This article originally appeared on Fugitivus and is republished here with permission.
Dear Second and Third Wave Feminists With Publicly Recognizable Names:
Some of you, maybe only feminists know who you are, or those who care to crack a book or two. Lots of you have names that have penetrated the mainstream to such a degree that, when mentioned, most people are liable to know that you’ve got something to do with ladies, possibly even the f-word.
You don’t all agree on everything. Who does? Feminism has never been a monolith. We understand this, though the general public is still catching up. But, because your names are known, your words carry a lot of weight, become the assumed standpoint of all feminists. Almost all of you know that already. It’s why you do what you do — to speak for those who can’t speak, or won’t be heard if they do; to shake up the homogeneous, monochrome chamber of voices to which we’ve all become accustomed; to let others know that there are people out there fighting for them, that they, too, can fight.
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You’re also human. You have flaws, and stubborn privileges, and blind spots. You have bad days. You may not have asked to become a mouthpiece for a movement, and cannot always bear up under the immense pressure to speak for more people than yourself — indeed, more people than you have likely ever seen with your own eyes. You may only allow yourself to be a mouthpiece because you know you are good at it while others aren’t, and from each according to their own ability, and all that. No one person is obligated to stand up for all the causes, take the right stance every time, and discuss only that which others have deemed important. Even those who are willing to try to do this sometimes cannot do it all the time.
I am asking you to do it this once.
I do not stand with Naomi Wolf.
I’d like to know if you do.
You are feminists who have fought a long, hard fight. We who are here today — young, in a changed world (though not changed enough), navigating the same old issues and ones you could never have imagined — came here on your shoulders, on your uplifted hands. We know you did the good work to awaken many of us. We know you continue in this. “Young” feminists and “old” feminists may not see eye to eye on many issues, but do believe there is never a moment that young feminists do not know that we are here because of you.
I am speaking as one of the young ones. I grew up calling myself a feminist, but I didn’t understand what that actually meant for a long time. I was lucky enough to go to college, and there, I was lucky enough to learn about the paths that had been beaten down before me. I learned the history of women’s rights, and of the women and men who demanded them, unequivocally. And, too, I learned that we are not monolith. I learned about the “waves”, splits across generations only recognized after-the-fact, created by an evolution in technology, terminology, and tactics. Much of this seemed only natural, and necessary; the world changes rapidly, and there is no movement that can hold doggedly steady as it spins. Some of this seemed shameful; the world changes rapidly, and there is no movement without members who are aggressively terrified of what they do not know and do not control. It was all educational. I could understand the path woven from then to now, why splits had occurred, why “waves” happened, and what they looked like from a distance, as a young person who considers these matters “history.”
That is a form of privilege itself — to view what has come before me as settled history, instead of an active struggle. It’s not a privilege I can shed solely through education, or listening; to end this privilege, I must be willing to wait for age and perspective. That’s not easy. I’m sure you remember.
I believe I have gained some age, and some perspective. I believe I have enough to say that the division between “old” feminists and “young” feminists, between the “third wave” and the fourth, or fifth, is not going to come about solely because of technology, or solely because of intersectionality, or solely because of any given divisive issue. I believe it is going to come because of a refusal to view our work — the work of those of my age and my perspective — as real work. A refusal to view our protests as real protests. A refusal to view our theory as real theory. All young feminists can acknowledge the work undertaken to bring us here today, despite our youth, despite our inexperience; it would hearten me to know that the old guard can acknowledge that we have taken up the torch, and continued forging ahead. It would hearten me to know that the age and perspective I will hopefully gain will include the ability to listen to the young, and take them seriously.
“No means no” took us a long way. To put it simply, but not inaccurately, it took us from a world where no meant yes. That is an incredible gain. But “no means no” has taken us as far as it can. Namely, it has taken us to “yes means yes.” It has taken us to a place where we can recognize, create theory, create terminology, and openly discuss the idea that sexual violence and sexual abuse can happen without a “no” as well as with one. We believe that requiring a “no” is not good enough, not a high enough standard. We require a “yes.”
“No means no” gave a voice to the abused, the raped, the victimized. It created a phrase to describe a phenomenon that men and women knew existed, but were unable to describe in a way that society as a whole took seriously. But it did not end the war on our bodies. It did not end the terrorism that makes us second-guess our clothing, map out our return home, walk with chaperones. It did not end the lifelong aftershocks of guilt and shame, wondering why we let them in, why we trusted them, why we kissed them. It did not lower the statistics that mock our hope that we have justice, or equality. The enemy adapted. The enemy always has. If no means no, why, then, ways will be found to keep us from speaking. Ways will be found to make it seem as if we have said “yes,” or not said “no” enough, or in the right tone of voice, or with the proper inflection, or at the right time. No means no, but only if you are not afraid to say it. No means no, but only if you keep saying it, for a lifetime, hoping it will work before the situation escalates. No means no, but only if you never give up saying it because you are tired, you are hungry, you are frightened, you are alone, you are intimidated, you are convinced that this will happen anyway, and will only get worse for you the longer you go on saying “no.”
