Mac McClelland Talks to Ms.: PTSD, Haiti and Women Writing About Sex

Human rights reporter Mac McClelland knew there would be controversy when she published her incredibly personal narrative last week, “I’m Gonna Need You to Fight Me on This: How Violent Sex Helped Ease my PTSD.”

“There’s a reason I almost threw up when this piece went live,” said McClelland, in an interview with the Ms. Blog. McClelland is disarmingly upfront and candid; the same signature authentic voice infused in her writing.

Appearing in GOOD’s online magazine, the essay details her battle with post-traumatic stress disorder after reporting in Haiti, bearing witness to horrific stories from rape victims and being threatened herself with sexual violence. Returning home, she and her therapist came to the conclusion that a way to move past her trauma was to have a violent–but controlled–sexual experience. Through therapy and a bedroom battle with an old boyfriend, McClelland found relief from the PTSD, and a way to bravely share her story with readers.

Most of the responses have been positive, thanking McClelland for speaking about the under-discussed issue of PTSD. In the wake of TV journalist Lara Logan’s rape, her address of the physical and emotional dangers to women journalists couldn’t be timelier. But she began to receive criticism as the week progressed, particularly for her portrayal of Haiti.

“There’s some sort of ridiculous Twitter war about whether I’m an insane racist narcissist who’s unfit to do my job,” said McClelland.

In Slate’s XX Factor story, “Mac McClelland: What’s Happening in Haiti Is Not About You,” for example, Marjorie Valbrun claimed that McClelland took a self-centric approach to Haiti’s plight. And 36 women journalists who have worked in Haiti wrote an open letter to GOOD saying, “We believe the way she uses Haiti as a backdrop for this narrative is sensationalist and irresponsible.”

Ms. spoke with McClelland, first about her response to the firestorm.

What is your reaction to the recent criticism?

Most discouraging is some of the stuff that these women are saying like, “If you can’t handle your shit go home. I work in Haiti and I never got PTSD.” Is it not valid for me to be upset, [having] been threatened with rape and seen someone else go through some extreme trauma [regarding rape]? People are saying I have a long history of mental illness. I have no idea what that’s based on.

It’s not an article, it’s an essay. I wrote a cover story [for Mother Jones]that was my Haiti coverage. This was not my Haiti coverage; this was about me. In terms of the depiction of Haiti, none of those other journalists are denying that Haiti has a serious, serious rape problem. There are a lot of guns in Haiti–that is also true. And that’s pretty much the only thing I say about Haiti, other than my personal experience there with a couple of unfortunate and predatory men.

I knew that something was going to happen. I just didn’t know that a New York Times correspondent was going to be so ridiculous as to suggest [on Twitter] that because I had sex with a [French] peacekeeper I am a geisha for the NGO-industrial complex.

Do you think the response is different because you are a woman?

Nobody would be slut-shaming me [if I were a man]. If I were a man, I wouldn’t have had a driver who had lied to me and cornered me and threatened me. That does happen [to men], but the chances of that are a lot less.

And if that had happened to a man, people would be fucking horrified. No one would be like, “If he can’t handle getting threatened with possible rape then he should just stay home and become an interior decorator, because he obviously can’t do his job.”  This is not setting a good precedent for journalists, much less women journalists, to talk about [PTSD].

How did you decide to write the piece?

I think one of the worst things about PTSD is that nobody understands it. Honestly, for the last four days I’ve been getting emails every 10 minutes from people who have been diagnosed with PTSD. When I was going through this, if I had been able to read something like [what I wrote], it would have made me feel less alone. This conversation needs to be happening. I’m a writer. I can’t really sit around and say, “I wish someone else was writing about this, [but] I’m too much of a coward to deal with the consequences.” I kind of felt like I had to.

The other issue brought up about your piece is how you used violent sex to cope with the “rapemares” you were having. Did your therapist have any concerns about that?

That conversation [with my therapist] happened exactly the way I described it. I was like, “All I want to do is have incredibly violent sex,” and she didn’t even blink. It’s like I had said, “You know, I would really like a piece of toast.” [This desire] is incredibly common. Trauma affects all aspects of your life, [including] your sex life. The two are super linked. Everybody’s different, but in my case, [I moved] toward the thing that was traumatizing [me]. You sort of have to embrace the thing of your nightmares to process and move past it.

[And] is it even weird anymore to have rough sex? It was a little bit of an extreme version, and the need for it was kind of extreme. But the fact that people are like, “This is nuts!” is actually a little surprising to me. They’re acting like there were … circus animals involved.

So your intent was to discuss the issue of PTSD, but it seems many were more struck by the violent-sex aspect. Was that surprising for you?

