My Story -- From First Encountering Pornography to Becoming a Radical Feminist
by Maggie Hays
I am a 27-year-old anti-pornography, anti-misogynist, anti-racist, anti-homophobia, anti-patriarchy, and anti-capitalist radical feminist. About my sexual orientation, I do not fit in any category. I am attracted to both men and women. Although I have lived most of my life as a heterosexual, I believe it has probably been caused by the implicit compulsory heterosexuality which underlies this society, and I have never renounced my sexual attraction to women. I am currently in a heterosexual relationship, but I have recently decided not to get married, as I prefer "partnership" -- it makes me feel more free -- and I came to believe that marriage is merely a socially constructed custom. I have decided to tell my story to explain how I became an anti-pornography feminist, and I also wrote this in case it might help any girl or woman who reads this to better identify patterns in male supremacy and try to avoid the abuses that come with that system. Since I started reading the radical feminist literature on pornography, I tried to remember many different parts of my life. Bits of my memory came first. Other parts came months later...
I was raised in a poor, working-class, Catholic, and rather dysfunctional family, living in a suburban house. I was the only child in the house. My parents were going to the church every weekend, and were often screaming at each other during the rest of the week. My dad usually started the arguing -- by shouting about money, bills, debts, etc... My mom continued the quarrel, in defense of herself.
I was first exposed to pornography when I was 12 years old -- in 1992. My dad was out of the house, which gave me an opportunity to look through the collection of videos he had in his room. Most of these videos were adventure movies I had already seen but, here, there was a tape with a strange title at the corner of one of the video shelves. I pulled it out and noticed the photo of a young and scantily clad Asian woman on the box cover. It was also specified on the back cover that the film was "XXX" or "porno", and should not be viewed by minors ("people under age 18"). "So what?," I thought, "This couldn't be any worse than the sex scenes you saw in the middle of many Hollywood movies, right?" I popped the tape into the VCR -- and now that I think about it, it was such a racist movie, as well as a sexist one, and it was also promoting prostitution and sex tourism. The plot was about a rich white man visiting the brothels of Thailand and picking his favorite "Asian compliant slut". One of the first scenes showed the Asian woman knelt down while performing fellatio on the man. Seeing all those close-ups, I realized straight away that it wasn't like in the Hollywood movies, and I thought: "Do they really make films like that in this world?" I was very shocked, just like many other girls would have been seeing a porn video for the first time. I stopped the tape after ten minutes and decided to ask a friend some information about what I had just seen because I felt kind of bewildered...
This friend was my next door neighbor, a little boy of the same age as me. One day that my parents were out, I took him to the house and we started watching the same tape. "Oh, yeah... That's a porn video," he said. "Looks a bit like the magazines that my dad has in his room... Although, this stuff looks a bit more extreme." We watched the video for longer than ten minutes, and I remember that I thought of two words when I was looking at this film: "mechanical" and "inhuman." No doubt this was aggressive -- for a girl, anyway -- although the only word I would use to talk about it after that was "dirty." We heard my parents entering the house and we stopped the tape after forty minutes. I never touched that tape again after that day.
This pornographic video was not the only time I was exposed to pornography during my adolescence. Neither was it the only time that I was aware of my dad's porn-using. He was going to the church every Sunday, but, for sure, he used a lot of porn! On his bookshelves I could find many pornographic books. Among these were, notably, The Story of O, Emmanuelle, and Nine and a Half Weeks. The Story of O and Emmanuelle were written in a too "artsy" fashion or had too many complicated words in them for me to understand them when I picked them up. At 14 years old, I hadn't read that many books in my life. Nine and a Half Weeks contained sexual parts which seriously disturbed me (the book is a lot more explicit than the film). These passages represented an "unequal power" relationship between a man and a woman, which I didn't like at all. I once asked my mom what she thought of those books that my dad had in his book collection. She said that some parts of Emmanuelle and Nine and a Half Weeks bothered her, but she particularly hated The Story of O. She said she wished she could burn that book. I wondered why.
Once I found a Playboy lying in my dad's room. It was one of the two issues that had La Toya Jackson on the cover. I opened the magazine and looked at La Toya naked. (1) My dad also had a "porn stash" in the basement, where I found old porn magazines and comics. Within them were pornographic cartoons depicting about everything -- including adult sexual activity with children. I also knew that my dad regularly rented pornographic videos too because my mom had told me about that. She also told me that once he had paid a prostitute for sex -- since they were married -- but had promised not to do it again. I once asked my dad what he thought of the women who posed naked in magazines. "They're empowered. There's nothing nicer to look at than the female naked body," he said. Another time, I asked my dad what he thought of prostitutes. "They are usually poor and uneducated women," he said.
While I was in junior high school, I could sometimes overhear the boys' conversations when they were talking about the latest porn videos they'd been watching at home, comments such as "You seen that girl in the porn movie; she had one dick in her pussy and another in her ass." And they were all laughing. Other times, boys were using pornographic scenarios to terrorize us as girls -- and, in some cases, to "shut us up." This went from telling us what they had seen in a porn movie -- things like "Hey, I saw this film yesterday. In it, there was a girl with a cock in her cunt, one in her ass, and one in her mouth at the same time." -- to telling us pornographic stories they invented with us and them included in this stuff they were saying, like "You suck my dick," "I take you up the ass," etc... This was pretty degrading but, still, the only word I could think of was "dirty."
Nevertheless, I had nothing against sexuality. I was raised in a religious family, but sex was never a taboo subject between my mother and me. She told me about the different sexual things that happened between men and women, the ones she thought were okay, the others she thought were degrading. The particular thing that was really taboo in my religious family though was homosexuality. My dad was homophobic and my mom thought that sex between two persons of the same sex was "not right." I could sometimes notice that I was attracted to female humans, but would never talk about it to anybody at that time, for fear of someone misjudging me.
Part of my sex education came from those "teen girl" magazines that I was buying regularly. In them, there was always a section on sex and "things you could do with your boyfriend." I found that very exciting. Another part of my sex education was sexual images that I saw in the mainstream media, such as mainstream films for instance. No doubt parts of this "sex education" made me eroticize male domination and female subordination or passivity somehow, although I had always dreamt of an egalitarian and romantic sexual relationship, when I thought about the time when I would finally date.
