Reiter’s Block: “A Stockholm Syndrome in Women’s Poetics?”

Reiter’s Block has kindly given us permission to reprint this article:

A Stockholm Syndrome in Women’s Poetics?

Gently Read Literature is a monthly web journal of essays on contemporary poetry and literary fiction. In “The Myth of Women’s Masochism”, her essay in the September issue, Stephanie Cleveland takes aim at the eroticizing of violence by successful female poets. Her argument echoes the radical feminist critique of so-called Third Wave feminism, namely that young women today have bought into the rebranding of sexual exploitation as avant-garde and liberating, because it seems too hard to fight the patriarchy. See, for example, Ariel Levy’s Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture (Free Press, 2005).

Cleveland’s article begins thus (boldface emphasis mine):

A few years ago, I read an essay in Boston Review on sex education in the U.S. public school system. In that essay, poet and Harvard lecturer Maureen N. McLane praised self-proclaimed “sex-radical” Pat (now Patrick) Califa as a sexual revolutionary. McLane identified Califa’s “infernal trinity—family, conventional sexuality, and gender,” as the fundamental institutions “sexual conservatives wish to defend” (30). She then assured her readers that, although, “From one angle, Califa’s work [] feature[s] defenses of man-boy love, [her] sex-positive embrace of critical sexual thinking, wherever it might lead, remains, if not a model an incitement” (30). My question at the time of reading McLane’s essay remains my question for those who identify as sex radical while simultaneously claiming an allegiance to feminism to date—namely, what exactly is a defense of “man boy love” an incitement to? Put another way, if feminism involves a commitment to social justice, equality, and respect of persons, and if it also involves a commitment to the emancipation of women and children grounded in a rejection of sexual abuse and patriarchal sex (Bar On 76), how then could any incitement toward acceptance of child rape be consistent with a feminist approach to sex?

Far from radical, I would argue that the practice of sexualizing the bodies of children for adult men is actually fairly conventional, as old as patriarchy. Feminism, conversely, affirms the radical (and comparatively new) idea that all practices which violate the rights of women and girls to determine what can be done to our bodies are morally and ethically unacceptable (Bar On 76).

I bring up McLane’s essay here because I think it highlights the ways in which, in recent decades, feminism has been co-opted by a school of neoliberal individualism which aims at preserving—or at least making peace with—the sexual status quo. When pondered thoughtfully, however, the fact of child sex abuse throws a pretty big wrench into the liberal argument that the right to individual expression in one’s sexual conduct needs to be upheld at all costs, as does the fact of rape. Our sexual relationships take place within a given social context, one under which all people do not have the same access to power. In order to deny a rapist the ability to “express” his sexuality on or in her body, a woman needs political, social, and economic equality with men; we currently have none of these. This means that a refusal to make judgments about sexual choices and sexual ethics, whether consciously intended or no, is a tacit endorsement of male-supremacy and a boon to those with the most power in contemporary culture—that is, white men.

Perhaps more importantly, abdicating the right to make ethical judgments about sex translates to an abandonment of the vulnerable and comparatively weaker; it is an extremely effective way of silencing victims of child rape. Critical sexual thinking on the other hand involves maintaining an awareness of the material context within which our relationships take place. It means choosing which versions of sex fit with the world we would like to create as feminists. This cannot be reduced down to simply following wherever sexual thoughts might lead—particularly not if they lead to acts of violation on or in another person’s body. That sort of following has more to do with cruelty, privileged laziness and irresponsibility than it does with revolution.

Sadly, I write at a time when postmodern ethical relativism has all but silenced critical thinking about sex in the academy. Many women working within the university system seem reluctant to challenge male-supremist ideology on sex directly; at a time when the predominant philosophical mode holds that nothing really means anything apart from the way we choose to interpret it, overt questioning of social inequity and misogyny do not win a female author any popularity points. But if, as Erik Anderson optimistically writes, “postmodernism as a loose set of aesthetic principles (or loosely principled aesthetic, or principally loose aesthetic) [may have already] ended or is ending” (1), I would argue that women’s poetry ought to be used as a weapon to help hasten that decline.

