Saturday, 27 October 2007

Oppression

In discussions of SM and feminism, I frequently see the following coming from anti SM people:

"People who do BDSM are not oppressed. When you complain about how people treat you, whether that be other feminists or mainstream society, you're insulting people who really are oppressed. It's as if oppression were a fad that you want to be a part of, rather than a brutal reality in the lives of members of subordinated groups. "

I was always sympathetic to this view. I always figured that most of us have life pretty easy, at least as far as SM goes.

Then I realized something. Not about how bad we have it, but about the words and concepts we're using. I realized that I don't actually know what the word oppression means. I know how it's used. I know roughly what we mean when we say it. But I don't know an official definition, such that it's possible for me to clearly delineate its boundaries. I know the paradigm cases of oppression, but I don't have a decent enough definition to be sure which cases aren't close enough to the paradigm to qualify.

And I started to realize that without that definition, my assertions that SMers are not oppressed were merely based on intuitions about how bad we have it compared to the paradigm oppressed groups, such as women, people of color, transgendered people, people with disabilities, etc. Since my intuitions were (and still are) that we don't have it as bad, I decided that we must not be oppressed.

But then I started to think about what the word might mean. Here's what I came up with. If any of you have definition of your own, or official citations about exactly what different theorists take to be the meaning of the word, please do add them here. I would love to see them; I'm flying blind.

Oppression is a social system in which one group has arbitrary power over another and exercises this power in an unjustly cruel, limiting, or stunting way.

Then I started thinking about SMers and other unusual sexual minorities, like fetishists of various sorts. I started wondering what I would say about our position in society, and whether a definition like the one I've given above could apply to us.

I'm going to save "Social system" for last, even though it comes first in the definition. This is because I think the sticking point in these discussions is whether members of these sexual minorities are mistreated in a truly systemic way.

First there's the question of social power. I definitely do think that there is a sexual mainstream, and that the members of that mainstream can and do wield power over those of us who are not members of it. We can be intimidated into hiding our identities. We can be fired from jobs. We can lose custody of children. We can face ridicule, distrust, and suspicion for not being members of this mainstream. We can be shamed into believing ourselves inferior. We can be told by mental health professionals that there's something wrong with us for not being part of this mainstream. (Yes, this can and does happen even though there are current movements to recognize us as mentally healthy. It's happened to me. ) All that indicates to me that there are two social groups here, and that one has power of various sorts that the other does not.

And I do think we're limited or stunted by these things. Obviously, if we happen to be the ones who lose custody of our children, lose our jobs, lose the trust of our communities, we've been limited and stunted. If we have to hide who we are, as most of us do, that's another form of stunting.

In my own personal life, I'm very excited about a possible job in the offing. My writing about disability rights will be relevant if I get this job. But I will have to pull all that out of its original context on my blog unless I'm willing to be out at work as someone who also not only supports the rights of kinky people, but freely and proudly admits to being one herself.

(Yes, even if I did feel I could do this I realize I would still have to "clean up" or lock some of the non-political adult content on TSA, but I think that is a different issue. )

I believe that my activism around sexuality only truly makes sense in its full context, but I fear offering that full context. Since I mentioned disability rights blogging to these people, I'd love to be able to say that I blog at TSA about all sorts of things, including disability rights.

I'm not going to do that. I don't believe that's fair or right, but I believe it's the wisest course of action in a world in which my sexuality is deemed fantastically inappropriate in a way vanilla sexuality is not.

Even more emotionally vivid, however, are the descriptions many of us have shared when of our struggles with internalized shame around our sexual interests and activities. These are toxic messages that we've received from people around us that say that we're violent, perverse (and not in the reclaiming way, either), or fundamentally broken because we don't function sexually in the way everyone is expected to. This kind of stigmatization is poisonous.

And it is pretty clearly arbitrary which sexualities are valued and which are not. There is no particular reason that I can see to disparage fetishes, or sexual interest in pain or power.

The sticky question, I believe, is the question of whether these problems are systemic. If we think about the ways that the paradigm cases of oppressed groups are treated, there has always been obvious social support for discrimination against them. If you look at the historical situation of women, for example, you can clearly see discrimination enshrined in law. Women not having the vote is one example. Doctrines of coverture are another. Looking at other groups, we see other socially enshrined discrimination. No marriage for gays, for example. The obvious example of legal slavery in American history.

I may sound like I'm too what's called "liberal feminist" here, focusing on the letter of the law. I don't mean to only do that. It's of course true that many forms of violence go on outside the law as well. It's not legal to bash, for example, even in places that don't deem it a hate crime. And various forms of group-based terror that are illegal are in fact ignored, tolerated, or actively encouraged, even, by those who supposedly enforce laws against them.

However, I wanted to mention and emphasize the historical legality of some groups' power over others. I think a lot of us, in our efforts to not be legalistic about oppression, are losing sight of the fact that most forms of oppression have actually had legal backing of one sort or another throughout history. I think that's an important fact, and one we shouldn't forget about even now that people are more genteel/covert about their oppressing.