We need more than “no means no.”
We have already begun creating the framework for this. There is a great conversation happening across the place the new guard has gathered to share, to organize, to strategize: the internet. We are creating theory. We are creating terminology. We are creating tactics. We are attempting to penetrate social consciousness, as you once did, until we can live in a world where we do not exist in a perpetual state of sexual availability, where we are not solely responsible as the gatekeepers of sex and rape. We are trying to create a world where all people are responsible for ensuring that sex is wanted, sex is safe, sex is sane. We are trying to create a world where the responsibility for stopping rape does not lie with the person who is being raped. And, too, we are trying to create a world where the responsibility for defining rape does not lie with the person being raped.
For many of us, that is what saying “no” during a frightening sexual encounter means; if our partner does not care if we want sex, if our partner does not care how we want sex, if our partner does not care if we are in pain or pleasure, if our partner does not care if we feel safe, if our partner does not care that we are moving away from them, if our partner does not care that we are trying to get to the door, then our partner will not care if we say “no,” and we will be raped. This is not difficult math for us to calculate. The only further calculation is how bad our rape is going to be, how long it will last, and how badly we will be injured. So as long as we keep our mouths shut, it will not be rape, and we will not be victims, and this will be over much sooner. If we say no, it will become rape, because “no” is what creates rape, “no” is what defines consent, not the lack of a “yes”. We are responsible for taking what could just be “bad sex,” over quickly and without too much pain, and turning it into “rape,” because we are responsible for saying “no” and our partners are not responsible for seeking an enthusiastic, mutual “yes.”
The people intent upon raping us know that “no means no” as much as we do. The people intent upon raping us do not want to think of this as a rape, do not want to think of themselves as rapists, do not want to allow the possibility of facing consequences for raping us. They will do everything within their power to make that “no” unbelievable or invisible. Perhaps they will try to make us eventually say “yes,” though we have said “no” twenty times. Perhaps they will threaten consequences that do not amount to force, but amount to our partner threatening consequences, and the implication that they are willing to threaten, to punish, to hurt us to acquire our defeat is not lost upon us. Perhaps they will yell, and cry, and scream. Perhaps they will pretend they did not hear us. Perhaps they will pretend they thought we only meant “no” to this and not that. Perhaps they will ask us to coffee later, or text us sweetly in the morning, or tuck us in afterward, and if we do not scream and cry and flee to the police in a shamble, this will be proof that our “no” could not have been such a “no,” because victims do not have coffee with their rapists, and rapists do not kiss their victims kindly. Or, perhaps, they will hurt us, escalate the rape into something that is now (thanks to your work) more commonly conceived as a rape. We do not wish to go through that. We do not wish to be beaten, threatened, choked, or made to bleed internally as the price for knowing it is not our fault. We will say “yes” rather than go through that. We will say “yes” when we know it is coming to that, and we will do that whether or not we have gained that knowledge through acts or words that are defined as rape in a court of law. We will do that because that is how human beings survive attacks. They do not wait for them to get worse. They do not wait until the legal threshold of allowable violence has been passed. We do this because we must adapt to survive, because we are smart and we are strong and we know that living through this with fewer scars is worth more than the bare glimmer of justice years of harassment from now; we do not do this because we are moral children who do not know better.
We are not trivializing rape by saying this is an attack upon us, anymore than it made rape trivial to believe, during your battle for this, that a “no” was all that was needed to create rape rather than a vicious, deadly beating by a stranger, or a loaded gun to the head. We believe there is no way that rape can be trivialized. We do not believe there is ever a time or a place or a situation in which rape is trivial. We want to live in a world where the wrongness of rape can never be called into question, never be made less, no matter what fool thing is said or done by others. We want to live in a world where “trivializing rape” is no longer a phrase bandied about so easily, because it will be an oxymoron. We want to live in a world where this phrase is recognized for what it is: a silencing tactic when victims become inconvenient.
Here is my fear.
I fear that, a generation from now, there will be a new history for the new generation. It will say that the fourth, fifth, sixth wave of feminism broke away because the second and third wave did not believe that a “yes” was necessary for sex. It will say that we broke away because one wave believed rape could be trivialized, and another did not.
I will be ashamed to be a part of the history of feminism, if that is to be our origin. I will have to question strongly if “feminism” is worthwhile as an organizing principle, if “feminism” can also mean that a “yes” after twenty “no”s is good enough, and that if zie didn’t want it, zie should have kept saying “no” until zhe accepted it (whenever that would be) or raped hir with an escalated degree of force (as that is the price zhe must pay if zhe wishes to be blameless).