I had heard that there used to be a time when women were kept in the home and did not have the right to vote, or even speak. And I thought, "This time is over! Women are equal to men now! We live in post-feminist times!" About rape, I thought it was a rare thing. It is true that I had seen some particularly realistic representations of rape in the media, such as rape scenes in "The Accused," with Jodie Foster, and in the autobiographical movie "What's Love got to do with it" based on Tina Turner's book. Nevertheless, I thought that rape was a rare thing which was committed primarily by strangers and usually happened in dark alleys at night.
In high school, I hung out with the same group of girls. Guys sometimes harassed us with nasty comments, but they had somewhat calmed down -- or kept their remarks to themselves, for when girls were not around... In my group of friends once, while we were having a chat between two classes, a girl brought up the subject of pornography. She said she had woken up in the middle of the night not so long ago and had seen her brother and father in the living room; they were watching a porn video. She said she felt upset at seeing a woman being doubly penetrated by two men on the screen. This made me feel bad too, as she told me.
Similarly, one day, my mom told me that she had played one of my dad's porn tapes in the VCR. She hadn't done this intentionally: she had thought the tape was a mainstream movie because it had been misplaced in a mainstream film box cover. She was also very upset, like that friend of mine had been, at seeing a woman being doubly penetrated by two men. My mom said to me: "This is not nice a woman being taken that way; this is unfair!" I thought: "Go and tell that to those who watch porno..." And I sighed...
Another time, I was with a school friend, walking around the town. We were near the video store (the one where my dad was renting his pornos and where my mom and I were sometimes renting mainstream films) when I said to my friend, "Hey, that's my family video store! let's go have a look at the new movies they've got inside." So, we got in and looked around a bit. I knew there was the porno section hidden at the back of the store. That section made me feel ill at ease. While pointing toward it, I asked my friend: "Hey, do you know that there's the porn section back there?" She replied: "So? Do do you really think I'm the kind of girl who enjoys herself watching those fucking porn films?" Then I replied back: "No, but I bet you're scared of that section!" I was trying to be cheeky. "I'm not scared of that stupid section!" she said defensively, "You wanna bet?" Then I said to her: "I bet you're not capable of walking to that section with me, standing in the middle of it, and looking at all the dirty covers!" She said: "Let's see." So we walked over to the "adult" section. I felt my stomach churn as we were turning around the corner from the "slasher" films to the porn section. When we got to the middle of the "adult" section, we felt our sight being assaulted by those images. We quickly covered our eyes with our hands while moaning: "That's disgusting." We ran out of the shop nauseated but laughing nervously -- the store clerk looking at us weirdly. "Gosh, these films are dirty!" we agreed...
However, we could not bring up any other words apart from "disgusting" or "dirty" when describing them. But obviously, pornography, to me, was something else apart from "dirty." There was something else to it, something I could not quite describe, something that I refused to see, or something which this culture did not give me the right language to be able to describe what I saw when thinking about pornography.
It is true that I had seen, read or heard plenty of other images, words or messages in the mainstream media, which were either denigrating or cruel to women, or were eroticizing male domination and female subordination.
To quote just a few examples in the mainstream movies: in the musical film "Saturday Night Fever," after agreeing to have sex with a man on the back seat of a car while she was drunk and depressed, a young woman is then raped by his friend "who wanted to fuck too" and she is subsequently called either a "whore" or a "slut" by the main character of the film; in the Brian DePalma film "Body Double," a woman gets roughly attacked in her house by a man who eventually kills her with a huge drill -- there is a camera shot from behind the killer in which the drill appears between the guy's legs as he is standing while the woman has been kicked to the floor and then he's running this massive drill through her body; in the thriller "Basic Instinct," a woman gets callously handled sexually by the main male character before she gets raped from behind on a couch -- during the whole sequence, you can notice the scene has been made in a way that is supposed to be sexually arousing to the viewer; and in the slasher "Texas Chainsaw Massacre," a young girl gets grabbed by a man and then gets her back impaled on some sort of a meat hook. (Nowadays they make "slasher" movies which are even more denigrating and cruel to women, such as "Hostel," "Cabin Fever," and "Saw 3.") It is true I had seen those images, but in pornography, there was something I just didn't want to see, something too real, like an underlying structure or something... With the mainstream movies, at least, you could go to your bed and think: "It's only a movie... That's not real." You couldn't do that with pornography. There was something else to it which was all too real...
It is also true that sometimes while I was reading a mainstream fiction book, I found a sexually explicit passage in it, which I would now consider pornographic. You can sometimes find these domination/subordination dynamics in many song lyrics; you often hear women singing things like "take me," "I want you," "I am yours," "I give you all," etc; and men singing "I've got what you need," "I wanna take you," "You're mine," etc... People often say that as long as the music is good, you don't care about the lyrics. As a matter of fact, I've noticed that if the the music is really good, you internalize the messages from the lyrics even quicker! (2) I had also noticed that women in music videos were becoming increasingly unclothed. Seeing the girls in bikinis in one video, I caught myself thinking: "What's going on? Women are increasingly being represented as sexual objects in the media?" Then I thought: "No, there's probably nothing wrong with it; it's probably just a continuum of sexual liberation."... I just wanted to rest easy, that's all...
Some of the messages I had certainly identified in this culture were: (1) Men had to have sex all the time; if men didn't have sex frequently -- or in the way they wanted -- they were not "real men;" (2) If a woman was not sexual -- or not doing a particular sexual thing -- with a man, she was a "prude"; (3) If a woman was sexual -- or doing a particular sexual thing -- with a man, she was a "slut"; and (4) if a woman was saying she was going to be sexual -- or do a particular sexual thing -- with a man but then changed her mind, she was a "tease."
