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 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.