And I think this legal history is a part of what makes BDSM look like it couldn't be an axis of oppression, as well. As far as SM goes, however, it's much more difficult to find laws on the books that are specifically aimed at preventing us from doing what we do, or from setting up the kinds of relationships that many of us want. Flogging, for example, is in fact illegal in my state so far as I know. However, as I understand it, the law arose not to prevent consensual sexual interactions but as a way of criminalizing punishments for sailors that people had come to consider overly cruel. Similarly, there are laws designed to regulate sexual conduct in public or semi public that impact what can happen at play parties or conventions, but as I understand these laws, they were originally designed as limitations on sex work in clubs, and on patrons of those clubs. (Which may well also suck, but is not about targeting SMers for being SMers.)

And I think this is where people get "But you're not oppressed. " I don't think it's really a statement about how little we are affected. I think many people admit that we are or can be profoundly affected by all this stuff. I think what holds people back from calling that oppression is that there's no blatantly obvious culturally enshrined history of beating up, locking away, or hatefully speaking to sadomasochists specifically. I think that's why people think that we're whining, or wanting a piece of "Oppression pie. "

But lately I've begun to think that there's no particular reason for considering what happens to us not to be oppression. While we're not specifically targeted as SM people, there is plenty that does affect us. The laws that I've mentioned. The shame that I've mentioned. The fact that laws about obscenity do specifically mention us and what we do in terms that flat out define what we do as abuse.

Looking up obscenity law in my state some years ago in an effort to determine what was legal for me to put on a personal web site, I found that the law mentioned depictions of "sadomasochistic abuse" without mentioning any possibility for sadomasochistic non-abuse. While obscenity laws at least in the US allow the out of proving your work has artistic or other value, I think it's telling and it matters that what we do is defined by a group of people, who are not us, as abuse full stop.

Because of all this, I'm beginning to think that in order to claim that people who practice BDSM and other stigmatized forms of sexuality are not oppressed, those who want to say it's obvious and clear that they are not need to

1) clearly put forth their definition of oppression, and
2) demonstrate that members of this these particular alternative sexualities are not covered under it.

It's quite possible that there is a cogent definition of oppression that does not include us; if there is, and it's a better definition, that's fine with me. I just find myself unable to think of one that captures what oppression is that clearly excludes us.

49 comments:

Daisy Bond said...

Really interesting post. I'm not sure yet what to make of all of it.

Regarding defining "oppression," I've done work for the last several years teaching middle school students about systems of oppression; this is the super-simple formula I (we) use with those kids:

stereotypes + prejudice = discrimination

discrimination + institutionalization = oppression

(i.e. "all women are inferior to men" + walking around believing that = sexism; sexism + laws, religion, etc = the patriarchy)

...Which draws a distinction between discrimination and oppression, which I think is key to any kind of productive definition. You get at that with the phrase "social system," of course, and I definitely agree with you that the key question is whether anti-kink stuff should be called systemic. That question hinges for me on what you were getting at in talking about laws that make life harder for kinky people -- those laws exist, but they were not made with the intention of affecting kinky people. That's a very big difference between this case and cases like racism, sexism, and heterosexism, in which laws were enacted very specifically to harm and control those groups.

So does the intention of the laws matter, or only the consequences? Is the fact that kinky folks weren't considered by the relevant lawmakers evidence that they're not oppressed, or evidence of the invisibility that often accompanies oppression? I'm very much asking here -- I don't know.

This:

While we're not specifically targeted as SM people, there is plenty that does affect us.

Makes me think you might be talking more about discrimination than oppression. But then this:

The fact that many laws about obscenity do specifically mention us and what we do in terms that flat out define what we do as abuse.

Throws it right back into the realm of institutionalized discrimination, which is almost synonymous with oppression in my book (almost because: an isolated incident of this -- take the sexism of the draft -- doesn't constitute a system).

Trinity said...

Daisy,

Yes, yes, yes, that's exactly what I am getting at and what I am not sure of.

To wit: what counts as "institutionalization"? Is that legal, social, both? How do you tell when something has truly been institutionalized?

That's what I'm not sure of. Because as I see it there's clearly a normative sexuality and clearly marginalized ones of various sorts (if you've seen Gayle Rubin's Thinking Sex, think of the pie chart she makes of various accepted sexualities and then the various fringe sexualities around them). I buy what she's saying there quite easily.

But how is that sexuality enshrined? Is it simply a set of norms that makes people look down on the marginalized (which I think analogizes to your "walking around believing that," if Mr./Ms. Walkaround is loud about what she walks around believing, rather than secretly looking for a nice private enclave of traditionalists to hold up in) which may occasionally result in violence or hatred, such that that's sad and regrettable but not systemic?

Or is it that that system is enshrined, and we see it when we see people lose custody, when we see websites of SM fiction closed down by the Feds, when we see sensational newsreporting of the Glenn Marcuses of the world? I don't know.

