Room to Breathe: Breaking the Chains, Unleashing the Imagination, and Taking Responsibility for a World Without Patriarchy

May 16, 2014 | Revolution Newspaper |


From a reader:

Stop Patriarchy went on an “Abortion Rights Freedom Ride” last summer through Wyoming, North Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Arkansas and Mississippi, through the regions of this nation where abortion rights are under the sharpest attacks. Access is scarce at best. The stigma that abortion is murder, along with the message that having babies is every woman's dream come true, are blasted across billboards for miles of freeway. Doctors receive regular death threats. Armed, murderous cults of Christian fascists preach hellfire and brimstone at abortion clinic doors and parking lots, commanding men to take "their women" out of there, terrorizing the staff and women. Republican senators say things like "The vaginal canal is the new Mason Dixon Line," and teenage girls get into fist fights so they'll miscarry instead of having to face the financial, social, and "moral" hardship that is imposed upon this simple medical procedure, this most basic of rights, this very humanizing choice.

When the ride went to Fargo, where the only abortion clinic in the state was only still open because of a court injunction, Stop Patriarchy joined about fifty others for the first rally of the ride, for abortion on demand and without apology. The need for the politics and the moral certitude that is concentrated in the slogan "Abortion On Demand and Without Apology" was presented from many angles, by many voices, all reflecting the reality around us: the anti-abortion movement hates independent women as much as it hates science, and it is dominating the thinking of many millions. If we are driven by the goal of the real liberation of women, we embrace science, and we understand what is at stake, a now small group can step out in big ways, and by rallying others into uncompromising resistance, can move millions.

At this rally, Sunsara Taylor said:

"A lot of people talk about, when abortion is illegal, women die. That's true... These stories need to come out, it's very important. But that's not the whole of it. When abortion is illegal, women have their lives foreclosed by forced motherhood. That's it for them. They drop out of school, they get trapped in abusive marriages, they get... into marriages that never should have happened, they get driven into poverty, or deeper into poverty. Their whole lives are changed and shaped for them. And then, every other girl growing up... when they see that going on, it's not just that their dreams are extinguished, the dreams don't even flourish to begin with. Because when you see every woman around you treated that way, it's like trying to grow a plant underneath a rock."

This is a tragically accurate metaphor. Right now—through targeted regulation of abortion providers that are forcing clinic closures, through laws that redefine when life begins (giving fetuses more rights than women), through bans on abortions at earlier and earlier points in pregnancy, and through moves against birth control and the ability of insurance to cover abortion and birth control—the U.S. government is making it clear that women dare not even dream of themselves as multi-dimensional (and sexual) humans with aspirations outside of the role of motherhood. And these moves are not slowing or ebbing, they are accelerating and expanding. While occasionally some of the most extreme efforts have been stopped in state senates or in the courts, this is not the overall trend and trajectory. While the government codifying into law a subhuman status for women has enormous stakes and will not be easily undone, the ways in which patriarchy continues to teach women and men that being born with a uterus is a condemnation to a life of exploitation, abuse, objectification, servitude and outright slavery, is not limited to the realm of reproductive freedom. In the realms of education, media, music, and most social experiences one can imagine, women are being taught in some ways forceful and some ways with more subtlety, to never dare to dream.

For example: there is a tendency in third wave feminism, gender studies, and throughout progressive academia and activism, to promote a "sex positive" view. There has been so much shame put on women who engage in sex or female sexual pleasure; “sex positive” tries to defy this by upholding and validating and refusing to judge any of it. This has mixed results—on the one hand, fighting for women to know about their clitorises, not think of their vaginas as “dirty,” and feel comfortable and confident telling their partners what they want or don’t want in their sex lives is extremely important. Fighting for men to welcome and respect this is also extremely important. However, this outlook also says that nothing can be questioned or challenged in this realm, including sexualized humiliation, acting out of rape fantasies, and acts of outright degradation, using the trappings and mechanisms of slavery to get off.

This is on the surface in opposition to sexually repressive culture and customs. Because it embraces sexual exploration, female sexuality, confidence in one's body, it is a kind of answer to more "traditional" views that women don't orgasm, sex should only be for procreation, and a woman should be ashamed of her body. The problems are that it confuses sex with what pornography has taught us sex is and should be, and it abstracts the individual from society.

