When I was fifteen, I started going out with my first boyfriend. It was 1999. I still feel blessed by this experience of young love – not that it was not tainted. The guys at school gave me a hard time for not having sex with him – it was, of course, everyone’s business. I wasn’t ready, I was learning, I was shy, and I wanted to get there in my own time. I was petrified the first time we kissed, it took me so long to build the courage. I remember the day.
His mates called me tight, they called me a wench. There were more than a few in our year who were clearly porn addicted and would revel in being graphic with me about porn sex just because I hated it so much. I felt terrified in this pressure cooker; it stripped me of my voice, my autonomy, especially the possibility of sexual freedom. Then the time came when my boyfriend asked me why we hadn’t had sex yet because petrol costs money and he wasn’t a charity.
My father was on the other side, pushing the other way, nervous about the prospect of his teenage daughter dating. Atheist though he is, his strategy was to put the fear of God in me lest I should have sex with this guy. He would use laser eyes to make sure I was too afraid to go behind his back and share a bed with my boyfriend, once ringing his mother to find out if I was sleeping in his room not on the couch like I was supposed to.
It worked, all of the intimidation worked. I was terrified of all of these men and their intentions, and terrified of sex – because of the porn, and because of the laser eyes that made me think it was going to alter my life in some unthinkable way. I was sandwiched between these competing pressures.
I remember times too that I was eager to go out with friends and not allowed, and how frustrated I was that there was never any stated reason. In retrospect, porn culture and male violence were clearly the reasons, and I wish I had been offered a chance to open my eyes to those things much earlier. I didn’t even think to ditch friends who I did not feel safe with, because I simply believed what they said about me: that I was tight, that I was a “wench”. I never reflected on how girlfriends of mine were meeting the requirements I was not, only to be labelled “easy”. I didn’t realise that the game was rigged. I just thought I was just not keeping up.
I left high school in 2001, the same year I got my first cellphone. Things have escalated now. Pornography is far more violent, and far more accessible. PornHub lists New Zealand as its fifth biggest market. And school kids are using their female peers to make their own pornography. What used to happen to my friends and I in dark corners, or what we feared would happen to us in dark corners, is now happening more boisterously and it is being filmed. When Brock Turner raped his victim in Stanford, behind a rubbish skip, he filmed it and boasted by sharing the images with his friends. That is what porn culture is.
In this climate, what does it mean for us to march? It means a lot, for one. It should mean that we tap into a pain that we normally keep locked away in our guts, so we can function, while it eats and corrodes us inside; it should mean opening the floodgates, finding each other back in this labyrinth girls and women are placed in, blinded to one another’s suffering. All the rage we cannot show from day to day, we should be mobilising when we march. But can we do that, under the banner of a cause like “consent”? Is asking for the ability to say yes or no when a man approaches us with an erection, a smirk and a cameraphone really going to bring that out of us? Because it seems like a very meagre and pallid request, given the situation we face.
As well as a way to protest what we object to, marching is way to express solidarity – solidarity being the most powerful basis for relationship. Soldarity is the recognition of humanity in another person, and a politicised understanding of their struggle, which is collective – not just “their” failing, problem, or pathology. The union movement is based on working class solidarity in the face of capitalism; Black Lives Matter is based on solidarity among people of colour in the face of racism. That’s why these are such rousing, roaring movements.
Women are being denied this solidarity, as increasingly our leftist “comrades” claim that our oppression comes from our identities, not our collective, class position as females in a male supremacist society. Feminism is becoming the only movement in which “everyone” is allowed, because the gender system hurts “everyone”. So does capitalism: capitalism hurts capitalists, who must be demoralised by the experience of living off the sweat and blood of slave labour – but it damages them while it makes them perpetrators. Racism is a system that hurts everyone, but damages white people while it makes us perpetrators. Gender is a system that hurts everyone – but it damages men while it makes them perpetrators. It has hurt men in the military, it has hurt Harvey Weinstein, it has hurt men in prison for sex offending. But it made them perpetrators. One unique thing about women’s oppression is that women ourselves are not allowed to name it for what it is or gather on the basis of political solidarity.
Accepting this is destructive for the entire left: we live in a porn culture, and as a sexist, racist industry that feeds on working class women’s poverty, porn culture destroys solidarity more than anything else. Porn culture destroys all possibility of solidarity. Wherever pornography is, solidarity is not. Porn culture ensures that violence itself is popularly fetishised – that the act and the witnessing of violation is an addiction worse than sugar or alcohol. Porn culture means the breaking of solidarity between men and women, and the forcing of women into competition for male attention.
