the toxic hierarchy of female suffering

the toxic hierarchy of female suffering

Trigger alert: involves in depth discussion of pregnancy loss and sexual assault

Women tend to organize themselves into hierarchies.  This is not a terribly surprising observation; after all, the forming of hierarchies is a human characteristic.  Chickens have a pecking order, humans have hierarchies. Unlike chickens, humans have the unusual ability to belong to several hierarchies all at the same time.  It’s often quite a juggling act, managing your positions in the various hierarchies.  Any given person you encounter may be simultaneously above you on one hierarchy, while beneath you on another. Understanding the subtleties of hierarchies and your place within them can tell us how much consideration we need to give another, how much respect they’re due, how much weight to give their opinion, and how much of those things to expect from them in return.

I find that women, even highly accomplished, entirely enlightened women, don’t always or even usually organize based on achievement or success as men tend to do.   I suspect this is at least in part because women are socialized from a very early age not to brag or take (outward) pride in their accomplishments. In fact, the woman who’s perceived as TOO accomplished is often quietly despised by other women.   Women’s hierarchies are generally built around other aspects of personality instead.  We organize based on who’s the nicest, the hardest working, the most generous, the best mom, the most fashionable (not expensively dressed, but fashionable…two different things!) rather than who can deadlift the most weight or who has the fanciest car or who picked up the most boys at the bar last month.

One socially accepted way women form up into hierarchies is on the basis of who has it the worst.  Since suffering is something none of us have earned and all of us could experience at any time, ranking based on pain means women can shuffle ourselves into a hierarchy without rewarding the super high achievers more than they have already been rewarded by the universe, or punishing those who can’t compete in terms of money or intellect or beauty more than they’ve already been punished by life.

Suffering crosses all economic lines and knows no political party or social class. Using suffering as a metric, we women, who generally despise braggarts and arrogance, can sort things out without violating that intensive socialization we received from the cradle – good girls don’t ever mention the things they’re really good at, and good girls always downplay their accomplishments.  Suffering requires no skillset, no well-padded bank account, no delicate features.  Suffering is an accomplishment anyone can attain, thus it’s an ideal way for women to organize into layers of power.

That’s right.  Women attain social currency, even power, through suffering.  

It ain’t pretty, but it’s real.

I have frequently observed this hierarchy in action on fertility websites where I’ve spent many hours over the course of my childbearing years. The woman who has a stillbirth is “above” the woman who had a miscarriage at 10 weeks’ gestation who is “above” the woman who had a chemical pregnancy (a pregnancy that ended shortly after getting a positive pregnancy test.)  By “above” I mean she is more worthy of consideration, she gets extra attention, extra love and care, her opinions on the subjects of loss and pregnancy carry more weight than others’ do. She’s not a queen among women or anything, but there is definitely a kind of special status that is bestowed upon her.

While certainly no one seeks out that status deliberately, once it’s thrust upon you, it would be next to impossible to turn down.  Others WILL treat you differently because they know that you’ve suffered and there’s no getting around it. They put you on the hierarchy whether you want to be there or not.  Minimizing your pain and denying the kindness and consideration others wish to shower you with, not only irritates people (no one likes their kindnesses declined) but also makes you look rather monstrous. Don’t you hurt?  Don’t you care?  People DO wonder and do judge each other’s grief.  So you take your place on the hierarchy, oftentimes begrudgingly, because you have to prove to other people that yes, you hurt, and yes, you care, and yes, you grieve.

This hierarchy of suffering seems fairly obvious, though, right??   While pregnancy loss always is  deserving of sympathy, surely a woman who carried a baby for 9 long months only to lose it just before or during the birth, who still has to go through labor to deliver a dead child and then return home to a beautiful nursery full of baby clothes and toys with empty arms, is in need of more intensive emotional support than a woman who one day got a positive pregnancy test and the very next day got her period.  These two things both suck, but they are not the same, not even close to it. It’s not even rational to entertain the idea that they are in any way equivalent.

But it is in the nature of hierarchies and human beings that sometimes, people who are lower on the hierarchy, want to be higher.   Even when the hierarchy is based on negative experiences, there’s something in us that desires, even if only subconsciously, the benefits that come with higher status.  This occasionally ends up as a very odd state of affairs where some women will behave as if a chemical pregnancy is equal on the hierarchy to a later miscarriage or even a stillbirth, mourning the “loss” as publicly (if you can truly call a positive pregnancy test one day and a period the next, a loss) and passionately as if they had a child who was ripped away from their arms. 

