The Prudes’ Progress: Re-membering Feminist Desire, Part V – Resisting Objectification, Be-coming Subjects (2/2)

This is the fifth part in an eight-part series of articles, The Prudes’ Progress, about non-objectifying, woman-identified sexuality based on ideas of equality and whole-personhood, in the tradition of lesbian feminism. This article continues following the counter-Movements to objectification as part of the process of Subjectification within the Prudes’ Progress.

If that’s too many capitalised words in a row, you might want to start at the beginning of this series of articles as this series has established some of its of terminology along the way. That said, the articles don’t have to be read in order and contain many backwards and forwards links so you can follow them in whatever way is most useful for you, although forward links won’t work until the relevant article is available.

The Fourth Progression: Subjectification (continued…)

  1. Ownership becomes freedom: A pretty obvious one, this. Objects are owned; people are meant to be free. Nonetheless, many aren’t. I’m going to give a few examples here, but I want to be clear that I’m not suggesting any equivalence or even any relationship between them. I’m fortunate not to be owned in any sense, and it’s not my place to link or draw connections between struggles which aren’t mine. There is no one “spectrum” of human ownership on which these examples exist.

    With those disclaimers: some women and children are owned and sexually exploited. Some people are owned and exploited for labour, in systems of slavery, trafficking and the effective ownership conditions of sweatshop work. Some people are intensely controlled and/or owned by those who internally or international traffick in women, girls and some boys. Some children are considered owned by their parents until a certain age or until their parents “give them away”. Some wives are considered owned by their husbands; this may be directly in law, indirectly through the legal inadmissibility of acts like marital rape, or tacitly in custom and/or through the effective inadmissibility of acts like marital rape even in places where it is now supposedly illegal. The letter of the law may be one of women’s freedom but the spirit, revealed in the exercise of law, is still of men’s ownership of women.

    A feminist desire can’t consider the way in which a person is owned to be any part of what makes her sexually desirable, and understands that consentfulness is impossible over a relationship of ownership. It’s not that a person who cultivates feminist desire must see the owned as “unsexy”, it’s that feminist desire is a kind of desire which is annihilated by ownership itself. Feminist desire can never be “owed”, because it can’t be given or taken.

    This also means it can’t be bought, which brings us back to instrumentality (for which one counter-Movement was Self-sufficiency and mutual aid) and fungibility (for which one counter-Movement was antipornography). It’s not accurate to even speak of feminist desire as something needing “satisfaction”, because as a resonance that exists between people, feminist desire is its own completion. The use of women as tools to satisfy desire, including the use of images of women (who may themselves have been used as tools in the images’ creation), can only satisfy instrumental sexuality.

    Freedom must also be freedom from the acts which signify ownership of women in a patriarchy. It’s the right to refuse marriage. It’s the right to not be defined by words of ownership. I’ve found it very useful to stop using phrases like, “my partner”, and to refuse to be referred to by them. It makes certain thoughts more difficult to think, jars the mind out familiar grooves of ownership-thinking and forces it to find new ways of conceptualising relationships.

    It’s also freedom to refuse intercourse. I’m hesitant about including this point, because I don’t participate in intercourse, so it doesn’t have possessive meanings for me. But in part that’s a privilege, to refuse to participate, and one I’m glad to have. This is one of those issues which usually resonates more strongly in a context of sex between women and men, but intercourse is not firmly linked to sexed bodies, sexed bodies may vary even under the labels of “women” and “men”, and intercourse may also be symbolised by the use of objects in sex. It can be an issue of sex between women, and as an act taking place in a patriarchal culture it can take on meaning from the cultural significance of the prototypical act of intercourse between women and men, as described by Dworkin:

    The normal fuck by a normal man is taken to be an act of invasion and ownership undertaken in a mode of predation: colonializing, forceful (manly) or nearly violent; the sexual act that by its nature makes her his. God made it so, or nature did, according to the faith of the explainer of events and values. Both conceptual systems – the theological and the biological – are loyal to the creed of male dominance and maintain that intercourse is the elemental (not socialized) expression of male and female, which in turn are the elemental (not socialized) essences of men and women…

