Sexism is Driving Me Mad. Literally.

25 Mar

I am a naturally confident and outgoing person but sexism is making me feel depressed, withdrawn and unable to cope with social situations. Sexism is attacking me on two main fronts; firstly through physical, verbal and emotional abuse and secondly by silencing my attempts to challenge and articulate this abuse and its effects. Before the abusive comments pour in (oh the irony!) let me just say this: my case is not special, I am not unlucky and this is not my fault. I am only guilty of having been born female in a patriarchal society. While the odds may at times seem stacked against me, I am dedicated to resisting and I am determined to recover.

Abuse

It would be near impossible to describe in detail the amount of physical abuse men have inflicted on me over the course of my life. My memories of primary and secondary school are full of being slapped, punched, kicked and sexually abused by boys. Lacking self-confidence and self-worth, during college I was trapped in a physically, sexually and psychologically abusive long-term relationship. At university, a man I had a casual relationship with threatened to “crack my skull open with one hand” because I had tried to refuse him sex when he appeared uninvited and very drunk at my house at 3am. Most recently, I have had a ‘relationship’ with a man whose extreme insensitivity and emotional manipulation compounded my lack of self-esteem and agency. These were not by any means my only experiences of this kind and these were not exceptions. Physical abuse has damaged my mental health by destroying the sanctity of my body and violating my sense of self. By inflicting pain on me with total immunity, these men have also reminded me of their physical power and social dominance.

As alluded to above, since raising questions of gender online I have been the victim of serious verbal abuse. Trolling and general nastiness is common on the internet due to the anonymity provided by cyberspace (by which I mean they would never get away with chatting like that to my face!) So I will not focus on these comments here. But I will remind readers of the real life verbal abuse men frequently subject me to, especially when their sexism and position of dominance is challenged. I will also briefly highlight the fact that the commonplace nature of sexist jokes, inappropriate sexual innuendos (for example from a male superior at work) and sexism in the media are all manifestations of a culture of sexism which normalises attitudes and behaviours which are hurtful to women.

I cannot speak

People who know me will ‘lol’ when they read this. I speak a lot, I am a talkative person. But because of sexist attitudes, despite being a loud, confident and articulate speaker, what I say is not always heard, listened to or understood (I can only imagine what this must be like for naturally shy and quiet women). Often I am not listened to due to an inability to accept that my perspective, as a woman, is valid; men often immediately disagree with me or attack me even when I am explaining how I feel about something. The most common example of this is when I state that a sexist comment or action made me feel uncomfortable and the type of man our Letter to Male Activists was written to immediately dismisses my feelings, defends the sexism and tells me why I can’t or shouldn’t feel offended. This type of man will often patronise women, will assume them to have “misunderstood” everything and will talk to women with the same tone a particularly arrogant headmaster adopts to calmly scold an irritating 11 year old.

Another example of men effectively silencing me arises when I tell a man “I am not interested” and because of sexist ideas about men’s ownership and control of women and our sexuality he hears “I am playing hard to get.” When I say “no” he hears “yes” or “maybe, just keep trying.” (See the “Translation” section of the Sisters of Resistance Terminology Tool Kit) If I become annoyed he is pleased:  “Yea I like feisty women.” No matter what I say or how I feel, he only hears what he wants to hear.

When a man complains he is justified while women are “moaning”, “bitching” or “nagging.”  Often women are not taken seriously; when I say “I am depressed” or “I am going through a mental break down” most people laugh or reply “oh yea me too.” This probably has as much to do with sexism as it does with the stigma surrounding mental health. But being systematically dehumanised, devalued and marginalised is enough to make anyone feel like they are going a bit mad. In the context of the abuse outlined above, women’s mental health becomes even more complex, how can you name abuse that is normalised? Mental health institutions are as sexist and racist as the society they inhabit; historically they have seen white, male, heterosexist, upper/middle-class norms forced upon the rest of us, who have been sectioned, electrocuted, drugged and sedated into compliance.

Sexism also creates an environment in which issues women are statistically much more likely to experience are not socially acceptable to articulate. This is partly because no one wants to hear them; they are difficult to hear. It is also because we do not live in a society that is sympathetic to these experiences; rather it is one that blames the victim. In addition to coping with the psychological effects of ill-treatment, the survivor must work through feelings of shame, guilt and rejection. In the above section on abuse, I did not talk about rape or incestuous sexual abuse for these reasons.

