There Is No Excuse, Really

To any young feminists, and especially young lesbians, out there who are asking questions, who do want to make a difference in the world, but have heard the horrible stories about that evil radical feminism, then here are some things to think about.

I was told the same stories as an undergrad about the Bad Old Days of the evil second wave. We were given extensive critiques on leading second wave texts, without ever being given one word of the original texts to read. Huh, I thought to myself, I smell bullshit. So off I went and read those bad, evil Untouchable books that apparently kill men and trans people just by existing in this world, and I thought, there’s a lot here that makes sense.

And then, there is also that little matter of lesbian erasure. Come on kids, think about it. In pretty much every subject you can study, there is an extensive ‘History of Blah’ where you study the evolution of thought going back at least several hundred years, if not several thousand years, all the way back to Greece and Rome.

But with feminism…you can’t read anything published before 1990? Really? Even if we accept the bullshit academic premise that second wave and, for that matter, first wave feminists got lots of stuff wrong, why is that the only subject where we are not allowed to study the evolution of thought?

Scientists got lots of stuff wrong, and so did doctors and psychologists, and tons of theologians and philosophers came up with whacky fringe theories that no one but a seriously unstable individual would find credible, and yet all of that is still considered essential reading for a full understanding of whatever the subject in question is.

So why are radical feminist texts considered beyond the pale? What is inside of them that is so dangerous it cannot be read under any circumstances? Are their words so tricksy and seductive that even the cleverest of critical readers will fall under their dark spell the moment they encounter them?

Let’s keep in mind that this is the same academy that considers it entirely appropriate to study books like Mein Kampf by genocide-orchestrator Hitler; or the Bible, which has surely been responsible for far more grief in this world than every single feminist book of every stripe put together, or classics-of-patriarchal-literature like Lolita that justify child rape.

Yes, all of that is fine, but for god’s sake don’t touch anything written by those filthy lesbians. It’s interesting, isn’t it, that in the frenzy to denounce radical feminist texts what often gets obscured is the fact that many of these texts were also written by the first generation of successful, out lesbian academics in the academy.

Mary Daly, Janice Raymond, Adrienne Rich, Sheila Jeffreys, Audre Lorde, Monique Wittig, Luce Irigaray, Susan Hawthorne, Renate Klein…I could go on.

Some of these women are even multiple PhD holders. Mary Daly had three, and spent her career in a conservative religious institution that did its best to oust her and eventually did – to the cheers of both the left and the right – though it’s radical feminists who are regularly accused of being in league with the right wing. Luce Irigaray has two PhDs, and originally lost her university teaching position and her professional membership to the Lacanian-driven Freudian School when she published her first book Speculum of the Other Woman in 1974. Her male colleagues were not terribly impressed with her feminist critique of male-centered psychoanalytical thought, and so did everything they could to destroy her career and her professional standing. Huh. Imagine that.

So, young lesbian students, budding MA and PhD candidates, whether you agree with what these theorists say or not, whether you think they are outdated or not, you owe them a hell of a lot because they blazed trails that all of you are following, whether you acknowledge it or not. They shone as brilliant academics despite every attempt the academy made to stamp them out.

And you might want to ask yourself why the previous generation of lesbian academics is being so thoroughly trashed, and why you are not allowed to learn about or from your lesbian academic forebears, and you might want to ask yourself whether the same thing is going to happen to you, because it probably will.

So, to go back to the title of this essay, there is no excuse really. You might think radical feminism is crap, but how can you really know if you have never even dared to read one word? Why are these books so unacceptable when others promoting rape and genocide are considered worthy of critical study? How can you actually have an understanding of feminism if you have never even studied its history? How are any of these attitudes compatible with intellectual rigour and integrity?

And finally, ask yourself why lesbian academics are being erased, why lesbianism itself is being erased. Lesbians are near invisible in this society already, and here is an entire vein of lesbian thought that you are being told you cannot access because it is sex negative or essentialist or transphobic or outdated or whatever other scary buzz words are being used to keep you away.