I met this man, when I was eighteen. He was a bit older than me. We didn't live in the same area but he often phoned me or came to my neighborhood to see me. We started having a relationship together. We were merely going out and talking together at the beginning. He told me he was a real fan of pornography. I didn't like that much. He said it was probably because I hadn't seen that many porn movies, and if I watched more of them, I would learn to like them. I didn't think so.
He wasn't the sort of man who hid his pornography use from his girlfriend and, once, for a short minute I did wonder: "Could these porn movies influence their viewers into wanting the stuff that was in them?" But then I thought: "No, that's not possible." I used to watch violent movies on T.V., and never would they make me kill someone. I didn't give a critical thought (at the time) at the way the degradation and violence in pornography are represented in a context that condones them and makes them sexually arousing, which makes them separate from the violence which is found in other parts of the media.
My first boyfriend seemed nice, apart from the fact that he used pornography, and I had found somebody of the opposite sex whom I could talk to. He talked a lot about sex though. I talked a lot about it too. Those women's magazines and the rest of the raunchy culture had primed me a lot to do some sexual talking.
But was I ready for any action? I had already had sex once, at a party, due to peer pressure: Many girls of my age had been losing their virginity one after the other and had been socialized to see any girl who hadn't done it yet as "inexperienced." Thus, I had only had sex once and it was a total fiasco. I was just immature and had been culturally trained to "go out and do it to be just like the others." It was awful.
So, I told my first boyfriend I wasn't ready for it yet. Then, once, he invited me to his house for a two-week stay. I agreed to go there as, in my home, the atmosphere was "not the best" due to all my parents' screaming and shouting. During the stay at my boyfriend's house, I kept delaying the "moment" when sex was supposed to happen between us to the next day, and the next day, and the next day... It is true I had talked about sex a lot with him because there was something in the culture -- implicit and explicit -- that socialized you, trained you to do so.
So, I felt trapped. I realized that I had talked about sex a lot and I didn't want to hurt him, I didn't want him to call me a "tease," or be sad or angry at me, but truthfully: I did not want to have sex, I wasn't ready to have sex again, and I really didn't want to have sex! At the same time, I couldn't tell him that: he was gonna be angry, and I liked him. It felt like a "double-edged sword" type of situation.
On the second week of the stay, he got really mad. We'd come back from a movie; and I so much did not want to have sex that I had kept my jeans on and gone to bed. He turned the light on, lifted the blanket, and shouted angrily: "Are you fucking kidding me or what? You said we were gonna do it!" I could see by the way he was looking at me that he was making me understand that he was "the man there" and I was a woman so I had to "give him what he wanted." So, I said: "Calm down, it's okay." Then I reluctantly and slowly took my clothes off, bit by bit. I really felt that things were going to be worse if I said no, much much worse -- and I was still away from my home...
I can still remember unbuttoning my blouse while thinking "I don't wanna be here!" as if it had happened yesterday, although I only remembered all this recently (more on that later). I so much did not want to have sex that, throughout the experience, I tried to make him understand through "body language," through my sad eyes, my tears, my lack of enthusiasm, etc., that I didn't REALLY did NOT want to have sex. That did not work. He didn't seem to be able to see my pain, or only thought about his own satisfaction and pleasure. Simply put: he was not going to show any empathy for me that night. He even pressured me into doing some kinds of "foreplay" on him that I was not quite ready to do at the time. When the intercourse came, it was terribly painful, and there was nothing to it. I did not want it. In short, this whole sexual experience was very painful for me, morally, physically, emotionally, and psychologically.
I remember the next morning. It was too painful, too awful, etc. I blanked it all out. It just was not me: I was not this "young victimized girl who had been pressured into having sex," no way! So, I quickly came to think that what had happenned to me was "just life" -- that sex was meant to be that way for a girl if you hadn't done it a lot. And there was nothing to it. Men just had to have sex after all. I even stayed with the same boyfriend for a while. He was "alright" after all, apart from that night. He took me around town. He bought me dinner, bought me stuff. And he was the only person who seemed genuinely interested in me at the time when I felt lonely.
One night, he suggested that we watch a pornographic movie together. I agreed once. The shock I had had from the first time I'd seen a porn movie had kinda worn off. It had been four years ago... I told him I didn't want to see anything too "extreme" though. He put a video on, and sure as hell it was "phallic supremacy" being displayed on the screen: the setting was in the woods where a woman was kneeling down to suck on a man's penis as if it was such a "tasty treat" and another woman, hidden behind a tree, was watching them and masturbating to it; the man then took the woman from behind and the other woman carried on masturbating while watching them... I felt bothered to watch that with my boyfriend. He obviously showed me that because he wanted me to perform some of the stuff that was in that movie. "I'd really like you to do this and do that, or take the same position as her there," he said. I said: "I don't want to watch any more of this." I remember either shutting my eyes or turning away from the anal sex scenes in particular, as I really didn't want to watch them and I was scared he was gonna try to pressure me into agreeing to this kind of thing if I watched. "Can you try to watch the scene please? Even if you don't like it?", he said. "No, I can't!" I answered.
I knew he often watched and masturbated to those movies, as he told me very often. He even convinced me to try some of the positions that were in the X-movies after persistently asking. He also showed me a few porn magazines he had in his room. There was that drawing in Penthouse, in which a woman was lying on the sidewalk saying "Encore" after being raped by a stranger. My boyfriend found that funny. I really didn't. He also said something once that somehow shocked me. He said that he could understand rapists. If those guys couldn't get sex, he said, he could understand their actions then.
Because I wouldn't watch the porno videos with him anymore, he would then tell me, over the phone or while we were talking in person, what he had seen in the porn movies he'd just watched in the past week, especially the scenes which involved bondage, facial ejaculations, oral or anal sex in them. I told him that telling me about those films bothered me, but he kept putting them in the conversations when he could. One of the scenarios I can remember was in a porn movie where a man eventually convinced his wife to agree to anal sex, saying it was not disgusting as long as they loved each other. That made me think that pornography could sometimes use the word "love" to get the female character to do something to "please her man." Another scenario I can think of was scarier, it was about a man who was going to take his girlfriend from behind, making her believe it was going to be a vaginal penetration, but he then penetrated her anally. My boyfriend found that funny. I really didn't. In describing these scenarios to me, when I’d made it clear I didn’t want to hear them, he was obviously inflicting an unwanted sexual experience on me, by telling me those stories.
