I want to get back to the Angela West shortly, but first, a word from...well, somewhere, mine. In sum:
It's not about the act, sexual or otherwise. It's about the fact that in this (patriarchal, sexist, what you will) culture, by and large, WOMEN AREN'T TAUGHT THAT IT'S OKAY TO SAY "NO."
or generally to speak up for their very own selves, without endless justifications or demurrals or the context of it being for the sake of Someone(s) Else.
and yes, that goes for matters sexual; yes, that goes for relationships with Men (sexual and otherwise). But, it doesn't stop there.
And it ultimately isn't about the damn men, either. They and their own toxic training are worth at least one separate examination, and no, before you even start sputtering, they are not off the hook for rape, abuse, nothing of the sort. It's just not what I'm talking about right now.
No; this, THIS, is about women. How we, or at any rate many of us (no, it ain't a monolith any more than it was before; culture, class, race, family-of-origin and so forth all factor too, yes, and obviously this is not going to speak to everyone in the world with XX chromosomes and/or girlie naughty bits; this is rather specifically directed) are generally not taught that it is okay to just come out and say what we want. Not what we don't want; not what we do want. And especially particularly not to someone we want to stay in (any sort of) a relationship with.
Because relationships, we (tend to) learn, are the key to our existence.
And, we or many of us also learn: it is very very very very bad to have conflict with someone we care about.
Because, if we get into a conflict, the other person's feelings might be hurt. (S)he might withdraw love from us. (S)he might get ANGRY. (S)he might even abandon us altogether, and then we would die.
And if the other person is the sort of person who interprets your speaking up for yourself ("No, I would prefer not to") as some kind of threat and hellYES an inevitable prelude to terrific conflict (usually with you on the losing end), then, well, what are you gonna do to survive? Three guesses.
Now. One very common scenario in which this happens is, (or so I am given to understand): woman enters romantic relationship with dude. Dude has many expectations of what woman is supposed to look like and how she is to perform in bed, and so on and so forth. Friends, family, and media back him up in this; or so you are given to understand, and that is enough. You have a dim or maybe even acute sense that you are not happy, but you don't....quite...have the words for it. And/or: you DO have the words ("I'm so unhappy"), but you're terrified to speak them out loud. Partly because, as part and parcel of yer sexist training, you have been given to understand that this romantic relationship is the be-all end-all solution to all your problems, it's what you've dreamed of your whole life and you'd be mad to give it up, really. And, yes, you have feelings for the dude himself, of course. Many complicated ones. It is an attachment. But, ALSO, what's happening here is, you are reluctant to leave because you have the sense that you won't just lose him if you do; you'll be abandoned by EVERYONE. Friends, family...the world.
Because, at best, they'll disapprove. And disapproval means shunning; and shunning means abandonment; and abandoment, again, means: death. This can be true mainly on the deep psychological symbolic level; and it can be true quite literally and concretely as well, depending on your other circumstances.
So this right here for many is of course where feminism, and, one could argue (cringe) particularly a certain kind of feminism (the sort that mainly focuses on equality in the workplace might not do for this, it's true), comes galloping in on a white horse, Athena-like helmet dazzling in the sun. And it is in many ways truly noble, truly a savior: It provides the words needed to articulate those incoherent but deep feelings. It provides a structure in a world that seems terrifying and incomprehensible. For many, it provides or leads to a system of social support as well. After all, theory is great, but at the end of the day what you really also need is just someone saying, "hey, you know what: you're NOT crazy, it's NOT you; I'm on your side, and you're gonna be just fine."
Particularly for those who have never experienced this before--not from "friends," not from family-of-origin, not from the much-hyped romantic relationship, not from anyone--that last bit is more precious than rubies. Worth pretty much anything, really.
And at long last, it looks like, you've found your People and a framework that makes sense, and it's all working out rather splendidly.
Cue swelling music and stroll (or arm-in-arm march) into the sunset, right?
