Why feminists need fear

To be a feminist is to be brave, but it is also to be fearful. How could you not feel fear, given the power structure with which you’ve chosen to engage? This fear is not an irrational phobia, some deep-rooted disgust in response to sex or naked flesh or cultural transgression. It’s a perfectly rational fear: the fear of male violence. It justified and it is logical.

It is logical to be afraid of sexual assault, rape, beating, harassment and murder. It is logical to fear those who might do these things to you, and to fear those who keep the power structures which enable them in place.

It is not a question of reinforcing #notallmen. You know that not all men will do these things, but you also know that some might. You are reminded of this every day, by newspaper headlines, TV plots, nudges on street corners, gropes on public transport, words called out as you walk down the street pretending to be impermeable while your cheeks burn. You are always moments away from the next message that will whisper in your ear you are not safe, not in that body, not in these times. If you thought about it long and hard – really, really dwelt on it – perhaps you’d never step foot outside your front door (oh, but even there you’re not safe, you know that too, two women per week killed by intimate partner violence). There is no safe space in which to be a woman, other than in your own head, providing you’re lying to yourself about how bad things are.

I think this is, in part, why feminism, and feminists themselves, frighten other women. We remind them of things they don’t want to know. It’s not that we’re raging against the false consciousness of others as a point of principle. We see its uses, often wallowing in it ourselves, but there comes a point – when enough blood has been shed and enough violation hushed up – when it simply cannot continue. One day you will ask yourself “do I feel safe?” and you will know that the answer is no. All those little things you’ve pushed to the back of your mind over the years? They’re not isolated incidents. It’s not a coincidence. You know this. You’ve always known.

Male violence is insidious, it is everywhere and it is terrifying. A feminism that focusses only on changing the situation of women is doomed to failure. We are not the problem. We cannot be asked to change, to approach the world with confidence and spirit, when the cult of masculinity remains intact amongst all males, regardess of how they choose to identify. Equality between the sexes cannot co-exist with male supremacy. We cannot walk tall when we still have every reason to cower in fear.

In September 2014 The New York Times featured an op-ed piece entitled Science’s Sexual Assault Problem.[i] The testimony of A. Hope Jahren, a research scientist who was sexually assaulted while on a field trip in Turkey, it contained the startling statistic that according to one survey, 26% of female field researchers had experienced similar assaults during field work, most of them perpetrated by senior male colleagues.[ii] Most of the assaults took place early on in the women’s careers, leaving plenty of time to hold back, repress and lower one’s voice, knowing that this space is not yours. Plenty of time for the 26% to be haunted by their trauma, and for the remaining 74% to know it could have been, could still be, them.

Jahren describes what is, I think, a basic tenet of feminism: “There is fundamental and culturally learned power imbalance between men and women”. She goes on to note that “it follows us into the workplace”:

The violence born of this imbalance follows us also. We would like to believe that it stops short of following us into the laboratory and into the field — but it does not. I listen to my colleagues talk endlessly about recruiting more women into STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) disciplines, and postulate what the barriers might be. Sexual assault is a pernicious and formidable barrier to women in science, partly because we have consistently gifted to it our silence. I have given it 18 years of my silence and I will not give it one day more.

Jahren has the courage to state clearly what so many of us dare not acknowledge: that male violence does not just hold us back now and then, perhaps if we are in a bad relationship, or happen to be walking down the wrong street alone at night. It holds us back everywhere. Just the knowledge that it exists is enough. Why can’t a woman be more like a man? Because she is, quite reasonably, terrified, and not only that, she is pressured never to own up to her fear, lest she then be vilified as “phobic” and subjected to even greater abuse.

I think identifying phobias in each and every feminist – whorephobia, transphobia, femmephobia – is a useful distraction for women who don’t want to acknowledge what really drives most feminist thought. If you can make terror irrational, you don’t have to share in it yourself. If you tell yourself that the women who shout so loudly are merely fighting shadows, waging war on dresses and orgasms rather than rape and murder, then there’s nothing for you to fear. It’s all an illusion. It’s all going to be okay.

And then you wait and you wait and it isn’t.

[i] http://www.nytimes.com/2014/09/20/opinion/science-has-a-sexual-assault-problem.html?smid=tw-share&_r=0

[ii] http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4100871/

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