Finding the Balance: The Feminist Facebook Campaign

Yesterday, Facebook finally put out a statement on the site regarding the feminist anti-violence campaign.  In it, they spoke to the balance between allowing controversial ideas, while eliminating that which is harmful.

[W]e also work hard to make our platform a safe and respectful place for sharing and connection.  This requires us to make difficult decisions and balance concerns about free expression and community respect.  We prohibit content deemed to be directly harmful, but allow content that is offensive or controversial.

My fear with campaigns like the anti-violence campaign on Facebook has always been that controversial, but not violent, material would end up being censored by those seeking to prove they’re “cleaning things up”. That is, that Facebook would overreact in seeking good P.R., and start eliminating controversial ideas, even when they did not celebrate, condone or encourage violence.

I have written in the past about my internal conflict with the concept of free speech.  That conflict has led me to tread carefully when people start talking about “hate speech”. In fact, I had to think a bit before deciding whether to join the Feminist Admin campaign this week. However, after careful consideration, the campaign against the violent images about raping and beating women was something I couldn’t refuse to support. These were not people talking about “controversial” topics. These were people reveling in violence, reveling in images of women’s beaten and bloodied bodies. They weren’t trying to arrive at answers to difficult questions. They were just trying to get off on seeing women beaten up.

I consider this blog and the related Facebook page to be controversial. They discuss very controversial topics, such as gender, from a radical perspective. However, I seek to weed out attacks or links that I consider focused on individuals instead of issues. This is why I made a decision a while ago not to post links to some of the more inflammatory radical feminist sites that discuss gender. I felt that some of them were focused on individuals and personal ridicule, instead of being focused on issues. To me, that kind of individual-focused rhetoric doesn’t help anyone. In fact, it turns people off and makes them tune out what is actually being said about the ramifications of certain positions.

The same is true when I discuss my opposition to religion, whether on Facebook or this blog. I abhor violence aimed at individuals because of their religion. I am an adamant supporter of the rights of Palestinians.  However, I cannot in good conscience allow that to keep me from discussing religion as ideology and how it is a tool in women’s oppression.  The stakes for real women are too high.

I would consider the Facebook pages of Male Privilege Activists (a.k.a Men’s Rights Activists, or MRAs) to be controversial, but I would not seek to have one shut down if it didn’t post the kind of content this campaign has focused on. I may despise what they have to say, but I’m not going to report them for “hate speech”. In fact, I’m not going to bother with them at all. I may criticize them, but I’m not going to seek out their nonsense.

Anyway, I hope Facebook gets it right. I hope they can find the balance that allows us to discuss controversial ideas, while keeping the images that celebrate violence out. We’ll have to wait and see, I guess.

The Means of Reproduction: The Evolution of Women’s Oppression and Exploitation

Marxist have long held that the working classes would find their way out of a life of exploitation by seizing the means of production. Only this would lead to the revolution and true workers’ liberation. In The Dialectic of Sex Shulamith Firestone adapted Marxist arguments to speak of women, and how we would find our way to the revolution and true women’s liberation. Her discussion of the means of reproduction speaks to the very nature of our oppression and exploitation: the ability to bear children. That is, our biological nature.

Many people argue that speaking of women’s oppression in these terms is limiting and exclusionary. The claim that it leaves out those women who are unable to bear children, for whatever reason. They claim it leaves out transwomen. I would argue that neither of these arguments are relevant. The nature of women’s oppression and exploitation has evolved over the millennia, but it is rooted in one simple truth: the idea that all women are assumed to be child-bearers, and those children and the women who bear them are assumed to be the property of men. It does not matter whether an individual woman has a child, wants to have a child, or can have a child; it is assumed that she is capable of doing so, and that she inevitably will do so. It is assumed that the woman’s children will take the names of their father, because that is the only heritage that matters.

