Monday, January 13, 2014

Giving Back to an Audience

In the past several days, two feminist female writers have bravely shared their struggles with frequent online harassment. Once again, I am reminded of how it pains me that the very phrase “feminism” has become a pejorative to many. Despite efforts to reclaim the word anew, “feminist” is a qualifier usually only introduced into discussion when it is safe. And by safe, we mean when the word and its related concepts can be safely shared among other women, a handful of male allies, and an otherwise vastly limited audience.

I grew up with a mother who was strongly influenced by the women’s movement of the 1970’s. When she began raising myself and my two younger sisters, she no longer had the time to keep abreast of the direction of the movement. I doubt this was an unusual occurrence for women of her age. College education hopefully begins an eagerness to soak in knowledge and apply it to our lives, but outside of the bubble of academia, learning can atrophy with time. Many Americans think that feminism is a social movement that died decades ago. What it stands for now, to many, is a long litany of perceived failings. Many see the entire ideology as poisonous, leaving no room or inclination to know what it really teaches.

That is what a new generation of feminists have sought to correct. At first I, a man, hesitated to get involved, for reasons mentioned above. I wanted to honor my mother’s sacrifice and the valid criticisms of a sexist society she regularly raised during my childhood, but I wasn’t sure there would be space for me at the table. Having immersed myself in online feminist activism for months, I now wanted to contribute to the dialogue.

I read voraciously both online and in book form. It was my intention to eventually add my own voice in the hopes of helping to guide the discourse. I never went into the process expecting that it would be easy, but neither did I expect to be ignored and feared by those who I thought to be my allies. Knowing what I know now about the constant online harassment female feminist writers experience, I have a greater context to use for reference.

I wish I had known it before I first started. My motives were noble, or at least I thought so. I could not understand why I was treated frostily at first. I did not comprehend why my written remarks were scrutinized and even at times cruelly mocked. This seemed contrary to the ideas the movement claimed it supported and championed.

I read that third-wave feminism needed male allies and I was more than willing to sign up for the job. I knew I’d have my male privilege called out and questioned. I knew full well that there were other factors about myself that gave me an unfair leg up. I took little offense when told to check my privilege or if I was speaking out of turn. It was the cold shoulder I received from my supposed equals that struck me as unfair.

One of my flaws, or perhaps one of my strengths, is my unwillingness to hold anything back. I have never minded sharing my fears and insecurities with my readers or my confidantes. These same rules are in force with a group of friends who, beyond the internet, know me in person. Based on information that took five years to surface, I can now better understand the wariness that greeted my arrival into feminist spaces. If only I could have somehow been made aware of it.

Unbeknownst to me, a group of tight-knit writers and mutual collaborators on a frequently-read feminist blog decided to circle the wagons as a means of coping. Due to a series of past regrettable events, they were often on high alert any time a man decided to actively participate or to comment. I’m not blaming them for their reaction, but I do find their lack of transparency a little disturbing.

At first, this group wasn’t sure who I was or even what I wanted. They formed judgments about me without caring to know the facts. I was being punished for the sins of others who had come before me. As the saying goes, no good deed goes unpunished.

I didn’t help myself when, in the middle of a nervous breakdown (routine for someone with bipolar disorder) I e-mailed several regular contributors. What I was asking for was validation, maybe even a few sympathetic words to tell me that what I was experiencing was irrational and would not last forever. Anyone with an understanding of sexual abuse would know that my reaction was not uncommon.

I concede I was not fully in control of my pain, nor was I in control of my response to it. But I never thought I was asking too much. I was terrified and absolutely had to vocalize the way I was feeling, even if those feelings were laid at the feet of complete strangers.

My written pleas were not worded aggressively and I made no demands or threats, but it appeared to me as if the writers already felt they had ample reason to fear, to ignore me, or to push me aside. Some of them pitied me. Most held me at arm’s length, even though that was the very last thing I needed. Feminists of today might find it in their power and understanding to know how to separate those in pain from those who intend to inflict it upon others. It’s really not that difficult.

A stated agenda of the feminist movement is to fight to protect the rights of victims of sexual assault. I was one such person with one such history. Having said that, you’d think this confluence of ideas and activism would be the ideal audience for me. I believe now that my gender and the baseless fears it created in others overshadowed the the narrative of the abuse I’d experienced.

Let’s be clear. I never wanted anyone to go out of his or her way to be an impromptu support network. I don’t make demands on busy people. Nevertheless, it disappointed me that people who were motivated and eager to be the tireless advocates for victims of sexual and physical abuse in the abstract somehow had no time for me.

Building a publication name and a public profile is the name of the game for many, but ignoring the valid concerns of readers is not acceptable behavior. I don’t always know who my readers are, but the ones who do e-mail or leave comments almost always receive my attention. Four years ago, I went to a meetup of young feminists, most of whom were college students enrolled in women’s studies programs. They knew me well because we’d engaged in frequent dialogue by way of the comment section. The editors and regular writers present didn’t seem to care about who their audience was or even what it might need from them.

If we have enough energy and motivation to inspire and educate an audience, we must also nurture them. Feminism, in theory, provides a voice for those who have rarely been able to express themselves without censure. We cannot float above and merely be a news service, or cynically use our readership as a bargaining chip for career advancement.

I recognize that editors and contributors want to increase their profile on a national scale. This is the motive of every writer, journalist, and blogger. Myself included. But what should never be forgotten are, to use but two examples, the college freshman enrolled in her first gender studies class or the young woman who finds herself pregnant, alone, and afraid. We are not social workers or counselors, but on some level we owe those who derive inspiration from us. We are more than a disembodied voice way up in the clouds, regardless of how often we’ve been hurt in the past.

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