An anonymous commenter responded to yesterday's post with a quote from Audre Lorde, ostensibly to explain exactly what radical feminists' opposition to SM actually looks like. I responded in comments there as well, and then figured it would make a good post of its own. So without further ado, here's the Lorde quote and my responses, taken from the conversation in comments here.
Interview with Audre Lord [sic; it's "Lorde", anony] on MediaWatch http://www.mediawatch.com/wordpress/?p=18 [The interview was originally published in Against Sadomasochism: A Radical Feminist Analysis, edited by Robin Ruth Linden, et. al. Pp. 68-71.]
Leigh: What about the doctrine of “live and let live” and civil liberties issues?My responses:
Audre: I don’t see that as the point. I’m not questioning anyone’s right to live. I’m saying we must observe the courses and implications of our lives. If we are talking about feminism then the personal is political and we can subject everything in our lives to scrutiny. We have been nurtured in a sick, abnormal society, and we should be in the process of reclaiming ourselves, not the terms of that society. This is complex. I speak not about condemnation but about recognizing what is happening and questioning what it means. I’m not willing to regiment anyone’s life. If we are to scrutinize our human relationships, we must be willing to scrutinize all aspects of those relationships. The subject of revolution is ourselves, is our lives.
Sadomasochism is an institutionalized celebration of dominant/subordinate relationships. And, it prepares us either to accept subordination or to enforce dominance. Even in play, to affirm that the exertion of power over powerlessness is erotic, is empowering, is to set the emotional and social stage for the continuation of that relationship, politically, socially and economically.
...Sadomasochism feeds the belief that domination is inevitable. It can be compared to the phenomenon of worshipping a godhead with two faces, and worshipping only the white part on the full moon and the black part on the dark of the moon, as if totally separate. But you cannot corral any aspect within your life, divorce its implications, whether it’s what you eat for breakfast or how you say goodbye. This is what integrity means...
Those involved with sadomasochism are acting out the intolerance of differences which we all learn: superiority and thereby the right to dominate. The conflict is supposedly self-limiting because it happens behind bedroom doors. Can this be so, when the erotic empowers, nourishes and permeates all of our lives?...
I do not believe that sexuality is separate from living. As a minority woman, I know dominance and subordination are not bedroom issues. In the same way that rape is not about sex, s/m is not about sex but about how we use power. If it were only about personal sexual exchange or private taste, why would it be presented as a political issue?...
The linkage of passion to dominance/subordination is the prototype of the heterosexual image of male-female relationships, one which justifies pornography. Women are supposed to “love” being brutalized. This is also the prototypical justification of all relationships of oppression-that the subordinate one who is “different” “enjoys” the inferior position.
The gay male movement, for example, is invested in distinguishing between gay s/m pornography and heterosexual pornography. Gay men can allow themselves the luxury of not seeing the consequences. We, as women and as feminists, must scrutinize our actions and see what they imply, and upon what they are based.
I'm not sure if you posted the Lorde because you agree with it, or simply as a way to explain to us exactly where radical feminists are coming with this stuff. (I don't need the education; Against Sadomasochism, from whence that quote comes, is actually on my bookshelf already.)
[ETA: I think it's also important to look at the very end of the interview, wherein Lorde mentions that she sees the SM issue as far less pressing than others within the feminist movement -- a bit that I note Anon leaves unquoted:]
First, we must ask ourselves, is this whole question of s/m sex in the lesbian community perhaps being used to draw attention and energies away from other more pressing and immediately life-threatening issues facing us as women in this racist, conservative and repressive period? A red herring? A smoke screen for provocateurs? Second, lesbian s/m is not about what you do in bed, just as lesbianism is not simply a sexual preference. For example, Barbara Smith’s work on woman-identified women, on “lesbian” experiences in Zora Hurston or Toni Morrison. It is not who I sleep with that defines the quality of these acts, not what we do together, but what life statements am I led to make as the nature and effect of my erotic relationships percolate throughout my life and my being? As a deep lode of our erotic lives and knowledge, how does sexuality enrich us and empower our actions?[With which I totally agree. My disagreement with Lorde is that she sees SM as unavoidably leading to bad effects. I don't. I think it leads to understanding what power means for us, as well as allowing many of us to experience a mode of living less focused on selfishness and ego than modern American society is. I think such experiences are a powerful, and important, corrective for many people in an ego-focused, "me me me" society. It's not about subordination. It's about distance from the ego.]
