t matter. That you don’t matter. For a person with a strong sense of self worth, these comments might not be a big problem. But for activists who struggle with depression, social anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, or other mental health issues, sometimes these words matter a lot. Sometimes they will make you stare at your computer screen breathless and humiliated, or go home early from that rally, or hang up the phone and fight the urge to cry. Sometimes they will make you want to give up. Not because you don’t believe in your cause anymore, but because you don’t believe in yourself. Because you have borne witness to violence and abuse against your body and spirit before that left you feeling worthless and ashamed. And then what?

This isn’t just a problem in feminism. Any time we fight for marginalized identities, we are fighting against the current. This is true in anti-racist work. This is true in LGBTQ+ work. This is true in disability rights work. When we own the marginalized identities we are fighting for, many of us are vulnerable. We have lived in a culture that has told us, implicitly, explicitly, and violently, that we are subordinate. We’re all in different places as far as rejecting that message is concerned.

Of course, it’s important to push forward and keep doing the work. There are a lot of people who have had these struggles who keep going. I think that it’s important, however, for all of us who are engaged in social justice activism to be mindful of the residual poison that we and our comrades might carry in our psyches. We need to be open to various ways to participate and refrain from talking down about those among us who are hurt, or need to take breaks, or need accomodations for participation. For an activist with agoraphobia, attending rallies might be out of the question but social media could be a valid way to engage with and promote a cause. For an activist with social anxiety, making phone calls might be unthinkable, but tasks like data entry or painting banners could be a meaningful way to participate. We need to be kind to each other and to ourselves. We need to ditch the idea that there is only one right way to be a feminist or any other kind of activist. We need to accept that although we will not always feel confident and fearless, we are important to our movements. We need to check in and remind each other often that we are doing good work.

 

Capitalism Will Never Be the Solution to Rape

American Money by 401(K) 2013, on Flickr

Recently, a couple of new “anti-rape” product lines have been brought to my attention. The first, AR Wear, is a line of pants and underwear that are made of ultra-strong fabric that cannot be cut and lock in place to so that they cannot be removed. The second, DrinkSavvy, is a line of cups and straws that will detect beverage contamination with certain date-rape drugs like Rohypnol, GHB, and ketamine. Neither has officially hit the market yet, as both are still in preliminary/fundraising phases.

There’s an immediate part of me that wants to rejoice. The prevalence of rape is starting to make its way into the public consciousness. People are donating their time and their money to projects that aim to reduce the incidence of rape. Both of those are good things. My kneejerk reaction to AR Wear in particular was a really positive one. But, as I thought more about these products, there was something that just wasn’t sitting right with me.

There’s been a lot of criticism echoing around the blogosphere that AR Wear will promote victim blaming, which is not necessarily something that I agree with. I would think that it’s pretty obvious that there are practical reasons that would prevent women from exclusively wearing expensive, high tech anti-rape underwear every day of the week. Of course, there are plenty of obvious rebuttals to every other victim-blaming line of reasoning, but the old arguments are more culturally entrenched and pervasive. Since anti-rape underwear is a relatively new thing, one would hope that “It’s her fault because she wasn’t wearing protective undergarments” isn’t a line of thinking that would be able to establish a foothold in today’s society without being an old argument that’s passed down from generation to generation. Again, this is just speculative on my part, so my hopes should be taken with a grain of salt. In light of the fact that AR Wear has already raised over $50k to start up their business, it seems that it will just be a matter of time before we find out.

So if my problem isn’t the potentiality for victim-blaming, what is the problem? I guess the first thing is that I don’t think that either product line will be particularly successful in achieving what each sets out to do: prevent rape. As far as AR Wear is concerned, there are unfortunately various ways to sexually assault victims without removing underwear. Also, in a coercive situation, an attacker can threaten, manipulate, or use physical violence to get the woman to remove the garments herself. In this situation, the product meant to mitigate risks can actually lead to the escalation of an already bad situation.

As far as DrinkSavvy is concerned, the most common form of drug facilitated sexual assault involves alcohol only. Date rape drug detection won’t do anything to prevent the overwhelming number of rapes that occur after a victim has had too much to drink – either willingly or because they were being pressured or misled by their attacker to drink to the point of incapacitation (as was the tragic case with 14 year-old Daisy Coleman of Maryville, MO). Additionally, an incredibly wide variety of drugs can be used to facilitate sexual assault, including but not limited to anti-anxiety drugs, sleeping pills, and cold medicines. DrinkSavvy’s website says that initially the drinkware will only detect Rohypnol, GHB, and ketamine, but even with updated versions it’s difficult to imagine that the drinkware will ever catch up. If these cups become as popular as their inventor wants them to be, potential rapists will likely just avoid using the particular drugs that the cups detect, as there is a wide variety of other options.

I don’t feel good about being too hard on the creators of these products – both companies drew their inspiration from awful first-hand experiences. I truly believe that the people behind these companies have the protection of potential victims at the forefront of their minds.

That being said, there’s an elephant in the room: money. There have not yet been prices released for these products, but considering the costs of research, development, and technology involved, they can’t possibly be cheap. It’s likely that only people who are relatively high-income will be able to afford to make casual purchases of these items. I can’t help but think though, that there is likely a market for these items with people who will spend money, even money they can’t really afford, in hopes of preventing future sexual assaults: actual rape victims. Many people who have survived rapes are traumatized, excessively anxious and plagued by intense fears of re-victimization.

When I saw the AR Clothing, my immediate thoughts were to wonder how I would be able to obtain at least one of the garments. Money was barely a concern, because the prospect of being able to go an entire day without the fear of rape was something that couldn’t be given a price. Believing in these products felt so important. I had to sit with my thoughts for a few days before coming to the difficult conclusion that anti-rape products would not make me rape-proof.

Despite my own conclusions, I can’t help worrying over the idea of victims sinking their income into investing in DrinkSavvy straws and cups over and over again, regardless of cost. I worry about the idea of victims feeling the need to purchase enough AR Wear to be able to outfit themselves in it every day. The products and the companies that make them are walking a fine line between offering a service and financially exploiting a particularly vulnerable population, if not outright crossing that line altogether. If there was good reason to believe that the products would be efficient in preventing rape, it would be worth it. Considering the obvious weaknesses in both product lines, I don’t believe that’s the case.

We all want for there to be quick fixes and easy solutions for preventing sexual violence. Anti-rape products play into these desires, becoming more and more profitable as the desperation for protection increases. At this point, I’m not sure what the best course of action should be. Should we protest these products, or should we sit back and cross our fingers, hoping our collective skepticism will be proven wrong?