“In a patriarchal society, all heterosexual intercourse is rape because women, as a group, are not strong enough to give meaningful consent.”
Catharine MacKinnon, quoted in Professing Feminism: Cautionary Tales from the Strange World of Women’s Studies.
“I want to see a man beaten to a bloody pulp with a high-heel shoved in his mouth, like an apple in the mouth of a pig.”
Andrea Dworkin; from her book Ice and Fire .
“When a woman reaches orgasm with a man she is only collaborating with the patriarchal system, eroticizing her own oppression…”
My friends and I exist in an extremely rarified little cosy of a network we call ‘the bubble’. The bubble is full of people who question their privilege actively, try not to be racist, classist, sexist, queerphobic, sex worker phobic or transphobic* – among other things. Most of us would probably describe ourselves as third wave or post modern feminists, if we really thought about it.
The result of living daily in a group of beautiful people like this – in which I can breathe easy and forget the world – is that I’m startled when I run across really gross politics again.
The thing that I find most appalling is when it comes from people I’d really expect better from. And of late, I’ve had the startling experience of running smack bang into not-so-subtle transphobia and sex negativity from neo second-wavers in my peripheral network.
‘Neo second-wavers’ is the clumsy term I use in Bettie Land to describe people who support ideas around sex and gender posited by notable radical feminists of the 60s, 70s and 80s like Andrea Dworkin, Catharine MacKinnon, Germaine Greer and a host of others.
In the contemporary context, self described ‘eco feminists’ such as Carol Adams support questionable interpretations of the body, sex and gender. Greer continues to produce problematic tracts and soundbites in this area, and Sheila Jeffreys…well. Other people have unpacked Jeffreys far more eloquently than I, so I’m just going to save time and say she’s a heck of an arsehole.
From where I sit, it seems that what most of these thinkers have in common is that they’re discussing sex in ways that configure it as a bad, scary thing owned by patriarchy and only ever wielded as a tool to hurt and oppress (by ‘men’ against ‘women’ – forget gender pirates, they don’t exist here).
Gender, see, is innate and manifest only in a binary, and they seem to have a decided on a set of ways of loving, fucking and embodying self that they deem healthy. Anything else is submission to patriarchy. Trans women are not ‘real’ or they’re really just men butchering their bodies to steal femininity, trans men are traitors to womanhood, women who like fucking men are brainwashed slaves, porn is violent and coercive both in construction and consumption, and sex work is done by women who are victims of child abuse and current male exploitation.
The second wave feminist interpretation of Lacan’s ‘male gaze theory’ is a good example of how fucked and completely disempowering a lot of their sex and gender talk is. In this reading of male gaze theory, the response of women to the male gaze is irrelevant, because they’re only able to respond from within the unequal hegemonic frame of their existence. In other words, if you’re a (biological) woman you’ve no mind of your own. Don’t start getting ideas that you do, because that’ll just be a product of the patriarchy, too. Somehow.
Sex negativity and disempowerment, second wave can has. Some of this is so twisted and constricting that I just. Don’t. Even.
I could deal with these viewpoints if they’d evolved into something more constructive in the early 80s, and hey, largely we’ve moved beyond this – right? We all know better now – right?
Wrong. Lately I’m coming across way too many people my age, in my community, who still think along these lines.
I used to be pretty good friends, a couple of years back, with someone who supported ideas like this. She was anti porn in a big way and mounted an argument with such gusto that my partner and I deleted all the porn on our computer. So much smut, lost! Armed with woeful stories from blogs ‘revealing’ the abject and all consuming horrors of porn, she told me how most porn performers were victims of sexual assault as children (not true) and how most porn was coercively made (also not true).
Along with this came the idea that all men were potential rapists. Oh, fail harder. I find this statement to be one of the more divisive nonsenses I’ve heard spouted by rad-fems in the 20 – 35 age bracket. Add to this the statements made recently by an acquaintance that the desire of a trans chick to have perky tits was a “male” view of the body she “despised” and that same trans chick should just “love the body they were born in” and I’m wondering just what the hell caused so many young feminists to take on board so much nonsense that was best left to die out with their predecessors.