"If we are talking about feminism then the personal is political and we can subject everything in our lives to scrutiny."
As much as I respect Lorde (Sister Outsider? On my bookshelf too.), I'm gonna have to say she's doing what many feminists do, and misinterpreting what Carol Hanisch had in mind by the phrase.
Here's Hanisch's essay.
First, what it was referring to:
For this paper I want to stick pretty close to an aspect of the Left debate commonly talked about---namely "therapy" vs. "therapy and politics." Another name for it is "personal" vs. "political" and it has other names, I suspect, as it has developed across the country. I haven't gotten over to visit the New Orleans group yet, but I have been participating in groups in New York and Gainesville for more than a year. Both of these groups have been called "therapy" and "personal" groups by women who consider themselves "more political." So I must speak about so-called therapy groups from my own experience.So what she's talking about, actually, is not the idea that women must carefully examine their personal lives for false consciousness. What she's doing is defending the work of C-R groups as political rather than personal, because they focus not on being therapeutic rap sessions for "messed up" women, but on doing political work together. It's not about whether issues are personal or not (though the implication is strong that what's considered "personal" is affected by patriarchy, I'll grant that), but about whether a certain kind of group meeting can be considered to "count" as political work. It's a response to "Why are you talking for two hours when you could be lobbying?", not a response to "Why do you have sex that way?" or the like. In faaaaaaact....
The very word "therapy" is obviously a misnomer if carried to its logical conclusion. Therapy assumes that someone is sick and that there is a cure, e.g., a personal solution. I am greatly offended that I or any other woman is thought to need therapy in the first place. Women are messed over, not messed up! We need to change the objective conditions, not adjust to them. Therapy is adjusting to your bad personal alternative.
We have not done much trying to solve immediate personal problems of women in the group. We've mostly picked topics by two methods: In a small group it is possible for us to take turns bringing questions to the meeting (like, Which do/did you prefer, a girl or a boy baby or no children, and why? What happens to your relationship if your man makes more money than you? Less than you?). Then we go around the room answering the questions from our personal experiences. Everybody talks that way. At the end of the meeting we try to sum up and generalize from what's been said and make connections.
I believe at this point, and maybe for a long time to come, that these analytical sessions are a form of political action. I do not go to these sessions because I need or want to talk about my "personal problems." In fact, I would rather not. As a movement woman, I've been pressured to be strong, selfless, other-oriented, sacrificing, and in general pretty much in control of my own life. To admit to the problems in my life is to be deemed weak. So I want to be a strong woman, in movement terms, and not admit I have any real problems that I can't find a personal solution to (except those directly related to the capitalist system). It is at this point a political action to tell it like it is, to say what I really believe about my life instead of what I've always been told to say.
The groups that I have been in have also not gotten into "alternative life-styles" or what it means to be a "liberated" woman. We came early to the conclusion that all alternatives are bad under present conditions. Whether we live with or without a man, communally or in couples or alone, are married or unmarried, live with other women, go for free love, celibacy or lesbianism, or any combination, there are only good and bad things about each bad situation. There is no "more liberated" way; there are only bad alternatives.As I read this and the other quote, she's actually vehemently denying that being for or against particular "personal solutionary" things is actually good political work, because it sidesteps the real problem, which is not that women choose one thing over another, but that all possible choices have been stunted in some way or another.
....When our group first started, going by majority opinion, we would have been out in the streets demonstrating against marriage, against having babies, for free love, against women who wore makeup, against housewives, for equality without recognition of biological differences, and god knows what else. Now we see all these things as what we call "personal solutionary." Many of the actions taken by "action" groups have been along these lines. The women who did the anti-woman stuff at the Miss America Pageant were the ones who were screaming for action without theory.
