In Conversation With Sarah Schulman: “They’re Being Taught That Control Is Freedom”

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.

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Riese is the 39-year-old Co-Founder and CEO of Autostraddle.com as well as an award-winning writer, blogger, fictionist, copywriter, video-maker and aspiring cyber-performance artist who grew up in Michigan, lost her mind in New York and then headed West. Her work has appeared in nine books including "The Bigger the Better The Tighter The Sweater: 21 Funny Women on Beauty, Body Image & Other Hazards Of Being Female," magazines including Marie Claire and Curve, and all over the web including Nylon, Queerty, Nerve, Bitch, Emily Books and Jezebel. She had a very popular personal blog once upon a time, and then she recapped The L Word, and then she had the idea to make this place, and now here we all are! In 2016, she was nominated for a GLAAD Award for Outstanding Digital Journalism. Follow her on twitter and instagram.

Riese has written 2879 articles for us.

49 Comments

  1. Thank you so much for giving us this window onto your conversation, Riese- the things you talked about are incredibly important, and about half a dozen things from my own life just clicked into place in my head. I’ve always found progressive circles’ lack of discussion of grey areas frustrating- like you, I experienced things which might have been labeled assault, and there was no room to talk about the fact that, drunkenness and my later regret aside, they didn’t feel like that. There was almost no room to talk about them at all, in that context, so I’ve largely pushed them down in an attempt to avoid the issue altogether.

    This article was so enormously helpful, and I feel like I need to read this book posthaste. Thank you so much again!

  2. Please talk for at least ten more hours! Ultimately, this was just a really incredible read. So many interesting thought points. I’ve always felt that there are necessary and unnecessary discomforts, and while I believe wholeheartedly in the designation of safe spaces and have high expectations for my social groups to be affirming, tolerant, and considerate, i am frequently disappointed by demands for comfort in times of conflict.

    If I’d never been afforded the space to make mistakes and have those mistakes called out as they were, I genuinely feel like I’d have a real lack of understanding on why those mistakes caused harm, how my actions affect others, and how I can navigate resolving issues and taking accountability for things about myself that have been inherently problematic. I further also think it only agrees to a hostile group mentality, and encourages elitism within communities. While I think it’s a slippery slope re: when a felt violation should or shouldn’t be labeled as abuse, I do think there’s something to be said about a need to read the context of situations, and how and why we feel violated when we feel violated. That feeling is valid, it’s important, and it’s important to have care around it — but I think a part of that care is in assessing and processing what it is that happened in its entirety, in search of an authentic resolution.

    …and blah blah blah. This was great. I’m obsessed. Thank you, thank you.

  3. I devoured the whole interview. Fascinating conversation. Thank you for transcribing and sharing it! There were so many ideas/concepts/life-changing things touched upon or dissected here, that I’m going to be processing this for some time. This book has been on “my list” to read ever since your original article about it, and about foisting it upon your co-workers. And the discussion has helped somewhat to clarify some things in my mind about how things can be “good” or “healthy” but also “taken too far” or really end up being harnessed out of their intended context to cause more harm to the populations they ostensibly were meant to protect.

    Also really appreciated the AS context bits.

  4. I would read 10,000 more words of this! This was a great article and interview. When I finished the book I had so many questions and highlighted passages and things to talk about but none of my friends have read the book, so I’m really glad for this.

  5. This is a riveting subject, plaudits for your questions as well as Sarah Schulman’s answers. I wish the transcript would have been the size of an encyclopedia. I can’t wait to read the book.

    I have some reserves about treating the (US or other) government as a coherent entity, as a monolith, but otherwise gee what a lucid and powerful description of the state’s takeover of services for victims of violence.

  6. With Autostraddle, we’ve started to experience this phenomenon where people that we don’t know reach out to us to let us know that someone who writes for us or works for us is a “known abuser” or was allegedly emotionally abusive in a past relationship. They demand that we remove the person from Autostraddle, that we don’t let them write anymore, that we eliminate them from our group, and if we don’t do that they’ll say that we don’t really care about safe spaces or queer community, or that we are complicit in abuse. We’re commanded to enact these extreme punishments against accused people who are being accused, again, by people we don’t know, and ordered that we should do so without interrogating any of their claims. Usually we don’t even know the accused person — like we’ve never met them in person.