Well, not so fast.
I mean, yes, for some people, sure, and that's swell; same as it's swell when Mr. Right really is Mr. Right; hey, someone has to live happily ever after sometimes, right? Otherwise the ideal wouldn't have any staying power. And good on the lucky ones who find happiness, however it comes about.
But so now let's consider a slightly different scenario.
Let's say there's no more pressure to perform repellent sexual acts, diet perpetually, wear painful shoes, smile pretty and get dinner on the table and put on heavy pancake to cover that shiner. There are pretty much no men in your life at all, at this point. You belong to a close-knit and passionate wimmin's collective of some sort; these days it pretty much is your life. The other women have saved your ass on a number of occasions: practically, financially, emotionally; and you, theirs. All your friends and lovers are here. Your work, at least the work your heart is in, if not actually the work you're paid for (maybe even that, too, if you're lucky) is part of this as well. In short, your life now has newfound meaning, structure, and...dare we say it?...love.
It is true that on a fairly regular basis, you find yourself dropping whatever plans you had for your one half-evening off all week--something really decadent, like putting your feet up and listening to the radio, say--whenever a sister-friend, or a friend of a friend of a sister-friend, needs a helping hand to move halfway across the city, or design flyers for the protest tomorrow, or repaint the collective space, or stay in the unheated colllective space all day waiting for the electrician to show up, or filling in at the last minute for the usual liaison to the fundraising caucus taskforce, or planning the pre-planning meeting to organize the Unpack Your Privilege Meeting...and, well, you're kind of tired. But what the hell: it's all in a good cause. And you like to give back to the community that you've gotten so much from.
Somewhere along the line you begin to realize, with a feather-touch of ...some feeling...that Janie McRighteous has become something of a leader of your little group, in a largely unspoken way (y'all still don't really talk about such things very well, endless "processing" sessions notwithstanding). You all LOVE Janie. Janie always knows what to do and what to say, and she does it with such passion and style. Hell, Janie was the one who hipped you to the fact that you were being oppressed by the patriarchy, specifically in the form of your asshole ex-boyfriend, in the first place. Gave you those books to read. Set a shining example with her own life. She's just so, so, so...sure.
And so it comes to pass, somehow, that although you don't really think of it this way (most of the time), truth of the matter is, when Janie says "frog," you all jump.
Like half the members in the collective at one point or another, your best friend has started dating Janie. Lately, you can't help but notice she hasn't seemed her usual ebullient self. Rather subdued, in fact.
One day, over herbal tea and tofuburgers, it finally comes out. Janie has an unfortunate tendency to take out her frustrations on her nearest and dearest, behind closed doors. Oh, only verbally. Well, she does punch the wall and throw things sometimes. Mostly when she hasn't gotten in her martial arts practice for the week. Mainly your friend feels like she just can't do anything right, somehow. It's not the occasional abrupt fits of screaming rage or the constant arguing that get to her so much, she says, mainly it's just that she feels so inadequate, next to Janie. It's true, she says hastily, Janie is brilliant; she knows so much theory, she's done so much work; she herself is only a beginner, she knows all this. And mostly really it's been grand, the relationship; everyone knows Janie is like this. You know. Passionate. Combative. She doesn't really mean anything by it. But...
You open your mouth, but there is a long pause before you can think of anything to say. Instead you just squeeze her hand, awkwardly. This is, well, this is...troubling. You promise to talk later.
And somehow you never quite get around to it.
Who are you to get between two such wonderful sister-friends, after all? Infighting just makes your stomach hurt, and, well, if your friend was really having a bad time, she'd say so.
Sometime after this, Janie and best friend have broken up. And now you notice that your friend has, however subtly, somehow become a pariah. It's just a certain chill in the air. Oh, and there are mutterings of best friend's disturbingly anti-woman sexual preferences. Spanking. Bondage. It's not clear how people know this, but somehow everyone does. Soon after this starts, best friend leaves the group without much fanfare.