SnowdropExplodes said...

Put it this way - in this country (the UK):

It is legal to fire someone because they are kinky, on the grounds of, for example, "bringing the company into disrepute".

I would cite that as a clear example of oppression.

The infamous "Spanner" case still serves as the legal definition for what is legal as a part of mutually consenting adult sexual behaviour; the line is set that anything stronger than "trifling and transient" is illegal, and both the top and the bottom are liable to be sent to prison for the crime.

I would cite that as a clear example of oppression.

Right now, the British Parliament are considering a bill to make simple possession of "extreme" pornography illegal, and despite the Government making reassuring noises to the BDSM community when they were planning this, Members of Parliament have stood in the House of Commons and pointed the finger (figuratively speaking) directly at BDSMers as being the targets of this legislation.

I would cite this as a clear example of oppression.

(Tabloid) Newspapers regularly put BDSM on the same level as paedophilia in their use of language about what we do.

I would cite this as a clear example of oppression.

Basically, I'd challenge anyone saying the BDSM community is not oppressed, to give me a definition of oppression that managed to explain even one of these elements as being "not oppression".

I certainly think that all these examples serve as examples of "discrimination + institutionalisation" that Daisy discusses above.

Daisy Bond said...

Is it simply a set of norms that makes people look down on the marginalized . . . which may occasionally result in violence or hatred, such that that's sad and regrettable but not systemic?

This was my assumption up until this post (as an as yet vanilla person)... But, Snowdrop: you're right on that those are all undoubtedly examples of discrimination combining with institutionalization. Does anyone know whether there is a similar state of affairs in the US? I live in the US, so I'm curious.

I was going to say something about the fact that there's a lot of non-kinky sex that falls outside of normative sexuality complicating things some, but maybe that's like saying that the fact that the gender binary is oppressive to queer folks complicates the fact that it's oppressive to straight, cisgendered women (that is: true, maybe, but not really relevant).

I'm really interested to see whether anyone has a definition of oppression that would exclude this stuff. I don't think I've ever heard one.

Trinity said...

Snowdrop: Yeah, those examples are exactly why I'm not scratching my head when I see "Kinksters aren't oppressed; women are!"

Because another facet of oppression discussions is this "Don't compare them" thing where trying to say "well, but women were never enslaved like African Americans so therefore there's no need for feminism" or "well, but gay people can just be quiet about being gay; I can't hide that I'm a woman!" or whatever is seen as unfair play.

Yet that seems to be the argument for the notion that sexuality other than queerness is not an axis of oppression. "Oh, you're just WHINING! That's not shitty enough treatment!"

and, well, I'm not sure that holds water to me any more.

Which is why I'm thinking we need to analyze "systemic" in terms that much more closely follow laws than a lot of "radicals" often want to. Because if you look at the laws, you see similarities and you can point to them and say things like "Here's what happened to the Spanner men." "Here's what happened with Paddleboro." etc.

And if you have those things, those clear citeable things, it's a lot easier to talk than if you're going for the sort of thing that a lot of the consciousness-based discussion goes for, like MacKinnon on women's inability to speak, etc. (Not that MacKinnon didn't also give concrete examples, I hasten to add.)

Trinity said...

why I'm NOW scratching my head, I meant

EthylBenzene said...

I don't know offhand, but it seems like the situations are fairly different in the US and in the UK. All the stuff that makes me think "hm, opression," seems to be UK-related. But frankly I might just be sheltered... I'm not involved in any local "scene," which, frankly, I don't even know if there is one around here, so I might be out of the loop. Thoughts? Can we get fired here in the US? I'm sure we can have our kids taken away, but I can't cite chapter and verse. I do know there is plenty of pop-culture type "ew ick freaks" type stuff around.

Which, you know, how is it allowable to complain about how women are portrayed on sitcoms, but not how kinky people are?

Oh gods, won't someone please make a cold medicine that doesn't turn me into a rambling idiot?!

Trinity said...

I think the major cases here would have been, say, Paddleboro (all I could find about the eventual result was this, which suggests that although it was a mess, it wasn't life-ruining like Spanner.)

and the Jovanovic case, which is twelve kinds of problematic from a feminist perspective and I'm still not totally sure what to think. But I have to say, as a top... it rather scared me that the shield laws could be used in a way that could prevent the jury from having any idea the bottom had any interest in SM at all.

Trinity said...

There's also periodic noise made about US kinksters by certain conservative groups, most notably the Concerned Women for America. They and others have made trouble for some of the big conventions held in hotels, and I've seen it get ugly. But I don't know that that counts as systemic discrimination, as it's one rather ideologically extreme group making usually-avoidable, though crappy, trouble.

(According to the NCSF, they're being annoying again lately: calling for a boycott of Miller Brewing Company for sponsoring and advertising at Folsom. Irritants... *sigh*)

Trinity said...

