Sisterhood is still powerful

by Rosie Redstockings

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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)

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26 thoughts on “Sisterhood is still powerful

  1. I loved this post. Men can never be part of feminism, ever. They just don’t have what it takes, to be socially conditioned based on the female sex. To be WOMAN is something men will never attain. I’m not surprised the term ‘sister’ is being relegated to the trash bin by women intent on making life comfortable for men. The handmaidens know in this political climate the rare few scraps might be thrown to them if they allow men to ruin them. Men keep coming up with new ways to erase us and to see women buying it lock, stock and barrel is so troubling to me, so urgent, it fills me with emptiness.

    Liked by 6 people

  2. Thank you for writing this. It fills my heart with joy and hope to see a young woman write with such clarity and with conviction to holding the feminist flame. I hope to read much more from you.

    Liked by 3 people

  3. Bravo for having the courage to write this. Your previous piece on what you have run into with male sex partners trying to push you into a pornographic performance model, was extremely helpful to me both as a feminist woman and a feminist broadcaster because it gave me actual examples of the effect that the mass use of pornography by young men is having on young women.

    I like that in this current piece you connect those experiences to a need for a feminist movement and feminist community–and you analyze some of the ways that our feminist language is being taken away from us. No, “Siblinghood is Powerful” just doesn’t cut it! There are also many other attacks on feminist language going on today–the replacement of “pregnant women” with “pregnant people” (takes away the feminist context of the struggle for abortion rights), the censorship of the word vagina (it has taken us a long time to bring that word out of shame)–and I could go on and on.

    It is also very exciting to me as a “second wave” feminist, that you are writing about the serious disadvantage into which the movement places itself when it cuts off the previous generation–and therefore its own sources–not to mention having to reinvent the wheel, rather than build on what’s come before.

    My own radio feminist radio show (which I have had to fight to maintain at a male-dominated radio station): Joy of Resistance: Multicultural Feminist Radio @ WBAI, also has a WordPress blog (http://joyofresistance.wordpress.com) Let’s follow each other and perhaps, if you would wish to, we can do a phone-interview in the near future.

    Thank you again, and please keep writing on these topics!.

    Fran

    Fran Luck, Executive Producer,
    Joy of Resistance: Multicultural Feminist Radio @ WBAI,
    99.5 FM, NYC, Thursdays, 9-10 pm*
    Broadcasts to NY/NJ/Conn, streams live worldwide at wbai.org
    Archived for 90 days at wbai.org/archive

    Blog: http://joyofresistance.wordpress.com
    Twitter: http://twitter.com/joyofresistance
    Email: jorwbai@gmail.com

    *NOTE: On 3rd Thursdays ‘The Rape Declaration Forum’ airs in this timeslot

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Keep fighting sister. As you say, this is about erasure of women’s experiences. As an older 2nd wave feminist, the pornification which is happening is very very scary to me. What it must be like for younger women trying to relate to men, I cannot imagine. Thank you for describing so personally your own horrendous experiences which are as you say all too common. The trans lobby must not be allowed to seize the power from us sisters. Sometimes withdrawing from relationships with men is a solution!

    Liked by 5 people

  5. To read the words of a young woman who has been so abused by pornsick men saddens me greatly. But, your clarity, your call to sisterhood also fill me with hope!

    Please keep writing, sister!

    Liked by 3 people

  6. I have argued in the past with my son about why I thought internet porn was abusive and misogynistic. He looked down at me as being old fashioned and out of touch. He argued that may women freely post porn of themselves of their own free will, so how could that be abusive. He thought they were just being free and expressive. After reading your article I realize that both young men and young women in this generation have a pornified view of what is normal and what is sexy and how they should present and perform. I have sent a copy of your blog to my husband and all my children.
    It is important for the word to get out that abuse in the bedroom is not normal or acceptable. Nor is this new misogynistic version of womanhood. And yes, up with Sisterhood!

    Liked by 2 people

  7. Beautiful post, and at 27, I absolutely agree. It was women who stood up for me on the bus eight years ago, when a creep was being creepy and I couldn’t help but try to be nice. It was a female bartender who noticed two older men getting a little too interested in me when I was very drunk last New Year’s and told them to back off. There are men I love, but they don’t see the same threats that other women do, nor are many men willing to do anything about it even when they do see it. When another creep on the bus was following and harassing two young girls, it was me who stood up to him and made him leave them alone. Not a single word from my then-boyfriend and I doubt he’d even have noticed, for all that he often accused me of not being alert enough.

    And yes, I’ve had sex with men I initially wanted to try it with, but then no longer wanted to, but went ahead anyway just because it was easier. Easier than saying I no longer wanted to, only to have them whine or demand to know why, to have them argue, upon my telling them, why my reason wasn’t good enough and couldn’t I just try? Or “at least” do this one thing? And there are things I do want to try and some things I’ve tried that were really good, but these are things I won’t tell most men about because if I do, they’ll expect to do those things with me and they make backing out as difficult as possible. “I’m just gonna do this” after I said no to that thing “and if it hurts just tell me to stop”. So he did it, and it hurt, so I told him to stop, and he did stop. But the fact was I didn’t *want* to hurt. At all. Which was why I’d said no, but men expect us to at least see if it hurts first. *Then* (maybe) they’ll stop.

    I’m sorry that you’re even younger than me and seem to have met even more unsavoury men, and this seems to be happening to women younger and younger. I hope you keep writing, though, because your voice is important.

    Solidarity, sister!

    Liked by 4 people

  8. you are an inspiration, reading this piece made me feel all over again the importance of feminism and why I commit myself to supporting other women — it is so necessary to be reminded from time to time because the voices against feminist social critique can seem so powerful and convincing. Please keep writing and believing!

    Liked by 2 people

  9. What is your stance towards the kind of porn that doesn’t involve chocking or beating anyone or verbal or physical violence? I don’t believe we will ever live in a world without porn, that’s all I have to say on that.

    Like

    1. Even if porn doesn’t involve any of the things that you mentioned in your question, it still objectifies women and girls. It still encourages boys to see women and girls as objects for their sexual pleasure, and prevents them from seeing them as whole people. If you are genuinely interested in the effects that porn has on the brain, it’s worth looking at the site ‘your brain on porn . Com’ . There is irrefutable evidence that, particularly with the rise of Internet porn, more and more men are unable to relate to women on a human level and even a sexual level, because they are so used to witnessing sex in the 2d form on a screen, rather than actually participating with a woman. Porn takes out any human aspect of a woman, even ‘vanilla’ stuff. It still involves men training their brain to pleasure themselves based on a woman looking good to please them.

      Liked by 2 people

  10. Hey Sister.

    This is so fantastic. I am one of those “older women” in my mid ’40s, and it fills me with so much hope to see a young woman who GETS IT and speaks out. It makes me so angry to know that young women all over the world are suffering because of pornography. I was right on the cusp of the explosion of internet porn and never had to deal with this, not really. We are living in very troubling times for females as females. The despair I feel at just how conservative and narcissistic third wave feminism is… well, I cannot put enough of a pox on postmodernism and identity politics. Sometimes I feel like I’m living in a world of fun house mirrors.

    We have GOT to stop this McCarthy train and get back to a feminist consciousness, to a state where words have meaning.

    Thank you for speaking out, and Owen Jones is a little turd.

    Liked by 2 people

  11. Thank you so much for sharing this, Sister 🙂 ❤ (If you don't mind, I've posted your article on Tumblr, sourced and referenced. If you have any objections I will remove it)

    Liked by 1 person

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