    OH MY GOD THIS HAPPENED TO ME. And I don’t even work for AS, in any way. A woman I went on <10 dates with just took against me and started telling everyone we knew that I abused her. (I didn't. This is not the place for specifics, but I didn't, and I've discussed every possible detail with therapists, friends, everyone, for years, and, I just didn't abuse her. She also has a known history of doing this.)

    Including, she knew I was a fan of AS and she emailed Riese trying to get me kicked out of my local AS group (I know cuz she CC'd me) and it was horrible and awful and I thought my whole community would turn against me and I wanted to die.

    I'm really sorry for everyone else this has happened to, but weirdly I'm glad it's not just me.

    Also thanks Riese for the way you handled that situation, as far as I know, you let it defuse by just not responding (or at least you didn't respond to me), and I've always appreciated that.

    • oh wow i’d totally forgotten about this but i remember now! you’re welcome, and i’m sorry that this happened to you. that was a REALLY special case because I was like “wow, you are asking us to intervene in your private facebook group and local meet-up community???” we are not qualified to mitigate your interpersonal conflicts, we have no jurisdiction over any of this! and even if the accusations had been true, i don’t think her proposed solution would be considered productive by any means. anyhow, i hope things have settled down for you, nobody should have to deal with that kind of thing.

      • Thank you <3 This incident really fucked me up at the time, and totally exploded my group of friends, and I can't say that the fear has completely gone away, but things are much, much better now.

        And J.L. is not my real name–I'm actually an A+ member who's a fairly regular commenter. Which just goes to show how scared the accusation and the shunning still make me, years later, even though it's fairly demonstrably untrue ?

  7. I recently left a queer Facebook group for a comedy podcast I like because some members started a Google Docs sheet to keep track of all the problematic things one of the hosts does. I love that these online spaces provide a place for marginalized people to voice their frustrations, but sometimes it feels like there’s no room to mess up or disagree.

    Looking forward to reading this book, as well as People in Trouble and Stagestruck. This was a cool interview, thanks Riese!

  8. I just spent an hour and a half reading this article and the talk transcript – thank you for a ton of stuff to think about! I don’t feel nearly clever enough to grasp all of what was being said, but it really makes me want to try, you know

  9. This is just so sorely needed. Thank you for putting it out into the community! I hope that we begin to see a paradigm shift in how we deal with conflict.

    Also Schulman is so impressive?! I need to get into reading her stuff.

  10. I decided to comment for the first time just to say thank you for posting this. I think this is an important conversation in our community for all the reasons people have mentioned. I would only like to add that this sort of thinking and marginalizing creates an impossible situation where we expect everyone to be perfect. What we should instead expect is that if someone makes a mistake they grow and learn and become better. Safe places are important as well as protecting victims and preventing abuse but none of those goals are achieved by jumping to conclusions, preventing conflict resolution and ignoring the fact that people are flawed. Sometimes there are good and bad people. But other times there are just a lot of confused, hurt, vulnerable, flawed human beings in gray muddy waters. And while those situations can surely cause a world of pain, it helps no one to pretend those waters were crystal clear.

  11. Thank you Riese for opening Schulman’s ideas up for discussion in an AS-specific context. This was a great conversation to read and I would certainly read 10,000 more words of it. These are nuanced issues that our community should absolutely be discussing and working out with ourselves. I think especially the point you both have made that sometimes the actions taken to try to protect people do nothing to actually address the problem merits a lot of pondering.

    Next stop: Schulman’s book.

  12. This immediately took me back to that time as a freshman in college at Evergreen in 2001 when the lesbian vice president (or perhaps the title was different–regardless, she was in leadership) pulled me aside at my first meeting to ask me how I identify (“I’m not sure. Bisexual, I think,” I told her.) and that I’d have to pick a side if I wanted to be welcome in the Queer Alliance. After all, they wanted to create a safe space for trans people. (The implication, of course, being that as a maybe bisexual, I was somehow inherently dangerous to trans people.) She went on to say that well, actually, I couldn’t identify as an ally and still be part of the club either. It was lesbian or nothing. It was lesbian or dangerous.