I know how people are about sex, and I know how people are about women writing about sex–people hate when women write comfortably about sex. [In my case], especially, because it’s so far outside of my wheelhouse: I write about genocide and politics. If you’re a [woman] and you write about sex, you can be a sex writer, [but] you can’t be both. I knew that people were going to latch onto the sex thing. My hope was that more people were going to talk about the fact that PTSD is very, very serious and is not acknowledged enough.

How do you plan on continuing this conversation?

This won’t be the last thing that I write about this particular issue. It’s going to take more than Slate putting my face on their front page, connected to an article that says I’m a whiny racist narcissist, to deter me from writing about this, because I think it’s important. The fact that people are having that response just proves even more how important it is.

Photo from Flicker user Bart Everson under Creative Commons 2.0


  1. I hope the next Ms. Magazine interview is with the actual rape victim in this story, “Sybille.” Where are her human rights? What does she think of the story?

    Back in September, McClelland live-tweeted the incident in the car:

    “Is it OK to Tweet about Rape?”

    Even though it was too late, Mother Jones then attempted to redact the name of the rape victim:

    And now McClelland offers this latest, sensationalist piece. Has it occurred to anyone to fact check Mac McClelland? Or perhaps… to interview any of the people about whom she writes?

    In our letter, we spoke up as best we could for women like “Sybille.” Contrary to what McClelland writes here, our letter acknowledges people heal in different ways.

    But imagine: Sybille was your mother. Imagine Sybille was you.

    Imagine Sybille was your… sister. Ms. Magazine, you can do better.

    Emily Troutman

    • Funny to hear this vapid, sanctimonious stuff coming from someone who authored a report last year called “Rum, Restlessness, Resentment Fueling Violence in Haiti.”

    • Kimberley says:

      I find your persistant attempts to shame McClelland (and if not her then her editor, and if not either of those then readers) unseemly.

      Having now read McClelland’s response, why do you pretend not to understand the nature of a personal essay? Why cry “Sensationalist!” when “forceful” is more apt, given the clear explanation?

      Then the pièce de résistance: “Imagine…”

      Sure. I’ll play along with your thought exercise. I imagine I would prefer to read about how my guttural anguish did more than illicit someone’s vulture-like professional detachment over seeing myself hauled out, like a human shield, to invoke sympathy for a campaign to publicly flog a colleague.

      Feel me. Feel my mother. Feel my… sister. Or buzz off.

      • Kimberley, as someone who’s been gang-raped, I really have a problem with what you wrote.

        When privileged people experience trauma, and they realize that the unprivileged experience it to a greater extent than they do — they generally remember to mention that when they write about it.

        I was shocked that Mac doesn’t mention Sybille, and hasn’t followed up on her condition during this interview.

        That says a lot about where she’s coming from.

  2. MacClelland has every right to write a personal essay about her experience with PTSD. Enough said.

  3. Oops! Just noticed I misspelled McClelland. Sorry!

  4. ArmyVet says:

    PTSD is very serious, and PTSD from rape is often overlooked, even by our own military and VA system. Those facts are why Mac’s peice is so disturbing. I hope some “good” attention can be brought to survivors of rape and the PTSD they suffer.

    However, so far, the original article takes the focus off of people who are raped and puts it on someone who was not. It makes it sound like rough rape fantasy sex is a treatment for the PTSD of rape survivors (I know Mac didn’t say this, but it “sounds” like). The article sounds more like someone who was uncomfortable with thier ideas about sex after seeing the reactions of a person who was raped. The PTSD seems secondary and unrelated to the rough “rape” sex, and maybe in a perfect world they would be two separate articles.

    While I don’t think Mac had any ill intention, the results of the article once released into the general public can fall far short of the authors intention. I agree that many replies to her have been very rude and distastful, and they should stop. Those type of comments only further remove the conversation from where it should be, the PTSD of rape survivors and those they interact with.

    I hope Mac will use this fame to further delve into the issue for the sake of those still hurting.

  5. Amy Williams says:

    Some of the responses/comments to McClelland’s piece have been downright outrageous and inappropriate (who are we to tell her that she didn’t suffer from PTSD, for example?). But I can understand why some readers would be frustrated with her personal narrative. For one thing, I’m not sure I understand how McClelland can argue that her piece ISN’T about Haiti. A privileged journalist (I say “privileged” because McClelland describes crying during a 1.5 hours yoga class; she can pay for what I’m guessing are expensive therapy sessions; she mentions a visit to a spa) descends into the “belly of the beast” as one commentator described Haiti and emerges traumatized. This is a familiar story because it is one that inadvertently frames Haiti as a dark, violent, chaotic, simplistic.

