Embracing Our Discomfort: Feminism and Violence

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Maureen Whitcomb

Community activist & feminist advocate. Passionate about prisoner justice, body politics, and all things crafty.

Last month, Kate Earley, a contributor to The Radical Notion wrote an article entitled When the Abuser is Someone You KnowIn that article, Kate discusses the challenging experience of knowing someone who has been accused of perpetrating abuse. She outlines three important things to remember, which are to: understand that the situation is not your fault; to acknowledge that it is okay to have feelings; and to focus on solidarity with the person who has survived the abuse while also allowing them to define their experience and the support that they need. I admire Kate’s article because it discusses a topic that is so often ignored – the experience of the people who know or love a person who has perpetrated abuse or violence. However, I believe that there is space to take this topic a step further and to complicate the dichotomies that often exist when speaking to the experience of knowing and being close to people who have committed acts of violence.

Often conversations about sexual violence – or any crime really – focus on blame as a focal aspect.

When we know someone who has committed an act of violence, the concept of blame becomes incredibly complicated. Society tells us that people who commit acts of violence are “bad people” to be blamed for their choices. However, when we personally know that “bad person,” we see the context of their lives, the lived experiences that have brought them to a moment of committing an act of violence, and the role they have played in our own lives. Maybe they are our father, our brother, our mother. Maybe they have even committed acts of violence against us. Arguing that there is or should be a single focus of blame not only decontextualizes the lives of people who have committed acts of violence, but it also reinforces the very dichotomies that feminism attempts to challenge and change. In this case, it is the dichotomy between “innocent” and “guilty” victims.

I have seen this dichotomy most often in cases where people who are incarcerated survive physical or sexual assault while they are in prison. Oftentimes, the narrative in this situation names these individuals “guilty” victims, meaning that there tends to be little sympathy and they tend to be written off as deserving the assault because “that’s part of serving time'”. Essentially, what this narrative leads to is a complete decontextualization and dehumanization of people who are incarcerated. This same narrative is what we see when we speak to individuals in our lives who have committed acts of violence.

The narrative consistently centers around the question, “What is wrong with you?”, rather than the question, “What has happened to you?”

Interestingly, society – and a lot of feminists (see: white feminists) – tend to selectively contextualize crimes. “Quality of life” crimes are often viewed in the context of economic injustice, gentrification, and lack of needed community services. “Quality of life” crimes are acts such as theft, drug dealing, welfare fraud, and drug possession. We can more easily ask the question “What happened to you?” when the answer is that an individual was dealing drugs because they had to do so in order to support their family or that an individual committed theft because they were pushed out of their community due to gentrification. It becomes increasingly difficult to ask the question “What happened to you?” when a person has committed an act of violence.

For feminists and the feminist movement, that question becomes even more challenging when someone has committed an act of gender-based violence. However, I do not think that feminism means that we always exclusively center the experiences of the “obvious” survivor of violence. Feminism means that we contextualize all experience and that we see the complex multiple truths that exist in all experiences and situations. This is true even in situations of the perpetration of violence and gender-based violence. When the narrative that we hear largely in the feminist movement is to exclusively center the experiences of what we are supposed to see as the “obvious” survivor, the feminist movement completely invalidates the experiences of people who know and love individuals who have committed acts of violence.

Additionally, I would argue that in this case, the feminist movement also largely works against its own foundations – centering the lived experiences of marginalized individuals. Do we as feminists feel comfortable only contextualizing the lives of people who have made the “right” choices, based solely on societal judgment statements that define “right” and “wrong”? As a feminist, I feel that we need to strive to complicate and challenge these norms, even when they feel as if they are conflicting with our values. The work of feminism is complex and uncomfortable. Questioning that discomfort and searching for the root of it will bring us the complexity that we need to truly confront the systems that feminism seeks to challenge and eliminate.