He actually got me to agree to try bondage once, after he had asked me over and over. It was very painful on my wrists, and I was terribly scared during the experience. I didn't want to do it again. Once he asked me if it would excite me to be called a "bitch" or a "slut" during sex. It really shocked me. I wondered: "Why would he think that this kind of language would arouse me?"
One night, we went to a party at one of his friends' house. At some point, the guys put a porn video on. I was really mad. I didn't want to watch one of those films again. Plus, this one was harsher than the ones before. It was one of those "gonzo" films, I think. In it, you could see a couple of men who were wearing some sort of black hoods or tights on their heads to hide their faces; they were breaking and entering a woman's house and then doubly penetrating (raping) her. She was then represented, in the film, as enjoying the attack... I went away to the backyard while they were carrying on watching that awful movie. I felt pretty bad. I first thought: "I wish those films didn't exist... What’s wrong? Is it just sexual liberation going too far?" Then I thought: "Well perhaps there's just something wrong with me... Perhaps those films are merely a form of sexual expression or whatever... Perhaps things were meant to be that way in this unfair world"
Another thing I wanted to say about this man who was my first boyfriend was that he seemed to have a particular interest in prostitutes. He said he'd love to go to Thailand someday and buy himself a "lovely little submissive Asian doll." That comment was so racist, now that I think about it. Once, when we were visiting a big city, he insisted that we go to the district where the prostitutes were -- just for a walk to see them standing. I was a bit curious to see what they looked like somehow. I had never seen a prostitute in my life. I had seen "Pretty Woman" a few years before that and, despite what my father had been saying to me about prostitutes, I had this image in my head of "a smiling woman proudly standing on a street corner." When we arrived, I saw that it was clearly not the glamorous image I had expected. The prostitutes were standing all along the sidewalk. Most of them were women of color. I remember looking at one of them while we were walking past. Her eyes looked so sad... I said to my boyfriend: "Let's go." He said: "Wait, I want to chat them up a little." I said: "No, we're going." And we went.
I stayed with this man for a little while until I broke off the relationship. He was becoming too demanding. He wanted me to shave my genitals and to try bondage again. He was often putting his hands all over my body when I had no desire to be touched by him. And he was always trying to get me to do things I really didn't want to do. I got fed up and went. But it was hard doing so. He was always trying to get back in a relationship with me. After, I left him, he kept on phoning me, and coming up to my house when not invited. I eventually had to leave the parental home and move to another address so he couldn't find me.
Then later, when I was twenty-one, I met my second boyfriend. I had moved to another city, and it was not the same with this one. I loved him -- I didn't really love my first boyfriend, I just felt lonely and I was happy that someone seemed to be attracted to me. I knew this second boyfriend too was watching pornography. He had told me about some stuff he had downloaded off the Net and watched with his friends. The beginning of the relationship was wonderful. He wasn't the kind of guy who tried to pressure me into doing things I didn't want to. He seemed lovely. Then, one day, he left me. I felt so depressed because I loved him. So he came back to me a few times. Each time, he was making me believe that we were going to be in a serious relationship again, just to sleep with me and go.
I became really mad at men at that point. "They're only after one thing," I thought. It's at that point that I started dating women. I'll never forget the first time I kissed a woman. It was so subversive. We were alone; there was no man around. Then I shared an apartment with a woman of my age for a couple of years. During this time, neither of us were really looking for a serious relationship with a man. We'd been both hurt by men and we didn't want to get too close to them by fear of being hurt again. At this time I started changing my appearance. My roommate was regularly frequenting the "nightclubbing" scene and going to parties. We liked the same types of music and we had just gotten cable television. So, we could watch MTV and other music channels and look at the girls in the videos, the way they were dressed, the make-up they wore, the way they danced. I started dressing in very short, very tight clothes. My roommate and I were going to nightclubs every weekend and just having fun. As one of the female characters said in the TV show "Sex and the City": "You can bang your head against the wall and try to find a relationship or you can say screw it and go out and have sex like a man." We followed that ideology for a while. We went out, we got drunk and sometimes had casual relationships with women and men. I used to believe in the kind of illusory "empowerment" of having casual sex with men -- like the illusion of "using them for sex" or "controlling them."
I really liked women. They were so sweet, so tender. You could trust them and even be friends with them. It didn't seem to be the same with men. You couldn't be friends with a guy without him wanting to "fuck" you. That's another reason why we wouldn't get too close to men, in spite of the fact we had casual affairs with them sometimes.
A thing I had noticed over the years was the increasing sexual pressure that men put upon women. Sometimes I had very intimate conversations with some of my girl friends and I asked them things like: "Has it ever happened to you a guy handling you roughly during sex? Turning you over to get you to do some positions he wants to do, regardless of you're in the mood for them or not? Trying to push your head down for oral sex?, etc." I was surprised to find out that so many women had had the same type of sexual experiences as I had.
Some of my women friends were also often pressured into doing sexual acts they did not really want or like. They said it often was about men wanting anal sex from them, but not always. Sometimes, it was about men wanting them to swallow the semen after oral sex, men wanting to tie them up, or men wanting them to shave "down below." My girl friends felt really bad about the things they sometimes had to do to "please their man." Me, I couldn't get on with that program. I often got dumped by boyfriends when I sometimes dated someone again occasionally because there were sex acts that I wouldn't do due to the fact that they felt very demeaning to me.
