This was originally published at the girl-power site Off Our Chests.
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My mother is a rape survivor. In 1970, when she was in her twenties, she came home alone one day with the groceries. As she was opening the door, a man came up behind her and forced her into the apartment, where he violently assaulted her. For years afterwards, my mother had Rape Trauma Syndrome — a type of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder that affects rape survivors — but neither RTS nor PTSD had yet been identified, and psychiatrists didn’t know what to do with her.
Later in the decade, my mother dumped one of her boyfriends. He then came to her apartment one night, broke in, and raped her. As he got in bed, she was in the middle of a flashback. She cried and said “No,” and he had sex with her anyway. When she tried to tell him later that what he’d done was unacceptable, he informed her that because she’d pursued him during their relationship — because she was the one who originally asked him out — a rape case would never stand up in court.
My mother met my dad many years after these incidents. Mom first told me that she’d been raped in my late teens, because she was considering telling her story to our church congregation, and she wanted me to know before she did that. The full stories came out during intermittent conversations in my twenties. I love both my parents with the fire of a thousand suns, and let me tell you, I’ve spent an unreasonable amount of time fantasizing about murdering the men who attacked my mother. I doubt I could find the first guy, but I could probably find the second, and in my early twenties I often imagined shooting him in the head. (Don’t worry, Mom, I don’t think about that anymore.)
Within the last few years, I started thinking about asking Mom’s permission to write about her experiences and my reaction to them. I always shelved the idea because I felt that it wasn’t my story to tell. Last year, the topic came up in conversation, and I finally asked permission; she said yes immediately. I double-checked her consent twice this year, and she said yes both times. Still, I was hesitant, and I only got around to it now — for Mother’s Day. I also asked her to review this piece, and to feel free to veto anything within it.
I am doing my best not to co-opt or appropriate my mother’s story. But her story and her life have shaped mine, intimately — including my views on gender issues, and my course as a feminist activist and writer. A few years ago, a widely-read Harper’s article by established feminist Susan Faludi asserted that the relationship between younger feminists and older feminists is like a battle between girls and our moms. I read the article with interest, but also with a sense of displacement. As a teenager I fought with my mom all the time, but she and I rarely argue anymore, and we never argue about issues of feminism or sexuality at all. If “young” feminism is about rebelling against our mothers, then I missed that boat completely.
In fairness, my mom’s not easy to rebel against. When I was 15, I asked her what she’d do if I ran off with a Hell’s Angel. She laughed. “I’d probably be jealous,” she said.
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I started blogging in 2008 because I wanted to write about sexuality, particularly S&M. However, I identified myself as a feminist from the start, because I wanted to make it obvious that S&M and feminism are not mutually exclusive. The conflicts of feminism and S&M have been a major theme throughout the Feminist Sex Wars. I tend to repeat myself when I write about this, so I’ll just mention my favorite quotation on the matter; it comes from the German radical feminist Alice Schwarzer, who said that “Female masochism is collaboration!”
When I came out of the closet to my mom, I had been freaking out about my S&M identity for a while — but quietly. I told my parents about my sexuality because I wanted to go into therapy, but I wanted a Kink Aware therapist who wouldn’t shame me for my S&M preferences. The specific therapist I preferred was out-of-network for my health insurance, which meant I needed help paying for it. My dad was cool with it, but he didn’t say much. My mother paused when I told her… and then she explained that S&M is part of her sexuality, too.
I was shocked. I was also incredibly relieved. If my brilliant, independent mother was into S&M, then suddenly I felt much more okay about being into it myself. It turned out that she had explored S&M late in life — and she went through the same anxiety about feminism and S&M that I’d felt. “You’re not giving up your liberation,” she told me.
Mom also acknowledged the stereotype that S&M arises from abusive experiences. “I once worried that being raped made me into S&M,” she said. “But I remember having S&M feelings when I was very young, long before I was raped. I was like this all along.” When she said that, I caught my breath in recognition.
This is another topic I often repeat myself about, but that’s because it’s important. As it happens, the biggest and best-designed study on S&M found that there is no correlation between abusive experiences and being into S&M. There’s also plenty of anecdotal evidence within the S&M community that a lot of S&Mers, though not all, feel our S&M identities to be innate (sometimes described as an “orientation”). This is not to say that there’s anything wrong with understanding or processing abuse through consensual S&M. The psychologist Peggy Kleinplatz once published a scholarly article called “Learning From Extraordinary Lovers: Lessons From The Edge,” which discusses how therapists can help their clients by studying alternative sexualities. Kleinplatz included a case study of a couple whose S&M experiences helped them process their histories of abuse. However, abusive experiences should not be seen as the usual “creator” of S&M desires. (For more on this, check out my article on S&M and the psychiatric establishment.)
The stereotype that S&M “comes from” abuse is another reason I worried about writing this article. Basically, this is a prettily-wrapped gift to Internet commentators who enjoy writing posts or hate mail about how fucked up I am, or about how dysfunctional S&M is. I guess there’s no help for that.
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“I’m fascinated that you’ve adopted feminism so thoroughly,” my mother told me once. “I never felt like I was into feminism like you are.”
“What?” I said. “Are you serious?”