Yes Means Yes: with Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha

by zohra moosa // 3 February 2009, 19:48

Thumbnail image for Leah Lakshmi piepzna-samarasinha.jpg
The Virtual Tour of Yes Means Yes: Visions of Female Sexual Power and A World Without Rape has begun!

It kicked off yesterday at feministing with a live chat with the co-editors and some of the contributors, and today is being hosted by The F Word. See the full schedule for the rest of the tour at the end of this post - and be sure to tune in tomorrow's episode: a live chat (3pm EST) with Julia Serano & Latoya Peterson at RH Reality Check.

For our segment, we're doing a Q&A with the inspiring Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha who I've had the very good fortune of organizing with in Toronto while she and I were both there. Welcome Leah!

Starting interview... now:

What has been the outcome of writing about your experiences for your organizing and politics with queer, trans and women of colour communities?

Writing about being a survivor of violence has had only good outcomes for me within the movements I'm part of. People ask if its vulnerable or whatever, and I guess it is, but I guess also that my amazing protective mechanisms (the ones that allow me to wait for a bus at midnight in a miniskirt and not get fucked with, ever) keep a lot of what could be weird shit away. Also, it's not like my experience is rare- it's really fucking normal to have survived violence, and when you tell your story about it in a way that resonates with folks- I mean, people are just so hungry to hear experiences that sound even vaguely like theirs told out loud. I feel really amazingly happy to be one of many people involved in radical woman of color and queer and trans of color communities, families and activism who are talking about the shit we've survived and what we've done with it and how we can change our communities and world. Both on a personal level, and that these movements exist, where there are many radical women, queer and transfolks of color and we are not going away and not apologizing for shit and not having to explain ourselves all the time- we're centering ourselves and our experiences and genius and working inside our multiple communities.

Why did you decide to contribute to the book/what about the project appealed?

I wanted to make sure that women of color's voices and queer people of color's experiences made it into the book. I also was glad that there was a book that was being marketing to a really wide audience whose editors were commited to representing really different views on sex and violence.

What role do you think talking about sexuality in a positive sense has in terms of tackling 'rape culture'?

I kind of hate the term "rape culture", but if what you mean is, how does talking about the sex we have that's not messed up challenge the overwhelming violence we face on an everyday basis- I think it's really important, especially for women and queer and trans people of color, for us to talk about the ways in which even with all the shit we face, we still find a way back to our bodies. It's a fucking miracle, the ways we figure out how to keep having sex and have desires stay alive.

We need to write down our stories, because I think QTPOC and women and trans people of color are miracle makers. Especially in societies where we are continually told we're hypersexual or nonsexual, freaks or ugly, claiming our bodies through our sexualities is incredibly important. We create a new paradigm in the belly of the beast- in the middle of the everyday world where childhood sexual abuse and adult sexual assault is happening all the time, in our famillies, as we try and cross the bullshit that are borders, we are also loving and fucking and resisting that way, without killing each other. We're creating the new world in the belly of the old and we have to let folks know this.

I think it's also hella important for survivors who are of color and/or queer and trans people of color to write really specifically about the ways we find to take our sexualities back after growing up with or experiencing violence. People are hungry for models and road maps and there are so few out there- The Survivor's Guide to Sex is great, but it's one book!

How far is it possible for feminists to generalise their own experiences and not fall into the same trap as the "recovery" industries and essentialise women who've experienced childhood sexual violences as victims in constant need of surveillance and treatment?

It's possible when we stay humble and committed to knowing that while we can theorize from our experiences, we have to stay open to hearing and respecting everyone's experience, and know going into the work that people will tell us stories we havent heard before- and that's the point.

Unfortunately, many second wave feminists have been just as guilty as the recovery industry of generalizing from their experiences and enforcing how survivors should be and look on other survivors of violence. In fact, as second-wave feminism mainstreamed and got institutionalized (and whiteness and class priviilege was a huge part of that) that part of the movement did a lot to silence survivor voices and contribute to the professionalization of survivor culture. For example, saying that all sex workers who have survived violence are of course reenacting trauma if they're doing sex work, instead of looking at the complex continuum of sex workers' experiences doing sex work (and what sex workers, themselves, are saying about their experiences, instead of thinking that sex workers are too stupid to think for themselves); or enforcing an idea that all sex has to be vanilla or you're re-traumatizing yourself, or not really being able to think beyond an identity that remains broken to thinking about what an identity would look like that both still broke the silence about how common being a survivor is and was resilient, had moved forward, what healing looked like in real life. We need to learn from this- that we need to continuously challenge ourselves in our movements to stay fresh and free of bullshit.

Is there a danger that feminist inspired accounts of childhood sexual violences are being appropriated, not just by the incest industry, but by mainstream society as either titillation or entertainment?

