In “The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action,” Audre Lorde writes the following description of her thought process when faced with a potential diagnosis of cancer:
[…] and what I most regretted were my silences. Of what had I ever been afraid? To question or to speak as I believed could have meant pain, or death. But we all hurt in so many different ways, all the time, and pain will either change or end. Death, on the other hand, is the final silence. And that might be coming quickly, now, without regard for whether I had ever spoken what needed to be said, or had only betrayed myself into small silences, while I planned someday to speak, or waited for someone else’s words. And I began to recognize a source of power within myself that comes from the knowledge that while it is most desirable not to be afraid, learning to put fear into a perspective gave me great strength.
I was going to die, if not sooner then later, whether or not I had ever spoken myself. My silences had not protected me. Your silence will not protect you.” (41)
The first time I read these words, it was like a finger had been pointed with uncomfortable precision, straight at my heart. I know what it means to be silent, out of fear, out of the desire to hide – out of the hope that, if I keep quiet, I won’t be the next target.
Silence isn’t always just about fear, of course. I know I have to pick my battles, and sometimes I know that taking on this instance of privilege will win me more headache and heartache than progress. Sometimes I honestly know that there’s no way that my voice will be heard. But along with those feelings comes the hope that silence will provide some sort of safety, like if I don’t call out the oppression around me, I somehow won’t be harmed by it.
It’s a false refuge, I know. Silence is where ignorance flourishes, and that is what allows the structures of oppression to continue to operate unchallenged. More than malice or greed, it’s ignorance of inequality that keeps us from dismantling white supremacy or patriarchy. And that ignorance requires collective action to change it – but of course, collective action requires individuals with the courage to participate.
But silence is a tricky issue for women, and women of color. Hell, if even Audre Lorde fell prey to it, that’s got to mean that silence isn’t easy to resist.
There are two other problematic aspects of silence that I want to explore, which are more complex than simply the fear of negative reaction, and which are tied specifically to issues of race and gender.
We just don’t know how to say ‘no’
Okay, that subtitle is somewhat sarcastic. I don’t mean that women don’t have the ability to actually say speak up for themselves, as if we lacked the courage or awareness. But there are ways that women are – sabotaged, we could say – in their ability to speak up for their own desires, especially when it comes to refusing other people – and especially when it comes to refusing men.
I have been in conversations with women in heterosexual relationships that revealed that they had trouble saying no to sex – either out of the assumption that it’s perfectly normal for a couple to have sex when the woman doesn’t really want to, or because they knew they could say ‘no,’ but felt bad doing it. I’ve had conversations about the origins of this difficulty, too – which reveals that just because women know they ought to be more straightforward, doesn’t mean they can be. There’s still that discomfort, fear, worry about causing trouble for the man. Even if that man is supportive! There’s the nagging concern that somehow we’re asking for too much by asserting our desires when it inconveniences our male partner.
Rather than assuming women just have some sort of biological imperative to have trouble saying ‘no,’ let’s look at these excerpts from Kathleen V. Cairns’ “‘Femininity’ and women’s silence in response to sexual harassment and coercion”:
This pattern may be particularly prevalent in established male/female relstaionships, where women often feel that their consent is, ‘constrained by [a] felt duty to be cooperative, to meet the man’s needs, not to be “inconsistent”, or accept a sexual duty towards a man whom [they are] having a close personal relationship’ [Cairns 1993a: 205]. (104)
Self-assertion or strength in purpose is generally reframed in women as selfishness, and as damaging to the well-being of men and children, since women’s obligations and responsibilities for other are expected to override self-interest. (101)
Tie these factors in to the way in which women are taught that we aren’t ‘supposed’ to have sexual desire, and you get this:
‘Struggling not to know or feel her own desire [and knowing] that she “should” say no, [she may] end up having sex “happen” to her’ [Tolman 1991: 65]. […] The experience of male persistence and coercion is complex for women. They experience strong ambivalence and undertainty about refusing male advances. […] Confronted with sexual harassment or coercion, women educated about their bodies through patriarchy are likely to have difficulty experiencing their bodies as their own, even after being ‘told’ through education that they have the ‘right’ of ownership. (100-1)
Women aren’t born feeling this way: we’re taught to. Consider these facts from “Marital Rape: History, Research, and Practice” by Jennifer A. Bennice and Patricia A. Resick: marital rape was codified into British and U.S. law through the “Hale doctrine,” a 1736 piece of writing by Sir Matthew Hale that stated, “But the husband cannot be guilty of a rape committed by himself upon his lawful wife, for by their mutual matrimonial consent and contract the wife hath given up herself in this kind unto her husband, which she cannot retract.”
Hale wasn’t the only guy who thought this way, of course; his written idea was supported by society-wide cultural assumptions about women, marriage, and sex. And these ideas do not die easily, as we can see by the fact that the Federal Sexual Abuse Act, which made marital rape into a crime on federal lands, passed in 1986. Marital rape was not illegal in all 50 of the United States until 1993. Even now, it is granted more exemptions than other forms of rape – making it clear that, under the law, women lose partial control over their bodies just by virtue of getting married.
Oh, but lest we forget – the principle behind the Hale doctrine can still be seen to rear its ugly head in non-marital rape cases.
So when women are faced with societal opposition to this extent, is it any wonder why we feel ambivalent about our ability to say ‘no’? And what other ways do we undermine women’s rights to assert their own desires, outside of sex and heterosexual relationships?
Silence out of defiance
There are, of course, instances in which we use silence with a purpose. One of my favorite descriptions of this comes from Mira Jacob’s “My Brown Face,” an essay in the anthology, Body Outlaws. An Indian American woman, she talks about her mother’s deadly use of silence to express her refusal or disapproval. It’s a use of silence that I, as an Asian American woman, am used to. I use it myself all the time – usually accompanied with a glare of death. 😉
Sadly, silence doesn’t always convey the message it’s intended to. Whether the gulf of understanding originates from racial or gender privilege, as Jacob describes, white men can misread her silence into something befitting the ‘Oriental girl’ stereotype:
[C]ontrary to my hasty logic (mute girl = bored guy), my silence only perpetuated the enigma, adding the brute element of interpretation. ‘I think you’re avoiding me,’ I heard at parties, often only hours after being introduced to a guy. ‘You’re scared of our connection, right? I know you can feel it. I felt it the minute I laid eyes on you.’ And here it was again, the bond, the miracle, the connection associated with my face, the need to be led into whatever temple I had available. I saw desire thrown back to me in fragments of Taj Mahal, Kamasutra, womanly wiles. I felt my body turn into a dark country, my silence permission to colonize. (10)
Of course, the use of silence is not common to all Asian women, nor is it limited to them. It can be used by women in any number of situations, when silence is the best – or perhaps only – method of refusal. Unfortunately, it’s too easy for men – socialized into entitlement to women’s consent – to be deaf to its meaning.
I hate to give up the tool of silence, which is (to me) one of the clearest ways I can convey my displeasure. Speaking often ends up being messy, my words tripping over one another and failing to convey my point. But in situations like this when it can be mistaken for compliance – and in a cultural context which, as described above, assumes women’s compliance – speaking up in dissent can be necessary.
Women’s words and women’s consent have been misused and abused to facilitate violence, whether in the form of verbal harassment or sexual assault. We need to recognize how silence has been forced upon us, so that we cannot refuse; or twisted, so that our silent refusal is ignored. Recognition can lead us to reclamation of both our voices and our silences.