(though I do have to say, they're amusingly thorough about their picture-collecting. ;) )

Trinity said...

Also, the other day my friend was telling me a group she's part of got picketed by the religious right. I'm not sure if that was specifically for their being leather, or because the group was primarily gay male. I'm sure the sadomasochistic! fornication! didn't *help*, tho'.

And it does look from those NCSF links like they are doing their periodic "take note of the sadomasochists" thing.

SnowdropExplodes said...

(though I do have to say, they're amusingly thorough about their picture-collecting. ;) )

I wonder if they're USC2257 compliant with their record-keeping for those pictures?

Maybe someone should get the Feds onto them...

Dw3t-Hthr said...

I think there's also a difficult-to-navigate perspective block to work with, and I don't know how to resolve it.

Different people have different sets of experiences with discriminatory stuff. Which means that the shape of what they recognise as oppressive is going to be different.

I have far more experience with discriminatory behaviour based on my sexuality minority status than I do with discriminatory behaviour based on my femaleness. (I'm not touching the 'institutionalised' thing right here; I don't have the framework to judge.) And my sexuality minority things -- the kinkiness, the polyness -- are things that tend to get the sneering, "You're not oppressed" response.

(I've commented before that the discriminatory thing that gets me the most is mental health stuff, and gods know what a pain it is to convince some people that that's even real. Let alone that it might be a genuine oppression problem.)

So it gets complicated, because even if one's comparing to one's own "paradigm oppressed groups", the datastreams vary a lot. I mean, I was booted from a women's college for consequences of depression, for a starkly defined example.

ellefromtheeast said...

My understanding, from following the NCSF press releases, is that BDSM isn't oppressed in the US. The National Coalition for Sexual Freedom tracks mainstream media coverage of BSDM, polyamory, and swinging. When I skim over their aggregated news feeds, the impression I get is generally about:

1) One fourth positive-to-neutral gawking, isn't it weird but interesting what people get up to, maybe this is fun. This kind of wide-eyed, slighty freaked out story seems to crop up when there's a convention in town.

2) About half are neighbors complaining about nearby kink. This is where it starts to be more oppressive. On the other hand, I wonder how often this starts out as a complaint about parking, if you have a twice a month play party in your suburban subdivision. Other times, I think it's just anti-, not BDSM oppression specifically - lots of people who complain about a pro domme would also complain about a strip club. And frequently they are using zoning laws to complain, which means it's not about the fact that kink is happening, but about where it's happening.

3) The last fourth are criminal cases. Either some non-consensual rapist/absurer/murderer is being mistakenly labeled "kinky", and th NCSF is trying to educate the reporter, or some top majorly screwed up and a bottom died. (And in those cases, in my opinion, possibly the top should be prosecuted. If the top is that careless, even if the bottom consented to the activity overall, reckless manslaughter might be an appropriate charge. Building in failsafes is the top's duty.) Anyway, the first category is, in daisy bond's term, discrimination rather than oppression, and the second category is about weighing the evidence to protect different members of the BDSM community, not oppression at all.

Here's a link to their most recent aggregation of stories. With Folsom (and Folsom NY) it's a little heavy on the first, "Gee Wilikers" category, but I think you see the idea.

ellefromtheeast said...

Sorry, I meant that I think the second category is "anti-sex".

Trinity said...

"I have far more experience with discriminatory behaviour based on my sexuality minority status than I do with discriminatory behaviour based on my femaleness. (I'm not touching the 'institutionalised' thing right here; I don't have the framework to judge.) And my sexuality minority things -- the kinkiness, the polyness -- are things that tend to get the sneering, "You're not oppressed" response."

Yes, I think that's a really good way of putting it. The things that have affected me, in my life, personally, in order, would be

Disability.
Kink.

and then some distant, distant far cousin

Gender.

Which is I think why it's so puzzling to me that women's oppression matters *so much*, but kink does not.

I mean, I get that many women don't have it as good as I do. There are horror stories, even today, and they're real and true and important. But it's so effing strange. I accept feminism even though I don't feel so bad for being female; why is it so bad and creepy that I might say "but look at kink and how it's worse, in my life?"

I think it all goes back to the scorn for individualism *thing*, which I really think we need to rethink.

Trinity said...

Elle,

I noticed that too, but then I saw Susan Wright present. And I got the impression from that presentation that there are a lot of specifics the NCSF doesn't or can't or shouldn't give about who they're helping and why, particularly in cases that are less media-attracting and more personal ("fuck, I lost my job!" etc.) and that made me wonder.

I do think that a lot of this isn't anti-BDSM specifically but, as you're putting it, "anti-sex" -- though I might amend that to something broader like "anti-kink." In other words, it's not anti straight couples at home with the lights off, it's something like

*deep breath*

anti-SM-anti-poly-anti-swinger-
anti-casual-sex-anti-sex party-anti-fetish-anti-D/s-anti ...

in other words, something like "anti-kink" or "anti-pervert" or "anti-deviant" or whatever word you want to pick. Which is why I think it does matter.