Yeah, but what else are we going to do? We can't shut up. There's always a danger that some asshole is jerking off to our words, but we have to keep speaking to each other and our communities. Accounts of sexual violence told in our own voices aren't hot topics on talk shows the way they were in the 70s and 80s. But it's always important to think about possible ways you might be co-opted and how you're going to deal with that. One of my main coping mechanisms and organizing strategies is to focus on where I'm strong and ignore much of the bullshit of the outside world. It has its weaknesses, but overall, I think it works.

What writers have been influential in forming your ideas on this, and how have they contributed to your work?

My roots as a radical incest survivor stem from when I was 16 in 1991 and getting zines in the mail from other girls who were incest survivors, or rape survivors, or whose famillies were violent and crazy, who were mad as fucking hell and were writing our stories down, exactly how they happened, because no one was doing it for us. Zines like Body Memories: Radical Perspectives on Childhood Sexual Abuse, Fantastic Fanzine and Upslut were hella important to me as a young survivor- to both be like, this is what it feels like and other folks are writing it down and not being killed for doing so, and also to see that, hey, this is writing- it counts. Despite riot grrls' racism and clasism, it was amazing to feel a part of a movement of 16 year old queers and freaks who were not going to shut up about our experiences and who were screaming out our raw truths on the page. I grew up to find Chrystos and Sapphire's writing, which is practically the survivor cannon, especially for queer girls of color, as well as Dorothy Allison, Aurora Levins Morales and Suheir Hammad's work. I also appreciate the work of my peers, including Mango Tribe, Maria Cristina Rangel, Nico Dacumos, Zuleikha Mahmood, the Mangos With Chili family and the poets I work with as a Student Teacher Poet in Poetry for the People. I really appreciate the ways we've found as queer and trans people of color to articulate the ways in which the violence we've survived is part of our whole lives, and also to articulate the ways we find to transform violence.

How does your contribution to this collection relate to other activism you are involved in?

Working on issues of violence from an integrated radical women and queer of color feminist perspective is my whole life, and I really especially like creating concrete tools that can help folks deal with shit. I'm an INCITE representer even though I have a hard time making it to meetings. I'm part of The Revolution Start At Home collective, which co-edited and released a "zine" on partner abuse in activist communities and what community accountability strategies look like in real life. I say "zine" in quotes because it turned into 108 ful sized pages. It's available at Incite's website for free download, but it's also going to be published next year by AK Press, yay! I also co-created The Femme Sharks with my SBBFFF (slutty brown best femme friend forever) Zuleikha Mahmood- we're a movement of fierce, tough, queer femmes of color who are the leaders and defenders of our communities. We like to do things like show up at the March for Life counterprotest wearing hot pink satin fins and evening gowns and screaming SLUTS FOR CHOICE at the protestors. Peep the manifesto here. Seriously, creating the Sharks with Zuleikha has been one of the best forms of "activism" that I've ever done, in terms of center women of color and queer and trans POC's life experience in a rage-filled, sexy and totally fucking fun way.

I also work part-time for Generation 5, the organization founded by Staci Haines, the author of The Survivors Guide to Sex, whose goal is to end childhood sexual abuse in 5 generations through creating community accountability strategies. Generation 5 rocks my world and is an awesome resource for radical survivors interested in resiliency and resistance. You can find themhere.

Finally, I view my work as a writer, performer and cultural producer as activism (I am not the only one who has a hard time making it to meetings- there are other ways you can fight and resist) and giving voice to stories about surviving violence is a big part of that. My one woman show, Grown Woman Show, is all about exploring being a long-term survivor of violence, that violence's impact on the queer familly my QTPOC fam make, and my experiences exploring trying to get back in touch with my family after years of estrangement out of their denial. It's touring right now- hit me up if you want to bring me to your women's studies department or performance series!

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A bit about Leah:
Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha is a queer Sri Lankan writer and performer, based for ten years in Toronto, recently relocated to Oakland, CA. The author of Consensual Genocide (TSAR, 2006) her work has been widely anthologized in the queer, feminist and of color press, including in Yes Means Yes, Homelands, Colonize This, We Don't Need Another Wave, Bitchfest, Without a Net, Dangerous Families, Geeks, Misfits and Outlaws, Bent on Writing, Femme, Brazen Femme and A Girl's Guide to Taking Over The World.

She writes for Bitch, Colorlines, Herizons, Hyphen, Make/Shift and Xtra magazines, and regularly performs and tours her work throughout North America. She is the co-director of Mangos With Chili, North America's only annual touring cabaret of queer and trans of color performers, and is currently touring her one-woman show, Grown Woman Show, a meditation on long-term incest survivor identity and queer of color love and heartbreak.

Her first memoir, Dirty River, and second book of poetry, Love Cake, will be published in 2009 and 2010. She teaches creative writing at Poetry for the People, the program founded by June Jordan at UC Berkeley, and is a proud Femme Shark. Visit her to find out more.