There were other things that I noticed about men when I used to go out clubbing and partying: First, I could not have a lesbian relationship in peace, without a man somewhere trying to "get to watch." Sometimes they tried to follow us home after the club or party. I wondered where they'd got the idea of invading the privacy of lesbians from? There were a few gay men in my circle of friends. Well, never would it come to my mind to try to invade the privacy of some gay friend. So, why were heterosexual men so nosy about seeing two women together? Second, men liked buying you so many drinks to try to get you loaded so they might have sex with you, or try to get you to do things you didn't want to... One night, I was so drunk that I nearly got raped. My reactions were slow, but I shouted: "No!" in time... Another night, a group of men showed me and my girl friends pornographic films in their living room when we were drunk at a party. "That's how you should learn how to perform this sexual practice... and that one... Girls, get some skills!", one of the guys was saying to us while pointing at the T.V. screen. We didn't like to see that porno stuff; it made the atmosphere aggressive. We felt uncomfortable with those men and their porn so we went away... And another night, a man took advantage of my roommate while she was drunk. She got pretty sad about it...
One day, she moved out. She was going back to her hometown because she knew somebody back there. I stopped going to clubs and parties at that point. I was getting older -- nearly twenty-four -- and I was dating a man again. He eventually moved in with me. I had stopped drinking. He didn't drink. He was absolutely lovely at the beginning. He never drank, not even later. He had some pornographic magazines lying around, and he had his computer. But I thought: "Boys will be boys; let them watch what they want..." Then later I became a victim of domestic verbal abuse. I came home and had to "take all his shit." He was calling me all sorts of names. When there were bills to pay, he didn't want to pay his part. He shouted that I should shove them... I didn't understand how this man, who was so lovely to me at first, had become this kind of an asshole. What had happened to him? He was continuously accusing me of cheating on him while there was no reason for him to think that. Then one day, he pushed me. He shoved me so hard against the corner of a table that I had a pretty nasty bruise on my back, and I was hurting. I called the police. They got him out of the house. And then there was a restraining order...
It was hard to date again after that. I had "taken a lot of shit" from men... Nevertheless, one day I started a relationship with the man I am with now. He didn't use pornography. He said he had looked at it once or twice, but that he wasn't interested in it. (3)
"A Cruel Edge": Noticing Patriarchy
I think there is a difference between "discovering" patriarchy and "noticing" it. I believe most women have discovered it somehow, this unequal power between the sexes in this society. However, I believe that most women, unfortunately, have not yet found the right language to speak about it. I used to be in that position. All the events described above happened when I was in that position. I used to think that I was living in a world where there had been women's liberation, REAL liberation I mean. The fact is that only the days of overt and public dominance are over. Now the oppression of women is even more dangerous. It takes place very often in the private sphere. It is fully understandable why so many second-wave feminists brought up the fact that "the personal is political." They wanted the complete overthrow of patriarchy. They didn't want the oppression of women to be merely pushed to the private sphere, away from the public eye.
It is so obvious how the mainsteam media typically lies to you: it magnifies the few "empowered" women in the society here and there while obscuring the more common everyday reality of so many women who do not have such power in this culture.Thus, when a woman is mistreated or abused by a man in this system, as many are -- you hear people say: "That's her fault. She did this or this or that! She shouldn't have done this or this or that!" Another way the media lies to you is in how it magnifies "the progress women have made" so far, shouting "post-feminism" while ignoring or refusing a proper analysis of why women are not yet equal to men in this society...
It was in 2006, before the summer. I had just gotten a computer. I was looking for some written erotic stories on the Internet, something likeable, nothing too nasty. Then I noticed that too many of the "erotic" stories on the Net were unpleasant. They were like porn. I was disappointed. One day, I was curious and surfed through the "sex forums" and online chats. I never communicated with anybody -- I was already in a relationship with someone. I only looked at what people -- especially women -- had been writing about their sexual experiences. Many women were saying that their boyfriends or husbands had been pressuring them into anal sex, as if it were nearly compulsory now in a relationship. Some women on the "sex forums" said they liked anal sex, but many other women were saying they were doing it just to please their partner. I thought: "What's going on? In the 1990's, when I started dating, you could not get a boyfriend if you didn't do oral sex, it was somehow "compulsory." Now, is it anal sex which is compulsory in a relationship with a man?" Many women in the "online sex forums" were complaining that their partners wanted them to perform fellatio but the men did not want to give them cunnilingus in return. "Selfish pricks," I thought, "they were always returning the favors back in the times I was starting dating." Many women in the sexuality forums and blogs were also complaining about feeling pressured by their partners, who wanted them to do things they did not want to or like. The sexual liberation had really gone too fucking far indeed! Had there really been a sexual liberation? For women, I mean? I had to find out what was happening...
I typed many different things in the Google box to find out why so many women were getting pressured into unwanted sex acts. Some searches included at first the words "sexual liberation" in them. I didn't find much... So, suddenly I thought about pornography. There had been a proliferation of porn on the Web in recent years. Then I included the word "pornography" along with other words (which were relevant to the answer I was trying to find) in my Google search. I found an article called A cruel edge: The painful truth about today's pornography -- and what men can do about it. It was written by somebody called Robert Jensen, a journalism professor from the University of Texas. I thought it might be worth taking a look at.
After reading that article, there was no turning back. I knew what was enforcing these "male sexual rules" on women in their private lives. I thought about all my ex-boyfriends and other men I used to know. The men who had been treating me badly, all of them had pornographic videos or magazines lying somewhere -- in their rooms, houses or at parties with their male friends, etc.; or sometimes they had mentioned to me that they had seen porn movies with their friends or on the Internet. So this stuff had an influence on them, there was no doubt. I had the answer I was looking for: the sexuality of pornography was the kind of sexuality that so many men were trying to have in their real lives, pressuring women and mistreating them to be able to "get what they wanted."
First, Robert Jensen was mentioning women from a "center that serves battered women and rape survivors" attending to a workshop on pornography. These women were answering the 24-hour hotline and working one-on-one with victims, as well as counseling women who had just been abused, Jensen was saying. I thought I should check the sexual violence statistics later on after this because rape was probably something far more common than I thought it was.
Second, Jensen wrote "It hurts to know that no matter who you are as a woman you can be reduced to a thing to be penetrated, and that men will buy movies about that, and that in many of those movies your humiliation will be the central theme. It hurts to know that so much of the pornography that men are buying fuses sexual desire with cruelty."... "Shit!" I thought. I had hoped during my whole life that men were not looking at me that way, or thinking of me in this way. It made me feel so sad, oh no!