    They proceeded to shun me for the duration of my time at Evergreen, which made my social life pretty difficult. Pretty much none of the women on campus would talk to me, and while I eventually made friends, it was with other locals, other shunned people, all of us somehow ‘dangerous’ for being bisexual, or fat, or lower class, or disabled, or people of color, or god forbid multiple of these.

    It took me years to even begin to put words to this experience.

    • Hmmm. This is incredibly interesting. I had a couple of odd experiences in a feminist group where I was presumed to be interested in more than one member (I was not, I was happily partnered). Bafflingly the leader of the group seemed to think I was interested in her. Not my type at all. But interestingly, I was only shunned after gaining a significant amount of weight. I was also the only member who had to work full time and didn’t have a Post-graduate degree. Make of that what you will.

  13. I’m really looking forward to reading Schulman’s book. Several of my goodreads kin have read it recently, and they’ve posted intriguing reviews as well. Excellent interview, also. It seems like the book really addresses a lot of what I’ve been questioning/contemplating in regards to social media and group dynamics over the past couple of years.

    • This quote “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” truly exemplifies the approach I’ve tried to take within communities over the past several years. Or what I’ve aspired to, at the very least. I’ve found a kind of freedom in that, since it grants me, or I grant myself, a path forward.

  14. What a great interview! I have been avoiding reading this book because I know I will probably really like parts of it and really dislike other parts and I don’t want to deal with that. The way this frames it makes me kind of excited to have more complicated feelings though, which seems like part of the point!

    One thing that is strange and interesting to me, although I might be wrong b/c I haven’t read her books, is that Schulman seems to kind of have the idea that like “OF COURSE there are some people who just really are real abusers, WE ALL know THAT!” and i just am not sure that is true? Like, the mandate to believe survivors no matter what seems to obviously be partly a reaction to the fact that we mostly DON’T all know and believe that some people are abusers. Like she is ready to just say “yes obviously” and move on to more interesting questions and seems less interested and more vague about like, how to deal with actual clear situations of abuse? Riese seems to be trying to get at this somewhat. I don’t know what I’m asking exactly, I guess I will have to read the book. I wish the interview was longer!

    • Yes! I loved reading this, but I think the biggest hole in this discussion has been the unwillingness to examine why liberal culture has swung the pendulum so far in the direction of a blind-acceptance of victims, or a willingness to use shunning or similar punishment tactics at the drop of a hat.

      If we want to make a real change towards honest, challenging, and fruitful discussion we need to talk about the way that such discussions can be abused(no pun intended) to oppress minority groups.

      We can’t ignore the fact that the rights and dignities of minorities, alongside people like abuse survivors, is in large part NOT ACTUALLY TAKEN AS GRANTED. That we have had to fight and claw our way to those rights and dignities. And that there are people who will use our desire for more open and less black-and-white discussions as an entry point for hate, and a way to try and regress the progress we have made.

      As a trans lesbian, the biggest concern I have over Sarah’s ideas in our community has nothing to do with her or them. The biggest concern I have is that people will just swing the pendulum in the opposite direction, and that people who don’t understand or don’t want me in the community will take advantage of their newfound ‘freedom’ to stomp me right back down because “open honest discussion.” That in the end I will increasingly be unable to simply feel comfortable in the community because basic acceptance of who I am is not guaranteed.

      Minorities are, well, minorities. The disenfranchised are, well, disenfranchised. The playing field isn’t level here, and left to a more open environment a lot of groups will get their rights and dignities trampled on almost by default as a result of that. The black-and-white, “shun and call-out if your views are even slightly questionable,” tone that has come to define some strands of liberalism, I think, arose in the first place to fix that and even out the playing field. Obviously it has gone too far in some ways. But how do we pull it back, without giving people like TERFs or racists a blank check to promote hate and discrimination in the name of ‘open discussion’?

      In other words, how do we remain steadfastly opposed to the oppression of any group, and make everyone feel welcome on a fundamental and basic level, while also allowing an open, honest, and challenging discussion?