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Rest of tour Yes Means Yes:
RH Reality Check - 4/2
Live chat with Julia Serano & Latoya Peterson

Our Bodies Our Blog - 5/2
Q&A with Brad Perry & Lisa Jervis

Shakesville - 9/2
Live chat with Jaclyn Friedman

Scarleteen - 10/2
Heather Corinna

Angry Black Bitch - 11/2
Q&A with Tiloma Jayasinghe

Shapely Prose - 12/2
Q&A with Kimberly Springer

Bitch Ph.D. - 16/2
Guest blogging with Jaclyn Friedman & Jessica Valenti

Shameless - 17/2
Q&A with Jill Filipovic

IMPACT - 18/2
Q&A with Anastasia Higginbotham

Radical Doula - 19/2
Q&A with Hazel/Cedar Troost

Feministe - 20/2
Grand finale conversation: Rachel Kramer Bussel, Toni Amato, Javacia Harris, Kate Harding, Stacey May Fowles, Hanne Blank & Heather Corinna

Comments From You

JENNIFER DREW // Posted 04 February 2009 at 11:45

We need to remember that Second Wave Feminists were the ones to bring the issue of male sexual and physical violence against women, in all its forms and diversities out in the open. Second Wave Feminists took great pains not to categorise female rape survivors as 'all suffering from the same after effects.'

But patriarchy did not and still does not want a 'light shone on male sexual violence against women' so institutions such as the medical profession, the law and society itself set about pathologising women and girl survivors of male sexual violence. Now we have a huge industry devoted to treating women and girls but at the same promoting the belief women's and girls' experiences are individual ones and have no relation whatosever to how male power operates and why male sexual violence unless it is extreme is not considered to be violence against women. It is not feminists who have promoted this but society and culture. Patriarchy is a very clever social system because whenever feminists challenge any aspect it is immediately turned around with women and girls held accountable for the continuation of male power. This is interlinked with racism, homophobia, classism etc. but central is the fact patriarchy defines human as only being male never female.

The central factor with regards to women and girl survivors of men's sexual violence is not to suggest or recommend any sexual activity which either re-traumatises the survivor or harms her right to sexual and bodily integrity. This means listening to women's and girls' refusals not to engage in any sexual act they do not want. The ones who committed sexual violence against these survivors commonly used the same strategies wherein they 'suggested' or said 'if you don't try you won't know if you like or not.' That is coercion and control. It is not for the person supporting a survivor to impose their beliefs that certain sexual acts are 'normal' and acceptable. What is more important is not presuming they know better than the survivor. This means certain sexual acts which are seen as 'edgy' are not because they directly feed into the issue of power and control. so suggesting 'vanilla sex' is not always correct ignores how power and control operates. Female survivors of male sexual violence have had their autonomy and bodily rights violently taken away from them, so suggesting to a survivor they should at the very least try something sexually which they do want to do, serves to reinforce male supremacist values. Claiming such acts are okay if both parties are consenting is in itself problematic, given that 'consent' is the wrong term to use. We must remember women and girls are socialised from the cradle to the grave to adhere to patriarchal notions of what supposedly passes for female sexual expression. We rarely hear men encouraged to engage in sexual activity they do not want or like because 'how will they know if they do not at least try it once.' Such persuasive methods are abuse of power and are designed to enforce control over a person's sexuality.

Feminists demand women's and girls' right of sexual autonomy rather than reinforcing male-dominant and heterosexist notions of what passes for female sexuality. Recognising how male power and control operates is one of the most important aspects with regards to challenging male sexual violence against women. Male power and control cannot be separated out from racism, homophobia, classism, etc. because they are all inter-connected but central is maintaining male power over women.

Likewise, prostitution is male violence against women and yes indeed many feminists do listen to what prostituted women and girls have to say and overwhelmingly these individuals want to exit. They do not want to be told prostitution is just work. There are a number of ways women and girls are coerced, tricked and enticed into prostitution and male sexual violence inflicted on girls is one way of training them to accept the belief their sole worth is to be men's sexual trash cans.

Do no harm should be the mantra of anyone working with or supporting women and girl survivors of male sexual violence. This means refusing to accept prostitution is just work and prostitution is not male violence against women and girls. Slavery was once considered not abuse of women's and men's human rights because non-whites were perceived as dehumanised creatures. No human being has the right to sexually control and sexually use another human being for their sexual gratification or to prove to other men they are 'real men.'

polly styrene // Posted 04 February 2009 at 12:56

I am a bit puzzled as to what is meant by 'the recovery industries' who apparently 'essentialise women who've experienced childhood sexual violence as victims in need of constant surveillance and treatment'. Can you give an example of one of these 'industries'?

missing words // Posted 04 February 2009 at 13:04

This is an amazing interview, totally made my day. thank you both Leah and zohra. i love the connection drawn between creating a new world and survivors finding "a way back to our bodies". thank you for the inspiration and for creating that space to resist.

zohra moosa // Posted 04 February 2009 at 14:38

Hi missing words
Yeah, Leah rocks. The interview was from the F Word team though, definitely not just me.

