Riese: So what do you think our responsibility is when the accusations are being made within the queer community?
Sarah: The first thing I do, if somebody says to me, “that person is terrible and you should hurt them,” is to call that person and ask them, “Why do you think this is happening?” This is the crucial question. As soon as you are being told that your group is shunning someone or that you should shun someone or something like this, the very first thing you should do is call that person and ask them, “Why do you think this is happening?” because it is entirely unethical, divisive, and destructive to hurt somebody without ever talking to them first.
Riese: I think within liberal feminism, that would be considered doubting the victim.
Sarah: People should be overjoyed to learn that they are contributing to a problem! Because if they understand how they are contributing to a problem, they have the power to resolve it. But if we punish people for having the power to resolve it, then instead they abdicate any kind of accountability and, as I show over and over again in my book, when we abdicate personal responsibility for our participation in conflict we enhance the power of the state — whether it’s Gaza, whether it’s HIV criminalization, whether it’s people calling the police just to grandstand in a relationship conflict because they can’t be self-critical.
If you look at the history of the feminist anti-violence movement, when I was born in 1958 in New York City, if a woman was raped she could not get a conviction based on her own testimony — she had to have a witness.
Riese: Right! Which is horrifying.
Sarah: It’s insane! So, in the 60s, when the feminist movement against violence emerged, it emerged in a context in which the state was literally the enemy of women. In those early years, the movement had no relationship to a state apparatus of punishment. It was not working with the police or asking the state for anything. The focus was on empowering women, not on punishing men. The things that they did were things that we would now call “restorative justice,” although that concept didn’t exist at the time. They did stuff like rape crisis hotlines, where if you were raped you could call a hotline and another woman who has been raped could talk to you. There’s no policemen there, there’s no state there. They did battered women’s shelters, they did self-defense for women.
When Reagan got elected in 1980, he immediately dismantled the CETA program, which had been paying some salaries of grassroots organizations, and from that moment the state started to take over a lot of these services. It got away from what the original feminist movement had seen as the causes they named as patriarchy, poverty and racism. The US government is not interested in patriarchy, poverty and racism. It depends on patriarchy, poverty and racism. Instead, it became entirely focused on a punishment apparatus. Which, when we trace it, we see has been over-applied to poor families and men of color specifically. The US government is one of the greatest sources of violence in the world. So it’s a contradiction in meaning for it to be in charge of ending violence. All it’s done is enhanced punishment. That solution, that’s where it takes you.
Riese: Right. But then, what’s the difference between punishment for punishment’s sake and punishment that aims to protect current and potentially future victims from harm? When you say, “the focus was on empowering women, not punishing men” — what do you think should be done with men who are rapists or sexual predators? What alternative is there to having the state remove them from the environment where they can continue to rape women and be predatory?
Sarah: It is our responsibility as a society to find a way to deal with male offenders. When the only choices are to do nothing, or to incarcerate people, we will end up with no positive change. Of course some people are actually predators, they enjoy breaking other people’s will, and this condition exists for myriads of reasons that are social, experiential, and biological. Our president is one of these people, and so are some of his friends. But I believe that this is only a percentage of the “Male Offender” category.
I think there is also a lot of confusion out there about how to communicate sexually, about repression and expression, and standards that may not benefit us really. The kind of messaging about heterosexuality and about masculinity that is conveyed constantly through mainstream cultural and religious messages are very distorting. There is a huge amount of projection at play in intimacy, and bringing that into the social open would be beneficial. I also think that women have a lot of confusion as well. Many factors about desirability, availability, and self-image are at play. That is why I advocate for MORE COMMUNICATION, not less, a wider range of permissible sexual expressions, and support for facing our own fears within the groups in which we live.
Riese: What systems would you like to replace the current ones?
Sarah: Well, I think that the answer lies in the group. It’s very complicated […] but I do believe that the solution is in the group, and by “group” I mean your friends, your family, your clique. Cliques are so important. Social constructions for justice and injustice. Communities, religious groups, HIV status groups, national identities, your workplace group — any group that you belong to. If a person is not handling a situation well and is escalating when they have a chance to repair, it is up to the group to help them negotiate and to show them that they are expected to negotiate, will get support for negotiating, and will not get support for escalating.
Riese: How do you think that this plays out? You write that you’re coming from a queer perspective and being part of those communities, and a lot of things that are really great about queer women’s communities in terms of empathy and care and a desire to subvert dominate paradigms have now led to a near-epidemic of overstating of harm. “This person said something problematic, now I need these strangers to help me trash them,” or else they need it to be fixed for them. “This person made me uncomfortable, you should bar them from this or that space.” At the same time there’s this huge expansion of what “counts” as emotional and verbal abuse, and what people are now declaring to be “violence” that isn’t actual violence —
Sarah: But it’s not just queer women who do this. The US government does this. This is operative on every level of social interaction in the time in which we are currently living. Trump every day tells us what a victim he is; how he’s being attacked. And it’s always because people are telling the truth.
Riese: I mean that’s his M.O.; he’s built his whole empire on the idea that he’s a victim and everybody’s after him and they’re all lying. And absolutely this happens on all levels — but I was wondering if you had thoughts on why our communities, which we imagine should have better ways of dealing with conflict than everybody else, have picked up this type of behavior, although exercising it in basically the opposite context as it is employed by the state. Do you think it’s a top-down thing, that we’ve learned this from the state?
Sarah: Well, I’m in the queer women’s community, and I’m trying to change this. And Catherine Hodes who is my model here, the social worker, she’s a lesbian, so, I mean my whole book, all of my examples, most of them are lesbian examples of queer women examples. Most of the book comes from that impulse.
Riese: More specifically — there’s a part of the book where you talk about how the behaviors of the supremacist are often indistinguishable from the behaviors of the traumatized, although they have different and nearly opposite causes. Because queer women have much higher rates of trauma, are more likely to have experienced actual abuse, and are dealing with so many mental health issues, if we’re more vulnerable to, or maybe even desperate for, out of a need for some end to this pain, an uncritically punitively modelled way of thinking?
Sarah: Well, everybody’s doing it but for different reasons. Some people are overstating harm for supremacist reasons. Like white people who claim that they’re being oppressed by immigrants. And some people are doing it for traumatized reasons. They can’t bear to be self-critical because they are so fragile they can barely hold it together. But the fact remains that if you are on the receiving end of this, whether it’s from supremacy or trauma, it can destroy your life. It happens all the time, it happens every day.
I think we should call off shunning. You know, there are people who had an argument 17 years ago and one person still won’t speak to them — their friends have to intervene and say “come on, I’m not gonna support you in this anymore, it’s time for us to all sit down and talk.” And if the person won’t talk then the friend should go to the object and say “why do you think this is happening?” I think that’s the sentence that starts the repair process. “Why do you think this is happening?”
Riese: Have you, in different groups of queer people that you’ve been involved in, observed really successful conflict resolution?
Sarah: I mean… sometimes. But if your group is negatively constructed — based around keeping each other from facing your own flaws, or inflating each other’s importance, or something — then that group is not going to be able to do that.
That’s why in the book I compare four systems: traditional psychoanalysis, pop psychology, mindfulness and Al-Anon. These four systems, which are very different from each other, all point to two similar conclusions. The first is delay — if you respond right away, your chances of escalating are much higher than if you delay. The second is the positive group — whether the 12-step meeting or the meditation group or the meeting with the therapist, people need to be in a positive group where they will be encouraged to be self-critical. Even if their friends and family are negative groups all rooted in not facing themselves, everybody needs to find a positive group where they can be self-critical.