As I have written previously, and as many other historians and thinkers of the past have written, the original family unit of the human being is mother and her offspring. This is true of most mammals—indeed, most animals, in general. The mother and her offspring are the primary unit. The larger clan is made up of female relatives. Males are with the group until they reach sexual maturity, then they leave and join an unrelated group of females for procreative purposes. In this social set-up, there is no lifelong pair bonding of male and female. They procreate, but the father is not considered integral. In fact, the father may be unknown, since the female may have had sexual relations with more than one male.

Most Socialist thinkers, along with many anthropologists and historians, believe this set-up began to change when humans began to settle into permanent or semi-permanent societies. Although it has some historical weaknesses, Frederick Engels’ The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State explores this from a Marxist perspective. The idea is that the social status of women was destroyed when humans began what we now call “civilization”. This was often based upon agriculture and landowning. Under earlier socioeconomic arrangements, there was little surplus. Hunter-gatherer societies, for example, gathered the food they needed for the present moment and a short time in the future (e.g. the winter months). In these societies, women were often actively engaged in the accumulation of food, not just in its preparation. They could do this, while also bearing and rearing children; the physical drain was not too great for this to be possible. This gave them much more freedom in their personal lives. To know you can subsist without the aid or protection of another is a primary requirement for personal freedom.

It was only after the invention of agriculture that surplus was gathered and that food production became a physically difficult task. It was no longer as easy for a woman to engage in food accumulation and childbearing. This change in food production also led to a sense of ownership over the land, hoarding of goods, and trading of this surplus. All of these things required a female to have a long term, stable tie to a single man. The man’s primary (or exclusive) role in food production meant that the means of this production came to be seen as his sole property and his sole domain. This was property that he wanted to remain in “his” family, to follow a patrilineal inheritance path. As a result, he needed a guarantee that the children borne by “his” woman were, in fact, his biological children. Hence, the desire to control female reproduction and sexuality. That is, the drive to control the “means of reproduction”.

The growth of patriarchy can be seen as based upon the drive to control the means of reproduction. As such, the exploitation and oppression of women are direct outgrowths of our ability to bear children. The myths, methods and excuses for exploiting and oppressing women took on lives of their own, but were and remain rooted in this fact. Patriarchy would become entrenched, but was borne out of socioeconomic arrangements. Social organizations and belief systems would arise to reinforce the patriarchy. All lived together in one incestuous relationship.

As the socioeconomic reality changed, women became more and more tied to the one thing that we did that was different from men: our childbearing capabilities. The various manifestations of patriarchy are built around this. We see this in the view of women’s sexuality, in the social requirement of marriage, in sexualized and other male violence towards women, in the battle against reproductive choice, and in the discrimination against women in the political and economic arenas.

In order to keep control over their property, assuring it passed to their male heirs only, men had to control the sexuality of women. This was accomplished in a number of ways. First, female sexuality had to be shown as dangerous. Women had to be convinced that sex was not desired by a virtuous woman. We had to feel in our very bones that it was something we did as a duty to men, but not ever for our own enjoyment. Sex would be based upon what brought pleasure to men. It would reinforce the overall social dictates of dominance and submission, teaching women that everything in our lives—up to and including our sexual interactions—should illustrate our submission to men.

To keep control over our sexuality, we had to be taught that it belonged to a single man—our husband. The demand of female chastity outside marriage was put into place. The demand that marriage be our one and only goal in life became integral to the very definition of “woman”. We were to provide men our bodies and the fruit of them (i.e. children). In return, men were to provide us with the very material means of survival. If we were not tied to one man, we would be forced to serve many men in order to meet our material needs. This might mean prostitution, or it might mean serving patriarchal religion. Regardless, we were not allowed the means to survive without ties to men.

In addition to the means of survival, men were to provide us something else: protection. Protection from whom and from what? Well, other men, of course. The threat of sexualized and other male violence is a very effective tool for keeping women tied to “good” men. We know all too well that we are vulnerable to attack. This is based purely on our biological nature as women. When we are victimized, it is almost always by men. That victimization is then turned on us; we are blamed for the violent actions of these men. It may mean being married off to a rapist. It may mean being put on trial for “adultery”, if we are married or the rapist is married. It may mean being asked why we were in that place at that time doing whatever we were doing. It may mean having someone demand to know what we did to provoke this man. And what is the fix for this? The protection of “good” men—fathers, husbands, brothers, sons.