Holly Combe // Posted 04 February 2009 at 17:17

(Quoting Jennifer Drew) It is not for the person supporting a survivor to impose their beliefs that certain sexual acts are 'normal' and acceptable. What is more important is not presuming they know better than the survivor. This means certain sexual acts which are seen as 'edgy' are not because they directly feed into the issue of power and control. so suggesting 'vanilla sex' is not always correct ignores how power and control operates.

Jennifer, I agree that treating women as individuals should not be at the expense of looking critically at male power in society. I also think it's probably true that women's sexual preferences are often not acknowledged, respected or taken into account by medical professionals (or those who are supposed to offer support to women).

In addition to this, I completely agree with your point about not imposing one's beliefs "that certain sexual acts are 'normal' and acceptable." Indeed, the strategies of persuasion you mention throughout the comment are often used to urge women to engage in vaginal penetration and, IMO, you are absolutely right when it comes to the subtle ways in which society attempts to coerce us into partaking in that activity, whether we truly want to or not.

I also think it's true that we shouldn't presume to "know better" than a survivor of abuse. But don't your following statements pretty much imply that, actually, we do know better if a survivor of abuse doesn't have "vanilla" tastes? How exactly does "not presuming" to "know better" actually mean that "certain sexual acts which are seen as 'edgy' are not because they directly feed into the issue of power and control"?

True, some sex acts do seem to be slyly labelled as "edgy" in order to make them more appealing to people who might not really want to take part (thus potentially constituting an attempt to control those individuals). I would also say that, sadly, some traditionalists do peddle such an agenda during conversations with women. But, surely, by speaking disparagingly about the very idea that "vanilla sex" is not always correct (i.e you see its correctness as absolute?), you are already imposing your belief that "certain sexual acts are 'normal' and acceptable"?

Legible Susan // Posted 04 February 2009 at 17:34

Jennifer Drew, you say "Second Wave Feminists took great pains not to categorise female rape survivors as 'all suffering from the same after effects.'" and then it seems like you do just that.

Leah Lakshmi P-S is a survivor, and you're directly contradicting her experience. Your systematic view of the world shouldn't trump other people's lived reality: you claim that nobody ever heals to the point where she can give real consent to "certain sexual acts", under the very post where Leah complains about people silencing survivor voices in that way. Please let people speak for themselves.

missing words // Posted 04 February 2009 at 18:31

zohra said: "The interview was from the F Word team though, definitely not just me"

Ok, to my previous comment, thank you to the whole F-word team! Look forward to more such exciting collaborations.

Also, Jennifer - "It is not for the person supporting a survivor to impose their beliefs that certain sexual acts are 'normal' and acceptable"

and

"certain sexual acts which are seen as 'edgy' are not"

do not compute!

polly styrene // Posted 04 February 2009 at 18:32

What is being suggested above is that there is some kind of 'industry' (I still haven't been told what this industry is) which is devoted to pressurising women who've experienced childhood sexual abuse to behave in certain ways.

Now while some radical feminists may certainly engage critically with some sexual practices in the context of pressure to engage in them in a patriarchal society they are hardly an 'industry' since radical feminism has no power whatsoever.

What really is an 'industry' of course is porn which heavily promotes sexual violence and images of torture. Therefore the only 'industry' pressuring incest survivors I would suggest is the porn one - as being shown porn is a relatively common experience in childhood sexual abuse it probably has a disproportionate power among this group.

Porn is major mainstream, patriarchal industry. Look at the likes of Richard Desmond or Rupert Murdoch, who besides their respectable mainstream media interests, make a huge amount of money out of porn.

To suggest that something that actually IS a worldwide multi billion dollar industry (pornography) has no effect whatsoever on survivors of childhood sexual abuse, whilst the writings of a few feminists (who are certainly not in any way of possession of the kind of mainstream power or cash the porn barons have)influence survivors of childhood sexual abuse in some huge way is completley illogical.

Why are the survivors influenced by the feminists, but not the porn?

polly styrene // Posted 04 February 2009 at 19:04

And also, of course, to speak disparagingly of 'vanilla' sex is in itself criticising others sexual practices.

polly styrene // Posted 04 February 2009 at 19:41

Legible Susan, how do you know Jennifer Drew isn't a 'survivor', or for that matter that I'm not?

You don't, just as I don't know anything about you. However you seem to be assuming that because Leah Lakshmi Piepzna Samarasinha is a survivor, she is speaking on behalf of all other survivors and is entitled to do so.

Legible Susan // Posted 04 February 2009 at 20:08

polly styrene,

I am certainly not assuming that Leah is speaking for all other survivors (or anyone except the people she refers to in her interview). I'm not assuming that Jennifer or you aren't survivors, either: I'm criticising Jennifer (as Holly did in more detail, and Missing Words more succinctly) for claiming to know Leah better than she knows herself.

I don't want to put words into Leah's mouth, but her reference to the recovery industry doesn't appear to have anything to do with "radical feminists", or the porn industry for that matter. At a guess, I'd say it's something to do with the psychiatric establishment.