Stop Patriarchy was recently asked to remove all anti-pornography messages from a table we had at a Vagina Monologues production, in the name of "sex positivity." Activists with Stop Patriarchy said, you know that there's a war on women when the state can keep sex education out of the schools and abolish abortion, while a curious ten-year-old can type "sex" into Google and watch a woman eat shit. This is what we are exposing, and we should all fight it. Porn has nothing to do with sex, and it’s not “positive” in its effects—it does nothing to encourage real intimacy, it makes rape and the absence of consent sexy in the minds of many, and the industry itself continues to intersect with sex trafficking and generally treat women like garbage. The event organizer went on to say that there were women involved in the event who create "feminist pornography." Stop Patriarchy said that we need a movement for women's liberation, fighting for a world without a multi-billion dollar sex trafficking industry, where women's bodies are not objects up for sale: not through sex slavery, not in strip clubs, not in porn, no matter who is getting the profit. A world where slavery is rejected not sexualized, and a woman is more than an orifice and receptacle to stuff things into or pump stuff out of.

This is where the connection between the social origins and the social consequences of individual desires must be grasped. Not all theories that seem on the surface to be in opposition to harmful and oppressive tradition actually reflect the kind of world that is possible: a world without slavery in any form. On the contrary, the defining of sex as “whatever you want it to be” when what people want is being shaped by a patriarchal system, is in itself a stamp of approval on the intolerable conditions women face in the world as it is.

In a world where acid attacks, stonings, arranged marriages, forced sterilization, domestic violence, stalking, rape by machine gun, criminalization of abortion, and super-exploitation are commonplace, it is damaging to imagine that personal desires and individual identity exist somehow abstracted from influence. To refuse to confront the reality of patriarchy and to naively (and somewhat selfishly) claim that personal desires and individual identity are untouched and untouchable private property, is an endorsement of the following stories, right here in the U.S.:

  • There was a young woman in college who came to her R.A. with questions about sex. It took a while for him to understand the discomfort and disappointment she was feeling about sex. She had dated the same boy since high school, and they had always had anal sex. She didn't know that sex could involve the vagina and had no idea what a clitoris was. It turns out, he definitely did, but since he was more interested in anal from what he saw in pornography, had led her to believe that was the extent of what sex was.
  • A recent study shows the majority of men who claim to cum in women's faces first saw it in pornography, and when pressed further as to why they would want to try it themselves, many said the attraction is to destroy something beautiful, or to mark your territory like a dog does. There is nothing purely physically enjoyable about male ejaculation into a woman's face, but pornography says degradation and domination of women is sexy.
  • A rape victim was told by her therapist that she should try re-enacting her rape with sexual partners in order to “re-claim” her sexuality. Now her sexual experiences, not to mention the sexual experiences of all her partners who are trying to be supportive, are confined and defined by the relationship between rapists and victims. Her condition of PTSD has not improved.
  • A teenager was in an argument with a friend about whether or not rape fantasies should be embraced. Her friend told her, “There’s nothing really wrong with rape; women pretend they don’t like it, but really they do.” This is a very common depiction played out again and again in mainstream pornography, where a woman refuses a man sexually, but in the course of being raped comes to enjoy it. As part of this conversation, the teenage defender of rape as mutually enjoyable said, “Rape is no big deal. It’s just a ‘struggle snuggle.’”

What does mistaken anal sex, cum shots to the face, and the encouragement of rape fantasies have in common? Lost intimacy. Constructed identity. A twisted version of sexuality imposed on people by patriarchy, by the reality that in this world, being born female is a condemnation to serve as a disposable utility. To the point where "being yourself" or discovering your own complex desires and turn-ons is an obstacle course fraught with prevention and misdirection. Riddled with predetermined patriarchal notions and barriers, from the cult of motherhood to the flesh trade. That is the backdrop on which "sex positive" thinking encourages everyone to "do their own thing," in a nation and a world where dehumanization of women is the thing to do.

Patriarchy in all its forms, including the pornography apologetics of “uninhibited individuality” that abstracts desire from its social context, continues to shape our relationships with others and ourselves, to shape our futures, our dreams, what we think we "deserve" and what we believe we're capable of. No individual lives outside of the real world or escapes the formative lessons of the "money shot"—you know your place before you even get to the age where sexuality is interesting. If you can't imagine sex without porn... you're fucked.

And then, every other girl growing up... when they see that going on, it's not just that their dreams are extinguished, the dreams don't even flourish to begin with. Because when you see every woman around you treated that way, it's like trying to grow a plant underneath a rock.

It's time to do some serious imagining of the kind of liberated society we want to see, what a revolutionary state power could accomplish by changing the conditions that women face, and what a revolutionary people might desire sexually and otherwise, in the context of taking responsibility to create a world without oppression. What it would be like without the shaming of women who have sex, without the confounding of sex with degradation, without sex slavery, without motherhood as an archaic and obligatory form of redemption for woman's "original sin," and without patriarchy. This imagining has already begun, but much much more is needed. Find out more by reading A Declaration for Women's Liberation and the Emancipation of All Humanity, and send in your own thoughts, responses, questions, poetry, and imaginings.

We need a revolution. Then we can see what people’s dreams and desires become. Then we could have some room to breathe.

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