Third, Jensen said: "People routinely assume that pornography is such a difficult and divisive issue because it’s about sex. I think that’s wrong. This culture struggles unsuccessfully with pornography because it is about men’s cruelty to women, and the pleasure men sometimes take in that cruelty. And that is much more difficult for people -- men and women -- to face." Well, "shit," I thought, all this time I had believed that pornography was about "sexual liberation that had gone too far," and "that was just the way things were supposed to be," and so when I didn't like porn, I believed there was something wrong with me. Well, clearly there were probably many women out there who hated porn, and there was nothing wrong with me: Jensen was saying that this stuff was about cruelty, and -- later in the article -- that the primary consumers of pornography were men.
When Jensen started to describe what was in mainstream porn, I thought for a minute, "I don't want to read this." But then, I kept on reading because, clearly, there was something I was starting to find out about this world, and about what pornography was really about, that I hadn't wanted to see before that. Oh, the stuff that was in the pornography which the author was depicting was terribly extreme and distressing! And it was only mainstream pornography, not some marginalized stuff! Now I knew why I wasn't watching those movies. It was not because they were "dirty." "Degrading," "demeaning," "cruel," and "violent" were the words to describe pornography.
When Jensen was talking about the porn performers, I thought: "Poor women, they must be awfully suffering! Nobody can withstand such bodily mistreatment without being depressed or breaking down psychologically or something." I had to find out more about the lives of porn performers and prostitutes after that -- information which would be outside of the "public relations image," "market image" and all the rest of the "pimp propaganda."
One of the things that was very scary in his article is that Jensen was saying that pornography needed an "edge," that "[t]he more pornography becomes normalized and mainstreamed, the more pornography has to search for that edge. And that edge most commonly is cruelty, which emotionally is the easiest place to go for men, given that the dynamic of male domination and female submission is already in place in patriarchy." -- Jensen also described how much this pornography industry was mainstream and how much it made every year in America ($10 billion, I couldn't believe my eyes when I read it). -- Well, I thought, if we don't do anything, sexual aggression or violence against women is going to become increasingly normalized. And also, as the practices get rougher and harder in those films, what's going to be in the porno films in 40 years? Well, personally, I have a pretty horrible vision which I won't tell you about because it's way too unpleasant. Now that soft-core pornography has invaded the mainstream media, what's going to be in the mainstream media in 40 years? As the society is becoming increasingly desensitized? Hardcore pornography? Imagine hardcore pornography in the pages of mainstream magazines, on the advertisements in shops and on the TV? Imagine the terrorism.
When Jensen mentioned that in porn women were "three holes and two hands," I thought: "Oh, no!” Had many of those men I had seen or met while I was walking in the streets, going to parties, dancing in the night clubs, ever thought of me as being "three holes and two hands"?" "Especially if so many of them had probably wacked off to a "Two in the seat" or a "Gang Bang Girl" type of movie on the same day or the night before?" "Oh, fuck! Please No!"
I think that what Jensen wrote about in this article A Cruel Edge was something that I already knew somehow, but that I just hadn't wanted to see or hear about, because it would have been too painful to know that truth consciously. That's why I can understand that so many women just do not want to hear about things like pornography and prostitution. When you're a woman, you wanna go out and have fun, you don't want to know about such depressing things like the fact that so many men jerk off to images of women represented as enjoying being degraded -- or the fact that some men buy prostituted women they enjoy degrading... But, come on! If you don't get to know and do something about those issues, the status of women is not going to get any better in this presently patriarchal and misogynystic society. Plus, sexual violence could happen to you too.
I was so glad when Jensen said at the end of his article: "To criticize pornography is not repressive. To speak about what one knows and feels and dreams is, in fact, liberating. We are not free if we aren’t free to talk about our desire for an egalitarian intimacy and sexuality that would reject pain and humiliation." I was very happy to read this, because during all those years I often thought there was something prudish or wrong about me not liking porn. I was also very glad to read -- for the first time -- that there was somebody (especially male) out there who was giving a serious critical analysis of this pornography stuff. They usually masturbate to it out there, without thinking earnestly of the cruelty of the material.
So then I started reading the radical feminist literature on pornography and prostitution. I really noticed one of the cruelties of this world: how much this world is much more interested in protecting the privileges of men who sell and buy women's bodies and the privileges of men who make and consume pornography than protecting women's right not to be abused or prostituted. No doubt the mainstream media plays a great part in maintaining the status quo: if all those harms were talked about on TV over the news or written about in famous newspapers, more people would know and these issues would be seriously dealt with tomorrow. But obviously, the mainstream media protects the sex industry, it didn't take me long to figure that part out. (4) It is also worth noting that most mainstream media outlets are owned by men, who are on top of big corporations.
I learned about pornography's harmful effects, how this culture told you to "shut up" and not talk about them, how radical feminists were censored from the mainstream media, that women were harmed in systems of prostitution, that most of the prostitution happened indoors and prostituted women were under the control of pimps and abusive johns, and that there was a prevalence of sexual violence done to women and children in this society -- which happened mostly in the home and not in dark alleys and the perpetrators were mostly boyfriends, husbands, fathers, etc. rather than strangers. I didn't know all that.
I read about Andrea Dworkin and her unbelievably courageous fight for women's genuine rights to equality and freedom from abuse. I was so touched by this militant feminist, her prophetic writings, and her call for the change of the whole society, for the complete overthrow of patriarchy itself. She had such a passion for and a commitment to women. She and many of her fellow writers helped me understand all the different power structures in this society. No doubt I had discovered some of them before, but through the radical feminist writings, I could better recognize them and find words to describe them.
Thanks to radical feminism, I could also try to look for a language to see things. For instance, when, in this society, you hear something like "Men are only after one thing;" after reading the radical feminist work, I want to say that this is not true; I want to find a new language in which I could say something like "Many men have been culturally trained to be only after one thing and men in general have been historically socialized to be only after one thing" instead. And after that so many people are going accuse feminists of hating men? Such a ridiculous claim.