    … In the fuck, the man expresses the geography of his dominance: her sex, her insides are part of his domain as a male. He can possess her as an individual – be her lord and master – and thus be expressing a private right of ownership (the private right issuing from his gender); or he can possess her by fucking her impersonally and thus be expressing a collective right of ownership without masquerade or manners. Most women are not distinct, private individuals to most men; and so the fuck tends toward the class assertion of dominance…

    … Therefore, women feel the fuck – when it works, when it overwhelms – as possession; and feel possession as deeply erotic; and value annihilation of the self in sex as proof of the man’s desire or love, its awesome intensity. And therefore, being possessed is phenomenologically real for women; and sex itself is an experience of diminishing self-possession, an erosion of self. That loss of self is a physical reality, not just a psychic vampirism; and as a physical reality it is chilling and extreme, a literal erosion of the body’s integrity and its ability to function and to survive.

    Andrea Dworkin, Intercourse (Arrow Books, 1988), summarised across pages 73-78

    I’d like to say a few things about Dworkin’s analysis. The first is it isn’t very nice. Patriarchy doesn’t think nice things about women, and Dworkin is talking about what intercourse means in the (cissexist) patriarchial value system. The second is that many women have fought very hard to disassociate their intercourse from that value system. This doesn’t mean that, within patriarchal logic, intercourse doesn’t still symbolise the ownership of women. And whatever values women associate with intercourse, this doesn’t mean that men will share their values. Even apparently pro-feminist men may have associations of ownership with intercourse. Third, women should have the (non-compulsory) right to refuse intercourse, even in a relationship, even all the time. And fourth, while intercourse symbolises ownership of women in a patriarchy, Progressing Prudes will want to disrupt the erotic charge which flows from those meanings of ownership to the act itself.

  2. Denial of subjectivity becomes sexual subjectivity: Subjectivity means being a subject and seeing other women as subjects, treating us as subjects and allowing us to be subjects. ‘Subject’ here can mean the same as ‘Self’, an independently motivated human being capable of movement.

    Instrumental sexuality is a subject-object relationship and should be impossible between two subjects. Sadly, this isn’t always the case, and when two subjects fight “desire wars” so that they’re struggling within a conflict model (meaning, “if you get what you want, I don’t get what I want”, and vice versa) they are going through a power struggle, and that can nourish instrumental sexuality – the sexuality which eats power and winning/losing – just fine. So subjectivity, like all the items on this list, isn’t in itself enough for feminist desire.

    Sex-positive feminists have done some good work on sexual subjectivity. Sexual subjectivity is about realising that we get to have our own desires, and that the existence of others’ desires doesn’t automatically make ours disappear. Perhaps some readers will have the experience of being in a conversation where both parties are upset, and where the emotions of the first one to cry displace the other’s, who snaps into the role of “comforter”, no longer an equally upset companion/subject. Similarly women with our (sometimes violent) socialisation to meet others’ sexual needs can find ourselves as the “sex comforters”, in which others’ sexual desires displace our own.

    Sexual subjectivity is different from entitlement, which says that we get to have those desires met. And it’s different from individualist liberalism, which says that because they are our desires, they’re automatically right. We don’t get to have automatically right desires – we just get to have desires. After all this whole Progress depends on the idea that we can identify our own desires and those of others as problematic and imagine something different.

    When women reveal sexual subjectivity, we’re often attacked, unless it just happens to key in perfectly to our function under instrumental sexuality. Even then, there’s a duty on women not to seem to want it too much, at risk of slut-shaming. Slut-shaming could be the barrier to this counter-Movement but there has been a lot of focus recently on the word “slut”, and instead I want to highlight some more marginal women’s words, in particular writing by Black and transsexual women.