Reports now show that women are watching increasingly violent porn. We are watching our sisters being gang raped, and we are training ourselves to be aroused by it. We are not doing this for our own sake, but for the sake of compliance and to stay ahead of the pack, because we are petrified of being left behind, of not being enough, not doing enough, for the men in our lives. We are destroying ourselves and our relationships with one another by becoming blinded to our own abuse, and blinded to the realities faced by our sisters, most of all those abused in the pornography that we are now consuming along with our oppressors, men.
The porn industry feeds on sex trafficking – an issue nowadays not taken seriously. The reality of sex trafficking is sanitised and separated from prostitution and pornography. Trafficked women are either “migrant sex workers” or treated as a separate, secret category of especially downtrodden and untouchable women whose lives we are unfortunately helpless to fathom, so they are relegated to the too-hard basket and find no place in feminism, even in the #metoo movement that talks about the sexual violence in Hollywood and Wall Street.
The reality is that sex trafficking is simply the most lucrative, cost effective way to run a brothel. Pornographers are business men, like Gail Dines said – not “innovators committed to our sexual freedom” – and any capitalist, any businessman is driven toward cost reduction and profit maximisation. That is why wherever there is a sex trade, wherever there is porn, there is sex trafficking. Search for porn online and you are looking for it, you are contributing to the demand for it.
In fact, as feminists have always pointed out, prostitution itself is incompatible with the notions of “consent” women are encouraged to march for. As Chelsea Geddes has said, women in prostitution are not ripping men off by charging them for something the prostituted actually want just as much. The sex trade is dominated by women in poverty, and patronised by men with economic advantage who’d prefer to use that advantage to penetrate women than to help liberate us. Sexual consent cannot be bought from a woman, just because her situation means she needs money.
As long as we do not see these realities, we are not seeing the humanity of those women worst abused in this male supremacist society; and as long as we are not seeing them, we are not seeing ourselves, and we are not seeing anybody, at all. There is no solidarity. Like Malcolm X said, “It’s liberty or it’s death. It’s freedom for everybody, or freedom for nobody”.
This is the principle that our continuous conversations about “intersectionality” should be based on, but ignore. We are always talking about the need to make sure our feminism so-called “includes” people. “Includes” women of colour – as though women like Vednita Carter, Ruchira Gupta, Ninotchka Rosca, Cherry Smiley, Hibo Wardere, Minna Salami and the Red Brigade are not already spearheading the real resistance movement. We talk about making sure feminism “includes” women of diverse sexualities and “includes” “sex workers”, while we stigmatise the prostitution survivors and lesbian feminists who gave us our understandings of patriarchy, compulsory heterosexuality and sexual exploitation. They are bullshit, these discussions about “intersectionality”. They are patronising. The feminism that these women, black women, lesbian women, prostitution survivors lead and have created is not a feminism based on identity politics at all – it is a feminism based on solidarity, on rejecting the abuse women are subjected to because of our sex. That is it.
Robin Morgan wrote in her foreword to Women and Russia that the differences in women’s suffering globally exist “more in detail than in kind”. That is solidarity. We do not understand that now, because the understanding we have of our own struggle is being pulled out from underneath our feet. In white society, it is becoming as taboo to speak about what it means to be female, to speak about female anatomy and relate it to reproductive issues and the nature of oppression as it is in the church or under sharia law or in any totalitarian regime.
Ironically, when we talk about “inclusivity” in a context stripped of solidarity, we are creating a politics based on pity. Pity is compassion rendered impotent because it is hollowed of solidarity – and it is a nauseating sentiment. If we continue to forfeit the right to define the nature of our own suffering, as females, we forfeit solidarity including and in particular with women of colour. We also “exclude” – you should know this – women who identify as “transmen”. These women – the girls handed breast binders in New Zealand high schools – are victims of patriarchal gynecology, just like girls who are subjected to female genital mutilation in Sudan, and fed carcenogenic birth control pills in Honduras. Women who class themselves “transmen” may be horrified to associate with a women’s mvoement that recognises them as female; but they are invisible in a women’s movement that is based on identity and therefore does not consider them at all.
