Sunday, 9 November 2008

Theories and Commonalities

I spent some time yesterday reading over the blog of Truth Wins Out, an organization dedicated to "fighting right-wing lies and the ex-gay fraud." As I was reading through some of the discussions and descriptions of reparative therapy and its proponents, I was struck by some commonalities I see between the theories underpinning that movement and the "radical feminist" theories that claim that SM desires are imposed by the patriarchy and bad for women.

Here's TWO's description of NARTH, a a self described “non-profit, educational organization dedicated to affirming a complementary, male-female model of gender and sexuality":
At the Feb. 10, 2007 Love Won Out conference in Phoenix, the “secular” therapist told the audience, “When we live our God-given integrity and our human dignity, there is no space for sex with a guy.”

Confronted with protesters at their 2006 national conference in Orlando, NARTH instructed its members to “sing a hymn or pray instead,” according to Mother Jones magazine, in its Sept.-Oct. 2007 issue.

...Dr. Nicolosi has said in his first book, “Reparative Therapy of Male Homosexuality that, “I do not believe that any man can ever be truly at peace in living out a homosexual orientation.”

The late Dr. Socarides, who has a gay son that once served as President Bill Clinton’s gay liaison, told The Washington Post on August 14, 2007, “Homosexuality is a psychological and psychiatric disorder, there is no question about it. It is a purple menace that is threatening the proper design of gender distinctions in society.”

Now, obviously this is religion-based, rather than based on a theory that sexuality is socially constructed in a way that's bad for women. But there's a lot that I see that I find very familiar.

First, the "there is no space for" remark. The most strident of the anti-SM feminists also don't usually claim right out that no one should do BDSM. They just remind us that living to our full potential would not include doing BDSM, and that those of us who continue to do it are misguided and confused.

Second, the comment about "peace." This is a big one. According to these sorts of "radical feminist," it's perfectly within our rights to behave as we want, but we can't possibly be happy. Being subordinated to men is a bad state -- and even female tops like me are supposedly "subordinated" to our partners, since only men could ever really want this stuff -- and some secret part of us, deep inside, knows it. We're not content, somewhere inside ourselves, and in five years or so we'll come to the revelations that saved the ex-BDSMer feminists and be unable to deny that we "weren't at peace."

This is a particularly nefarious one. No human being is ever totally at peace with herself over everything. That makes it quite easy for manipulative techniques like these to get their hooks in people. If you're sad, if you're confused, particularly if you're currently unhappy sexually, it's very easy to remember what someone, be they radical feminist or reparative therapist, said to you about not being truly at peace with yourself. It's very easy for that, in turn, to trigger a "purge" if you're insecure: tossing out your sex toys and vowing to "find peace."

I haven't here quoted the bit from the website describing what NARTH takes the origins of homosexuality to be. First, we've all likely heard it: distant fathers, dominant mothers, and other gender-nonconforming setups in our home life. Second, the specifics of that are totally unlike any "radical feminist" theory about anything.

But the similarity I see even there is that the "not at peace" sexuality is taken to be socially constructed. For NARTH, homosexuality comes from being around gender nonconforming people and copying them. For "radical feminists" of this stripe, it comes from being around patriarchy. In both cases, the sexuality cannot be inborn.

It's not only that, though. I personally do think both homosexuality and BDSM orientation can be inborn, but that they need not be, and that using "inborn or not" as the barometer of whether the sexuality is okay or not is beyond stupid. It's that these theories of social construction/nurture are taken to be obvious and beyond reproach.

No one can really, truly prove for sure that social environment doesn't shape sexuality, sometimes radically. We believe that the "mother" theory is stupid as an explanation for homosexuality because there are tons of people it doesn't fit. I believe the "patriarchy" theory is stupid as an explanation for BDSM orientation because I've met tons of people who don't connect it to gender at all.

But unlike the "mother" theory, there's no way to say "this is what happened outside of patriarchy." If you accept their understanding of patriarchy as something that not only affects but shapes every part of our psyches, there is no way to prove them wrong either.