    The Crunk Feminist Collective recently published two articles, Asking for Sex: What Do You Do When the Guy Says No? and its follow-up, Asking for Sex: Revisited. In the first article, crunktastic writes:

    Of late, I’ve had more than a few homegirls tell me about the negative reactions that they have gotten from men they were casually involved with, when they tried to prioritize sex in the interaction. Apparently, even when these brothers weren’t all that interested in a relationship, they took it as a serious blow to the ego, to find out that sisters just wanted to engage them for their bodies and sexual talents.

    And in the follow-up:

    Black female desire is not (inherently) predatory. But casting our desire as predatory and threatening allows others to police us into silence. Then it becomes easy to blame Black women not only for having needs in the first place but also for the failure to have them met…

    … The question of whether partnership is a right and if so what kind of right is interesting theoretically. It is perhaps more telling that the people who get asked to justify their sexual and romantic desires are lacking in some sort of obvious privileges (race, gender, sex, age, ability).

    (I’d rather not send white readers to those articles with more derailing/privileged comments – there have been a lot already – so if you’re white, please consider the sentence “70% of Black women with advanced degrees are single” in depth before commenting, and consider not commenting at all.)

    Continuing to look at subjectivity, in How Queer Women Made Me Hate My Body: Part 2, Monica Maldonado coins the term “eunuch/rapist dichotomy” to describe the situation of many woman-loving trans* women in queer communities:

    … the fact that queer trans women were sexual beings, and not the non-threatening subservient eunuchs the system had instructed us to be, this changed the tone as to which trans women in these contexts were tolerantly received. Queer trans women were [treated as] violent, sexually aggressive, rapists, predators, deviants, and perverts. And thus crossed the bridge from eunuch to rapist in the false choice imposed on all trans women.

    So if we collectively act on sexual subjectivity, we shouldn’t just look to secure our own, but we should look to the subjectivity of people who, in crunktastic’s words, “are lacking in some sort of obvious privileges”, beyond/compounded with the (albeit significant) disprivilege of being a woman in a patriarchy. This helps prevent purity politics from taking hold and builds safer, more welcoming spaces.

  3. Reduction to body becomes exorcising “beauty”: In Gyn/Ecology Mary Daly talks about “beauty” work (except, I don’t think it has anything to do with beauty, so I’m going to call it “female conformity work” for the rest of this piece) as a kind of possession. She calls it pre-possession, drawing a line between the way in which female conformity work keeps us busy and binds us to our bodies, and the way in which it can capture us before we’ve known any other way to live. Daly describes a woman who:

    … obsessively examines herself in a mirror, seeing herself as a parcel of protuberances. She is looking through male lenses. Filled with inspired fixations, she checks to see if hair, eyebrows, lashes, lips, skin, breasts, buttocks, stomach, hips, legs, feet are ‘satisfactory’.

    Mary Daly, Gyn/Ecology: The Metaethics of Radical Feminism (The Women’s Press, 1979), p233

    In front of the mirror the female conformity work reduces us to our bodies by demanding that we fixate on the distance between our actual form and a network of pornotypical expectations. The mirror can also be other women’s eyes, and we can act as the mirror for them; when women complement each other on “beauty”, what are we really complimenting? Women’s Selves, expressed? Or female conformity work that’s up to or exceeding (male-defined) standards?

    Other female conformity work reduces/confines us to our bodies in different ways. Many styles of women’s clothing confine the body itself, either by restricting its range of movement or by limiting the possible activities, either directly or through social standards attached to the clothes (want to wear something “nice”? better never, ever get food or dirt on it, or the rules say you’re shameful). Makeup somehow both reduces us to and distances us from our bodies; unable sometimes to even touch our own faces, asked if we are “well” if we appear without it, our bodies defining us without even being our own. Men, on the other hand, can just (to quote Mitchell and Webb), “shave and get drunk, because [they’re] already awesome“.

    As a transsexual woman I’m very aware of having moved between this double standard of expectations – more than expectations, really: enforcement – and while I’ve felt physical dysphoria decreasing, I’ve certainly also felt the way in which the various kinds of female conformity work expected of me (arguably more than that expected of cissexual women, and certainly with more serious punishment for non-conformity, but very clearly closely related) constantly “key” me back to my body.