Anna // Posted 04 February 2009 at 20:50

most of this has gone a little over my head so I'm not sure if this is what's being referred to - but erm, I always had issues reconciling the notion that I'm being medicalised because I've survived abuse (which I don't agree with - surely it's they who have the problem, not I) and the very real PTSD I've been coping rather crappily with for the last two and a half years (or ten years, depending which PTSD you go by - I'm such an ass I've been diagnosed twice, complex and chronic).

polly styrene // Posted 04 February 2009 at 20:53

"Unfortunately, many second wave feminists have been just as guilty as the recovery industry of generalizing from their experiences and enforcing how survivors should be and look on other survivors of violence. In fact, as second-wave feminism mainstreamed and got institutionalized (and whiteness and class priviilege was a huge part of that) that part of the movement did a lot to silence survivor voices and contribute to the professionalization of survivor culture."

That certainly seems to be an attack on radical - aka "second wave" feminists to me. And it is also in my experience a totally false representation of what second wave feminists did. Which was to set up rape crisis centres and women's refuges - these things did not set themselves up on their own, and newsflash, they did not receive government funding, they were the hard, unpaid work of groups of activists. But these are now apparently being completely misrepresented as part of some fictional 'survivor industry'.

The whole interview - in terms of the questions asked - references to the 'incest industry' and the way it is structured seems to me to be a not very subtle take on the bizarre idea that feminists who radically criticise patriarchal models of sexuality are somehow telling women what to do.

Even if this WERE true (which it isn't), radical feminists have no power. So people don't have to listen if they don't want to.

The main reason that a lot of women become radical feminists is that they have experienced sexual violence themselves. And they have just as much right to indulge in 'vanilla' sex if they want to - or even shock horror no sex at all - and hold their own theories on sexuality if they want as Ms Piepzna-Samarasinha does.

The great difference is that those views of sexuality which see it as inherently an expression of power and about the domination of women are the mainstream. And they are the ones that have patriarchal power and the multi billion dollar industry behind them. Not radical feminist views.

zohra moosa // Posted 04 February 2009 at 21:37

Hi polly styrene
I'm a bit confused by your comments as you seem to be creating false arguments that you then aim to strike down. Three examples:

1. "And it is also in my experience a totally false representation of what second wave feminists did. Which was to set up rape crisis centres and women's refuges"

This merely tells me that you feel your experience is different to Leah's, not that you are right and she is wrong. The fact that some second wave feminists (which are not the same as radical feminists) set up refuges doesn't change the fact that some also did unhelpful things like perpetuate race and class privilege.

2. 'What is being suggested above is that there is some kind of 'industry' (I still haven't been told what this industry is) which is devoted to pressurising women who've experienced childhood sexual abuse to behave in certain ways.

Now while some radical feminists may certainly engage critically with some sexual practices in the context of pressure to engage in them in a patriarchal society they are hardly an 'industry' since radical feminism has no power whatsoever.'

I am confused why you are conflating 'radical feminists' with an industry when Leah hasn't, and then are defending against such a conflation as if she had.

The fact that she has critiqued particular industries and also second wave feminism doesn't mean they're the same thing.

3. "The whole interview - in terms of the questions asked - references to the 'incest industry' and the way it is structured seems to me to be a not very subtle take on the bizarre idea that feminists who radically criticise patriarchal models of sexuality are somehow telling women what to do."

Questions 1, 2, 6 and 7 (4 out of 7 questions) are about Leah and her work - toping and tailing the interview with an exploration of Leah's activism. These questions and their structural places within the interview do not fit your critique that 'the whole interview' is problematic / 'a not very subtle take...' etc.

It sounds like you have issues with three of the seven questions, at most. It further sounds like you would like to defend second wave feminists because you think there are bigger/more important 'evils' in the world. Again, I don't see why one shouldn't t critique second wave feminism just because other problems also exist.

delphyne // Posted 04 February 2009 at 22:23

Maybe part of the problem zahoo, is that the criticisms of the second wave here seem a little scatter gun so they are hard to follow and see exactly what you are getting at.

For example you just brought in the criticism that the second wave was racist and classist, which is probably a fair criticism of white middle class second wavers (true of white middle class third wavers too also of course) but it doesn't seem to actually relate to any previous part of the discussion.

Similarly the criticism that the second wave would fall into the "trap" of the recovery industry, when second wavers have been some of the strongest critics of the individualistic approach of the recovery industry which depoliticise the experiences of survivors of male sexual violence. I don't know if the third wave has undertaken any kind of this criticism. If they have I haven't seen it.

It seems a shame that for the third wave to continue the work that the second wave started against sexual violence, the second wave has to be disparaged. Without the work that women in the second wave did on sexual violence we probably wouldn't be in the position of discussing it.

zohra moosa // Posted 04 February 2009 at 22:51

Hi delphyne
What do you mean by 'scatter gun' and 'here' in the first sentence? My points about race and class privilege were a deliberate attempt to go back to Leah's words and be specific about Leah's argument - I was reiterating that Leah's critique about second wave feminism was about this privilege, and that the comments made by polly styrene didn't engage with that but were defending against other charges that I didn't see being made. This is how race and class privilege relate to the discussion - they're right out of Leah's interview.

