For my feminist sisters who can readily accept that the conditions of oppression women face affect our self-perception, sense of power or entitlement, happiness and satisfaction and joy in life, self-confidence, and expectations of life and other people – how do you think it relates to your life? And how do you think it relates to other women’s lives?
Who do you think knows what part of your suffering is due to patriarchy and what part is due to the mysteries inherent to life? Do you think that there are inherent weaknesses in your character, in your brain chemistry, inherited or transmitted from your parents, stamped on you from harm inflicted by others? Do you think there is some authoritative knowledge that can tell you who you are?
Some of us have had the power to resist others’ claim to authoritative knowledge about us taken away violently and often abruptly, by psychiatry, responding either to our own reaching out for relief from pain and confusion, or to others’ fearful concerns for us and about us when they have decided that communication with us has reached the limits of their tolerance. Can you feminists see us as your sisters?
Can you see that when you participate in using mental illness accusations against other women, you are arrogating to yourself a portion of patriarchal authority to use as a weapon, to silence another woman or place her outside the bounds of sisterhood, outside the bounds of lesbian-feminist ethics that require us to deal with each other face to face and honestly, or honestly simply withdraw and acknowledge a failure in communication? Can you see that when you use mental illness accusations even against men you are increasing the hegemony of that patriarchal system and its availability for weaponization against women?
Disability consciousness has many linkages with feminism. The movement first known in the US as ex-mental patients liberation, later and in other places as ex-psychiatric inmates, psychiatric survivors, psychosocial diversity, survivors of psychiatric assault, mad pride, started with consciousness raising inspired by feminism – a process of mutual respect and vulnerability creating knowledge together and giving each person the space to be heard. Honoring our self-knowledge and the power to articulate it among others who won’t stick a de-legitimizing label on us, is what feminists have done and psychiatric abuse survivors have also done. (Some of us have a hard time with that vulnerability; I passed up an opportunity at my first conference ‘for human rights and against psychiatric oppression’ to join a women’s group and regretted it.)
The politics of these movements have both been based in the principle, the personal is political, but there are nuances. Psychiatric oppression, like men’s violence against women, is both private and public.* By virtue of the part of psychiatric oppression that claims a beneficent motive, to provide care and treatment (words that belie the fact of detention and subjection to others’ control including their invasion of the brain and body with mind-altering drugs and procedures), psychiatric settings and their practices are given leeway both in law and in public opinion to function outside the normative framework that governs the state’s acknowledged repressive apparatus for criminal detention and other detention that does not claim a beneficent motivation towards the detainee. (Madhouses, poorhouses, and prisons were not differentiated at an earlier period of European history according to Foucault’s History of Madness. All function as repression directed against the lower classes. Psychiatric wards and the mental health system as a whole still function as poorhouses, with people entering and/or unable to leave because of poverty, and so do prisons. It is commonly said that prisons function as psychiatric wards, and this claim is usually coupled with promotion of diversion to locked psychiatric wards of people who have been criminalized; this is obviously no solution. The underlying reality is that most people who are criminalized have been severely traumatized by life experiences so it is not hard to psychiatrize them if the motivation is there to do so.) The claim of beneficent motive, as well as the outsourcing to privately owned and nonprofit enterprises, places psychiatric oppression in at least a semi-private realm together with men’s violence against women, where relations of domination are both excused and ignored.
However, unlike men’s violence against women, psychiatric violence is an institutionalized form of violence linked closely with the state (i.e. ubiquitous state-run madhouses; and also legislation that sets explicit substantive and procedural standards for the exercise of control and coercion). In this way it is undeniably public, and psychiatrized women like myself can be in a position of insisting in feminist circles that the public realm cannot be invoked uncritically as a boon for women to counter privatized male violence. Women of color have had to make this point as well; in 2019 we are very much aware of police violence against women and men of color. As mentioned by a law professor of mine many years ago (Penny Andrews), women of color can experience their homes as a refuge from white society and its authorities, to be defended against intrusion, unlike the narrative that privacy of the home only serves to protect male violence and should be dismantled.