But notice, from what I say above, that this doesn't actually suggest that they are correct. It only looks like it does. Just like there's no way out of the claim that people who do BDSM are unhappy or "not truly at peace" because no human ever is, there's no way out of the claim that people's sexualities aren't fruits of patriarchy because no one is free of it either.

But all that that line of thinking indicates is that we have no idea what human sexuality would look like free of patriarchy. I've seen scads of discussions in feminist spaces about whrther there'd be SM in utopia. They've never come to resolution, for the very same reason: all that any of us, pro or anti, can do in such discussions is speculate. I speculate that SM would still exist, because pain play isn't about power, and that D/s would still exist, because power play isn't about injustice. Someone else speculates that pain and power are attractive because of oppression, and no one in Utopia would dream of it.

Problem so totally solved, there.

Third, both NARTH and the "radical feminists" are careful to inform everyone that they don't intend to impose on anyone. They acknowledge that their treatments or theories are not for everyone. Here's NARTH:
NARTH respects each client's dignity, autonomy and free agency.

We believe that clients have the right to claim a gay identity, or to diminish their homosexuality and to develop their heterosexual potential.

The right to seek therapy to change one's sexual adaptation should be considered self-evident and inalienable.

We call on our fellow mental-health association to stop falsely claiming to have "scientific knowledge" that settles the issue of homosexuality. Instead, our mental-health associations must leave room for diverse understandings of the family, of core human identity, and the meaning and purpose of human sexuality.

I hear something similar from "radical feminists." They are careful to remind any pro-BDSM person they debate with that they have no interest in preventing us from doing BDSM and no personal investment in any individual coming to agree with their theories or to change sexual behavior or orientation. They say instead that they only hope to get more people thinking about where their desires come from and why they have them. I've even e-met a few who've told me they agree with "radical feminist" theories about where their desires come from and kinda wish they could change, but know they can't.

The thing about this, though, is that neither NARTH's nor the "radical feminists'" theories are as neutral as they claim. No, no one is compelling anyone to seek change, if we do these folks the courtesy of taking them at face value when they say that. However, their theories assert that you're broken. If you're gay, it's because something's wrong in your life and you are so desperate for closeness with people of the same gender that you act out sexually, desperate for their attention. If you're kinky, it's because you have been so supersaturated with the message of male dominance and female submission that you're incapable of sexually relating to others in a positive way.

And that, in the end, is the big commonality: the theory that people are broken and need fixing. Homosexuality supposedly comes from family dysfunction; BDSM is often described as the result of abuse, despite many people enjoying BDSM who were never abused and many people who were abused thinking they had BDSM interests before any abuse happened. Corollary to this is the idea that as you heal, your sexuality may change.

I've spoken before about how damaging I feel this is, and I think it cuts straight to the heart of both what's wrong with reparative therapy and what's wrong with "radical feminist theory" about how abuse affects us. I quote from myself, elsewhere:
I don't in any way mean to suggest that I know better than that person [an ex-BDSMer who believed that her SM fantasies came from her abuse, and said that she replaced those fantasies with mental images of waterfalls] where her fantasies came from or how her healing should have gone. But I will say that personally, I found the assumption that healing from my trauma would involve no longer being a sadomasochist pretty harmful.

The people I relied on for mental health care told me that my fantasies came from my trauma, and that once I'd really healed, I'd not have them any more.

I spent so much time worrying about my sexuality not changing, of waterfalls or whatever else not replacing my self, that I didn't allow myself for years to take pride in the actual progress I was making toward healing. I became obsessed with the idea that my sexuality wasn't changing and therefore there was something wrong with me, even as I slowly felt better about myself, less inclined to self-harming (again, maybe to you the desire to do SM and to self-harm are the same, but in my experience they are very different), etc.

I think promoting the idea that SM fantasies are *always* scars from trauma is harmful.
In a nutshell, that's my major problem with both reparative therapy and anti-SM "radical feminism": this theory that you're broken, and if you just pray enough or "examine your desires" enough you'll heal, but that if you don't you must just be too hurt, too broken, too weak, or too easily seduced to get over it.

22 comments:

LaurynX said...