Again, I don't see why critiques of second wave feminism - which isn't a monolith - should be avoided just because there was also good work done, especially as you accept earlier that what is being said is 'fair criticism'. I really don't know where third wave feminism is or what constitutes it, but if I'm in it, then I can say that I've definitely been criticizing it on race and class all over the place too.

missing words // Posted 04 February 2009 at 23:19

Polly - I don't see where in this interview you have picked up that Leah is disparaging of vanilla sex - from what I read, all she did is challenge the idea that this is the only type of sex which is non-oppressive.

I also don't see where she is "speaking on behalf of all other survivors"

What I am reading is an interview centred on one woman's experience as a queer woman of colour survivor of violence, talking about how her own activism, creativity, and reconnecting with her body and sexuality has been powerful for her and the community that she feels part of. Eg:

"I feel really amazingly happy to be one of many people involved in radical woman of color and queer and trans of color communities, families and activism who are talking about the shit we’ve survived and what we’ve done with it and how we can change our communities and world."


(You should check out the work of Incite! Women of Color Against Violence, which Leah is a part of, if you haven't already)

Also, polly and delphyne re: second wave feminism - yes of course second wave feminists did a lot of groundbreaking, amazing work, but why deny the racism & classism which definitely was part of the movement? We have to learn from the less flattering parts of our feminist heritage as well! and that's what I see Leah addressing here.

in fact, delphyne:

"you just brought in the criticism that the second wave was racist and classist, which is probably a fair criticism of white middle class second wavers (true of white middle class third wavers too also of course) but it doesn't seem to actually relate to any previous part of the discussion."

what do you mean it doesn't relate?! how can you say a discussion of racism and classism which did and does still exist within white-dominated feminist movements is not relevant following this interview? i think that is exactly what we should be discussing.

Polly styrene // Posted 04 February 2009 at 23:36

Well as much as 'second wave' feminists can be said to exist, I probably am one. And I have already asked

a)what the supposed 'recovery industries' referred to are (I still haven't been told) and I'll add

b)can you give any real life, actual, examples of second wave feminists behaving in the way that is alleged. If you are going to 'critique second wave feminists' it would be good to say which second wave feminists you are criticising and why. Rather than relying on unsupported cliches.

The interview attacks second wave feminists for 'generalizing' but then claims that second wave feminists were all white and middle class and silenced survivors. And the quote I gave - and the questions - do conflate second wave feminists with this alleged 'recovery industry'. Let me repeat it again.

"Unfortunately, many second wave feminists have been just as guilty as the recovery industry of generalizing from their experiences and enforcing how survivors should be and look on other survivors of violence. In fact, as second-wave feminism mainstreamed and got institutionalized (and whiteness and class priviilege was a huge part of that) that part of the movement did a lot to silence survivor voices and contribute to the professionalisation of survivor culture"

And finally, feminists do not have the power to 'enforce' anything unfortunately.

If you print an interview which makes a lot of generalised criticisms of 'second wave feminists' without any rationalisation or explanation of these views, it does look an awful lot like just an attempt to take a pop at second wave feminists from where I'm sitting.

delphyne // Posted 04 February 2009 at 23:46

My mistake, in scrolling up and down I missed that Leah said it first. I guess I'd have to say that her criticisms seem scattergun - I'm not seeing how the racism and classism of white middle class second wave feminism (which also blights the third wave) is connected to the struggle against sexual violence. I'm not saying there isn't a connection, just that maybe the link could be made more clearly.

Also my other question would be why is it so important to criticise the second wave in the context of this particular discussion? The failings of the second wave have been discussed at length, but I think there is an argument to be made that their contribution to the work on sexual violence has so far been unmatched and that the feminist work that has followed has built upon their initial achievements and would be impossible without them. I just don't get why second wave feminism appears to be the issue here, rather say than the millions of men committing sexual violence against women and children across the globe every day of the year and the political and social systems that support it.

I think Polly's point about the porn industry was an extremely good one. Speaking as a survivor myself I see the porn industry as a lot more harmful to me and my well being (google "rape porn" for example) than a small group of second wavers whose influence has almost completely dwindled since the backlash of the 80s and 90s.

I would be interested in your comments on second wave criticisms of the recovery industry which like I said depoliticise survivors' experiences and take them out of the context of male supremacy.

delphyne // Posted 05 February 2009 at 00:06

I thought we were discussing rape and how to prevent it, missingwords. That's what "Yes means yes" is supposed to be about.

I haven't denied that white middle class second wavers were racist and classist (as are white middle class third wavers). It's a problem within feminism that is ongoing.

zohra moosa // Posted 05 February 2009 at 00:46

Hi again Polly styrene
Focusing on the quote you've provided:

1. The interview does not 'attack' second wave feminists - in an answer to *one* question, Leah says that 'many second wave feminists have been just as guilty as...'. This does not constitute an attack in my opinion, it's actually quite polite. In addition, it's only one part of the whole interview - which is quite long and full of many other interesting points beyond anything to do with second waves.

