Monday, 18 July 2016

How has the digital landscape shifted our attitudes towards childhood sexual abuse survivors?

A paper I gave at Bath Spa as part of their Writing Gender and Self Conference...

cw for talk of csa and victim blaming

In an era of moral panic surrounding trigger warnings, safe spaces and ‘oversensitive millennials’, existing stereotypes of the (abject) attention-seeking survivor of sexual violence is exaggerated and amplified. One only has to reflect on the recent controversy following Stephen Fry’s statements on ‘self-pitying’ childhood sexual abuse survivors (who need to ‘grow up’ because ‘no one’s going to like you if you feel sorry for yourself’), to identify that the figure of the survivor has often become a screen on which to project disgust. Examining the place of generational divides, the significance of what journalist Laura Bennett defines as ‘The First Personal Industrial Complex’ in online publishing, and the existing history of child abuse memoirs, I hope to offer insight into the misunderstandings and misappropriations of this difficult subject, with the intention of opening up a dialogue on both the limits and potentials of depicting and narrating traumatic personal themes.

This paper is a part of my PhD research, where I am currently coming to an end of my first year of studies at Central Saint Martins. My thesis intends to analyse how the subject of childhood sexual abuse and the figure of the CSA survivor and abuser are appropriated and reworked within digital spaces, focusing chiefly on close textual readings of case studies from the early 21st century to the present day. However, before going into detail about my research, and the selected focus for this paper, I would first like to clearly define my terms. 

Child sexual abuse (CSA) is understandably a term that carries great weight and should be used mindfully. All three terms in this phrase, child, sexual and abuse are moveable and based in the context and ideas of acceptability in the culture we inhabit. The history of what we now understand and refer to as CSA should be understood as such, all crimes are a construct and it is not deflect from the urgent reality of its impact to understand that both our understanding of childhood, abuse and even sexuality itself are in constant negotiation. Foucauldian philosopher Ian Hacking emphasizes this in his historical overview ‘The Making and Molding of Child Abuse’ (1991):

“We have had something like our concept of child abuse for less than thirty years. Yet aside from occasional scandalous court cases, the public had little interest in such matter during the preceding years, 1912 to 1962.”

The term internet similarly requires a clear definition. And in defining this amorphous concept I feel it is appropriate to utilize the Meme Factory collective’s definition, an American group of Internet researchers, who argue in their self-titled 2014 book that:

“The internet is people. Made by, used by, influenced by, and everything-else’d by people. In an atoms-to-quarks-style reduction, its smallest constituent part is the person…There is absolutely no aspect of the internet that does not have its origin in human intent.”

Here my academic investigation is not rooted in the technical structures that make the internet, but rather the people that make it, the unique communities, humour and communication styles that have developed in these online spaces. This is what I mean when I speak of online, of digital and of the internet.

The term CSA survivor is used to describe an individual who has experienced childhood sexual abuse, developing from the 1970’s feminist model of abuse support, it is considered an empowering alternative to the term ‘victim’. Whilst it certainly isn’t perfect (the pressure of the ‘strong’ or ‘empowered’ survivor is certainly questionable) I believe it’s the best out of the two in terms of treating this subject with the respect it deserves.

With this in mind it would be easy to divide the world into people who have experienced CSA and those who haven’t, or people who perpetuate abuse and people who suffer from it, however this is too simplistic for such an in depth study. By bringing in the subject of appropriation and cultural engagements with CSA beyond the abuser/survivor dichotomy I’m interested in opening up this issue to understand the wider responsibility our society has in enforcing, subverting and transmitting ideas surrounding the subject of CSA.

To understand these issues within the context of the internet, it is necessary to understand existing discontents towards expressions of psychological distress in digital spaces. This is what Leslie Jamison, in her 2014 essay collection ‘The Empathy Exams’ defines as “a broader disdain for pain that is understood as performed rather than legitimately felt”, with this disdain, Jamison argues, serving as an attempt to “draw a boundary between authentic and fabricated pain.”

This ‘disdain’ is amplified through the context of generational divides, specifically the distaste for the ‘millenial’ generation.

This is a term used to define those born between the late 80’s and 90’s, which in the popular press is directed at a particular brand of left leaning creative (generally middle class white) young people who are disparaged for their supposed ‘self centered’ and ‘entitled’ nature and close connection to technology. In short they are regarded as distasteful because their emotions are regarded as performed, inauthentic.

Despite anxieties surrounding ‘the me me me’ generation resurfacing throughout history, this issue is nonetheless presented ahistorically as an issue unique to our time period and is particularly shaping attitudes towards mental illness and survivors of sexual violence, and how their stories are being both structured and received in online space. Consider, for instance, queer theorist Jack Halberstam’s 2014 blog post ‘You are Triggering Me!’ which labels today’s young people as “the triggered generation”. Halberstam presents this generation as universally privileged, highlighting “their gay-straight alliances, their supportive parents and their new right to marry” and considers it self-centred, entitled and unnecessary that they “regularly issue calls for “safe space”.