Resisting and recovering

As I hope readers of Sisters of Resistance are already aware, I am not a passive victim in any of this. I resist the abuse and I continually struggle to be heard. I am lucky to have truly supportive sistas and a number of strong male allies. I constantly seek to improve my mental health through a variety methods including self-care, cognitive behavioural therapy, meditation, reading about Buddhism and counseling.

I have found reading Judith Herman’s Trauma and Recovery. The Aftermath of Violence from Domestic Abuse to Political Terror invaluable and both academically and personally enlightening. Herman, a feminist psychologist, argues that the women’s movement of the 1960s created physical spaces and a socio-political environment from within which women could start to articulate their traumatic experiences of incest, rape and male violence. She demonstrates that an examination of women’s mental health must acknowledge patriarchy and she maps the course to recovery.

I have recently coined the term “celibacy for sanity” as I am currently refraining from intimacy until I meet a man (or woman, I’m open-minded) who treats me with the respect and compassion I deserve. I refuse to settle and I am not lowering my standards. I suddenly realised that I had spent way too much of my time loving men who didn’t, or couldn’t, love me back. I decided it was time to stop loving my oppressor and start loving myself. This decision has left me feeling empowered and happier. I no longer rely on men for my self-esteem and for once my love is reciprocated. This might sound really cliché, I know it did to me at first, but it’s true; only I can give myself the love that I need.

***************************************************************************

A heartfelt and revolutionary thank you to the numerous male allies who have continually expressed their support for me at this time. Thank you to everyone who has told me they enjoy Sisters of Resistance. Thank you to those who try to listen. Thank you to people who have encouraged me to keep writing. I would not have been able to keep going without you all. And to the haters:  you will only make me stronger.

18 Responses to “Sexism is Driving Me Mad. Literally.”

  1. Sara March 25, 2011 at 7:56 am #

    I understand. It is like when we begin to speak then we see each other in the mirrors of our words and experiences. I think that the phsycological and the emotional of capitalist patriarchy and of how that manifests itself in ‘our’ spaces needs to be policised now, like you are trying to do with this piece. Like right now, not later, not as secondary, not as irrelevnat to the struggle, but as absolutely central to the struggle. The fact that you continue to write is this carving out, however damn fucking hard, of your voice, of our collective voive. After all the terribly abusive and violent comments on my feminist piece I felt like no I can;t write again, like the patterns of silencing and feeling my throat blocked had returned. So to write the next was really hard, like some little piece, but was like trying to take out this covering, remove it, and remember that I am the one that gives these abusers power as they are powerless in so many ways and so I am really the one with power.
    I want too to write and practice together a politicisation of trauma, that shows that even when it is talked about in our movements it is still articulated often through patriachal valuation.
    So sister thank you so much for opening these spaces to talk, to have voice, to listen to each other and to build together
    Much love

  2. JM March 25, 2011 at 8:08 am #

    Yet again an inspirational, brilliant, and uncomfortable read. I mean uncomfortable in a sense that breaking taboos always will be, and people like you are fantastic for doing so. That you have the voice after such abuse to say such things is testament to you.
    Keep writing, your blog is genuinely informative, brilliantly written and something that is so needed.
    From someone I hope you count amongst your male allies

  3. Hannah March 25, 2011 at 5:20 pm #

    <3<3<3 Fucking AMAZINGGG!!!!

  4. sistaresista March 25, 2011 at 9:27 pm #

    Message from a male ally:

    I’ve finally found some time to read your blog post on sexism and the letter to male activists today, first of all I’d like to say that I’m really sorry to hear the scope of both verbal and physical abuse you’ve received from men. Unfortunately, the way in which most men treat women today is simply unacceptable, and your account once again proves that this disease is quite widespread even among more ‘progressive’ circles like our activist community. I often find myself disgusted and alienated when I see how some of my supposedly revolutionary and ‘feminist’ friends turn into sexist brutes after a few drinks, start talking about their female friends as sex objects or even start harassing or making sexist jokes about them. It’s really important you have started writing these blogs and you should keep writing them despite the fact that you’re being subjected to the all-too-common internet trolling and hurtful comments.

