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The Guardian recently published a widely circulated piece about women and emotional labour, in which Rose Hackman poses an important question: is the question of women’s emotional work the next frontier of feminist activism?
As Hackman acknowledges, this is not really a new question or a new frontier at all: after all, American sociologist Arlie Hochschild coined the term more than 30 years ago in her 1983 book The Managed Heart. However, there is significant renewed interest in emotional or affective labour, particularly as social media creates an entirely new sphere of emotional engagement — one that can blur the lines between personal and professional lives, where many women are often demanded to be constantly on the clock, and in which they often face virulent and constant abuse and harassment.
The fact that it is often women (and in particular, women of colour) who are asked to perform emotional labour struck a chord for me, given that we are currently at the one-year anniversary of the first revelations around former CBC host Jian Ghomeshi.
It’s hard to believe that it’s already been a year since the news started to roll in. Already a year since the first anonymous stories detailing incidents of physical and sexual violence at Ghomeshi’s hands were featured in an exposé published by the Toronto Star in collaboration with Canadaland‘s Jesse Brown.
These were only the first of many. As the days clicked by — one after the other, after the other — more stories spilled forth. There were radio interviews, more articles, television interviews, panels convened on primetime. My social media newsfeeds were bursting with an overwhelming immediacy: rapid re-tweets, shared links, breaking news headlines. Things took a significant turn when two women — actress and Royal Canadian Armed Forces captain Lucy DeCoutere and writer and lawyer Reva Seth — courageously put their names and faces to the vast archive of stories that continued to build.
And then: the floodgates burst open. When the #BeenRapedNeverReported hashtag — the brainchild of then-recently retired Toronto Star reporter Antonia Zerbisias and fellow journalist, Montreal Gazette reporter Sue Montgomery — began to trend, I could scarcely keep up with the stories that were scrolling across my screen.
I took frequent breaks from social media, unable to physically or emotionally process the sheer immensity, depth, heartbreak, violence, trauma, bravery, and courage that was unfolding before me. The stories continued to roll in. One after the other.
There was no doubt in those weeks, as October clicked over to November, that sexualized and gendered violence were at the forefront of both individual and collective consciousness, both in Canada (at the epicentre of it all) and beyond. Our senses felt heightened. Everything was here, now. It was pressing, urgent, and that immediacy was both incredibly empowering and almost too much to bear.
We were having a conversation we had no doubt had before (and have had since), but its sheer scope and intensity seemed beyond anything that Canadians might have ever envisioned having or wanting to have. I cannot count the number of stories I read and heard during that time: endless blog posts, radio commentaries, observations, and critiques. It was noisy, and certainly with good reason.
Then, a whole year passed.
I didn’t expect trending hashtags or nightly news updates this year, and I was perhaps incredibly naïve in believing that there might be some sort of significant rumblings about the anniversary. The CBC did quietly announce a bullying and harassment helpline for employees in early October, following one of several recommendations by Janice Rubin, who led an investigation into the CBC following last fall’s revelations about Ghomeshi and institutional neglect.
The Huffington Post featured an interview with #BeenRapedNeverReported creators Antonia Zerbisias and Sue Montgomery, but the reach of this piece is nothing compared to how survivors’ stories occupied HuffPo Canada’s front page just one year ago. Chatelaine featured a moving piece in which seven prominent Canadian women were asked about the lasting impact of the Ghomeshi scandal: at the time of this writing, it has received only 88 shares from its website.
I can’t help but notice that a year after Ghomeshi, the discussion around this alleged “watershed moment” is struggling once again to get off the ground, and those tasked with doing the work of keeping it going are generally the same brave and brilliant activists and survivors who have already spent significant amounts of time speaking out about these issues, often at great personal cost.
Which brings me back to the issue of women’s labour. When I look at those who have written or spoken about the Ghomeshi anniversary during the past few weeks, I see familiar names: Piya Chattopadhyay, Julie Lalonde, Sue Montgomery, Antonia Zerbisias. Even the bylines feature the same female journalists who often take on these topics: Zosia Bielski, Sarah Boesveld.
Over at the feminist academic blog Hook & Eye, Erin Wunker took on a piece this year, after already having spent a significant portion of last winter compiling stories of abuse and harassment for a CWILA (Canadian Women in the Literary Arts) initiative entitled “Love, Anonymous.” In her recent blog post, “This Changed Me,” Erin asks an important question: “How do we both honour and continue to grapple with the cost — both visible and invisible — of speaking openly about experiences of gendered violence?”
I want to talk about the cost, but I also want to talk about the very specific forms of labour performed by those who speak publicly. I want to make them visible. I want people to understand exactly what it means to do this kind of work: and it really is work.
The labour of speaking out — and of surviving publicly, given that many do both — is extraordinary difficult and it is multifaceted. We do not only perform emotional labour, but also social and economic labour, much of which is invisible beyond the narrow constraints of a television interview or a blog post. The costs, too — what we as public figures pay for having spoken out — are at best invisible, at worst deliberately ignored.
The labour is the long hours of writing blog posts and articles or organizing workshops. It’s sitting on panels, responding to interview requests, and offering commentaries on current events, in an attempt to educate the public at large. It’s the fact that most of this work, unless we also happen to have a career within the anti-violence field, is usually entirely unpaid, which makes for a bit of wry humour when trolls accuse us of being “professional victims.”