I don't think it's about being anti-sex full stop so much as they are "that kind of sex or sexuality is unnatural or inappropriate or too prurient or dangerous or perverse or wrong," which I find a bit too similar to a lot of people's justification for their anti-gay views for my comfort.

But you're right that it's not SM, specifically. It's a sort of catchall basket for anything deviant.

And I personally think that as long as we do THAT or allow others to do that, we're creating at least some form of sexual underclass, and that's bad. Whether that underclass is as downtrodden as the people we want to call "oppressed" "officially", I don't know, but I think it's a bad idea to ignore that.

Daisy Bond said...

The things that have affected me, in my life, personally, in order, would be

Disability.
Kink.

and then some distant, distant far cousin

Gender.


This makes a lot of sense to me, too. Not that being female hasn't been a thing, but I think for me so far it's been: Being queer. Being Jewish. Being female. In that order. Which is interesting, because while progressive folks acknowledge anti-Semitism, I don't think Jews are officially oppressed -- nor would I consider Jews, in the US in this time period, to be oppressed. There are some ignorant, hateful people out there, even a lot of them, but the government/economy/law enforcement/education/etc. is not working against my people the way it is working against people of color (not that those groups are mutually exclusive; they're not). So maybe that's a parallel with anti-kink attitudes that would make sense for people. The bigotry exists and its real and pervasive, but in this place at this moment, it does not have the shape of a system.

Or maybe not. I continue to not know.

Daisy Bond said...

Regarding anti-kink stuff being more generally anti-sex or anti-deviant sexuality: I think that's really true, and isn't it just bizarre that there would be a contingent of feminists that wouldn't see that, DUH, those folks are very much the same folks who are anti-queer, and the anti-queer folks are, of course, the folks who are anti-feminist...

This is only sort of tangetially related, but: One breakthrough moment for me in terms of, gosh, everything, was having a series of thoughts that was basically this... People should believe what they believe, but it can be very informative to look around for a moment and notice who is arguing beside you. Are you fighting alongside your allies, or have you managed to fight alongside your enemies?

Trinity said...

Daisy:

I think you might be right there. But then I think the question becomes, IF that's true:

does it have to be a system to do the kind of harm we're worried about, or not? That's the key article of faith in a lot of this kind of theorizing about oppression: Systems. Power.

Where power is conceived of as something like what Foucault would've called sovereign power: it's clear a certain group or government or entity has got it, and got a lot of it, and makes clear rules that say "no doing this, no doing that."

But is that needed? Or is all that's really needed for some social factor to do deep harm (because after all, isn't it the HARM rather than the DEGREE OF SYSTEM-NESS that really matters? If, say, all blue-eyed people were prone to murder at the hands of bigots, would it matter that the bigots were organized in loose confederations rather than in possession of government power/legally permitted to exterminate?) for there to be enough people for it to keep coming up as an issue/problem?

Trinity said...

"I think that's really true, and isn't it just bizarre that there would be a contingent of feminists that wouldn't see that, DUH, those folks are very much the same folks who are anti-queer, and the anti-queer folks are, of course, the folks who are anti-feminist..."

I think that may have to do with what happens when a social justice movement gets old and august and recognized. It strikes me as sort of like some of the gay rights advocates now who are saying "we shouldn't have a trans-inclusive ENDA because trans folks are too weird! We have to get ours FIRST!"

which completely ignores, y'know, what ACTUALLY HAPPENED AT STONEWALL and whitewashes it in all sorts of ways, so that the people arguing that way can believe that they are one unit, THE GAYS, who are just like everyone else EXCEPT ONE THING and so it shouldn't be hard at all to convince straight society to like them more.

Except that real history is a history of misfits and rebels and freaks and deviants.

I think the same thing happens to certain feminists (and always has; anyone remember The Lavender Menace?) People who they consider on the borders of female, the borders of sexual in the ways they developed to understand women's sexuality (clitorally focused, anti-penetration or at least uninterested, passionately refusing dominationa and submission, etc), etc. get pushed aside, deemed derailing, etc.

When my question is: shouldn't we be asking something more like:

who is being othered? How? Why? And how can we stop it?

SnowdropExplodes said...

But you're right that it's not SM, specifically. It's a sort of catchall basket for anything deviant.

Without wishing to compare oppressions, isn't that a little bit like saying, "they're not anti-Black, they're anti-PoC"? It still involves oppression of Blacks, after all!

(I don't know, maybe that was the point that people were trying to make?)

If, say, all blue-eyed people were prone to murder at the hands of bigots, would it matter that the bigots were organized in loose confederations rather than in possession of government power/legally permitted to exterminate?

Or, to take examples from the real world, I'm fairly sure it is still the case that there are places in the UK where, even though there is a lot of legislative protection against racism in the UK, it is still dangerous to be a person of colour and live or run a business there.