But seriously, what are you being offered as an alternative? BDSM? Porn? Transition? Defective alliances with misogynist gay men? Queer parties of bored straight wanna-bes? A no boundaries politics where lesbians are not allowed to have any control over who enters our space or who appropriates our lives? Where any attempt to create any kind of boundary at all is met with accusations of oppression; despite the fact that there are almost no safe spaces for lesbians either within the LGBT movement or the wider heterosexual culture. Despite the fact that lesbians are a politically powerless group who do not have the institutional clout necessary to oppress anybody.

Thanks, but I’ll pass on the co-option and erasure, and keep eating the forbidden fruit.

The Heterosexual Vagina

I’ve had a number of straight liberal feminist type friends who have been enthusing about the publication of Naomi Wolf’s new book Vagina: A New Biography. As soon as I read the blurb I could tell that I was going to find this book incredibly annoying. First of all because it has the presumption of heterosexuality clear and centre, and second of all because quite a lot of concepts that the books draws on – e.g. the link between female sensuality/sexuality and creativity, the importance of the sacred and so on…well, actually, lesbian writers and theorists were coming up with those ideas in the 1970s and 80s as applied to lesbian lives. So thanks Naomi for pinching all of that, not acknowledging it and then making it all about straight women!

When I checked the index, lesbian sexuality was listed as appearing on 4 pages. 4 pages out of a 400 page book. I also couldn’t see any books or articles listed on the Biblography authored by lesbians that specifically covered lesbian sexuality, lesbian health, lesbian history, lesbian anything. Guess we lesbians don’t have vaginas like the rest of you. Or is it just that we use ours for non-male approved purposes and thus have to be completely erased, even though it seems that lesbian research and theorising silently underwrites quite a lot of the book.

In talking about Conquest and Control in Part II, there’s also the small matter of the deafening silence on the history of how Lesbian women specifically have been severely punished for pursuing and practicing sexual and romantic relationships with other women. Wolf also fails to acknowledge that harmful practices carried out against all women, e.g. clitoridectomy in the west, were also often justified or underwritten as treatments meant to stamp out lesbian tendencies.

Gee whizz thanks lib fems – you’re such good allies to Lesbians.

The Power to Define Reality

Sooo…We have this fantastic intersectional queer politics now, right, which takes in perspectives from everyone right?

We’re all living in a liberal fantasy of freedom and happiness and light.

Okay. Okay. Just as an exercise, an exercise in logic and perhaps an exercise in futility, let’s take a brief look at one queer text, just one, and see what sorts of things this author is proposing, what sort of reality it is that he thinks consists of this liberal utopia.

In his Times Square Red, Times Square Blue published in 1999, Black American gay author Samuel R. Delany develops a theory of the sex industry – specifically the gay sex industry centered around Times Square in New York, as an example of positive and liberated cross-class and cross-cultural social interactions.

The clean up of the area, he contends, was not about making the area safer for women and families (and even if that was the reason who cares about them anyway, right?), because the presence or absence of ‘sex workers’ (sic) in his view does not make the streets more or less safe.

Well, okay Mr Delany; I think you’ve rather missed the point here. As a woman, am I afraid of ‘sex workers’? No, not so much, but I am sure as hell afraid of the Johns and Pimps who are also an inevitable part of the equation.

And, as I’m sure Mr Delany would have found out had he taken the time to talk to any actual women, living in an area of high prostitution does indeed make it much more unsafe for all women, regardless of involvement or lack thereof in the prostitution industry.

To give just one example – many years ago, a woman I knew who lived in an area well known for street prostitution was walking with her young child on the street one day – in daylight – and was followed by two men in a car screaming sexual abuse at her. She noted the numberplate of the car and later called the police. Their response was, well, what do you expect for living in that area?

Indeed. The woman should not in any way expect that she has a reasonable right to walk down the street with her child in broad daylight and not be subjected to harassment.

Delany goes on to say – and this is my favourite part:

What I see lurking behind the positive foregrounding of ‘family values’ (along with, in the name of such values, the violent suppression of urban social structures, economic, social and sexual) is a wholly provincial and absolutely small-town terror of cross-class contact

He positions the exchange of sex for money as an example of voluntary, equal and mutually pleasurable ‘cross-class contact’. He is also, of course, a respected author and university professor. The perspectives of the hustlers and prostituted women are  noticeably absent. Indeed, Delany, with his economic, social and institutional power is the one who defines reality here. He is constructing a libertine fantasy of willing sexual slaves who are only too eager to serve the bourgeoisie; an ideal utopia of sex that is threatened by the bad conservative forces that seek to destroy these apparently revolutionary pockets of cross-class contact.