Before you have a chance to process this for yourself, you've now been swept into the latest grand drama: the most outspoken woman of color in the group has taken offense at something one of the other more contentious white feminists has said, and, with much more fanfare, has been threatening to leave, taking most or all of the few other WOC with her. The fighting has been vicious but strangely muffled; there is an odd sense of walking on eggshells; no one wants to be accused of being a racist, and yet somehow it's happening anyway. Your stomach is in knots. Why can't we all just get along? What happened here, anyway?
And, miserable as you now are, how can you just leave a relationship that's meant so much? that you've put so much into? And what will happen if you leave this toxic-yet-nurturing community? You'll be abandoned to the elements once again, and you might die.
If the constant drama and processing and unofficial bureacracy/power-jockeying and drudgery don't kill you first, that is.
If your feminism begins and ends with Sisterhood Is Powerful! Stop (men) abusing women! Down with pornstitution and (physical, sexual) violence! Down with the State! Down with the Heteronormative Racist Bourgeois Monolith! SMASH the Patriarchy! ...When this kind of shit starts to happen? Unless you find some other tools to address this? You're gonna be up shit creek, sans paddle. This practice is where the theory peters out.
And this, I submit, is a bigass chunk of what's been happening online. And elsewhere. Oh, I've seen it. Not exactly like this here (mostly the difference was BDSM was never that big a deal in my offline circles). But, you know. I'll be talking more about earlier examples when I do get back to the West book, among other things.
My other point is just this:
In-depth intellectual analysis is swell. But at the end of the day, when it comes to protecting yourself? Speaking up for yourself? You don't need it. And it's like trying to iron your clothes with a toaster: wrong tool. All you need here is this knowledge: You don't deserve to be treated like crap. Ever. And: You do deserve to find happiness as best you can, same as everyone else in the goddam world; or what's political activism for?
Antiprincess (The Sexbot Manifesto:
Let your "no" mean "Fuck No!" and your "yes" mean "Hell Yeah!") and Renegade Evolution have some thoughts on this as well.
And if all the endless picking and examining and critiquing is getting you down? If yeah you can see the point but it just seems so hard sometimes? More and more so? And you're feeling tired, and depressed, and drained? Seriously. Let it alone. Go put on some music. Dance. Get some touch from someone you love.
And if you need more Stuart Smalley to really reassure yourself it's okay, you're okay, and gosh darn it, people like you? Get it. However and wherever you can. Get therapy if you can afford it.
Meanwhile, try this: stand in front of your mirror and look yourself in the eye.
Straighten your shoulders and speak from the diaphragm, and practice these magic words and phrases: (and yes, this is for the menfolk who feel they need it as well):
"I want that one!"
"I don't like it!"
"YES, god, YES!"
"I like you. Want to hang out sometime?"
"I want some attention."
[In response to a compliment] "Thank you!"
[In response to an insult] "Thanks for sharing! Now, fuck off."
"I said 'no.' Now, fuck off."
Repeat until you feel convinced, each and every one.
Now go out your door and take your show on the road. Take care of yourself; try to remember that each and every individual you may encounter out there is also one of God's creatures, however much of an asshole sie may seem like, and is ultimately just trying to do the same thing: take care of hirself. Realize that you can accept this reality and still not have to take any crap from anyone. Recognize that companionship, sympathy, even love can be found, in abundance, if you're looking for them. Be prepared to encounter them in unexpected packages, sometimes. Remember that one can smile, and smile, and be a villain, as well. Realize that you're gonna self-contradict, and fuck up, inevitably, and repeatedly. Accept it and move on. That's how we learn.
And if and when you do feel like going back to the examine-everything mode, you might consider starting with this: how, on the whole, has this whole process been working out for you? Is this helping? Was this trip strictly necessary?
Just a suggestion.
And that, theory and practice, in a nutshell, is the core of my feminism. Make of it what you will.