We always fight back: Honouring women’s resistance to violence and oppression (part 1)

On October 9, 2014, Vikki Reynolds spoke at Hoopla: A Women’s Health Carnival. Included here is the first part of her presentation. The second part will be published next Friday.

Vikki_Photo_newVikki Reynolds, PhD, is an activist/therapist, facilitator, and instructor, who works to bridge the worlds of activism and community work and counselling. Vikki’s experience includes supervision and therapy with refugees and survivors of torture, mental illness and substance misuse counsellors, anti-violence workers, housing and shelter workers, activists, as well as work alongside gender and sexually diverse communities. Vikki’s talks and writings are available for free download at www.vikkireynolds.ca.

Thanks to all the organizations involved in Hoopla, especially Positive Women’s Network, for inviting me. I want to acknowledge we’re on unceded Indigenous territories. Thanks to all the women of WAVAW (Women Against Violence Against Women), all the workers and all the women we serve, for their collective teachings and the huge contribution to my analysis and practice. This work is truly collaborative. Much of what I know about resistance to violence I have learned from work with survivors of torture and political violence.

I have permission from the women for all of the stories I share, and I have obscured details to guard their anonymity.

Caution: I’m going to talk about rape and women’s resistance to rape and sexualized assault, with some rough language but no particular details of rape—so please think of your own containment and self-care while you listen, or don’t listen to me for the next 15 minutes.

I want to address the ever-present nature of women’s resistance to sexual assault and other violence. What gets read as resisting in our society is based on men’s ways of being and access to patriarchal power, but women always fight back. Wherever there is no consent there is resistance. Women fight back prudently and intelligently with all the wisdom and resources they have, but it is often not seen as resistance by the courts and by society, where women are blamed for not resisting enough in a society that teaches “don’t get raped,” not “don’t rape.”

And I want to take apart some of the taken-for-granted ideas that pass for truth in counselling talk about the mental illness and pathology of women who are victimized by men’s violence, and offer some feminist-informed inversions of language that are more honouring of women’s ever-present and intelligent resistance.

I am skeptical and critical of locating the origins of abuses of power inside of the people who are subjected to oppression. For example, sexual assault is an abuse of power that is a form of social action by people who perpetrate violence. Sexual assault should not be cast as a problem in the minds of women who are subjected to it. We need to critique the field of psychology for making sense of experience as if it happens in the landscape of a person’s brain. In practice this looks like talk of “rape victims” as women who are somehow broken on the inside. I am more interested in addressing the actions of man oppressing women, gender-variant people, and children in the physical world than in finding damage in the minds of the people who are sexually assaulted.

In my work alongside community workers I find it useful to keep my attention on the ways problems are created in the social world, where power is wielded and people are harmed. I resist being curious about what is wrong in the minds of the women in order to make sense of rape culture. I am, however, committed to making sense of women’s acts of resistance to sexual assault.

Naming rape culture is not an attempt to be provocative or emotional, but an act of making power transparent and naming violence without euphemisms and minimizing language. On its website WAVAW describes rape culture as “the normalization of sexualized violence and systemic practices of blaming the victims, particularly women, for being raped.”

I am talking about understandings of resistance from activist traditions. Resistance, as I am using it here, refers to all of a person’s or peoples’ responses against abuses of power and oppression, and the many ways that they maintain their dignity and try to move towards justice.

In Asylums, sociologist Erving Goffman wrote about people’s resistance to being held in “total institutions,” such as psychiatric institutes and prisons, where power is overt and the holders of power dictate most human behaviour. He witnessed people’s responses to these institutions and their nuanced and small forms of resistance, such as sticking out their tongues, walking slowly, and pretending to be unintelligent. Goffman’s ideas are important because they question what usually gets attended to as resistance, which is often fighting back and speaking up. Instead he amplified these “small acts of living” to describe the nuanced and multiple ways people resist abuse and work to address abuses of power.

What is credited as resistance in our culture is physical fighting and speaking out—actions that men with power can enact. However, overt acts of resistance against oppression are the least common forms of resistance, as the consequences of such resistance are extreme. We are in a rape culture, and that means that women who are subjected to violence and sexual assault cannot safely and openly protest. Women always fight back against men’s violence in multiple ways, but not always in ways that are easily noticed or understood as resistance.

For example, women who have been raped are judged, legally and culturally, about their resistance to rape. Many women I have worked with tell stories of how they “should” have defended themselves against rape, including screaming and physically fighting. Many women who have suffered rape are unsure if they were raped because their responses fall short of all-out physical struggle and get retold as compliance if not consent.

