I struggle a lot with the politics of identity, in that I find it hard to fit myself into the labels that are generally constructed. I’ve already rejected “man” because every time someone says “men do/are X” it’s a generalisation that falls short of fact when applied to my experience, for example. But am I really genderqueer when most of the time there’s not much outward indication of non-binary identification? Likewise, I find some men hot and would totally want to have sex with them if I knew they felt the same way about me, but having never actually gone beyond kissing (more on which in the main part of this post), is it accurate to call myself bi? I choose “yes” for both of these, but it sometimes feels like I am on shaky ground if I try to engage with others who are more squarely in those identities.
Which leads into the main topic of this post. I have noticed a trend in social justice circles over the past few years that, whether intentionally or incidentally, creates the impression that there is a certain threshold or hierarchy of experience valididity. I’m not talking about the standard “oppression olympics” of whether racism is worse than sexism or homophobia worse than ableism. I am not even talking about intersectionality in which it is clearly demonstrated that a White middle-class able-bodied cis woman does not have the universal experience of womanhood (for example). I’m talking about how individuals within the same grouping but with different experiences of oppression or trauma relating to their identity have a tendency to dismiss the experiences of those whose experiences are less negative than their own as being invalid and somehow not a genuine experience of whatever it is that is being discussed. (And that’s not even going into how any sex worker who isn’t traumatised by her work is deemed by some to be a liar or otherwise so privileged as to be irrelevant.)
I have lost count (and consequently have no links to examples, they all merge into a generalised experience) of the times I have seen discussions where I was left with the impression that only those who have suffered the most have the right to speak about their experiences. Anyone else who has suffered should STFU because they haven’t really suffered at all. There’s usually a qualifier of “by comparison” in there, but when I have been the one whose experience is dismissed, that tends not to come through on the emotional level of communication.
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Is a non-consensual snog a form of sexual assault? If yes, then as an adult* I have been sexually assaulted twice, the first time by a man (my only r/l gay physical contact – see above) and the second time by a woman (A BDSM Domme, as it happens). But if the answer is no, then does that mean that my experience of those events as being both (a) sexual in nature and (b) violations of my physical and personal boundaries, an invalid experience? Am I wrong to feel harmed by them? If the answer is no, then just how sexual does the nonconsensual act have to be before I get to call it a sexual assault? Or, how great a violation is required? I’m not talking in a legal sense here, but in terms of what “counts” in order to identify someone as a “valid” or “legitimate” survivor or victim of sexual assault. At what point do the feelings of violation, hurt, and fear become accepted by others?
I have been threatened with physical violation and more violent sexual assault on at least two more occasions, but while I was in imminent fear for my safety on those occasions, I eventually escaped without being harmed. One of these was in a situation that I now understand was at the time an abusive situation. The abusers were “friends” rather than “partners”, but the truth that I was unable to recognise at the time is that it had in some degree all the hallmarks of abusive relationships (including an injury that needed hospital treatment). It’s just that when I thought of “abuse” I thought of the relentless suffering that seemed to be what people presented as the valid narrative. My experience wasn’t like that, so it didn’t “count”. At least with this identity as a survivor, I have seen others talk about similar difficulties identifying their own experiences as abuse, for similar reasons.
The emotional and psychological consequences of that period of my life are still with me, but I still feel awkward about claiming an identity based on it. One reason why I feel the need to write about the ways in which this hierarchy or threshold of validity that sometimes crops up, is that one of the intrinsic techniques of the abusers I encountered was to question the validity of experience based on some criterion of “your story doesn’t count because your experience isn’t X enough”. It’s a variant on the old gaslighting method of abuse.
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“Your truth is not true”, “I know more than you because I have suffered worse things than you”, “I know more about you because I have suffered more than you”, “You are only imagining the hurt and pain you feel, because it is not as great as the pain and hurt I have suffered”.
“I do not believe you have suffered at all, because you have not suffered enough.”
I’m 35 years old. I have heard variations on this theme for at least 25 years, from those who mean well and those who are just mean and vicious. “You do not have the right to feel pain, because others are worse off than you.” And yet, I did feel pain. To the extent where sometimes, I needed to stay down.
Suffering isn’t all or nothing. It’s valid whoever you are, and whatever your other circumstances, and no matter how much worse anyone else has it. And suffering, in and of itself, should not be the imprimatur for access to the debate (though lived experience does help).
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* Which is to say, I am not including in the scope of this piece the many times as a child that I was forced to accept kisses on the cheek from adults.