Jessie Kindig introduces Where Freedom Starts: Sex Power Violence #MeToo
An urgent, freely downloadable ebook, Where Freedom Starts: Sex Power Violence #MeToo brings together new and previously published articles on sexual harassment and sexual violence in the wake of #MeToo. Leading activists, feminists, scholars, and writers describe the shape of the problem, chart the forms refusal has taken, and outline possible solutions. Importantly, they also describe the longer histories of organizing against sexual violence that the #MeToo moment obscures — among working women, women of color, undocumented women, imprisoned women, poor women, among those who don’t conform to traditional gender roles — and discern from these practices a freedom that is more than notional, but embodied and uncompromising.
Jessie Kindig's introduction to the book is reprinted below.
Harriet Jacobs was born into slavery in 1813 in Edenton, North Carolina. Like many enslaved women, she found herself subject to unyielding harassment and threats of rape from her legal owner. In the coercive paternal violence of slavery, her care and her assault were bound together: her master, Dr. James Norcom, promised to protect her family if she would submit to his sexual will. She refused, and was ordered away from her children to work on one of Norcom’s plantations.
To escape her owner-assaulter, to defy the logic of slavery, to keep her family intact, she hid in a crawlspace for seven years, cramped and confined, with only an inch-long hole as an opening to the sky. Stifling and hot in the summer, freezing and drafty in the winter, with barely room to move her limbs, Jacobs spent “long nights” “restless for want of air” with “no room to toss and turn.” Forced to confine herself in the pursuit of freedom, Jacobs protested the society that allowed Dr. Norcom “to be out in free air, while I, guiltless of crime, was pent up here, as the only means of avoiding the cruelties the laws allowed him to inflict upon me!”
After her escape North, Jacobs joined the abolitionist movement in upstate New York and was finally freed, though to her great chagrin her freedom was purchased by a benefactor, not won through political struggle. Jacobs then sought to publish her own story, which she finally managed to do in 1861. Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl—Written By Herself is an account of the many violences endured by enslaved black women. It is also the account of a person anguished by the choices she has been forced to make, the compromises she has had to allow, the trespasses she has endured against her own ethical and moral sensibility. It is the story of a woman seeking uncompromised freedom.
One hundred and twenty years later, in 1981, Angela Davis wrote this passage in Women, Race & Class:
After ages of silence, suffering and misplaced guilt, sexual assault is explosively emerging as one of the telling dysfunctions of present-day capitalist society. The rising public concern about rape in the United States has inspired countless numbers of women to divulge their past encounters with actual or would-be assailants. As a result, an awesome fact has come to light: appallingly few women can claim that they have not been victims, at one time in their lives, of either attempted or accomplished sexual attacks.
Reading Jacobs, Davis, and today’s newspapers together, the explosive anger of women echoes backward to 1861 and forward into our present.
The “awesome fact” Davis described in 1981 continues to shock mainstream commentators. But the language of shock, of exposé, of surprise misleadingly identifies the specific event as the problem. The shock then and now is that the violence is quotidian. One of Davis’s points is to question how anyone can be shocked at all.
The shock is also misleading, since — as Victoria Law, Tithi Bhattacharya, Magally A. Miranda Alcazar, Alex N. Press, Tarana Burke, Terrion L. Williamson, Maricruz Ladino, and Liz Mason-Deese argue — it can obscure the continual presence of sexual harassment and sexual violence leveraged against marginalized communities. As all these authors also argue, collective organizing and protest against sexual violence has been ongoing among those whose lives have been made precarious. It is not surprising, historically speaking, that the hashtag #MeToo began decades ago as part of an activist campaign led by Tarana Burke to support marginalized women of color who experienced sexual assault, yet only went viral when it was popularized by the white and the wealthy. Recent protests by wealthier women, whiter women, women with more access to power, while necessary and laudable, are by no means the cutting edge of this struggle.
