It all started when Owen Jones, being a bell end, wrote a really offensive article in The Guardian. He was responding to the news that MP Simon Danczuk had been caught watching hardcore pornography and, being a bell end, Jones argued that Danczuk had done nothing more than show himself to be “a human being with flaws”. “Why should we care?” asked the bell end, since after all “it’s the political flaws that matter”, and the sexual exploitation of women is not, it seems, a political issue.
It was infuriating. Jones was rightly criticised by many feminists on twitter, and was so angry that they had the nerve to criticise HIM, darling of the lefty media, he ended up accusing lesbians of being homophobes, and feminists of being right wing religious fundamentalists. Right. Thanks dude. I’m not here to go over the rights and wrongs of Jones’ behaviour, since other women have written much more thoughtful and comprehensive responses. I wrote a very brief piece the day after his article was published – it was only 500 words, hurriedly typed out on my mobile. I didn’t really have a plan. I knew that Jones was unlikely to reply to a lowly tweeter with fewer than a hundred followers, and I didn’t think there was anything especially ground-breaking or original in what I was saying anyway. I was just so angry with his smug complacency, I wanted to get my feelings off my chest.
I wrote about how porn has affected my life. Aged 23, I’m a part of the generation that came of age under porn culture. My male peers are the first in history to have watched hundreds, even thousands, of strangers having sex before they’d gained even the slightest knowledge of what real sexual relationships are like. Unsurprisingly, to all but Owen Jones and his ilk, this has left its mark. I wrote about the men in my life who have expected me to perform like a porn star: who pressured me into painful anal sex, wanted to ejaculate on my face, held my head down during fellatio. I pointed out that my straight female friends had all had similar experiences, some worse than mine.
The real horror is that it has become so hard to say no to sex acts that are now considered obligatory. The anxiety and the guilt and the PRESSURE are just so enormous, women of my age and younger must be exceptionally brave to resist. We don’t really have any more sexual ‘choices’ than our mothers and grandmothers did – they might have been socially stigmatised if they had the ‘wrong’ type of sex, but then so are we. It’s just that the ‘wrong’ type of sex now means something different. The goalposts may have shifted, but sex under porn culture still prioritises male pleasure at women’s expense.
For Owen Jones to trivialise these experiences, chuckle over wank jokes, tell his huge readership that actually porn is all a bit of fun, all us lads do it, “why should we care?” is so grossly offensive to all of the women who have suffered as a result of porn. My generation cannot unsee these things: our sexual ideas have been corrupted forever by porn, there’s no going back, and future generations will continue to suffer unless men decide to change. This cannot happen if we continue to pretend that porn is all a bit of harmless fun. I wrote my piece, put it up on twitter, fumed a bit, and got on with my day.
I was so surprised by what happened next. My brief rant at a third-rate British journalist ended up being retweeted again and again, and I had dozens of women contacting me from all over the world to say how much my words had meant to them. I was part of a community and I hadn’t even realised it. We so often hear about twitter being a hostile and abusive place for feminists: we very rarely hear about the kindness women show to one another.
Young women told me that they had experienced exactly the same thing, and like me had felt guilty for not living up to what porn culture expected from them. These private, awful moments between two people in a bedroom were taking place the world over – these weren’t isolated incidents, and we weren’t alone in wanting things to change.
Older women were appalled to hear about this. I hadn’t appreciated how much things had changed in such a short space of time, and it soon became clear that the generation gap had blinded us all to what was really happening.Women of my age had accepted these experiences as unremarkable and had failed to tell older women what was going on. Third wave feminism is so often inward looking, interested only in the latest, trendiest ideas, that there is very little inter-generational dialogue. Sisterhood has been left by the wayside, along with the second wave, and we can no longer learn from those women who have lived this already, who have learned, and who could offer us so much.
This quite literal rejection of sisterhood was demonstrated aptly by a recent edict from the UK National Union of Students that the word ‘sister’ is no longer to be used by delegates of the women’s conference. This word is, apparently, “exclusionary”, since it excludes those non-binary or genderqueer delegates who do not fully identify with womanhood. ‘Siblings’ is now the preferred term. Why anyone would feel comfortable marking themselves as part of a “women’s” conference, but would draw the line at the word “sisters”, is a mystery to me. Similar developments have been taking place at women’s colleges in the states, where staff and students are now encouraged to curtail all talk of ‘sisterhood’. This goes alongside a strand of feminism that rejects much of what has gone before: second wave feminists are caricatured as dinosaurs and bigots, no-platformed, rejected. Older women are systematically excluded for the sake of this new, ‘inclusive’ feminism, that sees no need for sisterhood. We can, at best, be ‘siblings’.