Yet, once again these notions of the ‘over-sensitive’ ‘kill-joy’ is not new, and even in this very essay we are reminded of the historical connections that facilitate the very disgust that this writing espouses, specifically the disgust for the hysterical feminine, grotesque in her feelings, mawkish in her tragedy.  This is what Halberstam defines in his essay as “weepy white lady feminism” which he considers as “messy, unappealing morass of weepy, hypo-allergic, psychosomatic, anti-sex, anti-fun, anti-porn, pro-drama, pro-processing post-political subjects.” Note that term ‘pro-drama.’ Again we circle back into the idea of the ‘authentic’ trauma, an idea twinned with the ‘attention seeking’ victim, too privileged to merit a platform to articulate their hardships, and once again return to Jamison’s idea of performing pain.

These ideas matter as they critically shape how we receive and understand childhood sexual abuse survivor’s stories. Consider, for instance, the backlash against Dylan Farrow after her open letter in the New York Times in 2014, in response to allegations of sexual assault towards the director, and her stepfather Woody Allen. Farrow’s serious statement, provoking and questioning how we receive cultural ideas of abusers, was dismissed within the ‘celebrity shaming’ model with discussions of child rape being regarded as akin to circling an unflattering patch of cellulite or a childish spat of cyberbullying. Guardian journalist Michael Wolff suggested it was a calculated media ploy to generate Twitter followers, whilst horror author Stephen King remarked on it’s air of “palpable bitchery.” For again we cannot separate the hatred for the survivor from the hatred of the female speaker.

But what happens when such narratives of childhood sexual abuse are commodified and content farmed for mass consumption in digital spaces? This is the landscape of what Laura Bennet defines as ‘The First Person Industrial Complex’. As she explains:

“First-person writing has long been the Internet’s native voice. But we are currently in the midst of an unprecedented moment in the online first-person boom. And first-person essays have also become the easiest way to jolt an increasingly jaded Internet to attention, as the bar for provocation has risen higher and higher. For writers looking to break in, offering up grim, personal dispatches may be the surest ways to get your pitches read.”

I’ll go into detail about this subject shortly, but once again, it would be ahistorical to consider this as a new genre so context is first required. The very notion of the ‘traumatic’ narrative, enthusiastically consumed by the public whilst simultaneously disparaged for it’s lack of ‘authenticity’ can be found as far back as 1836, the year of publication of the best seller ‘Awful Disclosures of Maria Monk, or, The Hidden Secrets of a Nun's Life in a Convent Exposed’. 
Whilst the folk devil that fuelled it’s readership was not the paedophile of the 20th and 21st century we now associate with abuse naratives, but rather the American anti-Catholic sentiments of the 19th century, its story of widespread sexual abuse and child murder certainly wouldn’t be out of place in the attention grabbing headlines of so many modern lifestyle sites. The American historian Richard Hofstadter emphasises the phenomenal reach of Monk’s work, in his essay ‘The Paranoid Style in American Politics’ published in 1964, where he argues that it was "probably the most widely read contemporary book in the United States before Uncle Tom's Cabin."

Similarly it is appropriate to contextualize the online first person essay within the late 20th century and early 21st century print history that laid its foundations. Specifically it’s necessary to locate the history of online personal writing within the context of what is known as ‘The Misery Memoir’.

These are first person stories of child abuse, spanning the sexual, psychological and physical, spearheaded by books such as Dave Pelzer’s ‘A Child Called It’ in 1995. Though commercially successful its child abuse centered content was not without question. After all, this was a period of public shaming and media sensationalism when it came to the subject of child sexual abuse in the popular press, with campaigns such as the News of the World ‘Name and Shame’ initiative serving as one of the most notorious examples. As journalist Carol Sarler states: “Rather they [the misery memoir genre] show that, as a nation, we seem utterly in thrall to paedophilia. We are obsessed with it. And now, with these books, we are wallowing in the muck of it. It's all rather disgusting." Sociology professor Frank Furedi in his 2007 essay ‘An Emotional Strip Tease’ builds on this sense of ‘disgust’ arguing:

“According to this ‘truth’ about human misery, our capacity to love and care for one another is really just a myth. Large sections of the book industry have become complicit in promoting this degraded view of family life as a new reality. It’s worth noting that Borders bookshops stock these memoirs in something called a ‘Real Lives’ section. The message is clear: this is as ‘real’ and truthful as life can get; misery memoirs provide an insight into the previously hidden ‘reality’ of childhood and family life.
These books give the impression that, far from being rare instances of individual tragedy, abuse, degradation and torture constitute real life these days. In essence, they help to normalise the abnormal.”