In this hierarchy of suffering, the temptation to make your losses sound a little worse, a little more painful than they really were, is nearly irresistible.  I know this because I’ve succumbed to it myself.  I’ve played up early losses that really didn’t bother me that much because I didn’t want people to think I was a heartless monster who didn’t care about the baby that was no longer in my womb (I cared, of course, I just didn’t feel like I had truly lost a child).  Later on, I found much to my surprise and dismay, that in some ways I enjoyed the attention and status I got from it.  Stranger still, once I began entertaining the notion that my suffering was deserving of more empathy than it probably really was, I began experiencing sorrow commensurate with a greater loss.  Over time, the more I thought about my losses, the more upset I became.  I went into mourning, retroactively, over things that really hadn’t made me that sad at the time.  

Now, please understand, I don’t doubt that many women who have had a chemical pregnancy are very very sad over it.  It is truly a painful experience, especially if you’ve been trying to conceive for some time.  It is only natural to hurt over it, to cry over it, to get angry and shake your fist at the sky over it.  But a chemical pregnancy is in NO WAY akin to what a woman who has had a miscarriage at 12 weeks or 20 weeks or loses a baby during labor experiences.  It is not even rational to equate the two.  Yet some women will act as if their small hurt is worthy of the same consideration as an unimaginable one, and years later will still talk about their loss of a “baby” that existed only for a couple of days. I don’t doubt their turmoil is real, but based on my own experience, I wonder how much comes from the actual loss itself and how much of it is self-inflicted.  When they tell themselves again and again, I’ve had a miscarriage, I’ve lost a child, their spirit responds accordingly.  

To further complicate matters, recall that women often secretly resent the high achievers.  In our toxic hierarchy of female suffering, all too often, women who’ve had stillbirths are treated almost like that girl who everyone secretly hated because she was gorgeous, a straight A student, class president, and captain of the basketball team.  Who does she think she is, anyway, being above me on the hierarchy?  People aren’t mean to women who have had late-term losses of course; they would never express that ugly sentiment openly, or even consciously engage it in their mind.  But they just don’t seem to know what to do with these women who have suffered so greatly.

Their fellow women often end up inadvertently ostracizing them.  For not only do we subconsciously fear the idea that their misfortune might be contagious and keep them at arm’s length for that reason (as we do with everyone who experiences suffering that seems too great to bear), not only do we not know the right things to say and feel awkward and embarrassed and don’t reach out when we should, but on some level we loathe their being above us on the hierarchy.  Not deliberately, but it’s there, just a hint of jealousy that others have done the math and found their suffering to be worse than ours. Even when it IS worse than ours by all objective measure.

Of late, I feel like the #metoo movement has devolved into a similarly perverse hierarchy of toxic suffering.  I think we all instinctively realize that being raped by a stranger is by any objective measure worse than a guy grabbing your ass on the subway.  Acquaintance rape is worse than an unwanted but thankfully brief pass made by a boss.  We’d all probably rather hang out with Aziz Ansari than Louis CK, and Louis CK than Harvey Weinstein…even though none of us want to hang out with Louis CK OR Aziz Ansari.  Sexual aggression is never acceptable, but not all aggressive actions are the same in terms of trauma inflicted. There’s a hierarchy here and it is rational that there is a hierarchy because these experiences are simply not equivalent to each other.  

Yet minor injuries are still injuries.  Of course they cause us pain.  It is only natural to hurt, to cry, to get angry and shake your fist at the sky even over what most would consider a relatively slight offense.  None of these experiences, even the briefest ones, we’d wish on our worst enemy, but it’s simply not rational to insist that a minuscule and momentary violation of sexual consent by an otherwise well-meaning man is in any way equivalent to being grabbed off the street and held captive by a stranger who brutalizes you.  They are not equivalent events any more than a stillbirth and a chemical pregnancy are.

The victims of all sexual harm, great or small, deserve our sympathy.  Be they gaping wounds or hangnails, we should be able to talk about them openly if we wish to, and create awareness of them (just like with pregnancy loss).  We should be able to come together in sisterhood to demand that the little hurts are stopped right alongside the big ones. But I fear that within our sisterhood, we have begun to incentivize pain – the more pain you’re in, the higher your “worth”.  We have turned #metoo into a toxic hierarchy in which we wish to keep the victims of the worst sexual violence at a distance because they remind us that it can happen to us, while simultaneously jockeying for a better position on the hierarchy.  In this climate, the women in the most pain, who have suffered the most grievous wrongs, are being drowned out by a flood of voices many of which are conflating temporary annoyances and awkward moments with violent and sadistic sex crimes.

In a hierarchy based around suffering, the tendency to make our experience sound a little worse, a little more traumatic, is very tempting. There’s a reward – sympathy, attention, respect. In a very real way, it’s getting to the point where you earn your stripes as a woman by sharing a #metoo story. (All women have numerous #metoo stories – men, please think on this.  This article is in no way meant to let you off the hook for bad behavior.)