This undermines our movement. Sisterhood is powerful, sisterhood is essential. Every single female person is marked out from birth as an object for male sexual consumption. We must be socialised into becoming passive playthings, and the process is long and slow. Every sexualised ad, magazine, or film that I have ever seen, every ‘naughty’ joke, pervy comment, grope, stare, catcall – all these, every one, have combined to produce the voice in my head that says “don’t be a prude, don’t let him down”. This isn’t a process that can be easily undone when we are constantly bombarded with messages telling us to shut up, lie down, and take it. It’s hard enough to resist as it is, and we certainly can’t do this alone.
But one of the effects of patriarchy is to make us feel as though we are alone. Moments of private agony – when we’re confronted with an abuser, or we look back at a female body in the mirror and feel disgust – can be profoundly isolating.
As my piece on OJ was being shared all over the world, this familiar feeling of isolation began to return. Some of my most degrading sexual experiences had been at the hands of an ex-boyfriend who had been particularly awful to me and who I still feared. Even though I’d written under a pseudonym, I worried that he might realise it was me and rear up out of my past to accuse me of being a lying bitch. These things had taken place in private – it was my word against his, and the word of an articulate, dominating man can seem unassailable. I dreaded seeing his name pop up in my twitter notifications and started wishing I’d never written the damn thing.
But then it occurred to me – if he were to do that, these women would stand up for me. All these women who cared enough to hail me as sister and share their own pain and love with an unknown woman on the other side of the world, who they had never met and probably never would. Some of these women were two or three times my age, our lives were very different, but the one thing that united us was a shared experience of female oppression and the desire to fight it – what feminists once called ‘sisterhood’. This was a movement that my ex-boyfriend could never be a part of, and these women would tell him so. I wouldn’t be isolated as I had been so many times before, I’d have allies who understood what I was going through and they wouldn’t take any of his shit. My anxiety disappeared with the relief of realising that I wasn’t alone.
It reminded me of the time I’d attended a talk on a controversial feminist issue at my university, in which there had been a tense feeling of division among the women in the audience. We started off sitting awkwardly in our seats, just talking to our friends, or looking at our phones. But when the talk got underway and some MRA dickhead stood up to attack the speakers and spout nonsense about ‘lying feminists’, it became very clear who we were really opposed to. The women next to him told him to shut up and he eventually sat down – I caught the eye of one of these women and we smiled at one another and rolled our eyes, understanding exactly. It was such a tiny thing, but it felt very meaningful to me. We’ve all had the experience of being cowed by sexist men and feeling too tongue tied or frightened to argue back. Perhaps, if I’d been on my own, I would have been shouted down by this bloke and would have run away with my tail between my legs. But because we’d been part of a group, with a shared cause, we were able to roll our eyes at the stupid fucker and tell him to shut up.
But we can’t organise against our oppression if we don’t have the words to describe it, and if we don’t know who we’re fighting for. ‘Siblinghood’ is a word so broad, so inclusive, that it comes to describe everyone, and so no one at all. Terry Eagleton has written:
“Any word which covers everything loses its edge and dwindles to an empty sound. For a term to have meaning, it must be possible to specify what, in particular circumstances, would count as the other of it” (‘Ideology’, 1991, p.7)
He’s right. We can’t differentiate between the abused and the abusers if the words we use could just as well describe my ex-boyfriend as they could me. A woman I have never met or spoken to cannot truly be my friend, but she can be my sister. We share something important – we are both marked by patriarchy as belonging to that despicable group ‘women’. To describe us as ‘siblings’ obscures the oppressive structure that binds us together, and hence undermines our struggle.
The postmodern ideology that tells us that ‘woman’ is a construct, and that there is more dividing us than uniting us, destroys any hope of solidarity. Feminism is a collective project, and sometimes it’s so bloody difficult to keep going you couldn’t possibly do it if you were alone. If we abandon the word ‘sister’, I fear that we’ll lose that sense of shared struggle, and we’ll end up abandoning each other. We’d have nothing left if we did that. Feminism isn’t just an abstract concept, it’s a community of women who have committed themselves to improving the lives of countless other unknown, unborn women. It’s a difficult and thankless task, and sometimes it’s so hard not to give in and be the passive, thoughtless objects we’re told we should be. We can only keep going if we act as sisters to one another.
(And no, Owen Jones never did reply)