Radical Feminism and Sado-altruism

Over recent weeks there has been a major dust-up in a large region of what has been called “the feminist blogosphere”. The focus  has been the topic of BDSM; the locus has been Rage Against the Man-Chine.com. The battle-lines have been broadly between those who, to identify the whole side with their stupidest position, think that if someone agrees to something, whatever that thing is, their choice should be respected and no further analysis attempted, because “feminism is all about choice” – and on the other side, those who, to again identify the whole side with their stupidest position, think that because an oppressive society can condition people to accept their own oppression, sexual spanking is no different from domestic violence, and sadists should be locked up.

More broadly the debate is over the status and possibility of consent within an oppressive system, but in this post I want to focus on a particular phrase:

I’ve got no desire for dominance.

I saw that written by Nine-Deuce, author of Rage Against the Man-Chine, and I thought, ‘wow’. Now there’s a statement.

I mean, for a start, really? Not at all? But more to the point, how do you know?

What’s this idea that the desire for dominance is something easily identifiable, something we’re always aware of? That hardly seems consistent coming from a proponent of rigourous investigation and analysis of all social phenomena to reveal the hatred and oppression they contain.

I would suggest a mathematical way to approximate someone’s desire for dominance. Consider some thing that you would like to do; take the satisfaction you would feel if you did it. Now subtract the satisfaction you would feel if it was successfully done, but by someone else. The remainder that’s left is your desire for dominance – you desire not just that X and Y happen, but that they happen by your power.

So the idea occurred to me to do an analysis of radical feminism as sadism. As with any analysis pulled out of my arse, there’s no way to show that any particular person or group fits into this analysis in any particular case. Rather, I just want to offer it up as a possibility – an option to bear in mind when trying to understand things. Also, yes, I am male, so me analysing feminism is probably somewhat cringe-worthy. Whatever.

So now I want to tell a fairy-tale. It’s a very vague one, but one that in some sense fits with a vast number of specific cases. It is, I would suggest, a pretty central and basic narrative of our culture:

Female Love Interest is stuck with (or even better, captured by) Sadistic Male Rival. SMR is a horrible person and oppresses FLO horribly. Fortunately, Heroic Male Protagonist appears. HMP charges in, fights SMR and defeats him, and then he and FLO live happily ever after together.

Now this story presents a lot of things as opposites which are in fact basically the same. For example, what could be more different than the suffering of FLO at the hands of SMR, and the happiness she enjoys when she’s with HMP? But it doesn’t require much discernment to see that these are simply two modes of ownership: in the first case FLO belongs to SMR, in the second case she belongs to HMP. The contrast is simply there to legitimise the story’s progression: FLO’s unhappiness with SMR serves to delegitimise his ownership, but her happiness with HMP means that his ownership of her is legitimate and just.

Similarly, it might look superficially as though the violence that HMP unleashes on SMR is the complete opposite of the love and pleasure he gives to FLO. But again, a little discernment shows us that they are just two sides of the same coin. They are both conquests: the strength by which he defeats SMR is precisely that by which he ‘wins’ FLO. In both cases he demonstrates the same thing: his ‘phallus’. Phallus here means – sexualised aggression, eroticised power. The power to make men scream in fear and women scream in pleasure. If he cannot sexually satisfy FLO he is ‘impotent’ – i.e. lacking not in beauty or deliciousness or gentleness but in power.

Now Nine-Deuce often emphasises that the essence of the patriarchal system that we seek to dismantle is precisely this intimate, hegemonic association between violence and sex. More generally, the link between aggression and benevolence – the power to destroy and the power to give pleasure. The link, one might say, between sadism and altruism: power as sado-altruism.

But she seems to infer from this that BDSM should be closely analysed. This seems misplaced to me: in BDSM the sex-power link is obvious and explicit. Here’s the sex, here’s the power. A much more interesting prospect, to me, would be to take cases where one side shows clearly, and look for the other side. For example, by looking at radicalism.

In the generic-fairy-tale-scheme above, recall that the suffering of FLO under SMR found its principal purpose in justifying HMP in expressing his power and defeating SMR. If we put ourselves in the position of HMP, then we would find ourselves deeply desirous that FLO be unhappy and suffering. Her misery directly gratifies our ego – as long as we feel we will be able to defeat SMR. If we don’t think we can defeat SMR, then her misery will be a taunt, an expression of our rival’s power that we cannot match, and hence a source of displeasure to our ego. And if we are unsure, then we will feel ambivalent: we will be initially outraged and angry at his abuse, but we will find solace precisely in our anger – in our resolution to destroy SMR.