2. The interview does not claim 'that second wave feminists were all white and middle class and silenced survivors' - it says that 'many second wave feminists...' and 'whiteness and class privilege were a huge part of' and 'that part of the movement'. That's three qualifiers in those two sentences, which is exactly the opposite of saying 'all'.

3. The interview does not make 'a lot of generalised criticisms... without any rationalisation or explanation of these views' - in fact right after the bit that you've chosen to quote are three specific illustrative examples Leah has used to explain her point, which you've chosen to ignore in your response. She has not relied 'on unsupported cliches'.

I remain unconvinced that the fact that second wave feminists have done good work means that second wave feminism cannot be critiqued in the way Leah has. There also seems to be some confusion in your comment about who you are replying to - I am not Leah after all. E.g. 'If you are going to 'critique second wave feminists' it would be good to say which second wave feminists you are criticising and why.'

Hi again delphyne
Re 'I just don't get why second wave feminism appears to be the issue here' - I think the point is that Leah feels it's an issue from her experience, and that is valid since it's an interview with her about her life and work.

In terms of the connections to racism and classism - I think Leah's interview responses are replete with explanations for why these are 'connected to the struggle against sexual violence'. I don't think she's not made the connections.

The fact that the porn industry is also or more harmful to you or others doesn't change the fact that Leah has issues with the things she's discussed having issues with.

Louise // Posted 05 February 2009 at 10:37

OK first to clear up some of the questions here, Polly, writers like Louise Armstrong and Florence Howe, amongst others, have mapped how the initial "speakout" of the 1960s and 1970s became increasing co-opted and appropriated by a patriarchal medicalisation which led to sexual violence becoming a problem of women's individual and often psychological responses to it. Armstrong, in particular, has a damning critique of this appropriate in Rocking the Cradle of Sexual Politics. The recovery or survivor industry that she (and others) talk about are those methods by which survivors common experiences become individualised (through therapy, for example) and depoliticised making the issues those of individual adjustment (and very often victim blaming strategies like refusal to "move on" or "seeking out" new abusive partners - indeed in some of the literature I've read they've talked about "survivor recidividism" to mean women who end up being abused in more than one relationship over their lifetime.

As for feminists who capitulated with this I suggest Herman and Schatzow's "feminist therapy" work which clearly disempowers survivors from even disclosing their experiences without a therapist present to "speak for" and "aid" their disclosure. I'm all for having a supportive friend but Herman suggests that survivors are unable to appropriate disclose without the intervention of a therapist. They aren't the only ones but they are a good example of how some second wave feminists lost the point about this being a societal problem, not an individual one.

These recovery industries (those which are purportedly feminist and those which aren't) do presume a certain model of survivor and have been extremely good at propogating that throughout society. Look at film depictions of survivors of childhood sexual violences (and the problem is wider than just incest by the way), look at the way misery memoirs have commodified childhood abusive experiences, look at the cultural myths of survivors of sexual violence. Some feminists have sought to challenge this and achieved some successes but feminism has lost ground on this issue massively.

Anna - I completely understand what you're saying here. However the point being made here is not that treatments aren't useful but that the systematic appropriation of sexual violence and turning it from a societal issue to an individual one is a patriarchal response to women articulating their experiences. Of course if seeking support and treatment for after-effects helps then that's to the good. But it doesn't replace a societal awareness that this is a political issue, not a "family" one, not an individual's one, not a problem in one class or one ethnic group but a society wide issue which disproportionately affects women and girls. Does that make sense? It's possible to support the provision of appropriate treatment and to critique the appropriating assumptions that all survivors need it and all survivors behave in similar ways.

delphyne // Posted 05 February 2009 at 14:28

I'm sorry Zohra, I thought this was an interview about "Yes means yes" and the struggle against rape, not simply about Leah in particular, given that it's billed as being part of the "Yes means yes" virtual book tour. I guess I misunderstood the purpose of the interview.

Will the F-word actually be hosting a discussion about the book and it's argument, which does appear to be based around attacking the work of the second wave and distancing themselves from it. I do find it odd given that the height of the second wave was the late sixties and early seventies and the third wave has been around for nearly twenty years now - perhaps some self-examination might now be in order. When do third wavers stop using the second wave as their whipping girl, because whatever fair or unfair criticisms there are to be made of it, it's over, it happened whilst patriarchy continues to move on apace.

Louise could you provide citations regarding the people you are talking about. If you are talking about Judith Herman (it's not clear) her argument is that sexual trauma is a social issue, not simply an individual one - she never depoliticised what is a poltical act against women. I also think that she described a therapeutic approach to help survivors, not prescribed it, but perhaps your reading of it is more accurate than mine. I'd be interested in what you specifically saw in her work that argued that a therapist should "speak for" the survivor. A whole lot of what she talked about was working with the survivor to piece together their own story and to bear witness to it. I'm not sure how bearing witness means "speak for".

zohra moosa // Posted 05 February 2009 at 14:50

Hi again delphyne
Yes, this interview was a Q&A with Leah, in relation to her particular piece in Yes Means Yes. The book itself is a collection, and contributors wrote about a variety of things in it. Indeed, that was part of the point: to showcase different opinions and voices.