    As the 36 women journalists wrote an open letter to GOOD, what is missing from McClelland’s piece is context: “For all of its raw honesty … there’s a real issue with the article: a lack of context. In absence of any real details about McClelland herself, it is all too easy to conclude that it was Haiti itself that pushed her over the edge. The dark and violent imagery she uses only serves to further that conclusion.”

  6. It’s very telling that in her interview “Mac” portrays herself as a martyr for women writing about sex, but she doesn’t mention Sybille, or the women in Haiti who are suffering.

    Anyone with any sense of empathy who had PTSD ‘triggered’ by another woman’s screams of fear when she sees her rapist would have had the decency to mention that woman, and other women who have been raped, in an interview in Ms. about her essay.

    I also really dislike the publicity campaign that’s been going on at the Rumpus. Ms. McClelland’s ex boyfriend Isaac is a stakeholder in that mag, and they’ve printed that he is the Isaac in “Mac”‘s piece.

  7. I completely agree with Emily Troutman. Ms. Magazine you can do SO much better.

  8. I’m completely dismayed at this “essay.” There is already enough exploitation of rape and rape victims in the media and Ms. should know better than to contribute to it with spoiled brat pieces like this one. “Mac” takes exploitation of rape , while hypocritically claiming it was to “help” her PTSD, for personal gain to a whole ‘nother level. She blurs the lines between rape and consensual sex so throughly that it is appalling. if it is true that her ex-boyfriend is a Rumpus stakeholder, then what little credibility Mac had is gone. This essay amounts to nothing more a journalist putting her name on the map with a sensationalistic piece for the gullible. As a rape survivor, I’m deeply offended by Mac’s suggestion that violence sex is helpful for PTSD. Since when does what amounts to a staged violent sexual encounter with an old boyfriend equate to the trauma of the real thing? I’m throughly disgusted…

    • Edwige Danticat revealed in an interview last night that Sybille, whose rape Mac discusses, did not give Mac permission to tell her story, and asked Mac not to.

      This troubles me and I think Ms. should address it.

  9. Here is Danticat talking about that — at about the ten minute mark on this recording. Turns out the woman Sybille asked that her story not be told, and actually wrote a letter requesting this to Mother Jones. She also was very upset that Mac was live tweeting her experience as a gang rape survivor, and asked her not to do that at the time. Danticat has met Sybille and spoken with her.

  10. Here’s a piece Edwidge wrote about Sybille, with Sybille’s consent.

  11. Natalia says:

    I don’t know whether Sybille gave her consent or not, and if not, I think it would have been ethical for McClelland to, at least, not give the woman’s name.

    In any case, I fully support McClelland’s right to write about her experience and I think she did a stellar job, in truth. Her narrative — it’s PERSONAL, people! don’t take it as news! — is powerful and shows a resilient person who knows what she needs. It shows a person who is not only strong enough to address her issues but also to publicize them in an attempt to continue to heal herself and help others heal.

    All this BS madness about McClelland being mentally ill and a slut is very disturbing and completely inappropriate. What a bunch of a**holes.

  12. Lover Girl says:

    Even if she is privileged in some ways, she is a professional so she must have money and others have pointed out I don’t think being more advantaged or being a white woman invalidates that you experienced sexual trauma. I think the experiences of all women matter and need to heard though of course some aspects such as receiving the proper treatment and therapy will be different than a poor woman of color’s whose experiences are no less important or meaningful.

  13. Um, yeah, “controlled rape” isn’t rape. It may have done something extremely beneficial for this particular person, but please don’t pretend that having rough sex with someone in a controlled setting is at all similar to being raped without knowing what your ultimate fate will be. Rape doesn’t come with safe words.

    I have been raped and have suffered PTSD from a completely separate though violent experience. Hearing that other people have suffered the same fate as I is, of course, useful for awareness-raising, but there was a time when I was re-traumatized every time I read about events like this, so “sharing” isn’t always beneficial.

    I’m most concerned, however, with the fact that a privileged white woman has made a poor woman of color’s experience of rape nothing more than an “opportunity” for her own (the white woman’s) career advancement. It’s no different, really, from the fact that we all benefit from exploiting poor people in other countries’ labor (again, mostly women) for all the gadgets and clothes we can’t live without. But I find it very disturbing that this woman has managed to make a story of someone else’s tragedy a story about her own form of therapy. I would never reveal to anyone what I tell my therapist, and I think that’s the case for many people.

    Did Mac get the permission of the rape survivor to use her story? Did the survivor become ultimately less safe because her story was sensationalized?

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