There is a System

In 2007 I volunteered at a domestic violence shelter as a crisis line operator.

The building we were housed in was yellow with white trim, with a wrap-around white porch. From the outside, it had a very homey feel.

This volunteer work helped me on my path of discovering baby feminism. Before this period, I often thought of myself as an Exceptional Woman™ who was smarter, more powerful, and more awesome than the rest of “those women”. I was one of a very small number of female graduate students in an analytic philosophy program, and I had just completed my Master’s degree. “Why aren’t there more women in Philosophy?” the ladies in the program asked. But we knew that our answer was, “Because philosophy is hard”.

If I was an Exceptional Woman™, then I got to identify with men. I can remember talking with K, the only other female grad student in my cohort (year), and she offered me a “high five for rape jokes”. I think I left her hanging, but I don’t remember telling her how massively misogynistic she was being, and we were being, by thinking we were exceptional compared to other women, and how utterly stupid we were for thinking that hating women ourselves is an escape hatch from being the target of misogyny.

Looking back, I can see that this behavior was clearly a coping mechanism. We Exceptional Women™ don’t want to be hated, so we try and remove ourselves from the group of women who we characterize as “girly” (whatever the f that is), and loathsome, and stupid, and concerned with frivolity. We remove ourselves by enacting the same hatred for “those women” that men do. This makes it easier to be taken seriously at the seminar table and around the pitcher of PBR with our colleagues.

I hadn’t even read my first feminist book at this point (Female Chauvinist Pigs by Ariel Levy). My personal favorite “progressive” issue at the time was raising awareness about contraception. Women shouldn’t be stupid with sex, I thought. They should have a lot of it, as much as they want, as much as the men do, and they should use condoms condoms condoms (!) while they do it. That way they won’t have babies, and overpopulate the planet, and they can be free to have more sex, which liberates them. Orgasm politics horray. These women need me to tell them about the best way to be free! I wanted to volunteer at some place that raised awareness about contraception (I called it “Condom Flinging”), but the opportunity that popped up first was the domestic violence shelter, so I went there.

I had several duties at the DV shelter. As a crisis line operator, I would take messages for shelter residents (I cannot confirm or deny that Sandy is here, but if she is, I will pass the message along), hand out medication, and unlock the door to known female staff members, volunteers, and residents.

We also answered the phone to women in crisis, and checked women in.

I remember we admitted one woman whose face was entirely purple from a partner who had beaten her. Another woman called talking about how her partner kicked her in the head with her children in the room, and another had been smacked with a tire iron. These are just a few instances. All phone calls for the day were recorded in a book, and the shift relief was advised to read over what had been happening in case there were follow-up calls.

In looking back on this time, I see how unprepared I was, and that I had not anticipated noticing how privileged I had been to (mostly) have escaped intimate partner violence.

I burnt out of this work in less than a year, because I was not emotionally prepared to see how much abuse really goes on in our towns. I also attended a party where an abuser showed up, and I left in hysterical tears. I was so upset that no one shunned this scumbag, and that he was still invited out everywhere and treated as if nothing had happened, even though he punched a woman in the friend group and broke her nose and everyone knew it that I ended up calling the crisis line to talk about my experience.

Now I can see what I failed to observe then, which is that there is a system of oppression in place that allows men to beat women, and compels women to return to these men. DV is not just about bad people hurting other people. It’s about men maintaining a system of power over women. I can see that that system is the same system that had convinced me that the more “responsible” PIV one had, the more adventurous and liberated one became. It’s the same system I was trying to survive by playing the Exceptional Woman™ in my class, and by actively hating women in my words and actions.

I am ashamed of my previous ignorance, and I am grateful for the truths I’ve learned. I wish I had been exposed to/sought out feminism (and *radical feminist thought*) earlier.

About smash
Women's liberationist.

5 Responses to There is a System

  1. DaveSquirrel says:

    It is very hard emotional work, being frontline support in any area of sexual violence – rape or dv – it takes its toll on the support workers, who generally have quite a high level of empathy to begin with. Most of these orgs have, or at least should have, regular counselling sessions for the support workers.

    As we know, rape is anything but rare, with most rape being unreported, and coersive rape does not even register with many women, so the scale of the problem is huge. Domestic violence rates (for women as victims) are usually around 8-10% of women experiencing violence at any given time, with about 25% experiencing it within her lifetime. That too is an enormous problem. The government really only steps in and ‘cares’ about the problem because the cost to services and society generally is huge, they don’t really give a fuck about the victim and that is why it continues at such a rate. DV rates have hardly changed at all since all this ‘awareness’, the only thing it has done is get more victims to seek help whereas otherwise they would have suffered silently for years.

    I am really sick of hearing about DV homicides where the cops insist “well, we weren’t to know, how could we have prevented this unfortunate death?”. In the majority of these cases the perp has been reported many times to that very same force that investigates the murder. If they and the law had done their jobs to begin with, and locked him up with a stiff sentence on first reports, chances are the women (and in many cases her children) would still be alive. The blood is on the legal systems hands. They disgust me.

  2. smash says:

    Yes, our legal system cannot/will not protect women, and women are often so brainwashed that they can’t protect themselves from future violence. I expect you’ve seen this study on the recorded phone conversations of women with their abusers, and the identifiable tricks the abusers used to manipulate the woman into dropping the charges. There is a step-by-step process the abusers use to convince their victim to come back to them. There is a system. And of course, the system also informs women that they want to be abused (like FCM’s take on the “Love the Way you Lie” song) Our entire culture tells women that this is what they want.

    Interestingly, the copy of _Gyn/Ecology_ I read included a forward by Bonnie Mann, who did DV counseling using the book. _Gyn/Ecology_ helped show these abused women see the system they were being abused in, and that their experiences were not simply isolated. Mann says, Pxl “_Gyn/Ecology_ opened up the possibility for us to identify and name the most subtly treacherous aspects of the foreground “reality” in which battered women are trapped” (page xl from the 1990 edition) You can find the appendix online here

  3. KG says:

    This is a very interesting post. I am also a graduate student in philosophy (in the analytic tradition). I am the only non-white person my cohort, but not the only female.

    This isn’t particularly relevant to your post, but I just thought I’d mention this since it’s rare to find radical feminists with a background in analytic philosophy :).

  4. Pingback: On Male Entitlement to Women or “Whose Fault is Patriarchy?” « smashesthep

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