The tour is chatting with different contributors to get their perspectives and opinions for two weeks, so perhaps some of what you're looking for might appear elsewhere on the tour? I'm not aware of any plans for us to be hosting further discussions.

I don't think this is an accurate or helpful characterization of the conversation we've been having: 'When do third wavers stop using the second wave as their whipping girl'.

In fact, I think none of this thread needed to get into second wave feminism and what it is/was and isn't/wasn't. This goes back to my original comment about the creation of a problem where in my opinion there wasn't one. There is so much more in the interview we could be engaging with, so why don't we chat about that instead? And if we don't, I hardly think the interview can be blamed for that!

Jess McCabe // Posted 05 February 2009 at 16:12

[As an aside: I'll probably do a review of Yes Means Yes at some point, as I have a review copy knocking about, so there will be an opportunity to discuss the book further. Also, it's interesting to me that, despite complaints in this thread, we're yet to have a single comment on Michelle's review of a book which complicates the concept of the second-wave as exclusively white and middle class.

As for the idea of giving 'third wave feminism' some sort of free pass, Leah says in the interview that one of the reasons she participated was to ensure women of colour's perspectives were included in the anthology, which is surely an implicit critique of the continuing failure of feminism on this score. It doesn't strike me that she's pitting third wave feminism as "better" than second-wave feminism on this score at all, as she's clearly stating that this effort still needs to be made.]

missing words // Posted 05 February 2009 at 23:19

delphyne: "I thought we were discussing rape and how to prevent it, missingwords. "

ok, to clarify: when i said that i thought we should be discussing racism and classism within women's movements, i meant as in conjunction with the discussion about sexual violence and feminist responses to it. these are not discrete separate things.

bfp // Posted 16 February 2009 at 02:44

This was a really great interview, thank you so much for posting it.

My question. Why is it that when a book's title stands as a *blatant* critique of the extremely political second wave and radical feminist statement "No means No," it's *leah's* words about second wave feminists that are being turned inside out?

The fact is, what she says about second wave feminists becoming institutionalized in the U.S. is *true*. It is well documented by many radical women of color, including but not limited to, Beth Richie, Andrea Smith, Andrea Ritchie, Audre Lorde, Lee Maracle,Dorthy Roberts, Loretta Ross and MANY RWOC organizations like Incite! Women of Color Against Violence, Sister Fire, Sister Song, the Audre Lorde Project, Sista II Sista and others.

These are not just voices of 'third wavers' making these critiques (and frankly, I think you'll find that many young radical women of color reject "wave" terminology as they have a very specific critique of said terminology), but 'second wavers' (see previous ** about terminology and RWOC) as well. Beth Richie is very much a part of the 60s and 70's second wave movement and she is one of the leaders in creating a critique of the movement she was very much invested in. Why? because she centers WOMEN in her work, not some historical legacy. She works with black women/trans prison populations and she sees first hand how women are falling through the cracks because of the professionalization of a formerly social/community justice centered movement. She sees how you no longer have to be a feminist with an investment in the community to 'council' survivors. How people with no investment at all in *ending* violence against women are running amok over what used to be very specifically about ending violence against women. She's seen how survivors are no longer encouraged to go to the next protest, but instead are encouraged to come back to the next therapist apt. Which, as it was said earlier--of course that is vitally important--but what the hell happened to the other stuff? the protests led by survivors? The organizing?

Surely no "wave's" historical legacy is more important than ending violence against women? And if we can learn from what didn't work in the past to change what will happen in the future or try something new or even return to the time when the response to rape was to get in your face fucking political--then why on earth would we shirk from that critique?

(and to be perfectly clear, you want to know how much I like being critiqued? ZERO. A big fat huge mammoth ZERO. but it's a necessary and important part of movement making.)

(and it still pisses me off that Leah's the one being critiqued and not the damn book title itself--search the internet and look at how many radical women of color specifically led a charge against the title of this book as well as the calls for submissions and pointed to exactly how deeply political and important the work of second wavers was in naming the experience, NO MEANS NO. it seems incredibly misguided to be hostile at the one group of women who were extremely invested in making sure the more political work of the anti-violence movement of the 60s and 70s remained central to any talk about rape, survival, ending violence against women, etc. I think the fact that nobody seems aware of where Leah's critique of the third wave and her *explicit* critique of the book itself (I wanted to make sure woc and trans people were incorporated into this book), really demonstrates leah's point about racism to begin with. Nobody has any damn fucking clue what radical women of color are saying about anything, even though we've all been bleating about it since before the book was even published. Would that be racism? Or is that not important to think about here?)

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