All in all, today we have a movement that offers pity to the women who are doing the most to spearhead this struggle around the world, while we pay all our attention to Hollywood, and we should be ashamed of that. We have a movement that proudly invites members of the oppressor class, men, to come and share our space with us, never mind the sisters who may have sinister, unspeakable memories of some of those men. We have a movement that glorifies the tools men use to keep us intimidated and silent and to keep our sexuality in their hands not our own. Our movement glorifies pornography, and sadomasochism – the so-called “kink” that Audre Lorde spoke out against decades ago.
In fact this is not a movement: this is the backlash to the movement that was. This is the backlash to Reclaim the Night, this is the backlash to the anti-porn, unapologetically anti-rape women’s liberation movement of the seventies. That movement has been appropriated by those who sought to squash it, and sold back to us revised to integrate everything we need to resist. That backlash process has been facilitated by men, by the politics of liberalism, by mainstream misconceptions and naturalised ideas about a weaker sex – but it is also orchestrated. Men like the New Zealand Prostitutes’ Collective programmes coordinator Calum Bennachie dedicate themselves to mansplaining feminism, to rewriting our movement so that it serves their own interests, and so that women are pitted against one another and not united against perpetrators of male violence.
The same thing happened to the suffragists and first wavers whom we somehow hold in higher regard than the women’s liberationists of the second wave: backlash. Women like Sojourner Truth, Edith Garrud, Elizabeth Stanton, Susan Anthony, Josephine Butler and the Native American women from whom the American suffragists learned so much – they helped spur a movement that escalated during the world wars, when women learned that there is no such thing as men’s work, but that we are paid less for doing it just as well, and in fact we quite like our independence in men’s absence. Sheila Jeffreys (The Sexual Liberals and the Attack on Feminism), Naomi Wolf (Beauty Myth) and Gail Dines (Pornland) have all written about the backlash that grew through a newly established academic discipline of sexology, through the beauty industry and through the porn that Hugh Hefner started circulating in the 1950s.
Naomi Wolf’s analysis of the beauty industry is still alive in mainstream feminism today, to an extent. White, urban women do not really need to be taught the connections between objectification in media and self esteem, or anorexia and the catwalk. What we need to understand is that pornography is not less brutal than the catwalk, or than flicking through a magazine, looking at the images and feeling low. The average life expectancy for women in pornography has been reported as 37; women in pornography are dying now through murder, illness, suicide and overdosing on drugs taken to dissociate. If it hurts us to see women starve themselves for the camera and then present their starved selves as examples for girls to model themselves on in fashion spreads, then we should think again about what its like for women who do not only have to wear designer clothes for photoshoots, but have to do gang bangs for the internet. Though it is orchestrated, it is still a mystery too, how we have come to swallow the idea that the latter is more benign than the effect of cosmetics advertising on a passerby – but we have swallowed this irony, and we need to wake up.
When I grew up in the porn saturated climate of high school I always had the unnerving feeling that I didn’t really know my friends; that the ground beneath was shaky, that I could not really trust the wider circles that I moved in. I thought it was just shyness, but I had that feeling because I was not awake: I had lost the capacity to see the world with my own eyes, lost my voice, and with these I had lost the truest foundations for friendship.
I think that once we start to rebuild solidarity, by first recognising how porn culture destroys it – then and only then will we start enhancing our friendships, and recognising and remembering what friendship really is. Not all solidarity makes friendship, but all friendship needs it, and there is nothing like friendship based on it. To me, a truly autonomous, empowered sexuality is sexuality born from the affection that springs from friendship based in solidarity. That is the only kind of sexuality that will ever allow women to be seen; to stop performing; to stop dissociating; to stop being used, to stop feeling the nag and weight of dread that too often accompanies intercourse.
I believe that what we really want – as women, as girls – is so much larger than “consent”: we want to no longer be invisible even to those with whom we are most intimate. To no longer be invisible politically, to no longer be invisible in the economic system that does not compensate our labour or recognise our work; in the legal system that blames us, does a better job of looking after our perpetrators than us, and does not respect our reproductive sovereignty; to no longer be invisible and trapped in our homes, on the streets, and in these prisons in New Zealand that are locking us away at an extraordinary rate for crimes of poverty. Our invisibility as a class is almost total – but it is in what Andrea Dworkin called the “society of two”, in intercourse, that our invisibility cuts especially deep.