Instead of defiance, however, in my reading of contemporary women’s poems I frequently find male dominance eroticized, masculinity deified, and the sexual subordination of women and children embraced or symbolically “played with,” but seldom challenged. The conventional notion of women’s supposedly innate sexual submissiveness seems to have saturated much contemporary poetic work as well, especially among women. We write as though we are afraid of creating anything that might dampen the erection of a male colleague. Men after all—even the sensitive, literary ones—have frequently laughed at our gentler, more egalitarian versions of sex; they’ve explained to us repeatedly that making love is dishonest, while fucking is truth. And we believe this, groomed to doubt ourselves, determined to prove we can succeed in the male dominated upper echelons of the poetry community…

Read the whole article here.

See also:

Academic Defenders of Porn Need to Engage with Reality (explicit language)
Gail Dines is a Professor of Sociology and Women’s Studies at Wheelock College in Boston, and a long-time anti-porn activist. She writes in Pornography: The Production and Consumption of Inequality (1998, p.163-166):

I have met hundreds of women and men who have stories to tell about pornography and the devastating impact it has had on their lives…

I have heard about what it is like to be coerced into making pornography by parents, brothers, uncles, boyfriends, husbands, and pimps. I have listened to women tell me about being raped and brutalized by men who wanted to reenact their favorite porn scene, and I have spent time with women who were gang-raped by their male “friends” after watching pornography. The women who tell their stories speak of the lasting effects that pornography has had on their lives…

In the world of scholarly discourse, these stories are contemptuously referred to as “anecdotal evidence”, first-person accounts that may make for interesting reading, but are not comparable with real scholarship. In a world cleansed of pain and passion, the realities of these people’s lives are lost in the maze of postmodern terminology and intellectual games…

The women who have told me their stories did not make a choice to be in pornography. Being raped as a child and sold to the highest bidder does not constitute a life of choices. Running away from a sexually abusive home and being “saved” by a pimp who then turns you into one of his “girls” is sexual slavery, not choice. These women form part of the pornography industry and rather than telling their stories, many of the pro-pornography books give us detailed accounts of those few women–such as Annie Sprinkle or Candida Royalle–who have managed to switch sides of the camera. The Horatio Alger story of pornography tells us much about the endurance of mythology in America, but little about the lives of the majority of women in pornography.

To read many of the scholarly books on pornography, one would think that men who use pornography have this uncanny ability to compartmentalize their lives. It seems that just as they put their penis away after using the stuff, so too they put the images away in that part of their brain that is marked fantasy, never to leak out into actual life. This is a ridiculous assertion that does not hold up in the lived experiences of men and women… Women have talked about being forced by their partners to watch the pornography so they can learn how to dress, suck, fuck, moan, talk, gasp, lick, cry, or scream like the woman in the pornography. And many of these men get very upset if their partners don’t react the same way as the women in the pornography…

For an industry that is meant to be about fantasy, the owners are incredibly adept at marshaling material resources to fight their battles. This is no small-time operation, existing at the margins. This is an extremely powerful industry that will unmercifully destroy any potential opposition to its power. It has friends in high places and can count on employing the most seasoned and expensive of lawyers to defend their economic interests… This imbalance of power is never discussed in the pro-pornography books; indeed, we are the ones characterized as powerful while the pornographers are represented as marginalized defenders of the First Amendment working to protect the rights of the powerless…

By refusing to deal with the realities of pornography, the pro-pornography academics have chosen to defend a multibillion-dollar-a-year industry and to ignore the ways in which pornography is implicated in the oppression of women.

A Review of Christine Stark, “Girls to boyz: Sex radical women promoting pornography and prostitution”
Because they are women and/or homosexuals, sex radicals who enjoy sadomasochism and purchasing prostitutes get away with claiming to undermine patriarchal norms, while in fact they are perpetuating other women’s subordination. Sex radical Veronica Monet, in a 1997 essay, wrote about hiring a prostitute in Nevada because she believed women had a right to do anything men could do. According to Stark’s own research on Nevada’s legalized brothels, the owners routinely groom underage runaways to enter prostitution when they turn 18, then virtually imprison them in the houses, with no money and no way to communicate privately with the outside world (pp.283-85). In a remarkable display of callousness, sex radical Donna Minkowitz has bragged about masturbating to news stories about the 1992 Glen Ridge, NJ case in which teenage boys gang-raped a retarded girl with a baseball bat. (p.286) Female-to-male transsexual sex radical Pat Califia writes articles glorifying pedophilia and incest. (p.286) How exactly does this challenge the dominant power structure?