Since all of these things tie into the control of women’s reproductive capabilities, it stands to reason that reproductive choice would be the enemy of patriarchy. Giving women the right to control when we have children and how many children we have negates the male control over our bodies. It implies that we are full human beings. It says that our bodies and our children belong to us. It also denies the essential nature that patriarchy has assigned us: the means of reproduction. The means of creating new workers, new bureaucrats, new warriors, new power brokers, new captains of industry. This is why the “old maid”, the childless woman, is the most hated person in patriarchal society. We have but one purpose under patriarchy: to give men more men. This has been true whether the economic structure was feudalist or capitalist, whether the political structure was monarchic or pseudo-democratic.

Keeping women from the spheres of political, social or economic influence was both a function of the control over our reproduction and a means to perpetuate that control. Our biological capability to give birth has been used as an excuse to keep us from the means to economically support ourselves. We have been told that some jobs are just too physically difficult for us. We have been told that other jobs are dangerous for us due to our childbearing capacity. We have been told that, as mothers and nurturers, we do not have the “nature” to perform some jobs. We have been told that our biological nature and hormones make us emotional and unstable, thereby unsuited for some jobs. We have been told that taking time off to give birth and rear our children is an undue economic burden on potential employers; that we will eventually want time off to marry and to have children.

Of course, this is a vicious circle. Women have been cut out of the means to succeed or even to survive in society, regardless of the socioeconomic system of that society. Then, the fact that we have not enjoyed success at the same rate as men is considered proof that we aren’t capable; that patriarchal attitudes and practices were right all along. With the advent of technological means of production, that has subsided to a degree, but it still exists. We are still told that women don’t get to the highest levels of government or business because we take too much time off to bear or rear children.

An even more insidious practice is to relate our biological nature with socially constructed gender and the physical expression of gender norms. The concept of femininity is culturally tied to submission, physical representations of our biology (i.e. accentuation of breasts and the “feminine” form are what makes us worthwhile human beings), expressions of nurturing behavior, and a willingness to sacrifice Self for the benefit of others, among other things. All of these concepts which are tied to the feminine gender are based upon the patriarchal requirements placed upon us because of our biological nature as child bearers. Gender is yet one more tool in the patriarchal toolbox of our oppression and exploitation.

Some have adopted a misguided notion that gender is integral to the fight for women’s liberation. The historical record and years of fighting for political rights has proven that our oppression and exploitation is rooted in our perceived child bearing capabilities, so a fight based upon gender will never liberate women. We will continue to be oppressed based upon this capacity–whether or now we, as individual women, want or can have children–so such a tactic is doomed from the start. We must recognize that the roots of our oppression lie in our biology, and the attempts to control that biology. We will not become free or safe by being more or less feminine, since femininity is something created in attempt to justify and reinforce our oppression. We will only become free by taking control over our own biology, by attacking the ideology that gives men a say in controlling our sexuality and our reproduction. To tear down the structures that allow men to use our biology as an excuse for keeping us from the places of power, whether that power is economic, social or political. That means attacking the deeply entrenched cultural biases about what it means to be a potential bearer of children.

To rid us of exploitation and oppression is not an easy task. It is not about just ending patriarchy. It is not just about ending capitalism. We must end both at the same time. We must demand that the means of reproduction be seized and controlled by those of us who do the labor. We must dismantle the structures in place that seek to allow men and the societies built on patriarchal philosophies to control our reproduction. Only Socialism can allow for this. Only in a society where women and their children are guaranteed the right and the ability to survive and to thrive—whether or not they are attached to a man—will females be free of exploitation and oppression.