This damning critique of the childhood sexual abuse survivor’s narrative as a noisy corruption of the nuclear family is a reoccurring theme, reminiscent of the ‘Memory Wars’ of the 1980’s, where therapists in America were accused of turning children against their parents by planting ‘false memories’ of sexual abuse inside their child patients minds. Because the question of truth, of authenticity, as we have previously seen, is central to ranking the legitimacy of such experiences, and played a central role in the misery memoir’s downfall. 2008 was hailed as the ‘end’ of this genre due to repeated revelations that these harrowing tales of abuse, addition and trauma were in fact, fictionalised, lawsuits abounded and refunds were offered for readers who felt ‘duped’.

This in turn aligned with the rise of the harrowing first person essay, rising up to fill its place through the creation of provocative women’s sites such as Jezebel in 2007 and The Frisky in 2008. And the strong connections from print to digital is evident throughout, even the very language used to describe these offline child abuse narratives possesses something of the viral as the Guardian declared in 2007: “Reproducing like bacteria, a new literary genre has wholly infected the bestseller charts.”

We can understand this connection by locating both the misery memoir and the ‘harrowing online first person essay’ within the history of women’s magazines. Much like a person might scan through a controversial Twitter argument or op-ed on their smart phone, eight out of 10 misery memoir books were casually picked at the checkout of the supermarket, with women making up 85% of the readership of these texts. This is a readership identified as womenwho would not visit a bookshop but buy "true life" magazines such as Pick Me Up or Chat, which feature stories about abusive fathers, cheating husbands and distasteful diseases.”

We can develop this idea of abusive narratives, casual readership and the bridge between the print and the digital by considering the woman’s lifestyle website xoJane.

Founded in 2011 by media veteran Jane Pratt, it was originally taglined as a website ‘where women go to be selfish and their selfishness is applauded’. The site has reached notoriety for their ‘It Happened to Me’ sections, which became known for sharing first person stories of sexual violence and intimate humiliation, and the attention grabbing headlines that populate their site such as ‘My Rapist Friended me on Facebook (And All I Got Was This Lousy Article)’, ‘My Gynecologist Found a Ball of Cat Hair in My Vagina and ‘My Former Friend’s Death was a Blessing’. Such content has been used as proof for the cruelty, exploitation, self-centered nature of the first person genre of the internet but to attribute this narrative style to the realm of the digital is not a wholly accurate reflection.
Jane Pratt first found fame through her position as editor of ‘Sassy’, a magazine for teenage girls, from 1998-1994, her TV talk shows and media appearances and her role as editor of women’s magazine, ‘Jane’ from 1997 to 2007. ‘It Happened to Me’ was a fixture from the first issue of Sassy, exploring painful personal narratives from the outset, with this feature running over to her next magazine project Jane. To see her continue this format in a digital medium should not be seen as surprising or unique.

However, Jane Pratt’s motto of “the more personal and vulnerable a writer is, the better” certainly takes on different meaning when transferred to an online environment, known for extreme hostility and abuse. Reflecting on how Jane Pratt’s ‘It Happened to Me’ segment had changed, from its shift from the print pages of Sassy to the online environment of xoJane, the journalist Jennifer Kathleen Gibbons writes, “the essays were darker, sadder. Several times I thought about sending something in. Truth is I’m too boring for xoJane. Plus they only paid fifty dollars an essay. Since the site was owned by TimeLife, I figured they could cough up more dough than fifty dollars.”[5] This question of power is crucial to why the xoJane narrative format, not only makes so many people uncomfortable, but also problematizes simplistic notions of the empowered survivor ‘bravely’ speaking out in order to liberate others. Rather we see such unequal power structures replicated between editor and author, with Mandy Stadtmiller, an editor of xoJane’s ‘It Happened to Me’ column even going so far to describe herself as a “roving predator bent on turning other people's lives into 1,200-word essays on the human experience”[6]

The sensational story telling of xoJane, and the overwhelming disdain for the internet model of ‘oversharing’ one’s troubles, so often dismissed as a reflection of everything that is ‘wrong’ with the millennial generation, can easily cloud critical thought on this complex subject, provoking knee jerk reactions of outrage and disgust. However, I believe if we closely examine the historical context in which these digital stories are situated, focusing particularly on the enduring capitalist interest in the survivor’s story, and the construction of ‘authentic’ suffering, we can truly unpack why we continue to circle around these stories of abuse and use this knowledge to create a kinder space of creativity for survivors to navigate their narratives.

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