A Review of D.A. Clarke, “Prostitution for everyone: Feminism, globalisation, and the sex industry”
Whatever one thinks of Clarke’s economic analysis (unrestricted loans to developing countries create their own set of problems), it’s hard to ignore the similarities between common pro-porn arguments and the ideology of the unrestrained marketplace. Neoliberalism’s key article of faith is that the marketplace is the ideal paradigm for all human interactions, and that it will produce fair and free outcomes if only we don’t regulate it in any way. (p.165) There is no room in this philosophy for noneconomic values such as kindness, human dignity, responsibility to the community, civil rights other than the right to property, or equality among social groups. Similarly, porn advocates behave as if the moral issues begin and end with women’s individual choices: as long as she’s being paid to be gang-raped, beaten, forced to drink urine, and so on, the rest of us are off the hook. Pro-porn leftists need to realize they are acting as shills for an ideology that reduces human beings to commodities or consumers, the same belief that they oppose in other contexts. (p. 169)

Hustling the Left
As Craft demonstrates in the numerous Hustler cartoons she reproduces on her site, the magazine mocks child abuse (often by depicting the child as sexually precocious and seducing the adult), and promotes racism and violence against women. Hustler invites readers to identify with Nazis, wife-beaters, incestuous fathers and kidnappers of children (the famous “Chester the Molester” cartoons). The Left would show no mercy to any other corporation that made money by trafficking in racist, anti-Semitic and homophobic images. Why does the porn industry get a free pass?

Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture
Raunch culture came along as a way for women to have their cake and eat it too. We could feel empowered without needing to make enemies or stop having “fun” as defined by the commercial media. In this way, says Levy, feminist energy became co-opted by a consumer culture in which solidarity for political change is replaced by personal advancement at the expense of other women. For a large part of raunch culture’s appeal, she says, is that it permits women to hang onto their feminist credentials while using their sexuality to achieve success in a male-dominated business world.

D.A. Clarke: Women Adopting Men’s Bad Habits Is Not the Answer
Ruthlessness, hardness, force and intimidation have characterised the successful businessman, soldier, gangster, politician and pimp from the very beginning. If we admire those qualities, we implicitly endorse the world these men have created – perhaps we subscribe to the fantasy that women can become hard enough and mean enough to compete with men on their own turf. Suppose we do so, and suppose some of us win: will a world that contains a token handful of lesbian aristocrats among its ruling class be a better world?

Dartmouth Law Journal Article: It Should be Legal to Possess Child Porn; Our Rebuttal
Cortelyou Kenney graduated summa cum laude with High Honors in Comparative Literature from Dartmouth College in 2005. Her thesis on political power of art and theater was awarded the Chase Peace Prize for best thesis on the topic of war and post-conflict reconstruction. She currently attends the University of California, Berkeley School of Law. And she believes it should be legal to possess child pornography…

Kenney conveniently ignores what porn is generally about–exploitative sex without literary, scientific, artistic or political value–in favor of foregrounding more sympathetic defendants. These include Aristophanes, Rabelais, Chaucer, Boccaccio, Shaw, Balzac, Hugo, Wilde, Joyce, Lawrence and Faulkner. Other ‘defendants’ pressed into service include journalists, doctors, academics and a hapless mother arrested for taking innocent pictures of her daughter in the bath. We agree that punishing innocent and valid uses of child images and the potential suppression of classic writers are bad outcomes. Fortunately, virtually all of these bad outcomes can be prevented with the drafting of intelligent laws, such as the Ohio law upheld by the Supreme Court in Osborne…

Certified Sex Therapist Marty Klein Wants You to Believe Porn Is Harmless
We can’t let the Dr. Klein’s doublespeak pass without further mention. For him, child porn is “children’s eroticism” and abusive practices are “erotic predilections”.