Meanwhile, we must tear down the supporting structures that have taken on lives of their own. Patriarchal religion, the concept of gender, male violence against females—all of this and more serve to keep us entrenched in a world where the female is not valued. Where Socialism has failed in the past is that it has focused solely on the economic structures and philosophies of a society. The rise of patriarchy may be linked to socioeconomic evolution, but it has taken on a life of its own. It has developed its own ideology and social structures that are apart from government and economics. These ideologies and structures, which are based upon our biology, must be attacked and destroyed.

Which Choices?

In January of 2001, a woman named Joumana called 911 in Paradise Valley, Arizona, a wealthy suburb of Phoenix.  She spoke of her husband, Jason, punching her in the mouth in front of their young son.  When the 911 operator asked about her welfare, Joumana replied, “Don’t worry about me.  This is nothing compared to what I usually go through.”  Joumana’s and Jason’s last name was Kidd.  At the time, Jason was the star point guard for the Phoenix Suns.  He was arrested and plead guilty to domestic abuse.  His punishment?  “Anger management” classes, then an expunged record.  A mere slap on the wrist.

Joumana, the woman who spoke of the punch in the mouth as “nothing,” willingly returned to the marriage bed.  When Jason was shipped off by the Phoenix Suns, she followed him to his next NBA stop in New Jersey.  She publicly defended him against taunts of being a wife-beater.   Joumana was a woman of means.  A woman who didn’t face going to a shelter if she left her wealthy husband.  A woman who didn’t face a life of uncertainty for her children or herself if she refused to return to a man who she said had long abused her.  Yet, she made the choice to do so.

Many women make this choice, even when they have other options.  Rightfully, we realize that the societal pressures put on women play a heavy hand in this so-called choice.  We realize that telling women that marriage and relationships with men are their most important achievements leads women to accept abuse and misuse at the hands of men.  We realize that some women don’t have Joumana’s means.  They may find it necessary to “choose” to stay with an abuser so they and their children have a means of support.  We realize that there are a whole host of social pressures put on women to “make it work”, to “stand by your man”.  We realize that these pressures can lead women to make choices that are dangerous for them, and create and embolden the misogynist men who would beat them.  We realize that these choices have been used in the past to reinforce ideas that women accept abuse as a part of a relationship–and that they should accept it.  We don’t accept that a woman’s claims of “love” for the man who beats her makes this choice alright.  We sure as hell don’t call her choice “feminist” and demand that feminists support it.

For some strange reason, when you replace the word “love” with “orgasm” or “sex”, a woman choosing a violent relationship becomes something we are supposed to celebrate.  It not only becomes acceptable, but anyone who finds fault with it is labeled a “prude” and accused of condescension.  A woman who “chooses” to be with a man who gets off by torturing her isn’t fucked in the head by social concepts of female masochism.  This woman isn’t internalizing society’s twisted notions of womanhood.  Studies have shown that this woman is highly likely to have been sexually abused in the past, but we aren’t to believe that this abuse led her to twist concepts of sexuality into unhealthy practices of power and abuse.  We aren’t to believe that the constant inundation of media depictions of rough, violent, aggressive men who impose their sexual will on submissive, panting women have had the same twisted effect on this woman that the social concepts of “love” have on the abused wife.

Instead, we are to see the woman who likes violent sex as somehow empowered.  Sexually assertive, even.  We are told that she, as a bottom, is “in charge”.  I often wonder if the women who met John Robinson in online BDSM chat rooms thought that about themselves.  Did they think that traveling to have violent sex with a man they didn’t know, that signing a “slave contract”, was empowering?  Did they think that right up until they were slaughtered and stuffed in 55 gallon drums labeled “Rendered Fat”?

I’ve read articles by people involved in the lifestyle who talk about how staged photos depicting dead women are regularly included in the porn of the violent sex crowd.  In short, these people get off on the things that Robinson acted out.  If your dick gets hard at seeing a picture of a woman made up to look dead, or a woman being bound and tortured, you’re a fucking psycho.  If you get turned on by pretending to be that dead or tortured woman–or allowing yourself to actually be tortured–you’re the furthest thing from empowered that I can think of.

