“It’s interesting seeing you with him,” smirked my housemate. The days of our secret socially distant affair were over: our households had officially bubbled up.
“Why?” I asked.
“You’re very…hmm.” He paused. “I need to choose my words carefully here.” His eyes gleefully searched the room for a word that would make the insult plain enough to sting but concealed enough to appear innocent. “Doting.” His eyes landed on mine.
“Oh yes, definitely.” I felt like I had been caught doing something bad by someone who knew that I knew it was bad but was waiting to see if I’d admit to it. “I am very doting when I like someone.”
“Hmmm,” he turned away. “I just don’t think I’ve ever seen you take on such an… effeminate role before.”
“What do you mean?” I asked with flushed cheeks.
“Well, whenever he’s round here, he doesn’t have to lift a finger.”
“What? That’s not true,” I said. “He’s really good, he just does stuff.” I sounded like a 50s housewife nervously justifying her top end purchase from the husband factory. “I don’t even have to ask him.”
“Oh. OK,” he said. The smirk wasn’t going anywhere.
I went upstairs annoyed. Annoyed because the whole conversation was so basic and because I knew that he was trying to wind me up. It felt like a Cosmo article from 2010 asking “Can you be a feminist and a submissive?” But as I walked up the stairs, my body gave way to that first flush of shame in my cheeks. My hands tremoured. I gulped in air too fast. I curled up as small as I could under the darkness of my duvet. My fingers were wet with hot tears. I closed my eyes. If the world was invisible to me then I was invisible to it.
To some, I have described the paradigmatic experience of the triggered millennial snowflake. But there will be others who have shared the kind of totalising depression that eclipsed me over the following days and know it to be a genuine sickness.
For those with little lived experience of oppression, “identity politics” take place on a purely academic plane. Linguistic analysis becomes a tool with which men are gratuitously chastened in order to undermine their legitimately accumulated power. Were I to tell off my housemate, it would be for a breach of some arbitrarily decided social code, unrelated to my ability to be well in the world.
Questions of sickness and health are almost invariably framed as medical rather than political. Doctors offer remedies that are necessarily private and individual rather than social and collective. For example, I have had two therapists tell me that I was sexually assaulted because I had an unconscious desire to be abused by men. There’s an extreme cruelty in attributing a cultural epidemic of male violence to individual female psychopathology. But beyond the immediate harm caused to the particular patient, it also forecloses the possibility of collective change.
The interpretation of these therapists was one of the reasons my housemate’s comments stung so much. Something of an echo resounded between them: that I was getting fucked by a man and I liked it. I consider all of these interventions to be unintelligent, but they still hurt. It’s terrifying to be told that you’re walking through the world with a target on your back. Even more so to be told that you were the one who put it there. To complain of injury sustained in these conditions exposes you as a fraud: claiming the limelight of victimhood for having received the thing you wanted all along.
The femmephobia expressed by my housemate becomes inevitable. As Andrea Long-Chu writes in Females, “Getting fucked makes you female because fucked is what a female is.” My liking sports and fucking women are pretensions of masculinity in his eyes, transparent attempts to conceal my sissyhood. It contains the double shame of femininity and the disingenuity of its disguise.
These kind of reflections on power and an individual’s place within wider social discourses are largely absent from mental health treatments. Sickness and health are therefore measured by one’s ability to function within the structural status quo. The metric of “functioning” is the efficiency with which one can participate in capitalism; the structural status quo entails a grossly unequal distribution of power. Mental health treatment which fails to acknowledge this social context serves only to reproduce the inequalities that cause injury.
By deeming those of us “sick” who struggle to function adequately within an unjust social context, the work of psychiatry is not to heal but to maintain an existing set of power relations. In The Protest Psychosis, Jonathan Metzl describes how black civil rights protesters in America were diagnosed with schizophrenia on the basis that they exhibited “delusional anti-whiteness” and “paranoid projections…to the Caucasian group.” Advertisements for the anti-psychotic medication Haldol in leading psychiatric journals showed angry black men with clenched Black Power fists “whose symptoms of social belligerence required chemical management.”
Last year, the American Psychoanalytic Association apologised for the role it had played in pathologising homosexuality as a disease to be cured. As late as the 90s in the UK, psychoanalytic training institutions refused admission to anyone who wasn’t straight. How could an insane pervert possibly be responsible for someone else’s sanity?
As a 33 year old queer kinky poly therapy school drop out, it’s only in the last couple of years that I’ve shaken off the sense that my sexual self is somehow defective. It’s a sorrowful shame to carry around in the world and one that was deepened by many therapists. When I did eventually find a queer therapist, she showed me that the only thing which needed fixing was the belief that I was broken.
Love in the time of Corona