It was very painful noticing patriarchy though, especially when you know that the male supremacist system is so real and at work and yet so invisible to most people. It is a system within which people in its culture are routinely trained to eroticize domination and subordination; they are also increasingly being desensitized to violence, their humanity is being erased, and their empathy is dying.
Last January, while I was reading the radical feminist work, a painful memory came back to me while I was reading a Catharine MacKinnon essay called The Roar on the Other Side of Silence. In it, she wrote a sentence: "The acceptable level of sexual force climbs ever higher, women's real status drops ever lower." This sentence, along with the radical feminist books I had read before that, triggered in me the painful memory of that night with my first boyfriend, when I had had to force myself to have sex in order to please him. That memory suddenly came back to my mind after I had blanked it all out for nine years. Now that I think about it: Had I been raped? Well, obviously not, not in the narrow way this society defines "rape," not in a legal definition of "rape." But, in a radical feminist definition of rape, had I been raped? Well, all I can say is that the consent was only in what I said that night -- "it's okay" -- apart from that, the consent was neither in my mind nor in my body.
Through reading the radical feminist work, I found out so many things I didn't know about this world, things which are not on the T.V., or in the newspapers. I was also very surprised to see how so cruelly many people in the world --including in the governments -- had been giving up on their own humanity. There were so many instances, but I will only quote two of them for now:
-- At the end of the book In Harm's Way: the Pornography Civil Rights Hearings, you can read in the appendix a lawsuit entitled "American Booksellers V. Hudnut." This decision overturned the Anti-Pornography Civil Rights Ordinance that would have enabled women and children who were harmed by pornography to sue for damages. In the decision, Judge Easterbrook acknowledges that "Depictions of subordination tend to perpetuate subordination" and goes on to say that indeed there will be insult, injury, battery and rape done to women due to the fact that indeed "pornography is central in creating and maintaining sex as a basis of sex discrimination." Then, this judge did a complete 180-degree turn and -- in the next paragraph -- wrote: "Yet this simply demonstrates the power of pornography as speech." This is one example of people relinquishing their humanity (for money, privileges, or other reasons). In the secret language of patriarchy, you can translate what that judge said as: "OK, we know pornography is harmful, but as long as men make a lot of money, jerk off and get pleasure from it, the women who are and will be hurt are expendable!" This made me feel so angry.
-- In Melissa Farley's book Prostitution, Trafficking, and Traumatic Stress, you can observe the way some governments on this planet make so much money from the sex industry by regarding prostitution as "sex work" while denying the harms done to the prostituted women, and separating the issue of prostitution from the issue of trafficking. Essays written by Dorchen Leidholdt and Janice J. Raymond in this book provide good insights of how the Dutch government, for example, is good at that... This made me feel so sick.
Why Radical Feminism?
Here are the reasons why I chose radical feminism:
First, I chose radical feminism because it is the only political movement that genuinely cares about women's social status. This movement's politics are progressive, not reactionary. Radical feminist politics take issues such as violence against women, pornography, and prostitution more seriously than any other politics. And also for me, these are the only politics which are accurate and seriously want a social change. If many people were becoming interested in radical feminism, we would be living in a very different society very soon, a more just one.
Accusing radical feminists of siding with the conservatives -- just because they oppose pornography -- is so absurd! Radical feminism made me understand that the Church is merely another expression of male dominance... The patriarchal Church once used to dominate the society and control women's lives, rights and sexuality -- and still dominates and controls many women's lives, rights and sexuality nowadays. Now pornography primarily dominates the society and controls women's social and private lives and their sexuality. Pornography censors women's sexuality by training men to shape it so that it fits them. Pornography is merely a continuum of patriarchy. It is now patriarchy's new face... Accusing radical feminists of siding with right-wingers is utterly ridiculous. Right-wingers want ownership of women and girls in marriage -- while many of them probably secretly use pornography and buy women in prostitution -- and Left-wingers currently seem to want ownership of women in pornography and prostitution.
I'm sorry to say this for those of you who believe in religions because you need something to hold onto (in such a depressing world), but I'm afraid that whether you defend Christianity or pornography, what you defend is patriarchy. (5) I was so glad to discover radical feminism because truthfully I don't get along with any sides of this patriarchy. On the one side, the right-wing religious men would call me a "whore" because I don't believe sex should be restricted to marriage and I had a few casual affairs in my life while I was trained by this pornified culture. And on the other side, the non-religious "libertarians" would call me a "prude" because I do not match the pornographic "fantasy" -- i.e. I don't enjoy or want degradation in sex, I'm not "dirty" enough... But look at my father for instance: he was going to the church every Sunday and he was also using pornography and had been a john. Similarly, I read that many Christian men use pornography too. Both pornography and Christianity are manifestations of patriarchy. Radical feminism rejects the patriarchal "virgin/whore" dichotomy of Christianity and pornography.
I'm so happy I found radical feminist writings within which I could get to understand better how this world works and see things more clearly. I needed to know about those writings and speeches! They had been censored from me by the mainstream media when I was a teenager in the 1990's, as radical feminists had been so unfairly kicked out from the public debate! The radical feminist work gave me a new language to express the nature and history of my oppression (of our oppression as women), as well as the way that I was feeling as a woman. Radical feminist theories were like this little voice I used to hear at the back of my mind, not quite clearly, things I had somehow known, felt, or vaguely identified about us women, coming suddenly to the front of my thoughts and consciousness... Which is to say, frankly, radical feminist theories are realities. And knowing them, acknowledging them, should stir you into taking actions against the cruelty of patriarchy. As Andrea Dworkin said in Our Blood, "[f]eminism is an exploration, one that has just begun." Feminism has already fought many battles. But there is no doubt that we still have a lot of work to do. We shouldn't lose hope however. I will fight until my last breath.