In all of my years of writing, speaking, and organizing, I have not earned a single cent. The fact that it does not generally pay to be a public survivor or advocate — in spite of the hundreds of hours that goes into that work — also collides with another reality, which is that surviving sexual assault and doing advocacy both take a massive toll on mental, physical, emotional, and psychological health. Having access to resources to deal with the stress of this work is imperative, but it can also be cost-prohibitive.
The labour is being asked to educate others outside of regular working hours, especially if you maintain a presence on social media. It’s being seen as an encyclopedia or resource on all things to do with rape and assault, without recognizing that burnout or the need for self-care exists.
The labour is speaking to fellow survivors, many of whom share their stories with a public figure for the first time, because they feel a sense of trust and understanding. It is feeling as though you can never do enough or listen enough. It’s worrying about how much support they have, and doing your best to keep them connected with resources. Until you’ve gotten dozens stories in your Facebook messages, your email inbox, and your Twitter DMs, it is hard to imagine how breathless they will leave you. It’s knowing that you have to draw your boundaries at times, because you cannot be the sole source of support for someone.
And for as much work as we do, those of us who speak out also pay extraordinary costs.
There is a cost to speaking out in a workplace, even if you do not speak out against the workplace itself. And for those who do call out cultures of abuse and silencing in the places in which they work and study, there are jobs, promotions, reference letters, and reputations that can be put on the line — often in such subtle ways that the person who speaks out may never quite be able to identify how and why they are being punished for daring to come forward.
There is a cost to social relationships. Calling out rape culture and sexual assault myths can be the very things that destroy a friendship: in that way, it can be an excellent litmus test. There may be the curious phenomenon in which you receive public support, yet limited or no private support, or vice versa. Friends and colleagues who do not know what to say or do — especially if you speak out as a survivor — may not say or do anything at all. Speaking out and surviving publicly rarely garner greeting cards, casseroles, or flowers.
There is a cost to the various facets of wellbeing. In February 2015, months after the first stories about Ghomeshi came out, Chatelaine’s Shanda Deziel did a follow-up interview with Lucy DeCoutere, who had so quickly become the national face of sexual assault and of the associated bravery in speaking up about it. In that way, it was easy to forget that she is also a human being.
“While the support has ‘flattened’ her — in a good way — it’s also taken its toll. She has nightmares every night and has had to take some time off work to manage the stress. ‘My heart rate gets up and I slip into an anxiety attack, which isn’t really my vibe,’ she says, adding that she has been stress-eating a lot of popcorn. ‘I’ve probably gained five pounds.'”
While I have done many interviews about my own experiences of sexual violence, doing an interview early last winter on CBC’s The National sent me into a tailspin of depression and anxiety. I quickly gained 10 pounds. Most people forgot that I’d done the interview within a few weeks, but I quickly began re-living the assault, which took place in my workplace. I’m still trying to recover from the impact of those brief 20 seconds that aired on national television.”
There is a cost to privacy. Once you have spoken publicly, especially as a survivor, that information is out there forever online, for prospective employers and strangers alike to stumble upon. There is something eerie and unsettling about having your top Google searches feature some of the most horrific and unpleasant moments of your life, not to mention that speaking out about personal experiences of sexual violence also become fodder with which others can dismiss any reasonable or legitimate complaints about issues of harassment and violence; it will be perceived as an irrevocable bias. Strangers will comment about your experiences with distinct callousness; those comments, too, will stick around forever.
Knowing the incurred costs and the vast amounts of unpaid, underpaid, or precarious labour involved in speaking out about sexual violence, what can we do to make this situation better?
I want this labour be seen as labour, for others to acknowledge survivors and advocates not only for their time, but also for the affective and social labour that they put into this work. Acknowledge that this is not merely a hobby or a cause célebre, or something that is easy to do because they are “brave.” Be mindful of their time, their limits, their emotional resources. Acknowledge the immense and multiple risks that have to be navigated when any of this work is taken on.
I want others to take some of that labour on, for folks in positions of privilege to start conversations so others don’t always have to, for them to amplify survivors’ and advocates’ voices so they don’t have to scream so loudly.
Support this work. Ask how you can be involved. This year, I wonder: where’s the CBC? Where’s Hubert Lacroix, giving Canadians an update on whether or not changes are being made to make our public broadcaster a safe space? Where’s Jesse Brown? Where are Kevin Donovan and the Toronto Star?
Where are these individuals and institutions who have the power to keep these conversations going, if not all year, than at least one year past Ghomeshi? Where are the administrators of our colleges and university campuses? Why do they only make public statements when assaults or harassment come to light, rather than to let their students know what they’re doing to make these campuses better places? Why do I and others feel like we’re talking into an echo chamber? What are we going to do about this?
I will say, to be clear, that it’s unlikely that I will stop writing or speaking about sexualized and gendered violence. After all, it is not that I want to stop writing or speaking about these issues. I consent to doing these things: the interviews, the panels, the articles. I am learning to say no when I am either too tired or emotionally overwrought to complete them.
I am honoured to be able to speak, and to be able to hold space for and act in solidarity with other survivors. For all that I give, I often get, too: understanding, solidarity, allyship. In some moments, even healing.
But this is work. Hard work. Necessary work. Life-changing work. Work with rewards that defy easy economic principles or metaphors. But it is work nonetheless.
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