Switch to paranoid from having fun
Will he use his hands, knife, or a gun
Knuckles are white, wrapped around my mace
Comes from living in a terrorist state.
—Donita Sparks, “Can I Run” from L7, Hunger for Stink
I was 18 and he seemed like a possible mentor. On my first day shadowing him on his social work rounds, he drove me to a waterfall in a remote area and killed the engine. He told me his wife didn’t have feelings for him anymore and put his hand on my knee. I froze and didn’t say a word. Where was I going to run? I thought he might kill me.
We sat in the cab of his truck for what felt like an eternity, so that almost 40 years later, the gray colors of the rocks out the window are emblazoned in my memory. I remember that I remained mute as he chattered on, moving his hand up my leg. I didn’t move a muscle. Eventually, he must have given up on me, because he turned the key in the ignition and drove back to the office.
I think I actually thanked him for the ride. I never told a soul about what happened at the waterfall. He did not become a mentor.
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I’m almost embarrassed to tell this story at a time of national emergency about rape culture. I did not get raped that day. It is one of a thousand near-misses I have experienced as a result of repeatedly taking the risk of trusting men to act like human beings. These occurrences are the ground of being cis-female, queer, trans, or any other gender or sexual non-conforming person in the contemporary United State. They are the price of living in the “terrorist state” Sparks describes in the song quoted above.
The terrorism imposed by rape culture is not incidental. As Sylvia Federici argues in her magisterial history, Caliban and the Witch, eruptions of violence against women have historically been the hallmarks of transitions in global economic and political regimes. Federici explains that widespread allegations of witchcraft against women during the early modern period helped insurgent mercantile capitalism to dispossess prior modes of knowledge and landholding. In tandem with the transatlantic slave trade and Indigenous dispossession, witchcraft trials and recriminations constituted a regime of violence that cleared the way for the emergence of capitalist enterprise, white supremacy and patriarchy. Sexual and gendered violence are central to global histories of domination and inequality.
The particular sex and gender terror of the current regime distinguishes the emergence of a particular mode of neoliberal capitalism. Rape culture, the war against abortion and birth control, ongoing and state-supported violence against LGBTQ people constitute part of a neoliberal austerity regime that profits from continuous dispossession and mass incarceration.
Along with millions of other people, I watched the testimony of Christine Blasey Ford and Brett Kavanaugh on September 27. The trauma Ford described is pervasive. In my experience, any sample of undergraduate journals typically include stories of rape. Ask a group of young teenage girls about whether they would accept an open cup at a party, and they will roll their eyes: They know. Rape culture is pervasive.
That day’s testimony brought us, collectively, deeper into the well of unfiltered agony illuminated by Tarana Burke and the Me Too campaign, which started a decade ago. Since the advent of a presidential administration that rose to power in part through its shamelessness in face of accusations of rape and harassment, the #MeToo movement has propelled the trauma of sexual violence into public consciousness.
Ford’s galvanizing testimony before Congress and the world described the stakes of “living in a terrorist state.” Writer adrienne marie brown writes that Ford’s testimony is a victory, transforming forever “the long war against patriarchy and rape culture.”
Since the testimonies, I have been wondering: Where do we go from here? Surely, we cannot unknow what is now clear: the ongoing emergency of rape culture, the way it pervades every single second of life in the current regime. How do we respond collectively to this emergency?
Striking Reproductive Labor
During Judge Kavanaugh’s testimony, I was taken by the expression on his wife’s face. Ashley Estes Kavanaugh did not affect the familiar, dutiful, chastened-but-loving face of the wife of the political perp. Instead, she looked wrecked, like she could barely hold it together. Maybe Kavanaugh’s handlers did not bother to prepare her. Or maybe her expression was a strategy meant to corroborate her husband’s assertion of the harms they had suffered together, the state of their “ruined” family. But her face looked a lot to me like unfiltered agony. What experiences do she and other “women for Trump” conceal — and at what cost to them and to all of us?
Public, unfiltered agony is a powerful political tool. Unfiltered agony has been part of the creation of the #MeToo movement. It is the mode that sexual assault survivors Ana Maria Archila and Maria Gallagher spoke in when they confronted Sen. Jeff Flake in a DC elevator on the day of the congressional hearings. Their conscious and bold display of their agony precipitated Flake’s insistence on an FBI investigation. Expressing our agony and rage is the opposite of shutting the car door and calling “have a nice day” to your would-be predator.
