The Politics of Pain

A writer friend recently asked: why do you always write about female suffering? My first novel, The Dancing Girl and the Turtle, is about a woman who turns to self-harm out of shame for having been raped. My short story, Moon Cakes, looks at a girl sold into sex slavery. These women all suffer in silence. Am I some sort of freak to write about such horror?

the donald

Freakish are the statements by Donald Trump about the female body and women in the workplace. In a tape made in 1995 and released during the US presidential campaign, Trump bragged about his ability to grope women without their consent. During the second US presidential debate, Trump said: it’s just talk.

Anderson Cooper: You described kissing women without consent, grabbing their genitals. That is sexual assault. You bragged that you have sexually assaulted women. Do you understand that?

Trump: No, I didn’t say that at all. I don’t think you understood what was said. This was locker room talk.

Not so, say the women who have since come forward with their own accounts of the Donald. A former receptionist in the Trump Tower was groped in an elevator. A would-be business partner was fondled at the dinner table. These are textbook examples of sexual harassment. Why didn’t these women take action? And, why come forward now?

Here is where my own conscience pricks me.

office politics

It was late at night. A partner appeared in my doorway, a lobbyist on Capitol Hill. We had never spoken before and I was surprised he knew my name. He commented on the fact that I worked late a lot.

“Do you have a boyfriend?” he asked.

I did not.

He said, “Senator X has a new legislative aide who’s very lonely. Would you like me to set you up?”

“Thanks,” I said. “I’ve got it covered but if I ever need help, I’ll let you know.”

When I told my boss the next day what had happened, I thought he’d laugh. Instead, his Boston Irish face turned a hundred shades of purple. Apparently our firm was lobbying Senator X heavily on some piece of legislation. Anything that might make the senator look favorably on our firm might make the difference.

I was clueless. But my boss saw where this could lead. I would file suit accusing the lobbyist of sexual harassment. The senator’s name would be dragged into the mud. High-minded clients would leave the firm. Then the firm would have to pay me a massive settlement amount as the price for my silence.

But there was no lawsuit; I didn’t even file a formal complaint. It didn’t seem like a big deal. The lobbyist never touched me nor did we ever revisit the topic. Maybe my boss got to him. Maybe the lobbyist found a more pliable associate. There was a young woman with blond hair and blue eyes who started accompanying the lobbyist on his trips to the Hill. She got to pour the coffee at his meetings. I thought, she’s a big girl. She can fend for herself.  Then I forgot all about that lobbyist until Donald Trump came along.

monica lewinsky

Sexual harassment, as defined by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, covers a wide range of abuse, including unwelcome sexual advances in the workplace as well as verbal intimidation. Those comments do not have to be sexually oriented.

For example, it is illegal to harass a woman by making offensive comments about women in general.

When the affair between Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky came out, Clinton was accused of all sorts of things including sexual harassment. He was clearly in a position of authority in relation to a White House intern. But were his advances unwelcome? In her TED Talk The Price of Shame, Monica Lewinsky told us that she was in love. If this was consensual sex, does that mean Bill Clinton did nothing wrong?

None of Donald Trump’s accusers call his advances welcome, then or now, just as I never asked that lobbyist to offer my sexual favors for his legislative success. Unlike them, I was in a position to do something. My boss believed I had been wronged. My firm prided itself on its liberal values and would, I believe, have backed me. I was, in every way, empowered to do something about that jerk. But Michelle Obama got it right in her Manchester speech. I thought that silence would make me look stronger.

one of the boys

Silence is how many people handle harassment. With practice, you can graduate to the grin-and-bear-it school of tough guys and gals. I once walked into a meeting with a new client. The entire board of directors was present, all of them men.

The chairman loudly asked, “Why didn’t someone warn me that a woman was coming?”

“Why?” I asked. “Would you have worn a different tie?”

I was proud of that quip at the time. I used it often when teaching aspiring female law partners how to deal with bullshit. Now I wonder, did I do the right thing? Maybe I should have slammed the guy.

Like consent as a defense to rape or Monica welcoming Bill, the definition of sexual harassment becomes a subjective one. I did not feel intimidated by my new client’s question, though humiliation may have been his intent. Should I punish him for thinking it or saying it to my face or only when (and if) he succeeds in making me cry? In my day, people called me the lady lawyer, the American girlfriend of my British co-counsel and various manifestations of the word bitch. It’s just talk, right?

running with the big dogs

I am not advocating a retreat into the never-never-land of political correctness. In fact, I think we should do the opposite. Let’s talk about drawing the line. Let’s stop being afraid of complaining because it might make us look silly or weak. I’m willing to endure a certain amount of suffering so I can run with the big dogs. Why should I have to accept sexual harassment too?

My fiction writing gravitates toward the types of suffering that women endure. Trafficking, child abuse, self-harm, rape. There are all heavy issues. Even worse than the abuse suffered by Donald Trump’s accusers, let alone the small incidents of my own life. This is not my personal trauma so why write about it?


First of all, these forms of human suffering exist. It was the case in the 1930s Shanghai depicted in my novel and it is still the case today. In 2016, sex trafficking is alive and well. Self-harm is on the rise, especially among young adults. It has not become any easier to talk about rape. The Dancing Girl and the Turtle is a novel and therefore not true in the fact-checking sense. But I sincerely hope that it’s true in the way that all fiction, if it is to be relevant, must speak to some human truth.

Second, because silence can do more damage than the traumatic event itself. In my novel, Song Anyi’s family tell her to forget about the rape. It never happened. She’s denied any opportunity to speak of her suffering, let alone seek healing. When our society gags its victims, silence is rape.

Third and most importantly, if you don’t talk about these abuses, you can’t stop them. Call it the politics of pain. Then do something about it. Draw your line in the sand. Enough is enough. Say it loud so everyone can hear.

Originally posted on 26 October 2016. Edited on 5 June 2017.

8 responses to “The Politics of Pain”

  1. A welcome addition to a dialogue we need to have with various generations of women in attendance. Bravo Karen

  2. By writing about such things, you’re writing for the victims, bringing the aggressors to shame. That is a very good thing.

    Speaking of which… we have Trump to thank for being such a sexual aggressor. It’s because of his awful behaviour and words that have made it a really hot topic. I’m sure he didn’t intend this but it’s worked to our advantage!

  3. Very timely and insightful. Thank you, Karen. Will stay tuned in.

  4. I appreciate the nuance. The lines can be so subtle and yet…

    The small stuff reflects a way of thinking about women that leads to the big stuff. That’s why adding your voice can only be a good thing. I wish it weren’t true but it seems we need to keep saying HEY—you can’t insult us, belittle us, grope us, rape us or hurt us. Maybe that is part of what you are doing in your fantastic work— saying HEY, NO.

    Well hey, yes, Karen.

  5. I have also been looking at past experiences and wondering similar things: just because I didn’t feel threatened by behavior that others might have found intimidating was it okay to let it slide? In many cases, I already felt like I was fighting so many battles with co-workers, including racism, antisemitism, and sexism, that I wasn’t prepared to take on issues that were less clear cut and that bothered other women more than they did me.