      This is the biggest challenge we face, I think.

      • Yeah! This is a lot of what I was trying to get at. I wonder if the book addresses this more?? Also the thing that Schulman mentions a couple of times about like, it’s better to just call someone up, it’s better to ask the accused person why whatever it is is happening – it just seems like she is not thinking about the type of situations that I am thinking about? Like yes, there are friend/social groups where I could see that, ideally, happening. And I REALLY really like the idea of AS and other online places taking a more restorative and less black and white approach. But at the same time it sort of assumes the good intentions and willingness to engage honestly of everyone involved? Or something? Which makes less sense to me in certain contexts, especially ones where like you said there is not already a somewhat level playing field. So right, how do we do both, have a less reactionary and more nuanced approach but also take seriously protecting those most vulnerable.

        • I think ‘calling someone up’ really has to occur on a case by case basis, and we have to be aware that dialogue doesn’t take place on an even playing field. Part of this comes down to what someone is accused of. I don’t think Schulman wants to call Bill Cosby for his side of the story. She has a bunch of stories of lesbians doing nasty things to each other in community settings. Riese’s example of people making abuse claims seems to call for the dialogue approach, especially when accusations are made over the internet. Abuse certainly occurs in queer communities but there also appear to be people who throw out that label to settle scores or to turn ‘she was a shitty girlfriend’ into ‘she was a monster’.

      • Victims are not blindly believed. Certain victims, those with power and privilege, are *sometimes* believed in liberal communities.

        I recognise your concerns, because I think a huge part of transphobic discourse is fuelled by rich, white, transphobic straight women using their privilege to enact both male violence and female shunning.

        But as a survivor myself… I can assure you, many of us are not believed and no one gets shunned on our behalf.

  15. Thank you so much for sharing this, especially for linking to “Queer Suicidality, Conflict and Repair”. I read the whole thing and really absorbed it all, as (like so many of us) I have too many suicidal friends, and it often seems inevitable that I’ll slowly lose them one by one.

  16. I just bought this and would love to have some kind of AS-based discussion group on it. I’d be willing to help organize it — maybe we could do it on twitter or something? Anyone interested? Anyone want to help organize?

  17. This was a really thought provoking article, thank you for it! I particularly appreciated the discussion of how the overuse of the term ‘abuse’ tends to tie into the idea that you are only eligible for compassion if you are a “pure” victim. That overuse actually does a lot to feed into larger cultural tendencies to require survivors of abuse to perfectly fit a narrative, or else be blamed for their own abuse.

    I do, however, have one isssue which I’m not sure was fully addressed here and I would love to see more robustly discussed: While I am largely in agreement with both women here, how do we address the misuse of this discussion we’re having?

    How do we delineate at what point open, functional, and challenging dialogue becomes a tool for discrimination and oppression? When do we say enough is enough, and that a particular ideology an individual is espousing is harmful and toxic to the community?

    I think we need to more fully examine *WHY* the pendulum has swung so far in our community towards this black-and-white viewpoint, and to address those issues in how we will find a more moderate position.

    From where I’m sitting, I think the biggest issue the black-and-white ‘you’re with us or against us, there is no room for discussion’ culture was meant to address is the way that groups pushing hateful and discriminatory ideas tend to take advantage of people’s openness to disagreement and discussion. Give them a foot, and they’ll take a mile.

    We can see this in the wider culture already in the way that the conservative world has pushed back against SJWs and Safe-Spaces so hard that they are demanding a sort of hyper-tolerance for their own bigotries. Think of the sort of person who sees Trump’s behavior and thinks “THANK GOD! Someone finally had the balls to say it, after we’ve all been shut up and oppressed by those special snowflakes!” The sort of person who mistakes the unacceptability of hateful words and actions, as oppression.

    More specific to our community, how do we handle people who simply will not come to an understanding? This article was nerve-wracking to get through as a trans lesbian, because I was very much expecting to see the points made as a defense of TERFs. This is exactly the dialogue that usually brings them out of the woodwork, complaining about how unfairly maligned they have been and how it disgusting that they have to accept us as a part of the wider wlw community or become pariahs.