Of course, in Delany’s construct power is completely invisiblised. It does not seem to occur to him that gay hustlers are disproportionately likely to be underage runaways, to be poor, to be of colour, to have more chance of being raped and murdered, to be at great risk of contracting HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases. It does not seem to occur to him that the social and economic isolation these young boys face on account of being gay is what drives them into the sex industry in the first place, rather than any desire for cross-class contact.

Indeed, what we are talking about here is not cross-class contact at all, but exploitation that is being rather chillingly justified by a person of relative privilege to enable him to continue in its pursuit.

Is this the intersectional politics I have been hearing so much about? Where are the voices of the oppressed in this narrative? What would happen if young hustlers dared to contradict Mr Delany’s construction of reality?

Moreover, what sort of community is being created here? How is it possible for proponents of equality to, on the one hand, deplore homophobia, point out the problems faced by gay and lesbian youth who are more likely to be homeless etc; but then on the other hand support the gay sex industry whose very existence depends on a continuing supply of young and vulnerable gay youth?

What the fuck sort of dysfunctional politics is this?

Let’s be clear about one final thing. When we are talking about prostitution, we are not talking about the false binary of the good libertines vs. the bad conservatives. From the perspective of a prostituted person, I very much doubt there is any difference in being fucked by liberal or conservative cock. Either way, there is just as much danger of sustaining injury, contracting disease, being beaten and murdered by a John gone off the deep end. Either way, the person in question has been reduced to an object to be bought for money.

And therein lies the key. Reducing a human being to an object who can be bought for money. The system of prostitution is closer to slavery, which also advocates that certain human beings can be bought and sold for money, than to anything else I can think of. To set aside classes of disenfranchised individuals and to view them as being ‘appropriate’ or ‘deserving’ of sexual servitude and abuse is about as far from the dream of freedom and light as I can imagine.

On a final point, I do think Mr Delany was right about one thing. I doubt that the make-over of Time Square had anything to do with making the area safer for women and families (I read ‘families’ as children) since we know that male supremacist governments couldn’t care less about making spaces safer for women and children. But what the make-over did do was to transform Time Square into a money-making tourist mecca. In other words, capitalist greed was responsible for this make-over. Not religious conservatives terrified of cross-class pollination. Not whiny uptight women who just need to learn to loosen up and like that street harassment. And capitalist greed is exactly the same system that drives the prostitution and pornography industries whose demise Delany so bewails. In other words, one capitalist economy was supplanted by a more powerful capitalist economy. There was nothing revolutionary here to begin with.

***

Afterword: In the 1970s, Samuel Delany was also responsible for writing the one and only issue of Wonder Woman that attempted to cover the subject of ‘women’s lib.’ Of course a manz was asked to write this issue, cos it’s not like us silly wimmins are smart enough to understand our own liberation movement. The plot was about Wonder Woman and her friend getting involved in a women’s collective and challenging a store about not giving equal pay to its women employees. The result being that all the women at the store lost their jobs and the liberation movement was shown to be a failure coz wimmins is too stoopid to do politics.

Thanks for that, Mr Delany, I’ll be sure to keep it in mind.

Remember the 80s?

No. I’m afraid this isn’t going to be a post about leotards, sweatbands or legwarmers. This is going to be a walk down feminist memory lane, examining some forgotten activism, out of print books, and what that means for our perception of second wave feminism.

More specifically. In this post, I’d like to take a brief look at that oft-cited criticism of second wave feminism – that it was a movement of privileged, white, heterosexual women that failed to adequately take into account the perspectives of working class women, women of colour, etc, and that it therefore was, essentially, a failed experiment that had to make way for this apparently wonderful ‘intersectional’ third wave approach that we have now.

Well. Obviously this fails to take into account the fact that many of the prominent leaders of second wave feminism were neither white nor heterosexual; that there were white radical lesbian feminists like Mary Daly and Adrienne Rich and Luce Irigaray; that there were radical lesbian feminists of colour like Audre Lorde; that there were Black U.S. feminists like Angela Davis and bell hooks.