Moreover, though, we will be mortified at the idea that FLO likes or accepts SMR. If SMR can make FLO happy, our purpose as HMP vanishes. Since here the displeasure is not mixed with pleasure at the prospect of rescuing FLO from SMR (since that prospect has disappeared), we are likely to be more unhappy at the idea of FLO accepting SMR’s abuse, even enjoying it (remember, in this patriarchal context, the power to give pleasure and the power to control and destroy are the same power) than at her misery and suffering.

Now all we have to do is drop the assumption that these psychological roles are applicable to only one gender, and that the agents must be individuals. Now we have a handy psychological schema into which we can slot: FLO=oppressed masses, SMR=system of oppression and its agents, HMP=revolutionary movement.

What might we expect to see when a member of the revolutionary movement is thinking in terms of this schema? We would expect a mingled outrage and satisfaction in the condemnation of various instances of oppression, with the satisfaction coming out principally in the relation of the particular instance to one’s own theoretical position (since theory is, for most revolutionary movements, a key tool with which to bring revolution). We would also expect an almost visceral dislike of those members of the oppressed class who accept something identified as ‘their oppression’ and/or reject the revolutionary position.

As I said, I don’t want to accuse any particular people or groups of occupying this position. It would be disingenuous to not say that I got this impression from some writers at Rage Against the Man-Chine, but I obviously can’t say anything about to what extent. I know I sometimes find myself in this position, which I imagine is especially a risk for male feminists/feminist-allies/students of feminism.

At the same time, it doesn’t invalidate any particular position – all positions have an emotional rationale for them. Understanding the emotions behind one position doesn’t mean giving a reason to reject it in favour of the ‘non-emotional’ alternative, just trying to understand how it will go wrong when it does go wrong.

My main point, I guess, is that I think it’s bollocks when people tell radical feminists “you’re just like the patriarchy, trying to dictate what we can and can’t do”, and radical feminists dismiss it completely as just defensiveness and the kind of hostility revolutionaries always face.

I don’t doubt there is often an element of defensiveness, and certainly revolutionaries always face hostility. But that doesn’t mean it can’t ever be true that people identify with the feminist movement in a way that structurally parallels the role of patriarchy, that feminists express their desire for power, their sado-altruism, through their feminism.

Radical feminists should recognise that possibility and dismiss it only with cogent reasons. No revolutionary can simply assume that “feminism is about liberating women” and nothing else.

14 Responses to “Radical Feminism and Sado-altruism”

  1. Dabir Dalton Says:

    Believe it or not Feminists are into dominance and I won’t hesitate to call a Feminist a liar to her face if and when she says otherwise…Of course the dominance they’re into is of the female on male variety which is why feminists have demanded laws like VAWA that intentionally discriminate against the male gender…Their little war on BDSM is nothing more then a red herring designed to distract those so inclined to notice from their real goal: The political disfranchisement and the financial enslavement of the male gender…

  2. Alderson Warm-Fork Says:

    Bullshit. Men run the world, and it’s ludicrous to compare the small measures feminists have managed to win to counter that dominance with the ongoing violence and discrimination women face in almost every area of life.

  3. ranat Says:

    Interesting analysis, and a good point. I especially like:

    “The battle-lines have been broadly between those who, to identify the whole side with their stupidest position, think that if someone agrees to something, whatever that thing is, their choice should be respected and no further analysis attempted, because “feminism is all about choice” – and on the other side, those who, to again identify the whole side with their stupidest position, think that because an oppressive society can condition people to accept their own oppression, sexual spanking is no different from domestic violence, and sadists should be locked up.”

  4. freethinker Says:

    ‘No revolutionary can simply assume that “feminism is about liberating women” and nothing else.’

    Because language isn’t merely a system of naming a reality out there. Things have layers of meaning beyond the meaning we consciously give them. And because patriarchy is not just ‘out there’ to be eliminated. The power dynamics that make up patriarchy are in the language, in our way of thinking, in our desires, in our sexuality, even in our ideas of ‘self’ [- ego is supposed to conquer the id, or we are to scale a ‘hierarchy of needs’, reaching the top when we ‘self-actualize’].

  5. freethinker Says:

    That Dalton guy has a horrid misogynist blog.

  6. Dabir Dalton Says:

    I have been studying the women’s movement for 22yrs now and quickly came to the conclusion that it is hate movement that targets the male gender…And am quite aware of the outright falsehoods, hoaxes, cherry picked statistics and self fulfilling studies feminists have used in their war against the male gender…As far as my blog is concerned you haven’t seen nothing yet so stay tuned… 🙂

  7. Gorgias Says:

    “Are there differences? Yes. Is it fundamentally different? No. Though many kinky people probably disagree most vehemently with me, I do believe that BDSM has its roots in patriarchal oppression.”