Women and femmes not only suffer the slings and arrows of rape culture; the effective work we are culturally assigned makes it possible to survive and enjoy the livelong day in this regime. Maybe because of the constant threats against us, we learn to be gracious. Our smiles are the lubricant that allows rape culture to proceed, compliance leveraged by the force of the “terrorist state.”
Federici writes, “It is through the day-to-day activities by means of which we produce our existence that we can develop our capacity to cooperate and not only resist our dehumanization, but learn to reconstruct the world as a space of nurturing, creativity and care.”
Federici locates the “reproductive” labor of birthing and caregiving, of feeding and clothing and “fucking” as central to economic production. No labor, she argues, is possible without reproductive labor. Of course, this labor is not exclusively performed by women and/or queers. But, Federici argues, unpaid work is associated with women and naturalized by gender hierarchy. The system that assigns low wages to crucial caregiving work for children, the infirm and elders operates similarly, through racial as well as gender hierarchies. Naturalized inequality silences the million acts of violence that maintain this system.
What if we stopped? Stopped making nice, stopped greasing the wheels with our smiles and affirmations, stopped or slowed any kind of labor: reproductive, effective or productive. We could skip work where it is possible, serve the coffee without a smile where it is not. Teachers could teach-in, communication workers could speak-in during “A Day Out of Rape Culture.” Everyone could join in as they were able, men as well as women, straight folks as well as LGBTQ people.
There are historical precedents for work stoppages in response to injustice. Immigrant rights organizers have convened tremendous strikes during “Day(s) Without Immigrants” since 2006. By conjuring the specter of a day without immigrant labor, these mobilizations have demonstrated the power of immigrant workers and mobilized a broad movement. Politically, these strikes have been part of successful efforts to defeat anti-immigrant legislation at the state and federal level. The work of the Days Without Immigrants has included organizing support for those who faced repercussions for missing work.
Collective action in the form of strikes created the labor movement in the United States and transformed the conditions of productive labor for millions. Collective bargaining secured reforms such as the eight-hour day, workers’ compensation, overtime and health care benefits. The labor movement won important concessions from management, and forced the federal government to mediate unequal relations between workers and owners. But it represented primarily white men, excluding the agricultural and domestic paid labor done by working-class white women and people of color, and pretty much ignoring the question of labor outside of the industrial workplace, caregiving labor in particular.
In a similar vein, the National Organization for Women (NOW) convened the Women’s Strike for Equality in 1970 to draw attention to widespread gendered inequities in pay. Organizers asked women to stop working for a day; around the US, supporters held marches and rallies. While NOW focused on workplace equality, some organizers drew attention to other kinds of injustice: the way newspapers display photos of brides but not grooms, the existence of plenty of men’s (but few women’s) bathrooms in public buildings. This component of the feminist movement succeeded in opening spaces for some women in previously exclusively male domains. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who pioneered legal strategies on behalf of women’s rights in the workplace, benefited from these changes.
In 1983, 12,000 women from all over the world came together in the Women’s Encampment for a Future of Peace and Justice. Camping out in Romulus, New York, participants created an imaginative historical link to the Seneca Falls Women’s Rights Convention, a gathering for equal rights and suffrage that took place there in 1848. At the same time, by living collectively and engaging in civil disobedience against the nearby Seneca Army Depot, the Peace Camp brought together reproductive and productive labor. It conjured a mode of politics existing outside of the contours delimited by the regimes of capitalist nation-states.
In contrast to productive labor, which historically takes place during specific hours and in a designated location, caregiving work pervades daily life. Creating “A Day Out of Rape Culture” could not mean that children go unfed or elders unattended, or that the effective labor that makes social life possible would stop. As adrienne marie brown points out, the ongoing crisis of our times makes holding one another more important than ever. Our work, then, is to strike against rape culture while simultaneously creating institutions of collective support.
The author thanks Benjamin Balthaser, Wendy Kozol, Maureen Ryan and the Center for 21st Century Studies for reading, discussing and time to think.