There is a sort of insidious sentiment that any woman who admits publicly to abuse does so for attention, or for sympathy, or to grab at power. Whether you call it “survivor privilege” or the “sacralization of victims,” the root of your discontent is the same: A woman is speaking, and somebody is listening to her.
Recently, I criticized Hemant Mehta’s latest book, God Is An Abusive Boyfriend (And You Should Break Up With Him). I explained that from my perspective as a survivor of abuse, the theme—intentionally or not–trivializes the subject. And let me note for the record that I am no stranger to religious abuse, either; I used to be a fundamentalist Christian. I can tell you just about anything you’d like to know about what happens when the subjugation of women, the marginalization of queer identities and other related prejudices are doctrine.
But my parents’ God isn’t necessarily your God. Humans are vast and contain multitudes; we all contradict ourselves. So, by extension, are the belief systems we create. There’s no comparison, really, between abusive boyfriends and the idea of God or the broader phenomenon of religious belief.
These are obvious points. Yet after making them, I’ve been told (though not by Mehta, I’d like to point out) that my “personal experiences” are clouding my judgement, that I’m deliberately missing the point, and that I simply don’t understand why believing in God, whatever that means to a person, is exactly like refusing to leave an abusive partner. I’ve even been accused of promoting censorship.
Never mind that I didn’t call for Mehta to cancel the project (although he did, and I respect his willingness to listen to critique).
Never mind that I laid out a logical argument for my position.
Merely mentioning the fact that I have a personal connection to the topic of abuse put a target on my back.
And yet somehow I’m the censor.
This isn’t an isolated phenomenon and I’m hardly the first woman to write about the issue. The abuse I’ve received still isn’t comparable to the daily abuse hurled at women of color and queer and trans people when they publicly discuss their own experiences. For now, I simply want to join my voice with theirs and identify this phenomenon for what it really is.
And I’ll begin by saying this: People who accuse survivors of grabbing for power, you’re right. When we speak, it is indeed a play for power: Power over our own narrative, because that is the first casualty of abuse.
When you name your experience for what it is, whether it is racism or transphobia or domestic abuse, you definitively say to the world that no, this is not a misunderstanding, this is what it is like to lack certain privileges in our society. And that makes you a threat. This is, again, familiar ground for many. Womanists, for example, have been saying this for years about white supremacy and they haven’t received much but public ridicule for saying it.
Asking a person to acknowledge how pervasive an oppressive system is directly challenges their place within it, and that makes people uncomfortable. It makes people angry. And it’s easier to dismiss someone than admit you don’t have all the answers.
This is particularly true when the subject is male violence against women, whether that abuse is sexual, psychological, physical or some combination of all of the above.
In no other realm would anyone try to argue that a person’s experience with a subject actually disqualifies them from offering an opinion about it.
Imagine telling a veteran that they’re too emotionally connected to the subject of war to discuss it properly. Anyone making that argument in public would be dismissed as a crank—and they should be, because it’s an absurd argument. We otherwise readily acknowledge that a person’s direct experience with a subject makes them more qualified to discuss it. It doesn’t grant them infallibility, of course. Nobody can lay claim to that. We’re talking about some level of expertise that the average person doesn’t necessarily possess.
But we hold women to a different standard when the subject is abuse. And then we dismiss them as conspiracy theorists when they start to talk about the existence of a rape culture.
That, dear reader, is censorship.
If women can’t be experts about their own lives, how can they be experts about anything else? If you can’t trust a woman to analyze and report the consequences of an event that she lived through then you certainly can’t trust her opinion on politics, or religion, or…anything, really. And the same is true when applied to any other institutionalized prejudice. It serves no one but those already in power to deny the oppressed the ability to give that oppression a name.
I’d be lying if I insisted that acknowledging an abuse survivor’s perspective as valid won’t cost you very much. It will. It means you concede some of your power—yes, your privilege—and step back to allow someone else to step forward. And if that prospect upsets you, well, don’t look at the survivor. Look at yourself.