Wednesday, 10 December 2008

Selfishness: How They Getcha

I'm still following the conversations over at Nine Deuce's critiquing BDSM. I've noticed one theme popping up lately in the comments that I wanted to highlight and address.

That is the idea that it's not wrong to do BDSM, but that it is selfish in a morally critiquable way.

These folks subscribe to a certain "radical feminist" critique of BDSM that suggests that it perpetuates male dominance over women. So if someone does it, well, they're not going to call the Feminist Police, but they are going to say "Hey, maybe you could pay less attention to your own orgasms, and more attention to vulnerable girls who may get the message that men's power is especially hot."

Some examples:

Octavia:
I think I understand why radfems tend to just stop commenting, go away and silence themselves out of frustration. It’s because these arguments always come down to personal sovereignty for these people, and we’re not allowed to discuss anything pertaining to a person’s choice. The problem is that ‘choice’ doesn’t = ‘feminist’ just because you say it is. People are no longer wishing to look internally in order to understand larger social constructs. For the last decade, in all other movements (such as environmental conservation) we’ve used mottoes like ‘think globally, act locally’. But once you apply that same reasoning to feminism, and ask individual women/men to examine their choices for the good of the entire sex class, suddenly ‘UR OPPRESSIVE’. Why have we become SO self-centered?
Nine Deuce 1:
It’s sort of like a conversation about single-payer health care between a Democrat and a Libertarian. One side is about the big picture and the other is about individual interest, with the Libertarian being unwilling to consider the implications of the bigger picture lest he be forced to admit that his stance is myopic and might have effects outside of those he experiences directly. I understand people’s not being into hearing me disapprove of what they’re aroused by, but that’s not the point. The fact is that mingling sex and power is inherently problematic in a hierarchical society and it directly affects our ability to ever dismantle patriarchy. I’m not saying that means I have the right to tell people not to do something, but the fact remains that there’s a problem.
My response, attempting to remind all that the Libertarian's selfishness (if we agree she is wrong; I do) and the BDSMer's selfishness are orders of magnitude different:

9-2,

With all due respect, I don’t think they’re similar at all. The presence or lack of a health care system, and the details of coverage and what one must do or have to get health care, affect the welfare of the citizenry obviously and directly. It’s nonsensical to say that individual interest trumps the good of the uninsured, because it’s obvious how they’ll be affected.

In the case here, we’re talking about a personal behavior choice. While it’s true that we disagree about how much “people doing BDSM” affects society as a whole, I don’t think it can be at all disputed that whatever effect it would have is tiny compared to the effects of one health care system versus another.

Nine Deuce 2:
Trinity - Libertarians with money (who usually have insurance) think their best interests are served by our not having a single-payer system because they believe having one will cost them money. They’re all about individual choice and responsibility when it benefits them and refuse to admit that what they do as individuals is connected to a larger system of phenomena. It’s an each-man-for-himself thing, which is naive and selfish. And the same goes with “sex-positivism.” The counterargument to radical feminism is always personal choice/liberty, and it’s always made from the “I get off on this, and anyone telling me that I have to consider the fact that my choices take place in a larger context is trying to oppress me, and is therefore just as bad as the patriarchy itself” position.
You all can already see how I respond to these critiques: I think that even if BDSM reinforced patriarchy, a person's consensual sexual activity does not have anywhere near the social effects that choosing a single-payer health care system would. Objecting to the "selfishness" of a person who chooses to explore her sexual fantasies rather than reform them strikes me as just as important, socially, as objecting to the selfishness of the person who doesn't cover his mouth when he coughs, or something -- unless there is some clear sign of serious disease vector there, it just plain hardly matters even if we accept that there is risk.

(I actually don't think that BDSM reinforces, reifies, or copies patriarchy either. I'm tired of people making my relationships invisible because I am not a man, and then claiming they are feminists. But that is for a totally different post.)

What I want to do here, though, more than I want to talk about exactly where the argument train derails, is to talk about the technique here.