One more thing: I think we must listen to what so-called apolitical women have to say---not so we can do a better job of organizing them but because together we are a mass movement. I think we who work full-time in the movement tend to become very narrow. What is happening now is that when non-movement women disagree with us, we assume it's because they are "apolitical," not because there might be something wrong with our thinking. Women have left the movement in droves. The obvious reasons are that we are tired of being sex slaves and doing shitwork for men whose hypocrisy is so blatant in their political stance of liberation for everybody (else). But there is really a lot more to it than that. I can't quite articulate it yet. I think "apolitical" women are not in the movement for very good reasons, and as long as we say "you have to think like us and live like us to join the charmed circle," we will fail. What I am trying to say is that there are things in the consciousness of "apolitical" women (I find them very political) that are as valid as any political consciousness we think we have. We should figure out why many women don't want to do action. Maybe there is something wrong with the action or something wrong with why we are doing the action or maybe the analysis of why the action is necessary is not clear enough in our minds.[ETA: There is also this:]
Of course there were women within New York Radical Women and the broader feminist movement who argued from the beginning against consciousness raising and claimed women were brainwashed and complicit in their own oppression, an argument rooted in the sociological and psychological rather than the political.Also, I disagree with Lorde's analysis of play, there. To be fair, I don't think that we remain completely unaffected by the things to which we turn our attention. At the same time, though, play is an important part of the growth and socialization of youthful creatures, whether human, dog, cat, whatever.
But small humans' play is very complicated. The simple fact that one finds a child playing a certain game of make-believe today does not tell us what she will grow up to be like tomorrow. I liked pretending my Barbie dolls were rock stars. Am I a musician? No.
There are other games that I played with them that more closely paralleled what I grew up to be. Sure. Like I said, we're not totally divorced from what we do for fun. But that doesn't mean that we can look at what someone plays with and read off who she is, unless we have more information.
[ETA: And I think getting that information will tell us what we need to know about what the play, whether a child's game or an adult's SM, means or doesn't mean. How does it relate to how she sees herself? Is she trying on a way of behaving that's foreign to her as a kind of personal exploration? Is the adult woman submitting or dominating because she feels she does the opposite in her regular life, and seeks balance? Is she expressing something she believes is essential to her character? If she is doing this, is she doing it because she looks down on herself or others, or is she reflectively involving herself in a relationship where her personality is valued? The answers to those questions are what strike me as important. On the question of whether SM itself, as some monolithic Practice, is better or worse for women or others than Vanilla, as some similarly monolithic Practice, I'm inclined to agree with Hanisch's analysis of all alternatives as just as bad (or as good -- I'm not so pessimistic) as one another. I also don't believe that either SM or vanilla activities are any kind of monolith, so theory based on seeing them as such is unavoidably flawed and therefore bad.]
I am, however, guilty as charged about believing that hierarchy is inevitable. I don't think this because it's so damn sexy I'm willing to put up with patriarchy, though.
I believe it because every time I've gone into a relationship expecting there to be no power dynamics, I've found myself ripe for other people's manipulation. I know how to handle someone with authority behaving in a way I don't approve of: challenge her, renegotiate our ranks if possible, or leave.
But I've had much less success in situations that were supposed to lack power dynamics. It was a big thing in my family as a kid, that no one should "want power" or "be selfish." Which yeah, sounded nice, but it left a lot of room for people to manipulate others and, when called on their manipulations, to say "You're crazy. I'd never do that."
I've seen the same thing when I've been in relationships that would supposedly be especially relaxing or healthy because "no one had the power." It's very easy for "the power" only to refer to some kind of rank ordering, and for people who are skilled at manipulation to turn that into, "Oh, you're not outvoted, sweetie, you're just wrong."
Especially when there's a specific ideology that the accuser can point to: "Oh, you want that? Well, but that's bad feminism, honey! Oh, don't get so upset, this is just about liberation!"
I think that the idea of ending hierarchy is nonsensical and dangerous [at least as I've so far seen it presented] because it doesn't include plans for ending manipulation and emotional abuse. [If it did include such plans, though, I'd likely dismiss the whole thing as a pipe dream, so make of that whatever you will.]