Another linkage between feminism and the movement against psychiatric oppression is a heightened consciousness of bodily autonomy. Many psychiatrized women have expressed that forced drugging or electroshock is a kind of rape. This deserves exploration. It is not merely a metaphor, which would be offensive. It is also not only about the sexualized abuse that often accompanies forced drugging in particular, where stripping, holding down and injecting the person in the buttocks is how the drugging is accomplished if the woman or man resists or if the goons simply want to add physical brutality. Similar to how rape is now understood to include coercive circumstances or absence of free (and informed) consent, and women are not required to prove resistance overcome by physical force, the core violation of psychiatric assault, similar to that of rape, is an intimate invasion that is per se harmful, that turns a woman’s body to an instrument for domination of the woman as human being. In rape, the woman’s own sexual potential is what is violated; in psychiatric violence, her consciousness as potential for engagement with the world and self is violated. There are resonances between sexuality and consciousness, and psychiatric drugs particularly neuroleptics can both disrupt hormones and cause specifically sexual dissociation.
Yet, because of a gap between the survivor (of psychiatric oppression) movement and the feminist movement, because of feminist therapy and the debates around it, because of the male domination of the survivor movement or simply the impossibility of naming deep female experiences in a mixed space (along with having to face or avoid misogynistic fantasies that men share when it’s their turn to be heard)…. we have only talked about these linkages in small spaces (often one on one), in marginalized asides that end up being reinterpreted to exclude us. (E.g. ‘sure, we have to de-medicalize women’s oppression. But, there are women who are simply psychotic, and that’s a different thing.’)
Also, until 2006 (when the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities was adopted by the UN General Assembly) or 2014/2015 (when the treaty monitoring body, the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, issued crucial interpretations of the right to equal recognition before the law and the right to liberty and security of the person), survivors of psychiatric oppression were a voice in the wilderness without any support in public authorities or institutions at all. The CRPD prohibits deprivation of liberty based on disability, including all detention in mental health facilities, and prohibits deprivation of legal capacity to make decisions, with a heightened concern for decisions about physical or mental integrity such as psychiatric treatment. Deprivation of liberty based on an actual or perceived mental health condition amounts to arbitrary detention, and forced or nonconsensual psychiatric interventions are a form of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or torture.
Recognition in international law (over 170 countries have ratified the CRPD; unfortunately the US is not among them) has given us a political platform, but even more basically, it has constituted us as political actors whose individual and collective subjectivity and voice matter. (This too is similar to women’s emergence as a political constituency, which as I’ve written about elsewhere in this blog, is currently under attack due to the failure of the movement for the rights of transgender people to respect women’s definitional, political, personal and collective boundaries.) But we still face too many situations where our sisters are vigorously promoting their belief in mental illness and its weaponization against those whose subjective realities a particular woman disagrees with, and/or whose behavior she finds objectionable. The weaponization of mental illness accusations has been used against transgender people, including those who are female and identify as men or transmen, saying that they are mentally ill and need treatment. The transgender movement on the other hand has conflated the value of personal subjectivity, which has been elevated by survivors of psychiatric oppression as a right of autonomy and integrity based in the equal worth and dignity of every human being, with a claim to have personal subjectivity judicialized as the basis for legal classification uniquely with respect to sex, undermining the political settlement that has recognized sex (at least grudgingly; US still has not ratified the Equal Rights Amendment for constitutional equality of the sexes) as an axis of discrimination and oppression.