According to these folks I am definitely "broken beyond repair" and I refuse to buy into that.

I love that you state that BDSM is not gender specific. It's crazy that radfems don't see this. Assigning patriarchy as the reason is arbitrary and only furthers their own agendas in this case. Who's to say classism, or heterosexism, or racism isn't the "root" cause of BDSM?
I've met people for whom kink is racially charged...jack shit to do with gender. But this goes back to them saying "all those issues will disappear for when the feminist revolution comes", which completely trivializes and minimizes these other oppressions; and THAT is something I have a problem with in regards to many radfems.

As a kinky person I'd ask these feminists to see that "patriarchy" is not the end all and be all of power institutions in the world. And they are making themselves look really foolish to say that patriarchy's overthrow will solve all the other power "problems" in the world.

I know this comment wasn't kink focused, but I felt the need to poke a further hole in their arguments.

Trinity said...

"Assigning patriarchy as the reason is arbitrary and only furthers their own agendas in this case. Who's to say classism, or heterosexism, or racism isn't the "root" cause of BDSM?"

But why should the root of it be an -ism at all?

I've heard the arguments that suggest that without unjust and violent social inequality, SM wouldn't be sexy at all to anyone, but I don't really buy it.

I guess the thing is... that can be true for some people and some kinks, sure. For example, I doubt that Nazi play would be a big charge for some people (and as always I gesticulate wildly while reminding everyone that NOT ALL SM PEOPLE ARE INTO THAT, THANKS) if the Nazis had been a peaceful government dedicated to the equal rights of all citizens.

But I know so many people for whom the experience is about feeling safe (if a bottom) or caretaking (if a top) that I'm inclined to think at least some SM's basic root is something more like... being a child and having caregivers who have power over you simply because *you're a kid and they should*.

And while some people may say that is also tied to -isms, I think that's a stretch.

Trinity said...

"And they are making themselves look really foolish to say that patriarchy's overthrow will solve all the other power "problems" in the world."

Some try to solve this by saying "patriarchy" means "white supremacist ableist capitalist heteronormative patriarchy" but I think with ***some*** folks that's just an attempt to cram all other oppressions into their pet name.

Trinity said...

Also I remain unconvinced that capitalism is avoidable...

SnowdropExplodes said...

I read on the homepage of the Radical Feminist Carnival, that "Radical feminism is the theory that male oppression of women is the root of all other forms of oppression" (or words to that effect).

Radfems therefore are unable to see anything bad as having any other cause than Patriarchy.

Needless to say, to make that theory work they have to do some pretty weird things with history and labour relations!

Trinity said...

"I read on the homepage of the Radical Feminist Carnival, that "Radical feminism is the theory that male oppression of women is the root of all other forms of oppression" (or words to that effect)."

Oooof, I didn't think anyone believed that any more. Can you link me?

Gaina said...

Pfft! Why don't they examine their obsession with other people's sex lives?

And who said BDSM is automatically putting the man in the dominant role? That's one hell of an assumption for them to make.

SnowdropExplodes said...

Turns out I misremembered slightly, or else the text has changed since I last saw it:

(Fair warning, the author of this definition turns out to be none other than our favourite ex-patriarchy-now-radfem, Heart!)

http://carnivalofradicalfeminists.wordpress.com/carnival-information/

# Women’s oppression is rooted in both the structures of our society and in capitalism and white supremacy. Patriarchy includes not only male rule but also heterosexual imperialism and sexism (Charlotte Bunch);

# In order to abolish patriarchy, we must challenge its root components and causes which we locate in oppression of females by males;

# We believe that the uprooting of sexism simultaneously inaugurates the uprooting of racism, class hatred, homophobia, lesbophobia, transphobia, ageism, ableism, competition, hierarchy, ecological disaster, and economic exploitation of all kinds;


I think this does carry pretty much the meaning I paraphrased, but it also seems to hold a circular definition: "Women's oppression is rooted in [patriarchy]" ... "patriarchy['s] root components ... we locate in the oppression of females and males."

