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

Riese: What stories would you say that the mainstream LGBT press are currently overlooking or not devoting enough space to?

Sarah: Oh there’s so much, oh G-d.

Well one thing … When I went to college you had to be in the closet, and now when you go to college the first day in orientation week they have a special thing for gay students and you meet the person that the college hired to run all the gay stuff, and there’s an office where you’re gonna meet, and they tell you what the events are gonna be, and I’m starting to think that that was a big mistake. Because I think it makes queer students very passive and very controlled. And I would love to see somebody talk about that.

Riese: I was definitely not out in college and wouldn’t have taken women’s studies or queer theory that would make me seem gay!

But when we first started Autostraddle in 2009, most of our interns were college students, and they influenced a lot of what we talked about and how we talked about it. Over the past seven years, I’ve come to realize that there’s an agreed-upon mode of discourse and topics that are appropriate and things that people are interested in talking about that begins with academic queer communities. I was never in those communities so I was oblivious to it. Then it ends up making this divide between queer people who’ve had access to those programs, in an undergraduate place where they were out and in these queer groups, and people who didn’t, who end up feeling like they don’t have a place in the discourse because they’re not familiar with the language that comes from those communities.

Sarah: Yeah, that’s a problem. I mean, I’m glad that those programs are there, they’re very important. A second topic that has not been fully discussed if we’re gonna talk about the realm of education is how little that material has been integrated into mainstream curriculum. […] It’s all so parallel. You can have a social science education and never learn about anything gay.

Riese: They do have a very off-on-its-own way with gay literature, or AIDS literature.

Sarah: [Another thing LGBT media overlook is] I think sexuality discourse … I go into this in my book quite a bit. I think that expressing desire is now conflated for some people with assault.

Riese: I COULD TALK ABOUT THIS FOREVER.

Sarah: I would like to see some serious discussion of how that happened and what its implications are.

Riese: When I was reading that section I thought about a situation at an early A-Camp where some campers asked camp staff to talk to another camper about consent and forbid them from drinking for the rest of camp. The camper in question was a person of color from a very conservative religious background who’d never been around queer women or alcohol much before, and was drinking too much and being pushy about boundaries. For a number of reasons the conversation never happened. But in retrospect, I’m not sure what the right thing for us to say would’ve been anyway.

It could’ve been humiliating for them to get a speech on boundaries and alcohol abuse from us, or damaging to their struggles with desire and sexuality by telling them to chill out with their desire in the first context where they felt free to express it. And that camper left camp feeling alienated from the queer community anyway — they wrote in their feedback form that they’d been shunned by their cabinmates for not being as rich or educated, which wasn’t the real reason why they were shunned, and that wasn’t their cabinmate’s backgrounds. The situation made me really sad, for everyone involved. But I still have no idea how we should’ve handled it!

Sarah: Someone wrote on twitter that I never discuss consent. And it’s not true, I’m constantly discussing it, but I call it negotiation, I have a different word. I recently had an interesting discussion with Don Romesburg, who runs the queer studies program at Sonoma State. We were talking about this California consent law —

Riese: Yes!

Sarah: The person has to say yes, but if they’re drunk they can’t say yes or something like that? In my experience, life is more complicated. And there’s this puritanical idea that if you drink, you’re gonna have sex that you don’t want to have — you will “lose control” — but when shame, and double standards, etc., are at play, sometimes we lose BEING controlled. Because actually, people sometimes drink so that they can have sex they DO want to have, which would not be possible, or excusable, without drinking. Those kinds of rules are not even human; they don’t recognize what people’s lives are really like.

This was a reality that we realized during the height of the AIDS crisis. Rather than claiming that people had unsafe sex because they were drunk, it became apparent that some people got drunk SO THAT they could have unsafe sex.

Riese: I think the California regulation was intended to be a tool for women seeking legal/administrative action against their sexual assaulters, to help them get justice through that specific system, which has not been kind to survivors and often claims a girl who passed out drunk could’ve somehow consented to sex. But somewhere along the way, this regulation was taken up by the feminist internet and the younger queer community as a behavioral standard for all sexual encounters, and anybody who had a drink before having sex or expressed consent in a manner besides “enthusiastic verbal consent” to every sexual act, as it happened, was told they weren’t ready for sex. I don’t think I would’ve ever had lesbian sex in my early twenties if I hadn’t been “allowed” to drink first, or if I’d been asked to declare what I wanted. But I was ready. It’s all very terrifying — especially as queer people, who often have sexual encounters with people who may or may not be “out” to themselves or others, and have desires they’re not capable of articulating yet but should still have the right to act upon. What happens when a girl wakes up after having lesbian sex for the first time the night before, freaks out because of shame over her sexuality, and learns it’s within feminist bounds to say that, because her partner knew she’d had a few beers but had sex with her anyway, she was assaulted? These regulations could so easily become another tool of white straight supremacy, because we all know who is more likely to be accused and convicted of assault, whenever we get the-powers-that-be involved in interpersonal sexual relations. Not to mention the shunning, of course.

Sarah: They’re being taught that control is freedom. I had this argument… I was doing this seminar at Columbia University that was really interesting. That’s the place where a student was sexually assaulted and she carried the mattress around campus for two years and we were talking about the question of expelling the guy. And I believe that a guy who is a sexual assaulter… at a campus where there’s no state intervention, at a private school like Columbia, that expelling him is not the answer because that is just letting him loose on the world of women who don’t go to Columbia, and I think that strategy is a class-based strategy. Like “let’s kick him out of the country club, who cares what happens when he actually leaves the gates.” When actually these wealthy schools who have the resources should be made responsible to actually deal with male offenders, to create some kind of infrastructure because expelling them or incarcerating them are not the only alternatives to letting him get away with it.

