Mythologies17 June 2019
Content warning: sexual assault
It has become more or less axiomatic that if women want to achieve equality in our time, we must first strip ourselves bare—revealing our worst shames, heartaches and sins so that we may be seen as utterly human. To be a woman in public these days is—more often than not—to be in the business of confession.
I am talking about the vast proliferation of personal essays online, in which one details a particularly harrowing personal experience, usually in exchange for a paltry sum of cash and a great deal of public humiliation. In the wake of the #MeToo movement, media companies realise that they could get a lot of attention from publishing stories of pain and abjection, often written by young, precarious women who are desperate to get their foot in the door.
I do not want to argue that all confessional writing is bad, or that anyone doing the confession is necessarily being exploited. There is power (I am told) in telling your own story and in being heard. Good writing has a transformative, even redemptive quality. Far be it from me to deny women their own subjectivity. My problem lies not with the writers of personal essays, but with an industry that profits off the pain of precarious people, and the common assumption that all women’s writing is autobiographical by default.
Perhaps the worst of this trend is exemplified through the popular clickbait website, Bustle, a women’s lifestyle magazine that gets 43.8 million unique visitors in a month. To maximise its ability to produce titillating content, it sends its “Bustle Writers Identity Survey” which contains a set of highly personal questions such as: “have you ever had a medical abortion,” “have you been date raped” or “have you suffered from domestic violence”. I think we can agree that these are highly inappropriate questions for an employer to ask of their staff under any circumstance, and certainly unacceptable questions to pose under duress. It is heavily implied that if a staff writer does not fill out this survey, then they will be sidelined in their job and will not be assigned to write pieces for the website. These questions are asked of writers who reportedly only make $15 an hour on 6-hour shifts. Clearly, telling one’s own personal story is much less profitable than it is to publish someone else’s.
This is confession produced at an industrial scale. Impersonal, mass produced, written by women who don’t have money to line the pockets of men who do.
If all you knew about young women was what you read in a magazine like Bustle or XoJane, you would think that our lives were spent in a state of heterosexual abjection. One would assume that our lives were confined to the bedroom and the waiting room. The pain is the point. It would be dishonest to pretend that these stories are only popular because they are righteous. People find titillation, some kind of sick thrill, in the suffering of others. Susan Sontag writes of the “voyeuristic lure” of war photography “the possible satisfaction of knowing this is not happening to me” (2003, pg. 99). The fact of pain does not offer a solution. It is easy to become inured to pain, especially when you believe that there is nothing that can be done about it. “Compassion is an unstable emotion”; it must be translated into action or it dies. The sheer scale of confessional writing that exists online in 2019 can feel like background noise. Another quotidian tragedy, sensational and familiar at once.
No therapist in their right mind would suggest total publicity as a cure for trauma. The internet can be an awful place and exposing a young and hungry writer to the scrutiny of trolls and cynics everywhere can be psychologically damaging to say the least. Yet, it is this sort of labour that we are expected to do if we want to be free from the scourges of sexual assault, reproductive discrimination and other forms of marginalisation based on intersecting identities. If we want to normalise abortion, we are supposed to shout about our own. If we want to end sexual harassment in the workplace, we must provide lurid details of casting couches and wandering hands. Writer Lauren Oyler accuses her colleague Roxane Gay of laziness for not sharing the exact details of her gang rape, as if she has an obligation to show in unflinching detail the worst day of her life, not only to strangers but presumably to her friends and family who will be reading her book and will be horrified by such specificity.
The pain these essays reveal is real. It is a story worth telling. But it is a story worthy of compensation, and not a story that every woman is obligated to tell. You need not show the world your wounds just to prove that you bleed.
Juzwiak, Rich. “Bustle and the Industrialisation of Confession.” Gawker (2016). Web.
Oyler, Lauren. “Bad Feminism and Its Discontents.” Book Slut (2014). Web.
Sontag, Susan. On Regarding the Pain of Others. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003. Print.