We have to mobilize an intersectional feminist/disability rights analysis in order to politicize theoretically and practically the relation of gender identity to feminism within a human rights framework that can serve as a space for discourse of mutual recognition and debate on terms that do not automatically invalidate either side (trans movement’s current definitional invalidation of women, or some feminists’ weaponization of mental illness accusations to invalidate transgender identity as a claim for a recognition of a specific type of gender nonconformity as social identity). The politics of gender have to be debated, including the question of whether all gender is patriarchal (does gender = sex stereotypes = masculinity/femininity; are these in turn equivalent to dominance behaviors and submission behaviors); whether all cultural symbolism related to sex is equivalent to gender (goddess, or god; representations of female and male genitalia and bodies, always a sexualized domination or not? differences between female and male in this respect, and why?); the relationship between sex stereotypes and men’s systematic material subjugation of women through sexual and reproductive exploitation; the relationship between sex stereotypes and female and male sexuality; the relationship between gender nonconformity and female and male sexual orientation; how we characterize the ultimate goal or marker of women’s liberation from male domination (e.g. my position: female autonomy and option of separatism at every level personal and collective, from sexual to political and economic; ‘at least’ equal power and resources of women compared with men); and the relationship of social and legal recognition of nonconforming gender identities and this ultimate goal – is the recognition of nonconforming gender identities unacceptable, a temporary accommodation, a way to undermine sex stereotypes, a necessary feature of a society that has achieved women’s liberation from male domination?
Finally, it occurs to me I haven’t argued the claim that mental illness accusations, psychiatric classification and psychiatric oppression and violence are patriarchal in nature. We all should know about Freud and Jung, notorious abusers of women and rape apologists, whose psychological theories, those of Freud in particular, have shaped our assumptions about the authoritative viewpoint of mental health professional practitioners as knowers of the supposed unconscious subjective realities of others who are supposed to have hidden those realities from their own awareness for psychosexual reasons. (I wonder if the original ideas of Sabina Spielrien, a psychiatrized woman who became a psychoanalyst, which were stolen and distorted by Jung and Freud, would point in a different direction, or not.) The paradigmatic analyst is male with a female patient, just as men in patriarchal culture have punished women for knowledge of their own sexuality and enforced rape (marital or otherwise) as an opening of women through violence into supposed sexual knowledge responding to male direction. The violation of intimate knowledge either privately (creation of a relationship of domination when a woman seeks help from mental health services and is required to expose herself to the power of the practitioner to dominate and assert control over her; anything she discloses in a relationship of trust can be used against her to involuntarily commit and ‘treat’ her) or publicly (by the social and legal act of domination exercised by involuntary commitment and ‘treatment’, which stamps her with a claim of knowledge of her psyche even if she has said nothing and given nothing of her trust or participation into an interaction with them; observation rather than interaction marks her as an object and her own narrative as raw material for the practitioner as designated knower, similarly to colonial dynamics as well) terrorizes and twists our sense of ourselves in the world, making the public (our self-narrative) go underground for private conservation, and putting out our actual private lives disclosed in trust or a narrative about our private selves made up by others, for public consumption and ridicule. (This also is similar to sexual exploitation in prostitution and pornography industries.) Women survivors of psychiatric oppression take extraordinary risks in talking about any of this, and we should not have to do it again and again.
There needs to be a right to privacy that is female-centric, and that complements a different kind of public space as well that is horizontal and discursive rather than hierarchical and coercive, and that incorporates female autonomy and the absolute eradication of rape as a first principle. The convergence of feminism and anti-psychiatric oppression survivor politics opens up space for the fullness of women’s lives, as we express them, to emerge into both feminism and the political institutions we are working to transform or re-create.
Note: edited slightly for greater clarity Nov 15, 2019
Thanks for writing this personal and very political blog. I found it helpful and enlightening given my own distrust of the “mental health professionals” I’ve encountered.
You wrote about “The violation of intimate knowledge either privately (creation of a relationship of domination when a woman seeks help from mental health services and is required to expose herself to the power of the practitioner to dominate and assert control over her….” that names my experience, too.
I especially appreciate this positive note, “The convergence of feminism and anti-psychiatric oppression survivor politics opens up space for the fullness of women’s lives, as we express them, to emerge into both feminism and the political institutions we are working to transform or re-create.”
I’ve bookmarked this post to come back and read again.
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