    I think that power imbalances in BDSM relationships can be fundamentally different from patriarchal oppression while still springing from it. I think that rape has an entirely different ontology from sex, but rape does spring from the sex drive.

    I’m also leery of putting it down entirely to patriarchy. There are a lot of power imbalances in the world, and not all of them are male dominant and female submissive (and even fewer are explicitly organized on the basis of sex). If I had to take a stab where my interest in kink lay, it’s probably in the power imbalances in the first few friendships I developed (between two men)

  8. Alderson Warm-Fork Says:

    Thanks for the comments Gorgias, but I don’t think I wrote the line you’re quoting and apparently responding to…

  9. Lindsay Says:

    Alderson, that’s interesting how you define dominance. I would agree with your contention that wanting Things X and Y to happen because you made them happen constitutes the urge to dominate, but I would restrict the domain of X and Y to the behavior of other conscious entities.

    I think the term “dominance” implies a social interaction — you have to dominate someone, rather than something. People do have desires to control objects in their environment, but I do not think this is quite the same as a desire to dominate the conscious beings one interacts with.

    I could see this distinction being meaningless to a panpsychist, however.

  10. Iamcuriousblue Says:

    I think you’re very right on the money with this one. There is a streak in radical feminism that clearly seeks to dominate, which is why a lot of people who come from a more anti-authoritarian standpoint (such as myself) get so immediately turned off by it. (Radical feminism is far from the only ideology or religion that has an authoritarian streak, of course, though its exponents are particularly self-contradictory, in that they have to square this with claims of egalitarian and non-hierarchical principles. Maoists will at least admit that they’re going to put plenty of backs up against the wall if they get power.)

    I also think that there is even something to linking radical feminism to S/M dominance, in that if you look at some of the writings by some femdoms with a tendency to universalize F/m to all people, their writings can sound a lot like radical feminist rhetoric. Similarly, malesubs who are part of the subset known as “true submissives” often rhetorically overlap quite a bit with male radfems like John Stoltenberg and Robert Jensen.

  11. Alderson Warm-Fork Says:

    No, I think that distinction is a good one. I suppose I was drawing the net a little over-broadly to contrast with what I felt was an over-narrow casting. ‘Dominance’ does suggest a relationship between selves – though I think there’s a broader notion of ‘desire for power’ or something, of which dominance (and freedom, and strength, etc.) are parts.

  12. Alderson Warm-Fork Says:

    I’m glad someone else picked up the link with Leninism and its variants. I had intended to talk somewhat about that, but didn’t want to make the post any longer. I should say, I often find myself thinking of Lenin+3rd international vs. 2nd international (the wankers who dropped their internationalism and supported ‘their’ governments in WWI) – an opposition in which both sides had a lot of blood on their hands.

  13. What’s a Revolutionary? What is the Left? « Directionless Bones Says:

    […] I’ve argued before, I think that this determination to do away with injustice is partly about personal power – […]

  14. sexual positions Says:

    Interesting to hear your views on this latest blog-tastrophy. I’ve been fuming about it for more than a week now. I have a little story. I have a blog that a certain (name deleted) person made a extremist comment on. My blog is one of the ones that she quoted from (in a whole separate post! I’m so *special*) and it really made me angry. She expressed all this fake concern for my well-being, but if she was really worried about me she could have e-mailed me directly to make sure I’m okay. Instead, she took one of my posts out of context and ridiculed it with her little friends on her blog. Bad blog etiquette…bad people etiquette, if you ask me.

    Anyway, she doesn’t care about submissive women. If she had asked, I would have told her that I am happy and more satisfied in this relationship than any in my life, that pain is just a part of what we do and that there is so much love. I would have told her that I am not abused (and that I, not a stranger on the internet, am the best judge of that). But she didn’t ask or even take the time to listen. She just judged and shamed me, my friends and my relationship.

    I’m sorry that so many of us spent time on her blog explaining our lives to people who won’t ever listen. We shouldn’t have to explain to anyone because it is none of their business. We don’t expect them to justify their lives to us. We don’t go on feminist blogs touting our lifestyle. We keep to our little corner of the internet and do not deserve to have our lives judged by others. If they want to think that we are stupid brainwashed women held captive by evil men, so be it. I’ll continue to enjoy every minute of my life despite her opinions.


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