I also definitely chose radical feminism because it is better than that bullshit "third-wave feminism." For instance, Wendy McElroy, in her book XXX: A Woman's right to pornography, says: "Pornography benefits women, both personally and politically." Well, I don't know about politically. Perhaps it benefits you politically if you make a lot of money defending this industry, although you are definitely relinquishing your humanity by ignoring the harms to women and children -- and you're definitely not a feminist. What about porn "benefiting women personally" then? Did pornography fucking benefit me personally when men who were heavy porn users were mistreating me sexually and as a person? I really wish those women who say they are feminists and who defend pornography and prostitution would come clean and say that they are not feminists. Because they cannot be, no way. It's impossible to be a feminist and defend those woman-hating "sex" industries. Radical feminism is REAL feminism. The "feminism" of McElroy, Susie Bright and their comrades is reactionary and obeys patriarchy. Never does it recognize the different structures which make male violence against women possible. It capitulates to the patriarchy. I don't! I suffered enough pain in that system to refuse to surrender to it.
I now make a distinction between biologically-determined behavior and socially constructed behavior. Radical feminism helped me identify the different cultural trainings, things that pass for "education", and the different sites of oppression in this society. Radical feminist writings contain the best analyses of misogyny, racism, homophobia, rape, battery, prostitution and pornography, showing that none of these things are inevitable.
I do not believe gender is a biological reality, although "sex" and "gender" are words which get used interchangeably in this culture. At first, I was a bit afraid of that new idea when I read that in the radical feminist literature. This was all new to me and I had kind of internalized this society's narrow conceptions which are defined as "masculinity" and "femininity," and I had sort of started finding them sexy. But then, I thought, I do not believe in biological superiority and inferiority so why would I believe in "gender" for? Especially when I see all the egregious things that "masculinity," which underlies patriarchy, does all around the world. "Masculinity" is what makes patriarchy possible, and thus it is what makes poverty, war, murder, capitalism, misogyny, racism, homophobia, rape, battery, prostitution, pornography, etc. possible.
When I fully realized that this "gender" thing, with all its roles, norms, characteristics, virtues, and identities, was a socially constructed fiction, a cultural plot against women, well then I forgot all about all the make-up, stockings, miniskirts, garters, high-heeled boots and all the painful "trendy" underwear... "Fuck all that ‘femininity’ bullshit!" I said to myself. That was a first step, realizing that the notion of "gender" was merely a socially constructed fiction -- separate from sex, i.e. the difference between our sexual organs as males and females -- and had been historically institutionalized to us. I was so delighted to know that, as "gender" is central to the oppression of women!
I know that there are also cruel women and selfish women in this world, but I have noticed that when these women are cruel or unkind, they typically adopt a "masculine" behavior, which requires a repression of empathy and feelings to be strongly brutal or mean. That's another proof of how "gender" is merely a social fiction (and not a biological characteristic): it is interchangeable. I have seen some women who looked "masculine," or behaved in a "masculine" way. Conversely, I have seen some men who looked "feminine," and behaved in a "feminine" way. The latter is more rare as I have noticed that adopting the former puts you in an advantageous position in this society.
"Masculinity" or "manhood" is all about a person being or always wanting to be superior to, or "on top of" another, i.e. hierarchy. When you follow that logic you understand better the different oppressive systems: There is patriarchy, -- which is maintained by misogyny -- in which men want to be on top of women. There is white supremacy, -- which is maintained by racism -- in which white people want to be on top of people of color. And there is capitalism, -- which is maintained by the greed for money -- in which rich people want to be on top of poor people. Radical feminist literature has developed the best analyses of these oppressive systems and has a remedy for them. If only more humans read it and understood it!
I believe that male and female human beings should reject "gender", i.e. "masculinity" and "femininity," if they really want to be free and equal to each other. "Gender" has been historically institutionalized to us -- male and female humans -- to separate us from each other, communicatively, sexually, emotionally, psychologically, socially, and politically. "Gender" is at the origin of all oppressions: sexual, racial, economic, etc.
Real personal, political, social and sexual freedom will only start and discrimination will only end when "gender" stops being institutionalized and "educated" to people from childhood on, especially to the ones who are in the "superior" part of the "gender" hierarchy, i.e. male humans. Not only would women stop being oppressed, but men would at last be free to be and feel the way they truly are and would want to feel like: to feel like human beings. Men would no longer need to try to fit themselves to a "masculine" role which in the end never fulfills them. By wanting "masculinity", repressing their feelings, ignoring their capacity for empathy and oppressing others, men increasingly lose their humanity. Although they are not losing as much as women, they are not winning. By rejecting "masculinity" and opting for humanity, men would be able to be their true selves and fully connect with women. Affection, real communication and selflessnessness would be at the core of our world. Everybody would win.
As Andrea Dworkin said in "The Root Cause" in Our Blood, "Only when manhood is dead -- and it will perish when ravaged femininity no longer sustains it -- only then will we know what it is to be free."
I believe that humans should stop trying to be "men" and "women," and be instead male and female human beings.
Radical feminism is the movement that has the only truly fair politics -- at the moment. It is the only one that is genuinely looking for social and personal justice. And it is the only one that can actually set us free.
Maggie Hays is the creator of the website AgainstPornography.org. She has recently become a radical feminist. She is a student and she also helps different women's support projects, both in her own community and in neighboring ones.
(1) I since read somewhere that La Toya Jackson had been pressured into posing for pornography and beaten by her husband. (2) I am not saying that these movies, songs, etc. should be banned, -- I'm anti-censorship -- I'm am pointing out that (1) we should be more careful about the way they influence us; (2) we should look at the kind of media that underlies them and has infiltrated many of them; and (3) we should wonder if in an egalitarian society, which would be free of the misogyny and domination/subordination dynamics that this current mainstream pornographic culture has, movies, books and songs would really look and sound like that? (3) I have read so many books on pornography and its effects now that I think I would definitely know if my partner was starting using pornography. I would notice it in his behavior. Pornography has effects. (4) See "Content and Speech" section on this website againstpornography.org/contentandspeech.html (5) See Mary Daly, Beyond God the Father: Toward a Philosophy of Women's Liberation (1973), Beacon Press; for a feminist critique of this patriarchal religion that is Christianity. Available at Amazon See also http://scriptorium.lib.duke.edu/wlm/after/
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