    Rejecting female conformity work is difficult, however, because while doing the work is often a private, even a secretive process (patriarchy likes to women to pretend that conformity work is no work at all, as long as it can rest secure in the knowledge that women are working, really), rejecting it can be a very public experience, as passers-by, co-workers, family members and even partners seemingly like to remind us of our non-conformance at every opportunity. And, of course, prepossession is prepossession, and the “beauty” standards that have set up shop inside our souls also like to chip in.

    One especially sophisticated aspect of the design of women’s situation is a kind of doubleness around many pleasurable parts of life (perhaps similar to that described by Joanna Russ in Pornography and the doubleness of sex for women). In a constrained existence, women have built life-affirming experiences within and around aspects of our oppression because there’s simply nowhere else to put them. In some cases they can be the basis of shared community and even sources of some kinds of power:

    Beauty parlours long have been a stronghold for the dissemination of facts about men and about women’s involvements with men… Comments about mistreatment from men, the sweetness of men, two-timing men and faithful women are topics that typically elicit animated conversations.

    Gloria I. Joseph and Jill Lewis, Common Differences: Conflicts in Black and White Feminist Perspectives (South End Press, 1986), p182

    It’s difficult to banish the whole set of female conformity jobs all at once. Some of them are double and also nurture us, all of them tell us we need all of them to survive, and some of them may be telling the truth, in that we can’t all afford to be punished for not doing all of them all at once. But for many women, the space between the amount of female conformity work we’re doing and the amount we need to do to survive leaves some room for exorcising it bit by bit. What’s really beautiful is that although the social punishment can escalate, so does the amount of energy we gain from being less bound to our bodies, and in my experience and that of the women I’ve spoken to, that energy often makes up for it and more besides, and may free up capacity to take up more Self-nurturing activity elsewhere.

    Here I don’t want to say that there’s no point in trying to make the best of difficult realities, that doing so can’t sometimes feel good or that areas of female conformity work don’t overlap with areas of strength and solidarity. And not everywoman will be able to or want to abandon those areas. Just that it’s important to a) acknowledge the way in which participation in female conformity work can bind us to our bodies in a Self-limiting way and b) understand how being over-bound to our bodies might create barriers or difficulties for our Progress to radical Subjecthood (which is important for feminist desire).

    Twisty’s also written about this at I Blame The Patriarchy in a way which I continue to find challenging and useful:

    I merely urge women to engage in the intellectual exercise of examining femininity: how much of the gottadoo (Savage Death Islandish for femininity performed under the heading “I gotta do what I gotta do to survive.”) is really gotta, and how much is actually wanna. The femininity-bagging suggestion is not… that women endanger the lives of their sick children by appearing so unfeminine that their boss fires them and they lose their health insurance. The suggestion is that women pause in their daily sashay through Mansworld to evaluate their feminine personae. You know, really give it the old analytical eye. Which appeasements really are literally necessary for literal survival, and which are maybe just gratuitous expressions of internalized misogyny? The idea is to ditch as much of it as is possible without getting anyone killed. That this might trespass a bit on your personal comfort is sort of the point.

    (This quote and the post from which it’s taken are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Noncommercial Share Alike 3.0 Unported License)

    The counter-Movement of exorcising “beauty” is one of the most spoken-about subjects in feminism, which I think reflects quite how close it is to our skin. It’s also often raised in an attempt to divide us, to get us to judge other women. So I want to end this section with a selection of quotes from an essay which wraps up all the issues discussed here, speaking clearly of the doubleness of female conformity work but also including a call for solidarity and political awareness – bell hooks’ Straightening Our Hair:

    The beauty parlor was a space of consciousness raising, a space where black women shared life stories – hardship, trials, gossip; a place where one could be comforted and one’s spirit renewed. It was for some women a place of rest where one did not need to meet the demands of children or men. It was the one hour some folk would spend “off their feet,” a soothing, restful time of meditation and silence. These positive empowering implications of the ritual of hair pressing mediate, but do not change negative implications. They exist alongside all that is negative.