History can be an antidote to the false narratives of shock and can offer the potential for different futures. Estelle Freedman’s recounting of rape law in the United States highlights the legal stakes of defining rape — both how women fought to have rape recognized as a criminal act and how the allegation of raping white women was used to lynch and terrorize black men after the end of slavery. Danielle McGuire describes how black women’s organizing around rape became the formative heart of the civil rights movement. Both McGuire and Miranda Alcazar describe the strategies black and immigrant women have used to protect themselves. Linda Gordon’s 1981 speech marks the years when “sexual harassment” was finally defined as a problem, and the feminist organizing it took to get there. And Williamson’s essay on the story of Brenda Erving and the serial murder of black women in the United States pointedly asks who gets to tell these women’s stories, and how.
Women have always, it turns out, told about sexual violence, fought it, struggled to write it and say it. Women have fought to tell it to themselves. Rape and harassment and everything in between has been the stuff of gossip; it has been the stuff of activist organizing campaigns; it has been the stuff of personal anguish; it has been traumatic, or punishing, or just — as Melissa Gira Grant and Laura Kipnis argue — annoying and a colossal waste of time. It has been what it means to live in a body seen as sexually violable, and in a society in which power is dramatically skewed.
The weapons we have to protect our bodies and our rights are not good enough, for they sit within a legal framework which doesn’t recognize the undisciplined nature of desire and sex nor the systemic violence of capitalism, white supremacy, patriarchy. Stories of sexual assault, when they are told, often rely on binary language: consent/rape, victim/perpetrator, trauma/pleasure, man/woman, sex/power, yes/no. The language of politics and legal justice can itself reflect these binaries: individual/collective, oppressed/free, resistant/complicit. All, in different ways, can be almost as misleading and entrapping as silence. Bodies and desire, sex and politics, freedom and violence, are much more complicated, rich, and fraught.
In this collection, Lauren Berlant, Jane Ward, Melissa Gira Grant, Laura Kipnis, and Linda Gordon explore the poverty of these languages. We need, they suggest, a new language of sexuality and of power. The victimized are not all women, nor are they all necessarily victims as much as complicated and real persons. Perpetrators are not equal. Sex involves power but is not the same as power. There are shades of coercion and of violence. There is a space between yes and no. There is still no. Larissa Pham writes directly from this vexed space, and shows the possibilities that open when we refuse its strictures.
Some of the pieces here are new. Several have been revisited in our current light. Some were published in the past few months. Some are much older. As we collected them, the stories kept coming.
Jacobs’ confinement was all too real, but her story is doubly powerful as a metaphor for our present. If, as Simone de Beauvoir had it, one is not born but becomes a woman, these stories and the pieces collected here remind us that becoming a woman involves the daily negotiation of violence and its threat, and figures women as both subjects of desire but also its objects. All of us who choose to be women or are bound by the strictures of gender are confined. Poor women, trans women, women of color, undocumented women, refugee women, trafficked and enslaved women are made infinitely more precarious, as many of the authors in this collection chronicle. But none of us are unqualifiedly free.
If shock is a form of disavowal, it also has a galvanizing function: it offers the potential, as Stephanie Coontz and Liz Mason-Deese argue, for what was a public secret to become a public protest, for local struggles to grow into mass movements, for outrage to deepen into revolution. Tithi Bhattacharya explores this intersection between individual struggle and collective protest to describe the shape of the problem and the rebellious shadow that always accompanies it.
This is the deepest and potentially most radical, inclusive, and visionary claim of feminism: that what happens to our bodies is where our politics can begin. As Mason-Deese argues, these politics can grow to encompass the globe.
Writing and telling might be the opposite of trauma; it might not be. But what writing and telling certainly do is bring together an engaged public of shared words and common purpose, so we might all work together to answer Jacobs’ still urgent question: how do we finally get free?
Download Where Freedom Starts: Sex, Power, Violence, #MeToo for free here.
Jessie Kindig is an editor at Verso Books in New York City. Her writing has appeared in n+1, Jacobin, Radical History Review, and American Quarterly. She received her PhD in History from the University of Washington, and is a visiting scholar for the 2017–2018 academic year in the Department of Social and Cultural Analysis at New York University.