This is designed to make people feel guilty. "You're being selfish" is the kind of ad hominem that is going to work particularly well on people who:
  1. commit themselves to social justice/social equality, which feminist or feminist-friendly people do
  2. know they have social status that is undeserved and that others don't have, which the typical feminist blog audience is probably swimming in: likely white, likely middle-class, likely from what's called the "first world," etc.
  3. support left-wing politics and causes, which are usually centered around at least the idea of minor self-sacrifice to help others less well-off
  4. are anti-capitalist, or at least for a moderated and "socially responsible" mixed capitalism, which is another cause/ideology that feminist or feminist-friendly people often believe in
When someone says to the Libertarian 9-2 references, "You're being selfish," it likely bounces off. There's whole schools of thought, like those that look back to Nietzsche and Rand, that claim selfishness, individualism, and the like to be virtues, both personal and social.

But many feminist-leaning folks are idealists who want to help those less fortunate, and want to do it by trying to eliminate social disparities. Many such people feel that they're not doing enough to help. (I did, until I took a job working for disability rights. I'm totally comfortable now, knowing I'm not "selfish" but rather devoting my career itself to doing my part. And no, I am not giving more details. I am not out.)

This is perhaps exascerbated by what I'll call the "endless" quality of some feminisms and feminist activism. "We'll march until we stop rape," for example. Or "We need a new, egalitarian social order," where just about every existing way of bringing this about (legislation, liberal political reform, etc) is rejected as not enough of a radical change. It's easy to feel we just aren't doing enough when our best friend is assaulted the day after TBTN, for example.

So when someone comes along and says "You're selfish because you do BDSM" or "You're selfish because you are sex-positive" or "Doing SM is fine, but if you defend it, rather than seeing it as a tragic blemish on your soul due to trauma, you're selfish" it stings. It rubs salt in those wounds.

And for many people, it's easier to get the salt out by "examining," by "purging" for a while, or by taking on the "Woe is me, I'm kinky but wish I weren't" attitude than by volunteering at the rape crisis center or the soup kitchen, or taking the low-paying job at the nonprofit, or whatever have you.

But the thing is, going along with the bullies for however long you do it has no more or less effect on society as a whole than you doing something totally different with a consenting partner. Your "selfishness" is only a black mark on society if it leads you to do things that affect society -- and one more drop of water in the patriarchal ocean, even supposing these folks are right, is not that.

If the selfishness jibes sting, that may mean you should "examine" your life. It may mean you really do want to do something more than what you're doing. (It may not; like I said I think these people are bullying, and bullies raise discovering what stings to an art form.) But if this is the case, it's not your sexuality you should be looking at. It's your footprint on the world. Do you volunteer? Do you do activist work? If you do, is it the kind of "endless" marchy stuff, or things with clear-cut outcomes? If the former, is that OK with you?

Getting people thinking about their footprint on the world is good. Doing that with the intention of shaming or feeling superior -- which is what these folks are up to -- is just stupid, and not worth getting stung by anyway. These folks rarely let us all know just what they are doing to better the lives of the downtrodden themselves, after all.

Oh no, they must be sellll-fish! But at least their "radical feminist" theory isn't. Thank the stars for that.

50 comments:

subversive_sub said...

I find this stuff mind-boggling. I can sort of understand people arguing against *public* BDSM or BDSM themes in media/advertising/porn, because that does influence society at large. But arguing that my desire for kinky sex with a consenting partner in the privacy of my room is "problematic" and oppresses women? How exactly does that affect anyone except me and my partner?

I guess they must think that it warps our minds and forces us to engage with the rest of the world in the same way, i.e. because I find it sexually arousing to submit to my partner (gasp A MAN gasp) in the bedroom, repeating such behavior will eventually lead me to renounce feminism and accept the rule of men. (Seriously -- does anyone know if this guess is close to the mark? How *does* blending sex with power uphold patriarchy?)