BUT – nevertheless – let’s just go with this accusation for a moment and pretend that it must be seriously examined. And, as a test case, let’s look at what was happening with feminist activism around the issue of female genital mutilation in the 1980s.

In the 1980s, a number of African feminists began trying to raise awareness about this issue and to agitate for change. Several of them wrote books, some of which were published or re-published in translation, by western feminist presses. Examples include the following:

Raqiya Haji Dualeh Abdalla. Sisters in Affliction: Circumcision and Infibulation of Women in Africa. London, Zed Press, 1982.

Asma El Dareer. Woman, Why Do You Weep? Circumcision and Its Consequences. London, Zed Press, 1982.

Nawal El Saadawi. The Hidden Face of Eve: Women in the Arab World. Trans. Sherif Hetata. Boston, Beacon Press, 1982.

Awa Thiam. Black Sisters, Speak Out: Feminism and Oppression in Black Africa. Trans. Dorothy S. Blair. London, Pluto Press, 1986.

This, it would seem, is a perfect example of an ‘intersectional’ approach. White western feminists used their influence and their resources to help local African feminists articulate and raise awareness about an issue that was (and still is) of great importance to them, and which has a massive effect on the lives of millions of women and girls worldwide. Those early alliances had the potential to do great good in challenging female genital mutilation, curbing the practice and perhaps even bringing it to an end.

But was this praised as a success of international feminist cooperation? Most certainly it was not! Western feminists were accused of ‘forcing’ their western thinking onto feminists of colour, and African feminists were accused of being ‘brainwashed’ by the bad white women who were encouraging them to give up their cultural traditions (ie FGM) in favour of white imperialism.

Apparently, so the story goes, all those African women were perfectly happy with FGM until those arrogant white feminists came along and told them otherwise. As if. It completely overlooks the fact that the literature which emerged was written by local African feminists who had been observing for years the damage done by FGM, and who could see the potential of using the feminist movement to bring international attention to what was happening.

Characterising the situation in this way also reduces African feminists to naive and child-like simpletons who are not smart enough to see through the supposed manipulations of white women who desire to impose western cultural hegemony. An attitude which, by the way, is underwritten by some fairly nasty racist stereotyping.

Over the next ten years, many of the African feminists who had started out as outspoken critics of FGM were forced to rescind their position – not by white feminists – but by local male led African ‘human rights’ and political groups who were deeply threatened at the thought of un-mutilated women and girls. African women were forced to concede that FGM was necessary as part of a project to preserve African culture against outside threats, which, unsurprisingly, included western feminism.

And so we have the phenomenon of the magically moving goal posts. First of all, second wave feminists were discredited on account of being TOO white TOO western TOO heterosexual. But the moment white feminists attempted to work with feminists of colour from a different cultural background on an issue of mutual concern, they became cultural imperialists who were out to destroy an entire way of life.

Funny that. Meanwhile, who was benefiting from all of this destruction and discrediting and the continuing practice of female genital mutilation? It couldn’t be men could it……?

If you would like to read more on the subject, then I highly recommend this book, which charts the development of the issues I have touched on here:

Alice Walker and Pratibha Parmar. Warrior Marks: Female Genital Mutilation and the Sexual Binding of Women. New York, Harcourt Brace and Company, 1993.

Women Only Towns in Saudi Arabia

http://theweek.com/article/index/231958/coming-to-saudi-arabia-the-worlds-first-women-only-city

Now that is awesome. Where is my women only town???

And lol at the man mansplaining how ‘ladytown’ won’t lead to women’s liberation cos the menz aren’t involved and the sacred liberal ‘equality’ is not being promoted.

But, he allows, women may be boosted in ‘unintended ways’. The big P has no idea…….

Oh yes, and comparing this to apartheid is ridiculous. Apartheid was a system that white people forced onto people of colour. This is a system that women themselves have come up with in order to achieve greater independence.

I would HAPPILY give up my ‘privilege’ to associate with men in order to live in a town like this. HAPPILY.