I feel the urge too.  I really do. Looking back on my life through a #metoo lens I see several unpleasant but thankfully brief experiences in a more sinister light than I did at the time I experienced them.  It’s quite peculiar because even as I do this, I find myself minimizing some terrifying and serious events that occurred.  I think I do this because I perceive them as too embarrassing to share.  I minimize anything with gray areas, anything I feel somehow complicit in, things I worry people might hold against me in some way.  I was drunk, we were in a relationship, I wasn’t assertive enough, I shouldn’t have been out walking alone. I find myself instead revisiting things that didn’t even particularly bother me at the time they happened and dwelling on those instead.  Not only because of “awareness”, not only because I now realize that some things that I thought were normal, acceptable, a by-product of being a woman that you just had to put up with, were actually wrongs. It’s partially that, but it’s not only that. If it was just an increased level of awareness, I’d be talking about the serious things too.  But I don’t.  I push them away, deny them.  I barely even think of them.

The only conclusion I can draw is that on some level I want to be on the hierarchy.  But I want to be on the hierarchy only for things I feel don’t reflect badly upon me in any way.  For things I won’t be judged over. So I focus on the random and momentary events in which I was in the wrong place at the wrong time, and keep the really bad things to myself. Because I want to appear both wronged but also entirely innocent, and the really bad things always have some component of self-blame involved.

That seems to me to be a step backwards, a step away from awareness and openness towards a world where women are still keeping secrets, still feeling shame, still blaming themselves and analyzing their behavior to figure out did I lead him on? was this my fault? how could I have prevented this? Even as everyone dissects microaggressions down to the subatomic level, the heaviest burden of sexual assault still falls onto the victims. And the worst perpetrators end up hiding in plain sight, protected by our silence.  Same as it ever was.

Suddenly everyone has a story to tell about how their lives are ruined over a guy that tried to kiss them in 1993, a guy who asked for their phone number on a bus, a guy who looked a little too long or hooted as they walked past on the street.  But the problem is, once you start buying into the idea that every disagreeable sexual experience no matter how small or short-lived, was a violation, a crime, that you are a victim, that the man who wronged you is irredeemably evil, that all men are evil, you WILL start experiencing the emotions to go with it.  Terror and a pervasive sense of victimhood will color everything in your life. The men who wronged you in virtually all cases will never be held accountable, but you will find yourself awash in negative emotions over things that barely even upset you when they happened.

It’s like giving yourself a life sentence for a crime someone else committed.   

When you start telling yourself I was assaulted, I am damaged, I will never recover from this! your spirit listens and you will find yourself beset with feelings that you maybe never had at the time.  Pop psychologists will tell us it’s because we didn’t allow ourselves to feel at the time. We “blocked” our emotions until it was “safe” to experience them. But I believe in many cases, it’s because we didn’t view ourselves as victims.  It’s the sudden sense of victimization that creates the surge of emotion months or even years later. That conviction that something horrible happened. But did something HORRIBLE really happen?  Or merely awkward and unpleasant?  Are we mentally rewriting our script and recasting ourselves as victims because that’s what others are doing and we don’t want to be left out?  

It is a trap that’s very easy to fall into. But if you weren’t deeply upset about something that happened at the time, consider the possibility that you may be psyching yourself up in the here and now to have huge feelings over something that barely even upset you when it occurred. And if you are talking about small things even as you keep the large ones to yourself, is this really freeing you at all?  Or are you still hiding your real pain while exploiting the little things so you can earn your #metoo stripes, like I did?

Straight talk – women are not fragile, easily broken creatures.  I promise. Women have endless reserves of strength and endurance in the face of suffering that most of us never even (thankfully) have to tap into in this modern world.  People – most people who have ever lived, male or female, but especially female – have experienced loss and pain and adversity that most of us living First World today cannot even really imagine.  And yet they rose above those things. They recovered from them. They were NOT destroyed. They lived their lives not as victim but as survivor.

We often criticize our foremothers for staying silent.  Some would call that complicity. But I don’t, not any more.  I understand why they didn’t talk about this stuff.  Because I didn’t talk about this stuff either until I was empowered by the actions of others and even now I keep the truly awful to myself.  Because I don’t want to be judged.  Those ladies of the past did not stay silent because they weren’t as strong and brave as we are (hint – coming forward in a world full of people who are also coming forward and all of you met with thunderous applause, is not as strong and brave as people are telling us that it is) They weren’t weaklings or cowards.  They just didn’t want to be held hostage to their pain forever – a sentiment I completely understand. They didn’t want to go through their life as “that girl who the bad thing happened to” because that would simply compound their suffering.  

So don’t now decide to hold YOURSELF hostage to your own pain forever!

Every human being is wronged countless times over the course of their lives.  But a minor wrong done doesn’t destroy you. Don’t allow another person’s bad behavior to ruin sex for you, to ruin love for you, to make you afraid of everyone and everything forever.  Don’t be in such a hurry to claim your place in the toxic hierarchy of women’s suffering that you end up defining yourself by something that someone else did to you for the rest of your life.  

 

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