    In Solidarity

  5. anonymous March 25, 2011 at 9:37 pm #

    I have to say, my situation is very different, but this article says EXACTLY how I feel about normalism/authoritarianism – “how can you name abuse which is normalised” – this is exactly the problem! It really is a kind of social war on the heart of one’s being, and it does cause depression, withdrawal, anxiety, social coping problems and distractedness (all symptoms of PTSD really). And with guilt/shame/rejection added in through the way the issues are framed, though this dissipates a bit with consciousness.

    The problem is that the healing process is blocked. You’ve said yourself that social solidarity is the best antidote to trauma, and I feel we’re really lacking this. It can happen up to a point in isolation (meditation etc) and certain kinds of autonomous spaces, but in public space there is an order not to think (denkverbot – Zizek) that our speaking of our pain and silencing violates, bringing responses such as demonisation, flak, an implied threat of being hunted down and harmed, all kinds of implied risks. The public sphere has become something like a collective narcissism and it reacts with narcissist rage to anything which speaks back to it. I’m trying to heal, I know others who are trying to heal but the situation is trying to stamp it out, just as it tries to stamp out the cries for help and the acts of refusal. One tries to reach out tendrils to open things up but they get stamped on. One tries to heal by speaking one’s own testimony and it’s belittled or used as a basis to attack one’s integrity. They have a half-dozen catchphases and cliches which silence every political objection one can raise. And yeh, it often feels like nobody wants to hear this stuff. It’s just too difficult for people to believe that the institutions they take as just, or at least tolerably OK, are causing immense misery to others. Especially when it means that things with 90+% public support, and things which are so taken for granted they aren’t even political issues, would need to be done away with entirely to make room for others’ needs – it just seems pointless to raise the issues for most people. Efforts to engage, or the abuse they ‘provoke’ (except we aren’t really provoking the abuse, it’s directed at us by the abusers), just compound or re-ignite the trauma. Withdrawal to more limited, safer spaces is a common emotional response I think. In my case the “withdrawal for sanity” has been from much of social life.

    People don’t take this stuff seriously, and neither does the mental health system: it’s viewed as an individual problem without social context, and the fact that it’s socially caused, and a change in context is needed to solve it, is downplayed. The very definition of a mental disorder nowadays is that it interferes with the ability to ‘function’, i.e. to conform – that a person is ‘functioning’ but suffering is not seen as needing healing; nor is a person who is not suffering deemed to have a right to be left alone – they’re to be made to ‘function’ even if it traumatises them. The old asylums still exist, but the normal approaches nowadays are either cognitive-behavioural therapy – rectifying what are deemed to be faulty thought-patterns, sometimes by focusing on rational self-interest – and drugs, which deaden the pain of the symptom and don’t deal with the underlying cause. All three have the same problem: they start from the assumption that the system or “society” is not the problem, that the individual (or at most, their immediate relationships) is ‘irrational’ in not being able to fit in to a world defined a priori as non-traumatic and unproblematic. Doubtless drugs and therapy help sometimes but it’s kinda like slapping a sticking plaster on gangrene or painting beauty-cream over a boil. Trauma treatments usually assume the trauma is in the past, it’s something a person needs to get past now they’re in a safe, non-traumatic setting – what do we do when the state of the world is the cause of the trauma? If the causes of trauma are part of the normal functioning of social practices, how can learning to accept these practices, to blame oneself and to think within the frame (‘how do I get the best from a traumatic world’) be any kind of healing?

    It sometimes feels like they want to keep us traumatised, because only a traumatised person will be too anxious to rebel, and only a traumatised person can be modified into the kind of authoritarian personalities (or narcissist personalities?) the system wants (grounded in identification with the oppressor as the way to save the self from trauma, at the expense of the other). Can we make sense of practices such as kettling, dawn raids, police beatings, tasers, FIT, as attempts to re-traumatise people who are not yet traumatised enough, or who are managing to momentarily overcome their feeling of disempowerment? At the very least they’re wilfully negligent in terms of whether they cause trauma or not. I mean, what’s the ‘spirit of resistance’ all about – what happened in Argentina in 2001, and now in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya? It’s all about losing the fear. http://www.envplan.com/abstract.cgi?id=d130471 I’m sure they don’t want this!

    Also: I am glad you have the courage to speak forthrightly and honestly about such matters as this. I still lack the confidence to speak these truths in the first-person, except to a handful of friends. Your text is charismatic in the Scottian sense: you’re saying what others are thinking, or would be thinking if they weren’t trying not to think about it. Keep up the good work!