I keep thinking of how this argument seems so close to the gay marriage debate. By making it about an orientation and a set of particular sex acts, you become blind to all of the fucked-up things that go on in every other sort of relationship; the anti-gay-marriage folks ignore shotgun weddings, Vegas ceremonies, and the preponderance of divorce; anti-BDSM radfems ignore the violence and power struggles that go on in plenty of "vanilla" relationships, between both straight and queer folks. A relationship I had in which the sex was straightforward and vanilla was also the one in which I suffered the most emotional abuse and bad power dynamics. My current one, in which the sex is always pretty kinky, is the most loving and egalitarian one I've had. So, in the name of feminism and Not Being Selfish, should I renounce the happiness that kinky sex and a good relationship brings me and fight my way through a series of unfulfilling vanilla relationships, struggling each time to eliminate all forms of power from within the relationship? Would that help stop patriarchy?

[Scratches head.]

Dw3t-Hthr said...

Honestly, I can't see the "selfish" argument without laughing. Because it's so ... well, unexamined.

"You're not doing what I want you to! That's so selfish! You should feel bad that you're not giving me what I want, not that I'm going to ask you to give it to me, I'll be satisfied with your guilt and shame. Sigh. If that's all you're willing to give me, that is, you selfish brat."

With sidebar of

"You only don't see how selfish you're being because you're so privileged you think your life is your own! No, your life is mine and every woman's (but mostly mine because I know what you should be doing with it) and how dare you be so cruel as to assert that you aren't an extrapolation of me."

RenegadeEvolution said...

I am SO glad I am a selfish Libertarian Pervert who does not believe in guilt! WOOHOO!

really, that's I'll i can say right now.

Trinity said...

Ren,

Libertarian or not, IMO you actually score damn highly on the "Actually Helping People, ZOMG!" scale.

kupetana said...

They ALSO say that heterosexual sex is a no-no because it perpetuates the patriarchy.

Imagine that, straight women must change their sexual needs to fit an ideology.

They must think everyone who does kinky sex is "experimenting" and can choose to do something else without any problems.

You are so right, it is easier to guilt trip people about the sex they are having rather than giving a good example of how to be a good person by volunteering (or what have you).
The rad-fems are emulating established religions, the more I think about it.

Anonymous said...

I think women (well, everyone!) should be selfish. I am not a slave and will not put other people before myself.

Being in healthy relationships is good for ME. Having hot kinky sex is good for ME. And both those things are good for my partner(s) too.

Being made to onsistently put others needs before your own is a sign of abuse, is it not?

Roy Kay said...

The basic flaw is in the core identification: Individual=Patriarchy, Collective=Enlightened Feminist Community. This latter would be more illuminating if we knew who was defining Enlightenment, Feminist and Community. As a wild guess, I would say it's probably people who already have power and wish to dictate to others how to think. Which is actually what they are doing to the best of their ability - dictating to people how to think. And the first thought dictated is "Don't disagree with us; that's Patriarchal!" Now the question arises as to whether they have power. Since many use monikers, it's hard to tell. They might. Specifically they may have academic power, government grants and platforms, contracts for sensitivity training. Who knows?

However, the one cool power we are sure they have, as Trinity observes, is guilt slinging. And it really works well with women, who the Patriarchy (or other self-dealing power) has decided to inculcate in women. Yeppers, the cure for a malady aflicting women is to have MORE of the malady afflicting women! I'm going to set aside whether guilt-slinging is a power of The Patriarchy or some other power such as religion, or a matrix of powers. What we can reasonably assume is that it's the product of a long string of S-R operant conditioning events. And the way to break it IS individualism, which is the natural enemy of subserviance. The point, I would venture, isn't to break one power in the interest of another, but to break all powers.

Gorgias said...

I'm reminded of an excellent lecture on virtue ethics I attended about a month ago. In it, she claimed that prudence, that is, following self-interest, was a virtue. When asked whether self-sacrifice was a virtue as well, she responded that complete self-sacrifice is as unvirtuous as complete selfishness- in disregarding your own well-being you're disregarding the one person's interests who you have the most information about, and the best chance to see improved.