(P.S. Mr Man, women have been wanting this for a very long time)

Propranolol and the Erasure of Pain

Propranolol is not a new drug. It has been around for a while now, particularly as a treatment for heart conditions. However, it also has a more controversial application as a treatment for sufferers of post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. With some rather sinister connotations for those of us versed in Patriarchal reversals, this treatment is called Therapeutic Forgetting. After experiencing a traumatic event, the brain may release large amounts of adrenaline, leading to the memory of trauma being overconsolidated and unable to be processed in a ‘normal’ way. Or, in other words, the memory of the trauma is burned deeply into the brain and becomes an overactive memory that can lead to a variety of persistent psychological, emotional and physiological responses including things such as subjectively reliving the event, ongoing feelings of fear, anxiety and many other symptoms.

It has been found that propranolol has the ability to prevent the activation of the stress hormone adrenaline, thus stopping the overconsolidation of memory and preventing the development of PTSD. Essentially, propranolol leaves the factual memory of the traumatic event intact, but takes away the emotional content associated with the event. It has been found to be most effective if it is administered within six hours of the traumatic event. In particular, some members of the medical community are suggesting propranolol be used to treat rape victims and war veterans, both of whom suffer high instances of PTSD. As neuroscientist James McGaugh says in an online article, “The drug does not remove the memory – it just makes it more normal. It prevents the excessively strong memory from developing, the memory that keeps you awake at night. The drug does something that our hormonal system does all the time – regulating memory through the actions of hormones.”[1] The authors of another article published in 2007 in the American Journal of Bioethics go so far as to say, “we argue that the prophylactic use of propranolol for potential PTSD victims appears to have minimal risks and potentially high benefits, and deserves further study through clinical trials.” They imagine that propranolol “will be used in emergency room settings to treat patients who seek medical attention shortly after having been attacked, abused, raped, molested or involved in any sort of accident that may cause psychological trauma.”[2] Sweeping ethical concerns aside, Elise Donovan argues in an article published in 2010 in Perspectives in Biology and Medicine that propranolol is essential in the treatment of war veterans who have already lost their sense of self due to PTSD, and asserts that increasing the use of propranolol is in fact the most responsible course: “We have a moral and ethical obligation to military service members to maximize efforts to alleviate PTSD” (p. 70).[3] Apparently not sending soldiers off to war to be brutalised in the first place is not an option. Yet another article which appeared in 2006 written by an Associate Professor of Law advises caution but still ends with a general validation of propranolol and recommendation for further study.[4]

For different reasons, both abuser and abused are being drugged in such a way as to ensure compliance with the narrow, twisted Patriarchal roles of domination and submission. In the first case, the drug ensures that men will become even further emotionally numb over the horrors they have participated in as soldiers; horrors which will have most likely included things like rape, torture and murder. Such a course of action surely has the potential to create a situation in which a returned soldier will continue to perpetrate the abusive behaviours he has already learned to practice in war, since he will be literally cut off from understanding on an emotional level what he has done and how it has affected those he harmed. In the case of rape victims, women are being drugged in such a way as to ensure they passively accept abuse from men. On another level, the whole thing is horrifically ironic since war creates an environment in which women will inevitably be subjected to rape, abuse and sexual exploitation. Everything about this treatment seemed designed to enable continued human rights violations, rather than reduce harm.

Some, however, are rightly concerned about the personal, social and ethical implications of using propranolol in this way. To date, the most extended consideration has come from the often cited President’s Council on Bioethics report entitled, Beyond Therapy: Biotechnology and the Pursuit of Happiness (2003).[5] Whilst framing the issues within a somewhat socially conservative framework, this Report still makes some important points. It focuses on propranolol’s potential to interfere with and/or potentially erase parts of individual selfhood through altering memory and emotion, and by extension wonders if the drug has the ability to obscure or erase the moral consciences of both individuals and society more generally. It also questions just how far we should go in the pursuit of happiness, and what it will do to our collective humanity if we no longer have the ability to feel, recognise or understand suffering.

As far as it goes, this argument has its merits. Medical commentary has often treated the use of propranolol in terms of individual choice, talking about its importance in being able to, for example, help survivors of rape reclaim their ‘normal’ lives whilst ignoring the context of the society in which the trauma of rape takes place. So clearly, a debate about the drug’s ability to blunt emotions and thus potentially alter our perceptions of our own and others’ suffering is an important one.