The Joumana Kidds of the world, the countless women who “choose” to return to violent men out of “love” are not empowered.  They are making choices, but choices aren’t all equal.  As feminists, we don’t excuse the abuse or the tendency of women to return to abusers as acceptable.  We don’t condemn those who point out how society, views of womanhood, and trauma in women’s lives all play into those choices.

I can understand the motivations of the poor or working class woman who is economically bound to her abuser.  I can’t understand the corrupted mind of the woman who does it not for love or for survival, but for an orgasm.  No one says people aren’t allowed to make their choices.  What I am saying is that your choices are fucked up.  Your choices reinforce all the twisted things about women and sexuality that misogynists thrive on.  Your choices are not feminist in any sense of the word.  And using the word “sex” instead of “love” doesn’t make your choices any smarter than those of that abused woman who goes back to that wife-beater.

The Personal Is Political

This piece was originally posted on Righteous Anger.

The old feminist adage that the personal is political has always been dear to my heart.  Our everyday relations are reflections of the wider world around us.  How much does gasoline cost?  Are our jobs and livelihoods at risk because of who sits in the state house?  How are our children being educated?  Can we marry the people we love? One day this past May, I witnessed how the personal and political can intersect in the most hideous way.

Late on a Friday evening, my daughter, her boyfriend, and I sat on our front porch.  The house is just a block from the University of Arizona, so university students–drunken or otherwise–wander the streets at all hours.  This was one of those nights with drunken students stumbling down our street.

As we sat on the porch, we heard a male voice scream, “You said you loved me and you loved the dog.  You don’t love me or the dog!”  We giggled, since it sounded so ridiculous.  Typical overwrought, drunken-college-kid hysteria.  The partner did not reply, but he did eventually catch up to his boyfriend.  The boyfriend kept screaming out his complaints for all to hear, whether we wanted to or not.

Eventually, they met in the intersection and began hitting each other.  Yes, we probably should have said something, and we would have if it was an opposite-sex couple.  With same-sex couples, though, I know many people are even less likely to get involved.  In general, the reason I’m more likely to say something or call the police with opposite-sex couples is the disparity in size and strength.  We’re also more accustomed to seeing fights between same-sex combatants who have no romantic relationship, so it’s more “acceptable.” I’m not ignoring the problem of my hypocrisy here, just explaining why many of us behave that way.

If it had stayed on the level of a personal spat–even with the slapping of each other–I wouldn’t have thought much about it.  However, it began to take on the ugly tone of bigotry that is so common in Arizona.  It turns out that one of the partners was Anglo, while the other was of Mexican decent and nationality.  The Anglo partner began screaming that he was going to call the police and have his lover deported.  Really?  That’s where you’re going to go with someone you claim to love?  That’s a shitty thing to say to someone you don’t have ties to; to say it to someone you supposedly love is atrocious.

The two wandered up in front of our house, with the white kid taking the lead.  He stormed up to us and demanded that we call the police.  His Mexican boyfriend followed more slowly, giving us an embarrassed smile.  The Anglo kid demanded over and over that we have the police come and deport the Mexican kid.  He really came to the wrong fucking house. Little did he realize that the older Anglo woman and the mixed-ethnicity girl were related to many people who came to this country from Mexico.  He saw the white skin and thought he could be as disgustingly bigoted as he wanted to be.  Wrong again, asshole.

My daughter’s boyfriend confronted the white kid:  “We don’t hear him making a scene.  The only person we hear is you.  Why would we call the cops on him?”  The Anglo kid had no reply.  After my son-in-law verbally smacked him down, the kid started off on his journey up the street.  His boyfriend again looked at us, smiled with a look of embarrassed resignation, and followed his partner.

It was our own up-close and personal view of another Arizona scandal–that of Paul Babeu.

It may have been a different time and a different issue, but I was once again shown the truth in that old adage:  the personal really is political.