Even if, as you say, they are correct and BDSM is adding to the patriarchy, you're correct that it's negligibly small. It's far less than the gain accrued to the individual for experimenting with something that might gratify them sexually, and certainly far less harmful than denying someone their only path to sexual gratification, emotional intimacy, and spiritual ecstasy.

Gorgias said...

I'll also say that she can't have been discussing health care with many libertarians, or if she has, she's deliberately misconstruing most of their arguments. I'm a libertarian, and nearly every argument I've heard against socialized medicine isn't a selfish, "well, I'll be better off," it's the contention that everyone, even the most poor, would be worse off under socialized medicine.

I always like being used a bogey-man though.

Trinity said...

"I think women (well, everyone!) should be selfish. I am not a slave and will not put other people before myself."

I think it's really stupid to assume that "not being selfish" means "letting people walk all over you." False dilemma much?

Trinity said...

"I'm reminded of an excellent lecture on virtue ethics I attended about a month ago. In it, she claimed that prudence, that is, following self-interest, was a virtue."

"Prudence" as in the older translation for "eudaimonia," or "prudence" meaning something else?

"When asked whether self-sacrifice was a virtue as well, she responded that complete self-sacrifice is as unvirtuous as complete selfishness- in disregarding your own well-being you're disregarding the one person's interests who you have the most information about, and the best chance to see improved."

Yeah, but virtue ethics is based on finding the mean. While it's been months since I taught it, I don't think it's the right interpretation to say that Aristotle is saying "be totally selfish" either. I think it would be more like "use practical wisdom to find the right balance."

But yeah, you're definitely right that there's a lot more emphasis on care of the self/care of the soul in ancient Greek thinking than there is in modern American thinking. We're very hung up on the idea that the more extreme the sacrifice, the better the outcome. Which, exactly like your lecture says, is wrong.

Trinity said...

"I'm a libertarian, and nearly every argument I've heard against socialized medicine isn't a selfish, "well, I'll be better off," it's the contention that everyone, even the most poor, would be worse off under socialized medicine."

Hm. Yeah, I've seen that, but I've also seen the general idea that a meritocracy is a better social system, even if that means the people on the bottom are ultimately worse off. Based on the notion that, well, we can't take care of everyone.

The rejoinders I hear, and I think they're good ones, tend to be that meritocracy doesn't actually pan out to something that selects for the most deserving.

In a world set up that way, many people with disabilities -- perhaps including me -- would fall by the wayside because it requires more effort for many of us to do as much as others, even if we have much to offer. I am more sympathetic to issues of desert than most radical feminists, by a large margin. But I cannot condone the idea that some people just drain too many resources, because that creates a world only for the nondisabled, and I think I and others deserve a place in the world.

BeccaTheCyborg said...

The logic they see to use really only is held up by the very flimsiest of pretenses.

It's creating a false dichotomy of always-strong/always-submissive, with the (patently bullshit) ideas that submission in one set of circumstances=submission across the board. And that's of course laving out things like F/f couples. *poofs out of existence*

In some ways, the "selfish" thing is a huge re-iteration of one of the more odious sexist stereotypes of women. It's this idea that to be "good", one has to be completely self-obliterating. That if you want to be good at all, you must be absolutely flawless in your virtue. They couldn't imagine the idea of individual sexuality because variation outside of their stated ideal would be anathema to the idea. It's as old as the old chivalrous ballads, as Biblical parable.

As subversive_sub said, I could almost see where they're going in an opposition to BDSM imagery in advertising etc., if it were something that would harm society (which, of course, I doubt) No, it really is about the generatio of guilt, and like you said, Trinity, it's something they are genius at creating.

That said, I'm trying to figure out how "You! How dare you do that?! You selfish, horrible creature, don't you know your body, mind and libido belong to ME to make a statement with!?" is supposed to be the unselfish position.

Trinity said...

"That said, I'm trying to figure out how "You! How dare you do that?! You selfish, horrible creature, don't you know your body, mind and libido belong to ME to make a statement with!?" is supposed to be the unselfish position."