When I ask where they learned how a woman is supposed to act if they are “really” raped, they tell me the learnings are from television and films. Women scream, scratch, and fight. For the most part stories of men being raped are absent. When I ask who wrote this script, it comes forward that the actress’ voice is a woman’s, but the writer and director who create that voice are most often male.

I facilitated a women’s counselling group in a substance misuse program, in which young women were talking about their experiences of sexualized violence. Everyone was surprised to learn that while every woman in the conversation had experienced some acts of men’s sexual assault, no one had screamed. Some women said they could not breathe enough to scream, some said they knew it would not be wise, others said they were physically restrained by gags or hands from making noise. The conversation led to sharing of the acts of resistance these women had created, with an aim to create more safety in their futures. These women passed these invaluable “resistance knowledges” on to each other in acts of collective solidarity. Naming these hidden knowledges of how prudently these women had responded to violence held meaning for them and informed my work in profound ways. I hold close to this teaching. It informs me to bear witness to the resistance that was hidden out of necessity.

But just as women are judged for not fighting back in ways patriarchy can recognize, women are also judged for resisting with physical force. In the USA where they have the death penalty, women have been executed for defending themselves from men who have sexually assaulted and beaten them. The overwhelming majority of women in prison are survivors of domestic violence. That’s from the NY Corrections Association’s own statistics.

A young woman whom I saw as a substance abuse counsellor told me of how she held shame and an identity as a “slut” in her school and community because she had sex with several different young men at one time. Our conversation brought forward a different story, which included this group of young men’s premeditated acts to create the conditions necessary to gang rape her: getting her drunk, taking her to a hotel room, taking her alone, and spreading word on social media that she was a “slut” to preempt any effort she might have made to charge them with rape.

She admitted, more like confessed, that she hadn’t “fought back,” and elaborated that she should have screamed, bitten them, and fought physically. I asked why she didn’t, and she said she knew fighting could lead to her being killed. Resistance can be spontaneous and may occur in the moment as the oppression occurs. This understanding of the spontaneous nature of resistance informed me to ask what she did do in the moment. She brought forward a range of intelligent responses. She tried humour, reminded them they were her friends, and used their first names and nicknames. She responded in ways that tried to keep them from being angry and violent. This means she intentionally “offered” or initiated some sexualized acts she knew she would survive as resistance to the men getting more violent. This can be judged as her being seductive or consenting, when in fact it’s brilliant resistance.

We talked about how afraid she had been, acknowledging her ability to think even when terrified. As we uncovered this hidden transcript of her resistance she moved into her body by sitting up, looking me in the face, and speaking with a steady voice. She acknowledged her own intelligence and said it was meaningful that I was alongside her as a witness to these acts of resistance.

Because covert acts of resistance such as this woman’s are easily hidden in therapy talk, community workers need to finely attune their attention to the possible sites of resistance where women are acting in ways that maintain their dignity and end their suffering.

My approach to witnessing resistance is informed by three basic understandings of resistance:

  1. Wherever there is oppression there is resistance: women always fight back when they are sexually assaulted.
  2. Resistance ought not to be judged by its ability to stop oppression.
  3. Resistance is important for its ability to maintain a person’s relationship with humanity, especially in situations outside of human understanding

We witness resistance, not because it stops the abuses of power, but because attending to resistance amplifies women’s sense of autonomy and attempts to keep a grasp on their dignity. As counsellors, we serve as witnesses to women’s resistance despite the success or failure of the struggle.

It is important not to fetishize resistance or to get taken up with romantic ideas of resistance, as our collective purpose is to promote possible lives of justice and end rape culture, not just resist it. Counsellors need to be careful not to name all acts as resistance and assign meanings that don’t fit for the woman. Resistance is often inadequate in terms of stopping sexualized assault. Acts of resistance can maintain a woman’s relationship with humanity, but they do not stop her from being oppressed.

These understandings of resistance have been essential in my work alongside community workers and clients who struggle in the margins. Witnessing resistance always gives us a hope-filled place to go in our work with women, as there is always a protest against sexual assault. Honouring women’s resistance against rape and other abuses of power helps construct women’s identities as wise, prudent, and resourceful. These conversations about how women always resist, always fight back, are useful practice for the sustainability of community workers and counsellors as it invites us into hope-filled conversations, which can be transformative for all of us—women and counsellors.