Sometimes I think she’d have got away with it if she hadn’t mentioned the domestic abuse. JK Rowling was already in trouble, long before she published her essay on sex and gender, but it’s the mention of trauma that really pushed things over the edge. It’s one thing to be branded a TERF, and quite another to be a woman who asks for empathy. Even Piers Morgan — hardly a friend to the trans community — thought that was taking things a bit far.
“There seems to be a thing at the moment,” declared Morgan on Good Morning Britain, “where people get into hot water […] and out comes the victim card.” Is this an acceptable response to a woman disclosing a history of male violence and sexual assault in relation to present-day concerns about female boundaries? Twitter seems to think so. Tweet after tweet accuses Rowling of “weaponizing” her experiences of domestic abuse and sexual assault to promote hate. Even a Labour shadow minister — who was at least made to apologize for it — got in on it.
As a survivor of… Well, actually, I can’t be bothered to disclose what I’m a survivor of. Suffice it to say that when I read Rowling’s essay, I already knew how the response would play out, and why it does no good to expect compassion in debates such as these. While Rowling’s disclosure seemed appropriate to me, and clearly related to the question of why sex-segregation remains politically salient, the backlash was inevitable. It should be possible to disagree on a practical response to female fear of male violence without disregarding said fear, or deeming the fearful to have ulterior motives. It should be possible, but right now it is not. Because women are not supposed to bring their pain into politics at all.
Liberal feminism has gone some way in encouraging listeners to take women’s accounts of trauma seriously. We #believewomen — but only up to a point, providing no discomforting political conclusions are being drawn in relation to what they tell us. In the response to Rowling, we see it can be possible to accept something genuinely took place — yes, she was abused — while confidently dismissing her reasons for telling us about it. We decide her account is being told “in bad faith” or that it contains “dog whistles.” In other words, what Rowling is saying about her abuse is, on the face of it, true, but irrelevant — she really means something else, and we will decide what that is.
To an extent, this is just how debate works — or fails to work — in the social media age. Why deal with facts when you can claim to know your opponent better than they know themselves? Underpinning specific accusations of “weaponization,” however, we also find familiar messages about women, their wicked tongues, and their manipulative ways. Men’s Rights Activists come straight out and say an accusation of rape is as bad, if not worse, than a rape itself; self-styled progressives are more careful. A true account of female trauma is acceptable providing it is made “in good faith.” If not, your own rape can be written off as a weapon being wielded under false pretenses.
But does any of this really explain the fury directed at Rowling for disclosing her abuse? There is, I think, one further element to it. In Down Girl, the philosopher Kate Manne argues that “feminine-coded goods and services include simple respect, love, acceptance, nurturing, safety, security, and safe haven.” Women and girls, Manne argues, are expected to offer, not take, such things. In disclosing her abuse within a debate which asks women to centre the needs and emotions of others, Rowling committed the sin of demanding that which she was supposed to be giving: compassion, empathy, space. She is not the first and certainly won’t be the last woman to make such a mistake. Women are asked to perform passivity, but to ask for empathy is out of bounds. In this way the casting of women who give accounts of their pain as aggressors is profoundly gender normative. Far from liberating anyone, it seeks to push them back into the same old boxes.
There is much more that could be said on the way in which men have been taking a particular delight in telling a victim of male violence that she needs to remain silent. Above all, though, it is just tremendously, unspeakably cruel to respond to a woman’s disclosure of trauma in the way so many have in the case of Rowling. For all the protestations of “yes, it is terrible, but…”, it demonstrates a complete absence of compassion, while sending a message to any other woman who might want to tell her story: do not expect kindness. Do not assume the right to place your suffering in any wider context. Know that for every standard bigot who tells you you’re a liar, there’ll be a progressive nice guy who’ll start telling you just how spoilt and privileged you are. Abuse never ends; there’s always someone to replicate it in the telling.
In a world where accounts of suffering are treated as a form of currency, it could be argued that women are victims of our own success. We’ve overdone it, found ourselves with a trump card it would be frankly unseemly to play. On some level, we all know the statistics: when it comes to assault, rape and murder, women have far more to fear from men than vice versa. The fact of this is so familiar, so mundane, that it ceases to be an outrage. The outrage only comes when you draw attention to it.
It is seen as a form of cheating to bring tales of actual violence into an arena where psychic violence is all the rage. It flatters the intellect of the unimaginative to refuse to be moved by anything so vulgar as fists and bloodstains, plain old men and women behind closed doors. Instead, the clever, the ultra-progressive, are moved by something far more complex, invisible to the naked eye. The bad faith, the ulterior motive, the dog whistle bigotry. The hate that’s hidden within a woman’s cry of pain, and which only they can see. To the rest of us, it looks as though nothing has changed.
Victoria Smith is a UK-based writer and editor. Her work has appeared in the New Statesman, the Independent, the Guardian and elsewhere.