“Get your bleeping clothes off, shut the bleep up, hurry up, we got bleep to do, hit her in the back of the head so it don’t leave no marks.” This is what rocker Chrissie Hynde recalls hearing a group of bikers say about her when she was 21 and very stoned. In her new memoir, she describes an experience that fits the legal definition of sexual assault. Yet, as has been widely and controversially reported this week, she doesn’t identify as a survivor — she willingly takes full responsibility for the events of the evening, and even says she had fun. “You know,” she told NPR, “no one dragged me into the park in the middle of the night with a gun at my head and forced me to do anything. I went off with these guys of my own volition and I shouldn’t have.”
The book is called Reckless: My Life As a Pretender, and feminists were quick to opine that her comments were, indeed, reckless. Hynde insists that she’s just telling her own story in her own way. “I’m not here trying to advise anyone or tell anyone what to do or tell anyone what to think, and I’m not here as a spokesperson for anyone,” she continued in that NPR interview. If you don’t like her views, she suggested, don’t buy her book.
Hynde has never claimed to be a feminist. At 64, she is quite a bit younger than 80-year-old second-wave icon Susan Brownmiller, who certainly does identify as a feminist. But they’ve found themselves in similar positions on this issue. Brownmiller recently said of today’s anti-assault activists, “They don’t accept the fact there are predators out there, and that all women have to take special precautions. … I find the position ‘Don’t blame us, we’re survivors’ to be appalling.” Requiring that all famous women label themselves as feminists seems self-defeating. But, to me, it isn’t unreasonable to want to hold bold, revered artists and thinkers like Hynde and Brownmiller to feminist ideals of not blaming survivors for not protecting themselves better.
Hynde seems surprised and angry at the pushback about how she has described her experience. It’s understandable. To those who aren’t immersed in activist scenes or certain online circles, contemporary feminist politics can seem like an elaborately laid trap, even for well-meaning allies. Other women writers have told me that they won’t touch certain topics for fear of running afoul of the internet-feminist outrage machine. While I don’t think the specter of “political correctness” is truly silencing speech, I do think that activists of all stripes expect people who make art to talk about very complicated issues — like race, sexual assault, and gender identity — in very specific ways. And we are not very forgiving when those well-meaning allies reveal their blind spots.
There are some truths at the heart of many of these seemingly outdated statements. Like Hynde, I understand that not every assault survivor wants to embrace that label, and no survivor should have to. Like Brownmiller, I would argue that if you’re blackout drunk, it is harder to get yourself out of a threatening situation. Most sexual-assault activists probably wouldn’t disagree with these statements. Part of the problem is not the controversial quotes themselves, then, but their authors’ (or the interviewer’s) failure to include more context for them.
When Hynde declared, “However you want to look at it, this was all my doing, and I take full responsibility,” she was instantly aligned with finger-wagging victim-blamers who suggest that sobriety and modesty could end rape, whether she intended that or not. But she was talking about her own experience. I don’t think her comments would have been quite so infuriating if she had gone out of her way to note that the people ultimately responsible for rape are rapists. But is it fair to expect that of her? I want women like Hynde to be able to tell their own stories in ways that are authentic and true to how they feel. But I also don’t like to support the still-present messaging that if a woman is assaulted, it’s because she hasn’t taken proper precautions. It is a really, really tricky line to walk.
Ultimately, all survivors should be empowered to talk about and deal with their experience however they want to — and I don’t think they should have to label themselves as “survivors” or become political spokespeople in order to do so. Perhaps there’s something self-protective in Hynde’s shouldering the blame and refusing to be considered a victim. In a recent Vanity Fair interview, Rihanna explained how awful it is to be publicly associated with an experience she has no desire to keep reliving. “For me, and anyone who’s been a victim of domestic abuse, nobody wants to even remember it,” she said. “Nobody even wants to admit it. So to talk about it and say it once, much less 200 times, is like … I have to be punished for it? It didn’t sit well with me.” I don’t want women to have to conform their stories to an acceptable feminist narrative designed to counteract harmful stereotypes, and I don’t want all famous women who are survivors to be forever identified with that experience.
But there’s probably a way to distance yourself from the survivor label without labeling others as blame-worthy victims. And when it comes to activists who are telling the stories of other women, I do expect some awareness both of how times have changed and how dominant narratives about victims’ “asking for it” are still so persistent. When it comes to pioneering feminists like Susan Brownmiller, who are speaking about the modern anti-assault activist landscape, I expect some acknowledgment that decades of focusing on women’s safety with self-defense classes and Take Back the Night marches — rather than rapists’ culpability — have not led to a dramatic decrease in assault. I don’t expect this from Brownmiller because she’s a feminist; I expect it because she’s part of the conversation now, in 2015, and because she presumably cares about advancing this cause into the future.
And so even though I disagree with Hynde and Brownmiller, I am not throwing out my Pretenders records or burning my copy of Brownmiller’s Against Our Will. It is possible to compartmentalize — a tactic that feminists who enjoy pop culture are pretty familiar with. But I don’t think it’s right to shrug and move on without noting the ways their perspectives are hurtful. Organizer Ngoc Loan Trần has suggested holding people accountable by “calling in,” as opposed to calling people out: “It means extending to ourselves the reality that we will and do fuck up, we stray and there will always be a chance for us to return,” she writes. “I want our movements sustainable, angry, gentle, critical, loving — kicking ass and calling each other back in when we stray.”