    How do we open up discussion, then, and rely less on shunning and other punishment tactics, when there are groups whose only motivating reason to stop stomping on various minorities is PRECISELY THOSE PUNISHMENTS? When these are people whom you can’t simply ‘agree to disagree’ with, because to do so is to legitimize their views and accept a culture where my status as a full member of the community cannot be assumed?

    I’m concerned that, if we don’t have very serious discussions on how to distinguish hate and discrimination from disagreement, and how to deal with one versus the other, we will see the pendulum swing too far in the other direction again; towards communities where exclusionists such as TERFs take root in the name of free-speech and open discussion, but whose actions do little more than act as yet another institution against minority groups.

    • yes, these are tough questions and valid concerns. i guess what I’ve come to about this is that there are no blanket answers to any of these questions — each situation is its own beast, to be tackled by whichever group comes upon it. if the pendulum has swung far enough in the opposite direction that we’re seeing accusations of abuse over-applied, then i feel it stands to reason that those who are over-applying it should also be capable of applying reason and compassion to adequately assess situations as they arise in pursuit of the same goals the over-application had — which is, as you say, to even out the playing field for groups and people who are often not listened to or believed. if we aren’t able to do that then we better learn how real fast. more often than not, it’s poc and trans people who end up being shunned or kicked out of groups over these types of accusations, and i think part of sarah’s work, at least, is to rectify that. (also, sarah schulman’s work with/for trans folks is extensive enough that i don’t think any self-respecting TERF would ever pick up this book or any of her books)

      i have been reading people writing about this book extensively for the past several months and fwiw, have not come across anybody using it in the way you describe? which isn’t to say that’s not happening, but.

    • As a cis person, my read was that this invalidates TERFs. They consistently overstate harm.

      Disgusting rhetoric likening common courtesy to rohypnol, or bathroom use to rape – they are the literal queens of pretending a marginalised group is causing harm when they are not.

  18. This is fantastic and reminded me of how much I appreciate the critical thinking going on behind the scenes at Autostraddle. I don’t think Schulman’s argument is above critique (or that she would claim it is), but it does speak to a general discomfort I have with punitive tendencies within queer and radical communities and loose definitions of abuse. I remember being really mystified by a conversation I had with someone a while back who claimed that infidelity is abusive. Having been really hurt by an ex who cheated, I think that’s really hyperbolic and would never describe my experience that way. It seems like a wide range of negative/hurtful experiences are often distilled into a nebulous concept of abuse that isn’t fair or accurate and can harm others when they result in widespread shaming or community excommunication.

    I fear that we defer to trauma without considering that it can be twisted. Schulman’s example of Israeli right wing nationalism shows how past trauma is used to justify present violence. I also keep thinking back to the development of TERF ideology among cis women who had actually been traumatized by cis men’s violence. Taking essentialist ideas about biology and identity for granted, they translated their trauma into a movement that has done immeasurable harm to trans women, all in the name of protection from patriarchal violence.

    • this is a really good example that i hadn’t thought of, and it’s so true —> “I also keep thinking back to the development of TERF ideology among cis women who had actually been traumatized by cis men’s violence. Taking essentialist ideas about biology and identity for granted, they translated their trauma into a movement that has done immeasurable harm to trans women, all in the name of protection from patriarchal violence.”

    • “It seems like a wide range of negative/hurtful experiences are often distilled into a nebulous concept of abuse that isn’t fair or accurate.”

      This. I have been cheated on and it was painful. It wasn’t abuse. I’ve experienced abuse from parents and a platonic ‘friend’. Someone being hurtful isn’t even in the same ballpark.

  19. I actually totally agree. This book is really just a heap of gaslighting toxicity framed in theory. Being told that you’ve taken your reaction to experienced abuse too far and that you’re in the wrong for shunning your abusers does not promote a healthy mental climate for survivors. Abusers need rehabilitation, yes; but why is the burden placed on those they’ve victimized or been in conflict with? For me personally, why am I responsible for being the bigger person when my abuser is the adult and I’m the child in the equation?
    Maybe I didn’t get the point of this book, and maybe it just flew over my head with all of its theory: the point remains, however, that reading this book sent me into a tailspin and undid months of therapy I’m still trying to recover. If I had known that $1000 in counseling could go to shit so easily I could have saved myself all the hassle and bought myself my weight in tacos twice over instead.