Relevant to our specific questions, further down we have:

we oppose ... sadomasochism, ... , and dominance hierarchies of all kinds; we endorse, support and work to envision and create peaceful, respectful, noncoercive, relationships, structures and institutions which affirm the importance of all human beings, all creatures, and the earth
Huh - my sadomasochistic D/s relationships have been the epitome of peaceful, respectful and noncoercive - and most certainly have been rooted in a belief in the importance of all human beings.

Renegade Evolution said...

SE: Yep, but I could go out, get a gun, and blow someones head off, but since I'm a woman, it would be the Pats fault.

how fucked up is that?

Trinity said...

You poor victim, Ren!

Trinity said...

SE: URL, please? Feel free to break it so it doesn't trackback, if you prefer.

LaurynX said...

@ Trinity:

I wasn't by any means saying that BDSM is caused by some -ism. What I wanted to get across was the ridiculousness of their obsession with thinking that.

Some try to solve this by saying "patriarchy" means "white supremacist ableist capitalist heteronormative patriarchy" but I think with ***some*** folks that's just an attempt to cram all other oppressions into their pet name.

Yeah, what you said right here.

SnowdropExplodes said...

oops, didn't mean to leave it out:

http://carnivalofradicalfeminists.wordpress.com/carnival-information/

Mighty Fast Pig said...

My research suggests that BDSM fantasy comes from taboos and cultural conflicts: Catholicism vs secular culture, "the Orient", Atlantic slavery, Fascism, etc. Think of it this way: had Atlantic slavery not happened, rock'n'roll and jazz and hip-hop and all those related musical forms would not have existed. Should we stop listening to that too?

I'll confess to certain moments when I've wondered if my kink is symptomatic of my personal dysfunction, wondering if I should throw out my toys and clothes, quit the group I help run, etc. But I don't think purging like that would really help. Thanks for your post. It encouraged me.

Trinity said...

Mighty Fast Pig:

What research do you mean? Are you saying you've actually done some sort of study, or are you saying that most people you know have cited those reasons? I ask because I think it's one explanation among many. I think a lot of people like exploring the forbidden, but that for other people, SM is about other things.

In my own case, I do know that my family called me strong-willed and chided me for being too demanding a lot. I guess on your theory this could give rise to me wanting to dominate people because I've been told not to. I think, though, that some of that power for will was about when actually wanted, not entirely about failures to behave in a socially acceptable way.

But what it sounds like you're talking about are particular fetishes that have a clear root in social history, so you may only be talking about a reserved subset of interests anyway.

I just get very leery when people attempt to reduce a whole spectrum of sexual interests to one particular concept. I get similarly twitchy when people say that all BDSM is ultimately about power, as well.

Trinity said...

gah, bad dictation program! bad!

I actually said "some of that power struggle was about what I actually wanted."

Mighty Fast Pig said...

Trinity:

I'm talking about the cultural history of BDSM, not the personal. I've been tracing the cultural history through a lot of books and I'm convinced that culture holds up certain things as taboo. First it was the Catholic clergy versus the bourgeois household, then it was slavery, then it was working women, then it was fascism, etc. That's where the imagery and terminology comes from.

To me, BDSM grows out of power, but it is a distorted parody of what power says the world should be. It plays society backwards.

I'm not trying to be reductionist, but I am trying to develop a historical/cultural theory of BDSM.

Anonymous said...

My partner gets immense amount of physical (and psychological) pleasure from pain. A good flogging or spanking gets her hot and wet (much more than me licking her clit). I get lots of pleasure from giving pain and seeing someone so turned on by the pain I'm giving.

I don't understand how pain play, for example, has to have some twisted underlying shit to it anymore than cunnilingus or anal sex or whatever other sexual acts.

Would someone say - "you like oral sex? wow, you should really examine that! patriarchy blah blah" ? It's stupid.

salzara tirwen said...

“When we live our God-given integrity and our human dignity, there is no space for sex with a guy.”

Wait, is the anti-gay fundies or the political-lesbian-feminist fundies talking again? I lose track sometimes. :)

SnowdropExplodes said...

ST: I think it must be the right-wing fundies as opposed to the radfem fundies - the radfems would say "Goddess-given", after all! ;-)

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