Similarly, even if a country has laws against homophobia or homophobic attacks, there can still be communities with a "tradition" that views homosexuality as evil; and being gay in such a community one would still experience oppression (and the tradition would provide the "institutionalisation" in that context).

Daisy Bond said...

does it have to be a system to do the kind of harm we're worried about . . . ?

No. Not from my view.

I think it means you're dealing with a problem with a very different shape, and any activism has to be responsive to that. So maybe you're agitating for broader awareness instead of better laws.

Back again to teaching tools with middle schoolers: we talk to them about three kinds of bigotry. Institutionalized (oppression), interpersonal (discrimination), and internal (shame, self-hate). I don't the lack of bigotry at the institutional level precludes its existence at the other levels, and those levels can seriously mess you up. In terms of individual day to day lived experience, I think they can mess you up more than that highest level.

isn't it the HARM rather than the DEGREE OF SYSTEM-NESS that really matters?

I think they both matter, of course, but overall, YES. Definitely.

When my question is: shouldn't we be asking something more like:

who is being othered? How? Why? And how can we stop it?


Yes.

In addition, of course, to the older questions like, Who has the money? Who gets to go to school? etc.

Trinity said...

yes yes yes daisy yes. i am so lovin this discussion.

Daisy Bond said...

Similarly, even if a country has laws against homophobia or homophobic attacks, there can still be communities with a "tradition" that views homosexuality as evil; and being gay in such a community one would still experience oppression (and the tradition would provide the "institutionalisation" in that context).

I'm not totally sure I'm reading you correctly, Snowdrop, but I think there's a difference between something being institutionalized in a way that happens to fall outside of the law (like by tradition, religion, culture) and a case where something is bad and needs to be addressed but is truly not institutionalized. As you point out, many of the paradigmatic oppressed groups are, in places like the US and the UK, experiencing institutionalized oppression that has been made illegal. But it's still textbook oppression.

Daisy Bond said...

yes yes yes daisy yes. i am so lovin this discussion.

: D

Me too.

High time, huh?

SnowdropExplodes said...

Daisy:

But it's still textbook oppression.

I think that was what I was trying to say.

For example, in those "it's dangerous to be a PoC" areas, there very often is no organising structure to it (and I would class "tradition" as such a structure), but the racial hatred is so endemic that it just seems normal to the haters to act violently towards the Pakistani shopkeeper, the Nigerian kid on his way home from school, etc.

It's illegal, but without a doubt it is oppression.

To feed that back into whether BDSM is oppressed, I guess one test would be whether being known to be kinky would result in clear costs on a community-wide basis (as opposed to "maybe lose a few friends" or "certain people regard you with suspicion"). For example, if being outed by the local press would result in not being able to be served in any (or even just, most) local shops or businesses, I would guess that would count not merely as discrimination, but as oppression, because it is not merely one person doing it as an interpersonal issue, but a generalised social reaction that has tangible consequences.

Daisy Bond said...

I think that was what I was trying to say.

Oh okay.

For example, if being outed by the local press would result in not being able to be served in any (or even just, most) local shops or businesses, I would guess that would count not merely as discrimination, but as oppression, because it is not merely one person doing it as an interpersonal issue, but a generalised social reaction that has tangible consequences.

Yes, I agree.

Trinity said...

I'm not sure it needs to be that dramatic, though. I can imagine places where an out gay person would not be allowed into ALL the stores (or at least be harassed if s/he did), and places where only a few stores would make hir life hell... but I don't know that I'd want to say s/he's no longer oppressed if only a few shopkeepers don't want hir business.

But if the ONLY bad consequence of being gay were shops doing this, then what? Clearly only a handful of people doing it is less systemic than a lot, but would we really want to say "that's only discrimination?"

Maybe we would. I dunno.

Daisy Bond said...

But if the ONLY bad consequence of being gay were shops doing this, then what? Clearly only a handful of people doing it is less systemic than a lot, but would we really want to say "that's only discrimination?"

Well. If you're being literal there -- if the only difference between moving through the world as a gay person vs as a straight person were a small number of shopkeepers being discriminatory, then yeah, I think we'd want to say it was only discrimination. Removing all the the other issues (legal discrimination, bigotry from important institutions like religion as well as a lot of the general public, it being perfectly socially acceptable to verbally bash and berate queer folks, etc.) then we wouldn't have a system of oppression, I don't think -- just isolated assholes, especially if those assholes were frowned upon by many or most people.

Which is not to say we don't have a system on our hands in the case of kink. Just that in that hypothetical, it's not a system of oppression.

SnowdropExplodes said...

For the record, I meant "out" as a kinkster, rather than "out" as a gay person (although of course, it makes very little difference who the oppressed/discriminated-against group are).

I'm not sure what is being meant by "system" now. I think businesses that discriminate in a way that is seen as unpopular (i.e. the majority see them as arseholes for it) quickly end up unable to do business, at least, if there are businesses that are less arsehole-y. The alternative, of course, is that the local media are unwilling to take up the cause (and that surely indicates at least the basis of a system).