The thing is, though, that while some of them certainly strike me as unrepentantly... mean, just from y'know BEING AN ASSHOLE, I honestly strongly suspect that some of them bought into this stuff from guilt themselves, and are now lashing out at others.

I know when I spent some time in fundamentalist-y circles -- which I definitely think these are -- it was pretty joyless. Cutting down other people was one of the few pleasures left after you took away everything else to be pure.

Gorgias said...

""Prudence" as in the older translation for "eudaimonia," or "prudence" meaning something else?"

Interesting, I had never thought of prudence and eudaimonia as the same thing. I guess I'd wonder what conception of eudaimonia you're referring to- the one that comes most clearly to mind is this:

"The happy life is thought to be one of excellence; now an excellent life requires exertion, and does not consist in amusement. If Eudaimonia, or happiness, is activity in accordance with excellence, it is reasonable that it should be in accordance with the highest excellence; and this will be that of the best thing in us." from the Nichomachean Ethics.

Which is similar to rationally pursuing self-interest (her definition of prudence), but not entirely.

In any case, the education I'm getting is long on primary texts but short on systematic categorization of philosophy, so I may be out of my element here.

"Yeah, but virtue ethics is based on finding the mean. While it's been months since I taught it, I don't think it's the right interpretation to say that Aristotle is saying "be totally selfish" either. I think it would be more like "use practical wisdom to find the right balance."

No argument here, and I think she and Aristotle were urging us to find some balance between complete selfishness and complete self-sacrifice.

"Hm. Yeah, I've seen that, but I've also seen the general idea that a meritocracy is a better social system, even if that means the people on the bottom are ultimately worse off. Based on the notion that, well, we can't take care of everyone."

Really? I don't think I've ever heard advanced the idea that we shouldn't help the poor because they don't deserve it. I've definitely heard that the welfare state tends to put the poor in a state of dependence, and therefore, they tend to end up even worse off materially than they would be otherwise because they'll never actually escape that poverty. I've heard that socialized health care will lead to worse health care for everyone.

Then again, I also tend to stay as far away as possible from the Randian section of my political philosophy. And most libertarians consider me a heretic for my continued support of social security and welfare. Meh. I personally think liberals need to take a course in economics, and libertarians need to help the poor more often.

Incidentally, I'm also reminded of 9-2's posters complaining about the influx of pro-BDSM posters. Personally, I think the conversation is getting a bit too echo chambery here for my taste, and I'd welcome some of their presence in the discussion. I'm very poor at manufacturing their own arguments to keep us honest, though.

violacious said...

"The fact is that mingling sex and power is inherently problematic in a hierarchical society and it directly affects our ability to ever dismantle patriarchy."

um, yeah, that's life. Sex and power are mingled and they're always going to be. I think pretending that they're not is extremely likely to affect one's ability to ever dismantle the patriarchy.

BDSM acknowledges the commingling of sex and power and opens it up for discussion and exploration.

pharaoh-katt said...

Sorry to side track a little, but can someone explain what a single payer health care system is?

When I sub, it's to LM only. When he doms, it's to me only. I don't see how this affects the wider community at all. *is confused*

SnowdropExplodes said...

I just laugh when they talk about BDSM being selfish, because it reflects NOTHING about what I do.

And time and again, their arguments seem to be that BDSM has some of the same problems that society in general has. The demand that people be perfect (i.e. "live in a post-revolution way" or "examine") before they are allowed to enjoy themselves is just a really great way to make everyone miserable. And I don't see the benefits of that at all.

But, with the claim "I'm a feminist: not the fun kind", it seems they are proud of being miserable. It seems like it is the same perverse pride that religious flagellants had in self-punishment for being "not good enough". "You can't be virtuous - you're not suffering!"

Which, of course, is a million miles from why BDSM folks enjoy flagellantism!

kupetana said...

Also, it is the WAY that they have worked out bdsm is wrong.
By an ad on craigslist!

If she had started some relationships with friends of friends and then slowly edged it into kinky territory then she might have a different idea.