Riese: Doesn’t that place an undue burden on the woman, though? To have to go to school with her rapist and see him every day? Or am I missing something.

Sarah: What I think you are missing is the way class divides women in this equation, into those who attend the gated community of corporate universities and are seen as inherently deserving of protection, versus those who live outside of the country club and have no structure with which to negotiate. Simply excluding a male offender from contact with students in elite schools does not address the problem, and – in a sense- lets them loose on everyone else. Instead, it is the responsibility of these very wealthy schools to use their resources to attract the most gifted and knowing professionals to develop pilot programs — within the closed world — to address male offenders therapeutically. And these programs can become models for the public sphere, and in that way would become a service.

Riese: Okay.

Sarah: Anyway we’re getting in a whole argument about this and finally there’s one girl in the group who grew up working-class in Queens and she says, “You know, when I grew up, in my neighborhood, people were raised to be resilient. Now, I’m at Columbia and people wanna be protected. And I’m not sure which is best, resilience or protection.” And I’m like, “Resilience is better!” Because the only way you can be truly protected is at other people’s expense. Only a very small group of people can be truly protected because everyone else is controlled by them. So this impulse to control control control instead of DEAL and try to understand what’s going on and try to understand ourselves and help each other negotiate and reach for necessary transformations — it ends up being a domination tactic.

Riese: I guess when I talk to people about this, they tend to be like, “well what’s the harm in it, in having affirmative consent rules?”

Sarah: That when these rules don’t actually speak to people’s real experiences and the grey zone where most people live, people end up being labeled as abusers and offenders when actually that’s not what’s happening. What’s happening is that their realities are not being reflected in the rules. Obviously some things are clearly sexual assault, everyone understands that and there are people who truly are predators and they enjoy breaking other people’s will. But that’s a very small group of people.

Most of this arena now is a grey zone arena, where two people can have the same identical sexual experience and for one person it’s devastating and traumatizing and for the other person it’s nothing. And it’s not because of the experience itself — it’s because of their histories. You can’t have these blanket standards. You have to talk to people and listen to what people’s experiences are and how they understand what’s happening, and what their histories are, in order to draw any conclusions. The fact that someone is very very unhappy and very frustrated and suffering does not inherently mean that another person abused them. It doesn’t mean that their problems will be solved by punishing another person.

Riese: For sure I’ve found that there’s this initiative to re-label people’s consensual yet unpleasant or traumatic experiences as assault. I’ll tell people about an experience I had and they want to label it assault. But sometimes I did fucked up things or consented to traumatic experiences. The other person involved in the encounter with me might deserve personal consequences, like me not wanting to see them again or be their friend, but not necessarily legal ones or community ones, you know?

Sarah: I talk about that in the book, about words like “stalking.” Stalking is a real thing! It’s like when your ex-husband is sitting in front of your house in a car with a gun. People get killed by stalkers. Someone who wants to talk to you and resolve a conflict that you don’t want to resolve because you might have to face something about yourself that’s uncomfortable, that’s not stalking. So how come we’re using the same word to apply to two completely opposing phenomenon?

Riese: Well, I think we’re trying to make room for people who feel unheard, or silenced by the powers-that-be.

Sarah: Sometimes they are unheard, sometimes they feel unheard or sometimes they’re upset about other things that get projected, like the Trump voters who blame immigrants instead of Trump. There’s a lot of anxiety projected onto vulnerable objects who are not the cause of the pain. This gets into the concept of “trigger.” My definition of “trigger” is “an unresolved pain from the past that expresses in the present and that asks the present to be accountable for a pain it has not created.” And that way when someone is triggered, two parties are hurt — the person who’s reliving a pain they should not have to relive, and the other party is the one that they acted out on who did not cause it.

Riese: We don’t let people use the word “triggering” on Autostraddle because it was getting out of control with what people were using that word for. It was becoming meaningless. Another thing that confused me about that specifically, which you talk about in your book, is how college classrooms should actually be the safest space for this stuff to happen. If there’s no possibility of a world in which everything upsetting can be warned about before it happens, what really is the point in prohibiting it in these specific spaces —

Sarah: But even more than that, what really should be happening is that the issue should be faced and resolved. And a classroom is a great place to do that because even though a classroom can be a place of inequality and racism, it is rarely the site of actual sexual assault or physical violence. It may be the only space in people’s lives where dangerous ideas can be engaged with no threat of physical consequence.


At this point we’d already been talking for an hour, so our conversation had to end even though I obviously still had a lot of questions!  If you’ve made it thus far, congratulations on reading a 10,000 word article, that’s like half a novella.

Pages: 1 2 3 4See entire article on one page

Before you go! It takes funding to keep this publication by and for queer women and trans people of all genders running every day. And A+ members keep the majority of our site free for everyone. Still, 99.9% of our readers are not members. A+ membership starts at just $4/month. If you're able to, will you join A+ and keep Autostraddle here and working for everyone?

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 2877 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!

Contribute to the conversation...

Yay! You've decided to leave a comment. That's fantastic. Please keep in mind that comments are moderated by the guidelines laid out in our comment policy. Let's have a personal and meaningful conversation and thanks for stopping by!