I guess I was suggesting the shopping thing as the most systematic and/or visible symptom of a community-wide prejudice/discrimination.

ellefromtheeast said...

I think what's overall really tricky about figuring out whether people or systems are trying to oppress kinksters is working out whether time, place, and manner limitations are disingenenous or legitimate.

"Time, place, and manner" is the classic definition in the US legal tradition of the kind of restrictions that the government is allowed to put on free expressions. For example, you're allowed to play any music you want, but not over a certain decible level in residential areas.

In Letter from a Birmingham Jail, Martin Luther King writes that it's totally legitimate for a city to demand a permit for a march, but then if they never allow a march for civil rights, it's oppression.

So the question about kink is, when people get fired for BDSM related issues, are they being fired for being kinky, or is it a time, place and manner issue - were they being fired for talking about their kink *at work*? Would someone be fired for talking about how much they love the missionary position *at work*? I don't know; I feel like it depends on the workplace.

I think some people who say "Think of the children!" are just trying to get all kinky expression shut down all the time, but some people have legitimate time/place/manner concerns.

Yale Law Professor Kenji Yoshino has an awesome article called "The Pressure to Cover" in the New York Times Magazine that really gets at these issues.

SnowdropExplodes said...

Elle:

In the UK, it is definitely not a time, place, manner thing. You can be as discreet about your kink as you like, but if someone finds out about it (whether that's a colleague, or a newspaper, or anyone else) you are likely to be at risk. You can never know in advance whether or not an employer will be accepting of such things, or if they will discriminate against you, until you have already told them. I did actually raise the issue at the last job interview I had (for a job I actually wanted to do!) under the banner of equal opportunities, and the interviewers seemed okay with kink as private life, but then - I didn't get the job, so we'll never know for sure.

(Of course, since I have on my CV my involvement with the campaign against the extreme porn legislation, I am fairly "out" anyway even before I get to the interview stage!)

Daisy Bond said...

I guess I was suggesting the shopping thing as the most systematic and/or visible symptom of a community-wide prejudice/discrimination.

Yeah, that makes sense... My comment was only about Trinity's hypothetical in which that was the only manifestation of bigotry.

You can be as discreet about your kink as you like, but if someone finds out about it (whether that's a colleague, or a newspaper, or anyone else) you are likely to be at risk.

You've convinced me that kinky folks are facing systemic oppression in the UK right now.

Still unsure about the situation here in the States, though.

SnowdropExplodes said...

You've convinced me that kinky folks are facing systemic oppression in the UK right now.

I sometimes wish more kinky folks would be convinced, but a lot of the time when you ask people to be more involved in BDSM activism, the response you get is more or less:

"*shrug* if we keep our heads down and don't bother anybody, I mean, we're not doing anything wrong, then they'll leave us alone"

And to be fair, a lot of gay folks followed that course before 1967 (when homosexuality was made legal in the UK) and got away with it, and plenty of kinky folks get away with it now.

And of course, if they leave you alone, then you don't feel oppressed. A lot of people, also, just close their eyes to the legal situation, and don't realise that the Spanner ruling could apply to them.

Trinity said...

Daisy:

I'm not entirely sure the situation in the US is profoundly different. While it's true that Spanner *didn't* happen here, I'm not convinced that means Spanner *couldn't*.

Daisy Bond said...

I'm not entirely sure the situation in the US is profoundly different.

Me neither.

While it's true that Spanner *didn't* happen here, I'm not convinced that means Spanner *couldn't*.

Me neither.

pepomint said...

I'm coming to this late, but I want to throw out that as I see it, informal enforcement of social systems of power is actually much more meaningful and in the end harmful than institutional power.

The example I like to use is that it is legal in a number of places (say, Boston) for women to walk around shirtless. Do you see any women doing this in Boston? No. Why? Because the informal enforcement of sexist norms is often *much more effective* than institutional power, though both matter of course.

I've been thinking a lot about anti-nonmonogamy bias recently, and that's another hard call, because again there are few laws against nonmonogamy. But at the same time, anti-nonmonogamy pressure can come from one's friends, from family, from the social milieu, and is built into the very way we think about love and relationships. Further complicating, many people spend time as monogamous and nonmonogamous, so it is hard to delineate a clear set of winners and losers.

So is anti-nonmonogamy bias a *system of oppression*? Hard to say, but in any case it is definitely a system of power, one that is very real, pervasive, and very strong.

And as I've thought about anti-nonmonogamy, it's become clear that much of it is actually in service to sexism, like the way that jealousy can be used as an excuse for domestic violence, or the overlap between monogamy and ownership of women. So there's oppression in there.