Instead she has polled the dregs of the barrel for what dominating women means to them.

Arguing by analogy is a cheap shot *but* it would be like going to a strip club and claiming all hetero relationships are based on money, objectification and very loud music.

Meanwhile WHERE is my payraise and why is cooking/cleaning/caring seen as easy and worthy of less pay?

We have all be sidetracked into their guilt-sex agenda. Again.
Can't we pick other battles?

Trinity said...

Gorgias,

My bad. I meant "phronesis" but "eudaimonia" came out of my fingers.

As far as finding it echo chamber-y here, I'm not sure what to say. I enjoy talking to like-minded people, and like having a space where people aren't invading every three days to call me a rapist. :)

If that isn't your style, no one said you have to stay. :)

Trinity said...

Gorgias,

My bad. I meant "phronesis" but "eudaimonia" came out of my fingers.

As far as finding it echo chamber-y here, I'm not sure what to say. I enjoy talking to like-minded people, and like having a space where people aren't invading every three days to call me a rapist. :)

If that isn't your style, no one said you have to stay. :)

machina said...

Power will exist in some form or other in society, it's necessary for organisation. I think the goal is to ensure that positions of power are available as freely as they are consented to, and that D/s relationships generally do a good job of this.

Gorgias said...

"As far as finding it echo chamber-y here, I'm not sure what to say. I enjoy talking to like-minded people, and like having a space where people aren't invading every three days to call me a rapist. :)

If that isn't your style, no one said you have to stay. :)"

I didn't intend any offense- I really enjoy your blog, and intend to read it for awhile to come. Just commenting that anything good can be made better =)

pharaoh-katt said...

W/ regards to single-payer health care: Wiki told me. Yeah, no comment.

Aspasia said...

It's also endlessly amazing to me that they either: a) don't acknowledge fem-dom; and b) when they do then it's seen as a false economy. They claim to want to see women have power in sexual relationships too but when these examples are presented to them they can't accept it. I guess they don't realize the power of their ideas or goals.

Trinity said...

Aspasia,

As near as I can figure it, their ideal is "no hierarchy at all."

Which parses to me about as well as "Defenestration green gerbil cow swim," but it's their big Cause. So femdom can't be inspiring.

But yeah, I remain a unicorn.

*whinnies and gallops off*

pharaoh-katt said...

I supose it's like that school of thought that says that sleeping with women is a feminist action and sleeping with men is not, so straight women should either "convert" or not have sex. All very well in theory, but how is denying myself pleasure at all helping the cause?

Aspasia said...

@Trinity: Ah. I see. Well, that's probably not like to happen, though no hierarchy would be nice but there are always leaders and followers. Whatevs.

@Pharoh-katt: wrt: pleasure denial. Well, see, here's the thing. If you make yourself miserable, that'll make them happy because it'll also leave you vulnerable to their ideology and ripe for the picking.

pharaoh-katt said...

Aspasia: So if I'm miserable I'm easier to manipulate? That's so sadistic I'm almost attracted. ;)

Anonymous said...

Interview with Audre Lord on MediaWatch http://www.mediawatch.com/wordpress/?p=18

Leigh: What about the doctrine of “live and let live” and civil liberties issues?

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.."

pharaoh-katt said...

@Anonymous: The biggest problem with that statement is that it's Submissive, not subordinant. I submit to LM but I'm not subordinant to him.

Trinity said...

Anon,

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.)

"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.

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."

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 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."

"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."

As I read this and the other quote, she's actually vehemently denying that being for or against particular "personal solutionary" things is pointless, 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.

"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."

Trinity said...

er, mistyped... she's denying that being for or against particular "personal solutionary" alternatives is PRODUCTIVE. Lost my own train of thought and changed the meaning of my sentence totally.

Trinity said...

Also, I disagree with Lorde's analysis of play, there. 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.

Trinity said...

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 because it doesn't include plans for ending manipulation and emotional abuse.

Aspasia said...

@Trinity: "I think that the idea of ending hierarchy is nonsensical and dangerous because it doesn't include plans for ending manipulation and emotional abuse."