What is not made clear in these analyses, however, is that it is very often the survivors of trauma and injustice who go on to transform the pain of trauma into movements of social and political resistance that seek to create a healthier society in which atrocities like rape and war will not happen. Survivors of rape go on to become the activists who organise against rape, raise awareness about the issue, analyse why it happens, create safe spaces and services to assist those who have been raped, and fight to have the legal system better recognise rape as a crime.

So when we are talking about using propranolol to treat PTSD, we are talking about a drug that can change aspects of our self, our emotions and our memory, as well as potentially alter the wider social conscience. But crucially, we are also talking about something that is taking away our ability to resist, to criticise and agitate for change because it is taking away our ability to recognise that we have even been violated.

When rape is a crime of endemic proportions, the use of this drug could easily seem tempting to women who feel helpless and powerless. It creates an horrific kind of inevitable narrative. I am a woman. I know this means there is a good chance I will be raped, if I haven’t been already. There is nothing I can do to stop this, because society doesn’t care about rape or even recognise that it happens most of the time. But at least if I take this drug afterwards, I won’t be able to feel the pain.

Propranolol is attempting to make true the lies that men have been telling about rape all this time. Rape does not really hurt. Rape does not really harm women. Rape is not actually all that bad. The use of this drug forces compliance from women by taking away our ability to feel our own violation. We will no longer care about being raped. We will no longer care about other women being raped. Instead of speaking out against rape, instead of expressing our anger and articulating the abuse that has occurred against our selfhood, our humanity, we will say, oh yes, I remember when that happened to me, but who cares? It didn’t hurt.

It is also important to remember that, as stated above, propranolol is most effective if used within six hours of the traumatic event occurring.[6] This means that a woman would have to take propranolol within six hours of being raped. Obviously, in the immediate aftermath of rape, any woman is going to be in a state of extreme psychological and emotional vulnerability, and is going to be dealing with overwhelming pain. She is probably not going to be in a state where she can make a fully informed and considered decision about whether she really wants the treatment or not. And thus a medical community which is already espousing the supposed benefits of propranolol is going to have all too easy a time coercing women to take a pill to ease their pain. As these authors put it, “Considering the potential benefits of propranolol far outweigh its risks, it is likely that health professionals will accept a lower threshold for competence.”[7]

In other words, the proponents of malestream medicine have already decided that this is what is ‘good’ for women and we do not have a say in it. In the wake of being physically violated, they will force this mind-rape upon us at the time when we are most vulnerable and least able to resist, and thus attempt to convince us that the horrific experience of rape is not horrific at all, but just another day under Patriarchy.

Endnotes


[1] Jeanie Lerche Davis. “Forget Something? We Wish We Could.” MedicineNet.com. Published 9 April 2004. http://www.medicinenet.com/script/main/art.asp?articlekey=52473

[2] Michael Henry, Jennifer R. Fishman and Stuart J. Younger. “Propranolol and the Prevention of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder: Is It Wrong to Ease the ‘Sting’ of Bad Memories?” The American Journal of Bioethics 7, 2007, p. 7+. http://ajobonline.com/journal/j_articles.php?aid=1338

[3] Elise Donovan. “Propranolol Use in the Prevention and Treatment of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder in Military Veterans: Forgetting Therapy Revisited.” Perspectives in Biology and Medicine 53.1, 2010. pp. 61-174. http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/pbm/summary/v053/53.1.donovan.html

[4] Adam J. Kolber. “Therapeutic Forgetting: The Legal and Ethical Implications of Memory Dampening.” Vanderbilt Law Review 59, 2006, p. 1561+. http://www.usa-anti-communist.com/ard/pdf/SSRN-id887061.pdf

[5] The President’s Council on Bioethics. Beyond Therapy: Biotechnology and the Pursuit of Happiness. Washington, D.C., October 2003. http://bioethics.georgetown.edu/pcbe/reports/beyondtherapy/

[6] See Davis, “Forget Something?” and Henry, Fishman and Younger, “Propranolol and the Prevention of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.”

[7] Henry, Fishman and Younger. “Propranolol and the Prevention of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.”