  6. Joel Linares March 26, 2011 at 10:36 pm #

    Creo que lo que esbozas en tus líneas logra resaltar los aspectos más nobles de tu personalidad, no es facil tener el valor de decir al mundo lo que te ha pasado y que tu ejemplo pueda ser de ayuda para aquellas que en suilencio solo bajan la cabeza ante el opresor, nunca más nadie podrá humillarte ni hacerte sentir menos, pues tu voluntad y sentido humano te hace fuerte, estoy seguro que al final del espeso bosque, en la oscuridad de la noche, encontraras el camino que te llevará a la felicidad, no la felicidad que concibe la sociedad, con sus acuerdos y falsas estructuras morales, sino la felicidad que está dentro de ti, esa felicidad que otros llaman “libertad”, la libertad de “ser” y de “hacer” de “crear” de acercarte a la escencia de lo divino que llevamos todos y todas, bella rosa siciliana, tienes mucho por alcanzar para ayudar a que otras y otros alcancen, solo continua en tu busqueda, porque cuando la noche está más oscura es porque el alba está por despuntar! Vence! esa es tu misión de vida!

  7. S March 29, 2011 at 8:06 am #

    Thankyou so much for writing so honestly. This post captures so much of what I’ve been experiencing in silence for the last couple years. Recovering from trauma is hard enough without having to pretend you’re comfortable when you aren’t. I, too, have been struggling with trying to figure out when and where I can be honest with people about how I’m really doing, how furious and terrified I feel a lot of the time, and how unsafe the world really feels. It seems like most of the time people are so fixed on being able to coast along the surface of their daily experience that being asked to connect emotionally to the experience of someone like me, who no longer has the option of tuning out uncomfortable turths, is just too much for people. The truth that I’ve come to, like you, is that the only person who’s even qualified to love me the way I truly deserve to be loved is me. Thank you again, for your continued bravery and honesty on this blog.

    • sistaresista March 29, 2011 at 1:41 pm #

      Dear S,

      Thank you for your comment. I can not tell you have happy and grateful it makes me feel that you have read this and seen your own experiences reflected. These experiences are horribly difficult and I am sorry you have gone through them, so maybe happy is the wrong word. I just know that remembering you are not alone can really help. So I hope you felt some sense of togetherness reading this, those of us who have been through these kinds of experiences have the potential to come together to help and support each other.

      Thanks again your comments mean SO SO MUCH!

      Love,

      Sisters.

  8. Rapidcyclist April 5, 2011 at 9:38 pm #

    hello Sistas – I am stopped in my tracks when I read what you have endured. I feel saying with words does not do justice to the silent witness of so many wrong upon wrongs perpetrated by men.I remember my own sister and her trials in life when I read.
    Most of all I ask myself to stop and think. About anything and everything I say or do.

  9. Freddie DeLito June 14, 2012 at 12:13 pm #

    :( only a coward can act towards women like that, it’s a disgrace. How can people not know the difference between right and wrong?! Ignorance isn’t even an excuse

  10. nappysoul June 14, 2012 at 8:21 pm #

    Poignant issues raised. Think it’s amazing that you’ve been brave enough to express your feelings here. Hopefully many will be educated by that which you have shared. Love and blessings

  11. nappysoul June 14, 2012 at 8:26 pm #

    Beautifully written with poignant issues raised. You’re brave for expressing what you did, and are an ispiration for all genders. Keep educating people with these issues. So many are ignorant to them. Love and blessings.

  12. ****************** June 19, 2012 at 9:29 pm #

    This has really spoke to me, I have read/heard so much stuff etc. of ways to overcome abuse from men and had always wondered where I’m going wrong like. Most people just don’t understand that i have felt anger towards society and sexist meant since i was sososo young because of things that men have done to me. and i felt wrong,disgusting for it because people have always said why are you like this, why don’t you trust men, why are you angry towards men, why are you so weird when i a relationship with a man, why don’t you speak to someone or in other cases get over it. My way of getting over it is by supporting other sisters through the struggle.

    and i think the last hurdle i needed to get over is done and completed because of this article you have answered everything i have ever needed answering.

    So Thanks Sophia, Your an inspiration and i think this article may have changed my life/

    100% solidarity

  13. Rio June 26, 2012 at 6:46 pm #

    I don’t know you personally and have never read your blog till now, but I wish you all the best and happiness in absolutely everything. :)

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