I mean, fuck. It isn’t like there’s a shortage of alternative ideas, so what gives?
Personally, I think these ideas spread through a kind of cyclical cultural transmission in grassroots organisations that isn’t interrupted enough and grown through discourse with other groups. There are always pockets of well meaning rad-fems springing up and expressing themselves in Women’s Collectives and it can get kind of intra-connected. From what I’ve seen, they’re not conversing openly enough with diverse groups who can bring perspective beyond the second wave bloc they’re keenly reading. You get groups of rad fems who go on reading jags of old shit from the 70s and they’re not reading anything new.
I mean, I remember having Dworkin quoted at me a lot when participating in a Women’s Collective in a regional area in 2008/9. At the time I blithely swallowed it too, because like them, I didn’t have anyone saying HEY, WHAT ABOUT READING THIS TOO? and I wasn’t seeking out ways to get that perspective. And so the snake swallows it’s tail.
To be honest, I find Women’s Collectives an unsafe space for many ‘oh crap, you read Carol Adams uncritically and you exclude some of my sisters’ reasons, but also because I fucking love makeup, heels, shaving, submitting consensually to cis-men for kicks and from genuine desire, acting out consensual violence on women’s bodies for kicks and from genuine desire, and strongly believe it is my right to alter my body however I want, if I want to. If I want to get a boob job, I’ll get a fucking boob job – because it is my body, not yours. If I want to do a pin up shoot, wax my cunt (I would, but actually, OW…) or skate a track in booty shorts, I will. My body. Not yours. And my motives – and the motives of my trans sisters – are not yours to examine or question, either.
That’s actually the crux of my beef with neo second wavers right there, actually. Autonomy and agency. Just where is it? In the second wave rendering of the universe, ‘bio women’ (I hugely dislike this term, so much that typing it makes my fingers angry) are pitiless creatures flailing in a mire of unreconcilable oppressions. There’s just no place to be much more than exploited, and if anything I find this removal of a sense of agency way more objectifying than a dude looking at my tits while I wait in line to buy bread and soy milk.
So shoot me, I kinda like the dude looking at my tits. And the gal in aisle 9. I just also like the right to not like it, too. Consent – the right to give it and the right to remove it – is this handy thing that supports relationships among genders rather than deepening the trenches.
I’m not saying that oppression born of gendering and the fact of patriarchy doesn’t exist. I’m just not buying that it totally makes us helpless and I don’t think it serves us to constantly harp on the idea that EVERYTHING we do is a meme of patriarchy – for one thing, there’s a bunch of other stuff to think about too, and obsessing about patriarchy glosses wildly over the experiences of people of colour, those experiencing class difference and so on. In my life so far, I’ve seen a lot of not-helpless women of different races, classes and cultural backgrounds do breath-taking things. I’ve seen myself do really powerful things.
Those things aren’t glitches or lucky breaks. Maybe we’re not helpless, though the system tries to make us so. Maybe we’re capable and we’re complex and maybe we’re doing a bang-up job of resisting and living, creatively and with pride. Maybe womanhood is something bigger and more alive than the second-wave imagination, which is why their negative circuits just overload trying to think about it.
I really hope that more neo second-wavers get out there and mix and mingle in our rich (particularly queer) community, opening their ears and hearts to all the great people out there who are living realities aloud that confound a limited philosophy that serves only to cage and confine and deny.
After all, isn’t that what life is all about? Big, open hearts, acting boldly. Saccharine though that sentiment may be, I buy it.
The first step to it, is letting other people have the right to exist within their own definition and shutting the fuck up except to cheer them on.
*I’m speaking in this post as a queer, gender variant, white woman. I am not a trans* person and am not speaking for that very diverse community – I’m merely speaking as a (grumpy) ally observing stupid shit.