by Erin Riordan
Being a feminist can be really hard. Being a part of any progressive social movement, any group campaigning for social justice, is exhausting and frustrating. As important and powerful as this work is, sometimes I forget how to take a step back and just breath. I have been reflecting for a while on the idea of self-care and how to balance this with a greater concern for activism and action. Recent events, both those involving my brilliant, beautiful friend Kat Kelley, and the experience of Adria Richards at a recent tech conference, have pushed me to begin figuring out this negotiation between concern for myself and concern for the movement at large.
Kat, one of the most passionate activists I know for women, sexual health, and sex positivity (and co-founder and co-coordinator of this blog), was attacked via social media for the incredible work she does to advance these causes. Adria Richards called out two men for making sexist jokes at a tech conference, was fired, and then received a barrage of criticism, including rape and death threats, in response.
Whenever you are doing work that challenges oppression there are going to be people who hate what you are saying and doing and will challenge you on it. Not everyone is going to be thoughtful with their engagement. Some people will use slurs and ugly words and make threats and personal attacks. This can be disheartening and frustrating, sometimes it can be scary and, when one comment piles up on top of too many others, devastating.
As a writer on this blog, and a self-described radical feminist moving about in an occasionally hostile world, I certainly encounter my fair share of criticism and personal attacks, and am equally effected by attacks against my friends and feminist activists. I don’t always know how to respond to this. I am torn between a desire for retreat, not as an admission of defeat but as a break from all the hate and negativity, and a need to feel safe and supported again. The other half of me feels that I have a duty to stand up to all of this, to challenge every comment, poster, and article that is misogynistic (intentionally or not) and perpetuates the patriarchy. I don’t always know what to do or how to balance these two different instincts.
What I have taken away from the feminist community is that it is ok, and good, to take breaks. It is important that we take care of ourselves and take a timeout from engaging with all the negativity when we need to. Whether it is a particularly vicious commenter or a week spent reading and writing about sexual assault in Steubenville, it is ok to acknowledge that these things have an impact on us, that we are human and can be hurt and sometimes we need to focus on taking care of ourselves as a result. If this means taking a day or a week or a month, it is important that we do that, and not be so caught up in fighting misogyny or racism or classism or whatever else that we forget to give ourselves the time we need to heal, to reflect, to recover.
It is also important that we develop the resources we need to handle the emotional side of feminist and social justice work. This means developing strong communities of support- family, friends, fellow bloggers, and anyone else- who can offer love, support, hugs, and a little André when we need them.
However, it is also important to acknowledge that this sort of backlash is a reality of any work that seeks to challenge and change norms. As a mentor to the fantastic Chloe Angyal, of Feministing.com, said, “If you say things of consequence there will be consequences, but the alternative is to be inconsequential.” There can be empowerment found in the words that are meant to tear us down. It means that what we are doing is having an impact, that we are being heard. Even a person who responds with hatred or vitriol is engaging with us, and even if it seems like they are not taking anything productive away from the interaction, they have at least been exposed to ideas they might not otherwise be aware of. Ultimately what it means when we are attacked or harassed in our work is that we are challenging oppression, we are experiencing success in this challenge, and maybe, just maybe, leaving the world a better place.