    • I am sorry you had such a bad experience with this. I can see how the book is difficult and may remind people of situations in which abusers have tried to frame abuse as conflict etc. As someone who no longer talks to someone who abused me as a kid when he had power over me and then gaslit me about it as an adult, I caught myself a few times thinking that I was being pushed to talk to him or take responsibility for his personal growth. Upon a second reading, I realized that I don’t think that’s what Schulman is arguing. I don’t think she wants us to be pals with adults who abused us when we were children. She accepts that there are situations that really are cut and dry. And while she is keen on the restorative justice model, I think those of us who don’t talk to abusers can certainly reconcile this book with the decisions we’ve made to protect ourselves. Restorative justice also requires that the abuser show remorse. Mine doesn’t, so I don’t talk to him, and I still found value in this book.

      Most of her examples are about abuse accusations between queer people, often made by the person with more social power to marginalize the one with less, as demonstrated in cases of HIV criminalization. She is also talking about situations like the ones Riese describes, in which abuse accusations are levelled at a community level where the details are not cut and dry, or we are invited to shun people with zero information about what happened between them. It’s not that abuse never happens in queer spaces, but that we need to name and contextualize what happened before leaping to conclusions about it. Sometimes behaviour that is hurtful/toxic/selfish/unethical but not abusive is labeled as abuse when that’s not the right word for it.

  20. I’m not sure why you would try and stymie discussion by labelling it irresponsible? This head been a really interesting read and thought provoking article and all you can do is to say shut up because some people in our community experience abuse?

    Did you really read this and think it called for survivors to be disbelieved? I read this and thought it was a call for people to bring a lot more self-analysis into their lives and to think about whether their experiences are abusive or otherwise.

  21. Great interview so far. I haven’t read this all the way through yet but I want to comment while my thoughts are still fresh.

    Call out culture in particular is something that I’ve always been intrigued by. I see it for the most part taking place on tumblr, but I’ve also seen a few cases on twitter and facebook as well. It seems to me that call outs often stem from one of two places: previous trauma/victimization, or the need for validation.

    Example 1: a few months ago (more or less, I think – time is fake and I’m bad at it), a twitter user called out Cameron Esposito for (essentially, I’m paraphrasing) allowing a stand-up featured in her podcast to make a joke about trans people (or perhaps the person used the t-slur, something to that effect). Anyway, the assertion being that Cameron Esposito was being an insensitive a person and shitty ally for allowing such as thing. The tweet was very accusatory in nature – they wrote something like “wow, Cameron just raised all this money for Trans Lifeline, and then she goes and lets this person shit on trans people on her podcast?” Cameron responded, asking the person to please give her the time stamp of the joke so that she could ask her producer(s) to edit it out of the show. She then explained that she and Rhea are often in the back during the sets, chatting with the other comics, and that they were not aware that such a joke had been made. In my view, this twitter user jumping to the conclusion that Cameron (& Rhea, I’d guess) were being complicit in transphobia is likely due to trauma. When people have been victimized in the past, they often begin to assume the worst in people because that’s how they keep themselves safe. It’s pretty basic as defense mechanisms go.

    Example 2: I have a friend on facebook who, fairly frequently, will post screencaps of “problematic” comments made in the groups she’s a member of and pick them apart, explaining why this person is a shitty human. In this case, it seems very clear to me that what she is looking for is validation. It’ very much like, “Look at this person saying ugly things. I feel the opposite of what this bad person feels, therefore I am good a good person.” She makes no attempt to begin a meaningful dialogue with the person in question – she’s posting screencaps, and often it seems as though the “bad person” is someone she doesn’t know personally. It all seems very masturbatory, with many of her friends chiming in so that they can all pat each other on the back for being so unlike this awful person they’re talking about.

