What If We Let People Speak for Themselves?

What If We Let People Speak for Themselves? April 7, 2017

I find it bizarre that we don’t ask certain populations to represent themselves in interviews or on committees that decide their fate. ‘Sup, stigma.

Salon in the rue des moulins by Toulouse-Lautrec. In public domain.
Salon in the rue des moulins by Toulouse-Lautrec. In public domain.

Two excellent blog posts recently crossed my screen, and while one was about trans women and the other about sex workers, I saw a common link between them, and decided it was worth articulating here.

I really like Raquel Willis’s take on why it’s problematic to have asked (cisgender) feminist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie about the topic of trans women. Willis does so, appropriately enough, by bringing in an intersectional viewpoint:

Just as it was wrong for womanhood to be narrowly defined within the hegemonic white woman’s experience, so, too, is it wrong for womanhood to be defined as the hegemonic cisgender woman’s experience. Cis women may be the majority, but that hardly means their experience the only valid one.

A major take-home point is that it’s not always appropriate to ask cis women about trans women’s experiences (or, ya know, validity). When in doubt? Ask trans women about their own experiences. As an ethnographer, this sounds incredibly obvious to me, but I guess it’s still something more people need to learn. Another argument for more humanities education, eh?

I see a similar thing happening with sex workers, where mainstream publications and policy makers utterly fail to consult them about their own life experiences and needs. And sometimes while calling themselves feminists, too! (If you haven’t encountered the acronym SWERF, it means Sex Worker Exclusionary Radical Feminist)

Taryn de Vere writes in Confessions of a former SWERF about precisely this phenomenon:

There is an essential paradox in being a SWERF, how can you truly be a feminist if you do not listen to and believe the experiences of other women? How can you take such a paternalistic view of sex workers and think you know what is best for them even when they are clearly telling you otherwise? My own SWERF views came from ignorance and a patronising kind of moral crusader vibe, “I know what is best for you fallen women. Come on and I’ll help you out of your awful life.” I never said that or thought it but it was at the root of the beliefs I had about sex work and sex workers. I cringe to think of it now, how condescending, how arrogant, how offensive.

I’ve come dangerously close to SWERF-y views in my own past, and like de Vere, I was fortunate in that others reached out to educate me, and I educated myself by reading more widely too.

Mostly, however, I am very cranky about the (apparently swift and unconscious) decisions that many people make about who can and cannot be trusted to convey their own experiences. I think it’s an indication of just how sex-negative contemporary American society is that people who are seen to be “deviant” in regard to gender or sexuality are further infantilized by being seen as not able to speak for themselves.

I agree when Willis states:

If your feminism does not respect trans women in their full womanhood, it’s not truly intersectional. If you don’t advocate for the liberation of trans people, you aren’t truly invested in equality. And if you don’t advocate on behalf of black trans women, then you aren’t truly invested in black liberation.

You don’t get to call yourself a feminist if you decide that certain groups of women are incapable of speaking for themselves. There’s probably a thin slice of the population that this is true for (severely neuroatypical people; folks who’ve violated the social contract and are thus in prison) but even then, it’s sticky.

My take-home point is this: if I’d feel uncomfortable with someone outside my group describing my experience in a way that felt reductive, maaaaybe I should listen to insiders of a group when they claim the same is true for them, even if that doesn’t tally with the narratives I’ve been exposed to for most of my life. Coming from multiple academic disciplines that foreground the voices of ordinary people (folklore, anthropology, and gender studies), I don’t see how my stance could do anything other than support everyone’s agency to share their stories.

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