I know there are those who do not call themselves “feminists,” not because they don’t understand feminism, but because they understand it too well. I know there are those who distrust me when I say I am a feminist, because to them, that means I may dismiss their experiences with race, with class, with disability, with gender ambiguity, with trans-ness, with a host of other issues that feminism has failed routinely. They distrust me because “feminism” means I may do more than actively dismiss, but shout them down, exclude them, call them the enemy, require they give up what they need to be safe, to be sane, to have dignity and basic human rights, so that they can fight my battle. They distrust me because “feminism” means I may shrug when a people who are not part of a feminist “cause” are being trampled and oppressed, because they are not convenient, or feminist enough, for my concerns, because their freedom gains me nothing. They distrust me because “feminism” means I may quit as soon as my own interests are met, as soon as my own comfort level is reached, as soon as I have toppled my own oppressor and taken their place. I struggle every day to hold on to my own label of feminism, because I do not think the people who distrust feminism are wrong. I think they are keeping me honest, if I am willing to let them.
I do not want, a generation from now, to find that the new wave has dropped the label “feminist” because it became synonymous with defiant rape apologism, because it damaged more people than it served. If I ever stop calling myself a feminist, I want it to be because I found something better, not because feminism got worse.
So here is what I am asking of you.
I ask that you denounce Naomi Wolf’s comments on Assange’s rape charges.
I ask that you denounce that “no means no” is all there is to rape.
I ask that you acknowledge that “yes means yes” is now a part of the feminist lexicon, wherever it might go, however it might evolve from here.
I ask that you acknowledge that “enthusiastic consent” is a theory highly worth pursuing.
I ask you to do this because you have names that people recognize as part of feminism. So does Naomi Wolf. And now we are all experiencing, en masse, the old phenomenon: “I know somebody who is a feminist, and they think this is fine.” A big-name feminist has said, publicly, that initiating sex with a partner who is asleep is not rape. That ripping a woman’s clothes off is not a force, is not a threat, is not violence, has no bearing upon the context of safety. That political targets are incapable of raping, because there can be no reason for them to be accused that is not politically motivated. This has given permission to all those who believe the same to tell us that we are wrong. The new guard, we know each other’s names, but the general public doesn’t know us very well yet. We do not have the weight of years of revolution behind us. When Naomi Wolf says that sleeping women can be raped legally, this becomes public knowledge. When we say, “yes means yes,” the general public does not hear, and the general public does not care. They can now point to Naomi Wolf and say, “You are wrong. You are not feminism. She is. And she says I can do this to you, and you can’t do anything about it.”
You have names. You have voices. Please give us somebody else to point to when we are told that we can be raped in the ways Naomi Wolf has decreed are acceptable. Please let us know that we are not on our own, that we have not already broken away, and did not hear the crack until Naomi Wolf “agreed to disagree” about our bodily autonomy, our safety. Please let us know that, with one arrogant statement, feminists cannot really erase the rapes that have been experienced by countless survivors. Please let us know that you hear us, that you believe we are feminism, too. Please do not let Naomi Wolf become the voice of what is rape, because rapists were listening when she spoke, and judges, and juries, and future victims who will spend their lives believing it was their fault, and they are always saying “yes” if they are not shouting “no.”
Ella Baker said, “You must believe in young people, because they have the courage where we fail.” I believed her when I first read that, at 21. I believed in those words, and I believed that it was worth delving deeper into feminism, believed it was worth dropping the naive belief that all our battles had been fought and solved, that the slogans then were all we needed now. I still believe that. I would like to think you believe it, believe that we have something of worth to add, that we are onto new paths and new battles, that we can be trusted to keep going when you cannot.
Ella Baker also said, “There is also the danger in our culture that because a person is called upon to give public statements and is acclaimed by the establishment, such a person gets to the point of believing that he is the movement.” Surely the public seems to believe this. Do not let Naomi Wolf be the face of our movement. Do not let her define what rape is, and what it isn’t, based on her belief in one man’s guilt or innocence. Do not let her statements on rape and consent go by without comment; I believe you know, through your own battles and sometimes demoralizing work, that silence signals agreement, that silence isolates, permeates, and eventually prevails, if uncontested by those with the power and the will. If you do not speak up now, I will have trouble believing you do not agree; certainly, so will those who are far less interested, far less dedicated, and far less informed about feminism than I am.
I would like to feel that I am part of an evolving movement of which I can be proud. It does not have to be perfect. But it has to be growing. It cannot be stagnant. I do not wish to grow older and point to a time at which I broke with feminism, because it was not interested in preserving my body from attack. Because it was not different enough from that which it opposed.
Please. Say something. We are talking as much as we can. We are pushing as hard as we can. We are doing our part. We would like to feel your hands holding us up, your shoulders beneath us once more.
Germaine Greer, please say something.
Gloria Steinem, please say something.
Susan Brownmiller, please say something.
Readers, please add to this list.