Exactly. I always say, there will always be leaders and followers. Lorde obviously doesn't know how many anarchists and anti-establishment people are also hardcore BDSM practioners. BDSM power play is nothing like real life power plays for the simple fact that the former is negotiated and the latter is forced upon you from time of birth. Worse than that, and this, I think, is the crux of the problem, is that in this society there are several systems in place to make sure some people will never have access to power or influence even if they have the same potential as others. I feel that quite often as a woman and as a woman of color. But that is where feminists, as well as many minority groups are rightly angry at our current hierarchy.

Again, as I said, there will always be people more adept to leading, some more adept to following (willingly, of course) and others who don't care so long as it's live and let live.

@pharaoh-katt: Exactly. Don't you feel better now? :P That is rather kinky now that you mention it.

Daisy said...

As a lefty, though... I just gotta ask, why these "special" rules for selfishness re: sexuality?

Do you employ someone to clean your house and wash your nasty underwear?

Why is -that- not considered a selfish thing, too? Why is the only barometer of a "selfish" lifestyle, what kind of consensual sex one engages in?

Answer: because it is a minority taste, and they don't share it, so they can feel safely superior.

As most feminist threads about domestic help (and the recent Feministe thread on surrogate motherhood) make clear--the difference that determines getting dubbed 'selfish' is how many people agree with you and identify with your feelings. Increasingly, radical feminism is (seemingly) no longer very 'theoretical' at all, but frequently descends into this sort of pseudo-Miss Congeniality bullshit. If you do something regarded as "not nice"--well then, you are selfish. If you are "nice" (with suitably bourgeois manners and language)--even if you actively and financially exploit others--people are likely to respect your choices and not challenge you.

Totally fucked up, but unfortunately, appears to be the rules of "feminist" Blogdonia.

Trinity said...

"Exactly. I always say, there will always be leaders and followers."

I think so too, Aspasia. I mean, I think this idea has been misused to justify a whole lot of unjust social control, so I agree that it needs to be carefully monitored. I'm just not sure it CAN be carefully monitored if we've got our fingers in our ears and the sweet, sweet conviction that we're some sort of OMG New Vanguard.

Trinity said...

"Do you employ someone to clean your house and wash your nasty underwear?

Why is -that- not considered a selfish thing, too? Why is the only barometer of a "selfish" lifestyle, what kind of consensual sex one engages in?

Answer: because it is a minority taste, and they don't share it, so they can feel safely superior."

Yes, THIS. Exactly.

And... honestly, I think that would have a lot more impact on the culture than sex ever would.

(Though, personally, I don't know that I think it makes sense for people with privilege NOT to hire people. It may be that having a horrid job is better for these people than having none. But if you don't also have an eye toward how society sees and treats immigrants, then yeah... selfish.)

Amber Rhea said...

I have a HUGE problem with this "selfish" meme. Whenever "selfish" is used in this accusatory way, it's a major red flag for me. Thanks for calling it out.

Trinity said...

Amber:

No prob.

I personally am no fan of selfishness, but what I take the word to mean is completely different from what these people mean.

These people are saying that if anything bad is happening, you're honor-bound to fight it and only then do you get to have fun, lest you be "selfish." That's just nonsense. While people often can and do forego their own pleasure to do something more important, none of us can put aside basic fulfillment until the Revolution cometh and be at all healthy.

What I think of the word is "Not properly balancing your own needs against others' needs." Putting yourself first when you ought not.

So yeah, I think being selfish is bad... but I don't think it IS "selfish" to take care of and value yourself, and it really bothers me when people blithely claim it is.

Aspasia said...

@Trinity: "These people are saying that if anything bad is happening, you're honor-bound to fight it and only then do you get to have fun, lest you be "selfish." That's just nonsense."

Amazingly, when they force this universal form of "white guilt" on others it often backfires. Making me feel bad about a random fortune of being born in America instead of, oh, Sudan isn't going to get me to care about Darfur.

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