To march for consent (especially with our breasts bared and glittered) is to march for the right to negotiate with this invisibilising of women. To march for “consent” is to say that we accept our position in the shadows, we would just like a discrete word in here and there. To march for consent is to forfeit the opportunity to dig deep and roar our demands within a newly discovered sisterhood ready to tear down everything refusing to listen. It is to forfeit the almighty NO we really want to stick to this culture-wide problem, a problem that can only be hated by anyone with who still has their heart.
It is not possible to negotiate or compromise with something that you hate and want to end – and something as sexist, racist, brutal and lethal as a culture in which pornography is normal and pervasive at the expense of women and girls can only be hated. It is entrenched in this country, and it is inextricable from the pain women feel, and we need to hate the causes of that pain with the kind of collective passion that can dismantle them. Asking for the right to compromise with a culture seeking to keep us brutalised and invisible is defeatist. Let’s approach sexual politics with demands more deeply felt than these requests for “consent”.
The concepts of romantic love we are fed in this culture – of a dizzying, intoxicating, supernatural love we “fall” into after finding it through serendipity – perhaps stand in the way. Romantic love is a myth: grieve it. Too many women dedicate their entire lives to seeking it out, only wondering if it is chance, probability or destiny that will bring it home to us. It is simply not real. A statistic of one in three women being sexually abused while domestic violence callouts are made every six minutes means quite simply that the myth of romantic love does not stack up.
What we can create is solidarity: friendship based on solidarity, and the beautiful affection that can spring from those friendships. This is worth fighting for, worth living for.
I want to see the day where girls, whether lesbian, bisexual or heterosexual, are able to create their own sexuality out of this kind of beautiful affection. I want to see the day where girls can create a sexuality in which they feel seen, heard, present, respected and at ease. In which their bodies are not separate from a self that gets switched off to perform sexually for somebody else.
We need to find in ourselves a hunger for this thing that so enriches life – eros, a sexuality that can never be traded, that is energising and truly ours. This world is doing everything it can to destroy the possibility of us having that sexuality.
It is no coincidence that men in the military are encouraged to consume pornography, with their rates of addiction almost double the average. Military rape is a common tactic, and pornography helps to feed a mentality that destroys not only individuals but populations. Rape is the most dehumanising violence there is, and it functions to break solidarity.
We need to reclaim our hunger for sexual freedom – and our loathing for what is most destructive to sexual freedom – rape and the commodification of women. We need to find our righteous rage our indignance – and our sense of fucking entitlement to respect and visibility. And we need to take that to the streets – like a fucking monster prepared to set this porn machine on fire until the rape and its promotion and its trivialisation stops.
And yes, I said loathing – as in hate – that prickly, burning feeling that is far more taboo for women even than anger. If you investigate, you will likely find yourself full of this feeling of hatred. Personally, I hate rape culture – I hate the promotion of it, I hate the radio jocks who build whole personas on it. I hate the complacency around these topics and I hate the cowardice. I hate the way women are silenced and scare-mongered. I hate the victim blaming.
At the last women’s march I went to we were told that in this Trump era, what is really needed from us – women – is more love and kindness. Not from men or oppressors – that would be a joke; but from the group who were gathered to protest. Women. The speakers told us, and plenty of pink and flowery placards backed it up: that we need to love more and be kinder. Hatred, we are told, is what Trump supporters and the devil feel – not us. These messages encourage us not just to suppress and suspect our own feelings of hatred, but not even to know we feel them because they are taboo. Women are not supposed to feel hate.
It is fucking necessary. It is absolutely necessary and appropriate for women to hate this escalating misogyny, and we need to mobilise that feeling. In fact, it is not until women are able to recognise that we hate what is happening to us and acknowledge, honour that feeling in each other, that we can truly start building solidarity and organising for a better world. Until we start organising to end what we loathe and fighting to claim back not just “consent” but all the richness male dominance drains from our lives, we are treading water. That is exactly what we are supposed to be doing in a system that wants to keep us domesticated, but knows we need to let off quite a bit of steam: we are meant to be stuck on a treadmill for a bit, saying we want entirely unthreatening things like “consent”.
March for consent if you want to. But do not stop there: build a deeper understanding of why and what it is you loathe about this culture; what it has taken from you and what you long for. Then find the determination to be heard, and the sisters who will take to the streets with you so you will be. And count me in.