I guess what I'm getting at is that whether or not anti-kink (anti-deviant, whatever) is a bona-fide system of oppression is the wrong question. It is clearly a system of power, and one that clearly has very heavy effects on people. And as y'all have pointed out, anti-kink can be more problematic than sexism in a person's life. Do feminists need to know anything more than this to acknowledge that pro-kink activism is important?

ellefromtheeast said...

daisy bond wrote:
There are some ignorant, hateful people out there, even a lot of them, but the government/economy/law enforcement/education/etc. is not working against my people the way it is working against people of color (not that those groups are mutually exclusive; they're not). So maybe that's a parallel with anti-kink attitudes that would make sense for people. The bigotry exists and its real and pervasive, but in this place at this moment, it does not have the shape of a system.

For me, the system is exactly what's important about oppression. I think that there does have to be an important element of coercion or violence for it to really be oppression.

Coercion can mean state action, like denying someone custody of their kids, where you don't actually see the violence, because it's the government, and if you don't cooperate, they'll eventually start to use violence, so people do cooperate, because of the coercive threat.

Or it can mean state inaction in the face of other people's violence, like refusal to prosecute rape or hate crimes.

But if there's no coercion or violence, I'm hesitant to call it full on oppression. I liked the original distinction daisy bond made between discrimination and oppression, with discrimination being the nonstate, nonviolent stuff.

Discrimination can certainly cause bad stuff to happen to people, and agitating against it is definitely worthwhile. I just think it's useful to maintain that distinction, that coercion/violence might be the key to, in the words of the original post, "capturing what oppression is that clearly excludes us" in the US.

Given what snowdropexplodes is telling us about the current state of UK law, it sounds like the UK might have tipped to the coercion side of oppression. And I'm not saying that it couldn't happen in the US, just that it hasn't happened yet.

(Disclaimer: I'm a social scientist - by my training, I'm supposed to see the barrel of a gun as *way* more influential than ideas. So I have a strong bias to see naked power as more important than "soft power," and I'll completely understand if everyone hates this distinction.)

Trinity said...

Elle,

That makes a lot of sense. My personal worry though is that wondering where the gun barrels are means not seeing, or looking past, or denying, the ways that creating a closeted, "keep your head down" class comes with its own harms.

Maybe such a class isn't oppressed until we start seeing widespread coercive state power. Like I say in the OP, I'm actually OK with that.

What I'm not OK with and what prompted the post is the whole "Oh, the kinksters are WHINING AGAIN! I'm going to go engage in LEGITIMATE fighting for social justice with the OPPRESSED GROUPS over here!"

Which I see a lot, at least in e-feminism, and used to be convinced by (since I thought it obviously wasn't oppression) but now find problematic (since I now think that it might be, and also think that even if it isn't it can still be a Big Moral No-No Bad, like discrimination, rather than "just prejudice" which is often assumed not to really matter.)

Trinity said...

(and I don't have any problem with analyzing soft power and hard power differently. I'm not convinced hard power is ALWAYS more profound in effect than soft, but I do think that people get fascinated by soft power and tend to get carried away with wild claims about how profoundly it affects us even when it's actually not really doing all that much.)

ellefromtheeast said...

What I'm not OK with and what prompted the post is the whole "Oh, the kinksters are WHINING AGAIN! I'm going to go engage in LEGITIMATE fighting for social justice with the OPPRESSED GROUPS over here!"

And I think that's totally right. If, for example, you're worrying about body image, then kink is a completely fair comparison. Fat activism and BDSM acceptance activism seem like more or less fair parallels to me, but I think there are a lot of feminists who would be more comfortable with the former than the latter.

Now, if you're doing your feminist organizing around, say, victims of rape as a war crime in the Sudan, then, yes, tell us we're all whiners.

I think what causes the category error is that the *group* who is being targeted by a lot of body image stuff and who is being targeted by rape is the same - the group "woman" - so it all counts as "feminism" - even though some of the bad stuff is mere discrimination and some of it is tragic oppression.

Mighty Fast Pig said...

Bear in mind that, BDSM people have a particular role to play in the culture wars over sexual expression, because we are (one of) the most visually inflammatory expressions of sexual deviance. Whenever the Catholic League or Concerned Women or whomever needs ammunition, they just point to the Folsom Fair or something like that. We're a highly visible target if we dare stick our heads out of the closet. Just ask Jack McGeorge.

I'm also not as sanguine about the security of sexual freedom in the US compared to the UK. (I'm in Canada, btw.) There have been many more federal obscenity prosecutions of porn producers during the Bush administration than during the Clinton administration. Check the Glenn Marcus case for an example.

I'm the president of a new BDSM group, and we're already dealing with the difficulties of being turned down or price-gouged for party venues. I think the whole "Are you oppressed enough?" business is ultimately counter-productive, in that it prevents building alliances between groups.

Mighty Fast Pig said...

On the subject of oppression, Miller Brewer just caved in to pressure of the Catholic League and won't be sponsoring the Folsom Street Fair in 2008. News Article

Tactics like this may be outside state sanctioned violence or the like, but it's still pretty effective. Now the Folsom people have to scramble for a sponsor.

Trinity said...

fuck. that sucks.

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