    Similarly, I also have a lot of feelings re: “toxic” becoming a buzzword (I’m thinking this is largely a tumblr thing, but I might be wrong) and having lost much of its meaning. It seems like you can no longer ask people to think critically about their views or why they feel a certain way without being labeled as toxic. “Oh, you don’t take everything I say at face value? You’re toxic. GTFO.”

  22. I don’t mind telling you that when Riese first read and started talking about this book, I gave the whole thing some serious side-eye. I suffered physical and emotional abuse all throughout my childhood and well into my early 20s. Like you, I felt like: “No way am I taking responsibility for rehabilitating my abuser, no way am I softening my language. I’ve spent a decade in therapy working this shit out.” HOWEVER, when I actually sat down and read the book I was: 1) shocked by how far off the mark I was in my assumptions about it, and 2) chastened because by writing it off as harmful before I even read it, I was behaving exactly as the book predicted I would!

    One of the many things I came to appreciate about Conflict Is Not Abuse is that it shows how labeling everything that upsets us as abuse actually dilutes the the word abuse to the point that it loses its power. This book isn’t about excusing real abuse; it’s about figuring out how and why we see a normal conflict and register it as a threat, the repercussions of that process in our communities, and advice for how to change some of those destructive patterns.

    I didn’t agree with everything Schulman wrote (which makes sense because thinking people hardly ever agree with *everything* a writer has to say), but I did agree with a lot of it and it opened my eyes in really revolutionary (and sometimes uncomfortable) ways.

  23. Thank you for the interview and thoughtful conversation. I haven’t read Schulman’s book yet, but I’m looking forward to it.

    I’m working through a lot of childhood trauma in therapy and I’m curious how it could relate. I’ve learned about a behavior called “offending from the victim postion” which was a concept I felt a ton of resistance to at first, but now recognize within myself and my family and definitely the world around me. I wonder if it’s what this book is about. I understand people’s concerns that people who have experienced or are currently experiencing actual abuse may be silenced or not heard properly. But I’ve learned in the last couple of years that I have a lot of trauma to work through and my initial instinct to blame other people for the pain I experience is the last thing that’s going to actually help me. The healing of the trauma is the only thing that can.

    I know I’ve been on both sides of the equation, being blamed for others’ pain I didn’t create and accusing others of causing my own. It feels like a really complicated thing when I look beyond my own personal experience that only touches me and those close to me and I’m the one doing the healing, towards a broader community of people bumping into each other’s trauma and triggers and reacting out of that place unaware within themselves it’s even happening. I feel like the only thing that could ultimately solve the issue is better programs and systems in place for people to learn about and heal their trauma because without that the cycle just tends to repeat itself.

  24. Working with young teens gives me a very easy way to simplify the idea that “conflict is not abuse”. Young teens, after learning about what bullying is, will come forward and say that they are being “bullied” when it is not the case that they are being bullied. Often a friend does not like them anymore, or they are being teased, or a rude game between friends went to far. This happens multiple times per school year to multiple kids.

    I think S. Schulman is applying this problem to adult situations. We can always explain to a kid that not all actions are bullying (abuse) and I think she is asking us to apply it to adult life as well.

    • Whereas I’m side eyeing this, because the vicious bullying I went through – physical, emotional, sexual – was routinely dismissed as teasing. And like a lot of kids, I lacked the ability to articulate just how bad it was. But it was bad.

  25. This was an amazing article that kept me engaged in the middle of an airport with two eight year olds wheeling suitcases around me.

    Thank you a million times over. Not just for this piece but for all the experience you brought into it. And the way these ideas are informing the work you’re doing now. And planning to do in the future.

  26. Disappointed to see this book still trending. Queer POC activists have told me to stay away from this book and to be honest, I know only white people who like it. I get that she wants people to move past call out culture and for women and queers to be open about their complex desires. But I would never, ever, recommend this book to any sexual trauma survivor. The books reads like Sarah had a bad breakup in which she called exe’s even after they told her not to- which has been proven in real life! We need prison abolition and we need restorative justice. We need a Black leader to write this book way, way better than Sarah did. I get that she wants to be proactive but people need to be aware that conservative academics and press also LOVE this book. Stay critical you guys!

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