    In keeping with the move to suppress black consciousness and efforts to be self-defining, white corporations began to acknowledge black people and most especially black women as potential consumers of products they could provide, including hair-care products… Stripped of the positive binding rituals that traditionally surrounded the experience, black women straightening our hair seemed more and more to be exclusively a signifier of white supremacist oppression and exploitation.

    Individual preferences (whether rooted in self-hate or not) cannot negate the reality that our collective obsession with straightening black hair reflects the psychology of oppression and the impact of racist colonization… We cannot resist this socialization if we deny that white supremacy informs our efforts to construct self and identity.

    … In a culture of domination, one that is essentially anti-intimacy, we must struggle daily to remain in touch with ourselves and our bodies, with one another. Especially black women and men, as it is our bodies that have been so often devalued, burdened, wounded in alienated labor. Celebrating our bodies, we participate in a liberatory struggle that frees mind and heart.

  4. Reduction to appearance becomes body acceptance: “Prettiness is not a rent you pay for occupying a space marked ‘female’,” says Erin in her much-quoted article, You Don’t Have to Be Pretty. For me, body acceptance is a movement which generalises this to say that having one of a number of certain “approved” bodies is not a rent we should have to pay for occupying a space marked ‘human’, and that those of us who don’t have one of those bodies shouldn’t be evicted. Body acceptance says that all bodies are “acceptable”.

    It might seem strange to some readers that against reduction to body I’ve talked about “beauty” and that against reduction to appearance I’m advocating body acceptance. What I’m trying to say is that the ways in which patriarchy comments on women’s “beauty” works to restrict us to our bodies in a negative way when we shouldn’t have to be just focused on our bodies (or focused on them at all, unless we want to be!).

    But the messages that our bodies have to be and look a certain way creates categories of bodies that are “wrong”, and body acceptance is a movement to say that no bodies are wrong, which aims to enable us to occupy our bodies more positively. If the ways I’ve linked the issues don’t work for you, please feel free to reverse them! I think they’re both important and probably need to work together to combat the linked issues of reduction to body/appearance.

    Body acceptance is difficult. If it was just a personal battle against internalised Self-hatred that would be tough enough, but external body hatred is relentless. The two are part of the same cycle; external hatred can create Self-hatred, and Self-hatred can then be expressed externally as hatred of one’s own and others’ Selves. To break or dampen one part of this cycle, it’s useful to do what we can to reduce our exposure to body hatred. This may mean:

    • Consuming less popular media

    • Watching less advertisements (for those who spend a lot of time online, advertisement blocking tools are invaluable)

    • Where you can, reducing the amount of time you spend with people who talk body hatred

    • Letting people know that you don’t want them to talk body hatred around you

    • Being critical of the ways you say body-hating things to yourself (would you say it to a friend? if not, it’s not OK to say to you)

    • Spending time around people with similar bodies who have a similar commitment to being body positive

    • Finding ways of being physical with your body which feel good

    • Practising Health At Every Size (HAES): here’s a link to the HAES website, and the excellent book of the same name

    • Acknowledging that fat people are frequently healthy and unhealthy people are frequently thin

    • Learning more about natural variation in bodies – in a porn culture it can be difficult to look at bodies without the kind of gaze which dismembers and objectifies, so Perceptive Prudes must cultivate their wimminsight. For examples of body parts where variation is extremely under-represented in the pornotypes, here are some non-pornographically-intentioned galleries of the natural variation in human breasts and vulvas (links obviously NSFW)

    Obviously these are very individual steps which don’t do a lot to change society as a whole. Sometimes Self-love is inaccessible. So there’s also activism. Some of the hardest-fought activism I’ve ever done (elsewhere) has been body acceptance, more specifically fat acceptance activism (disclaimer: BMIbullshit though it is – would probably say I’m “overweight”, but I’m fortunate not to be a recipient of much fat-hatred in everyday life, so my role is more that of an ally in fat acceptance movements). Something about the idea that bodies (often but not exclusively women’s bodies) are not publicly owned – more, that the owners of those bodies can be unapologetically fat – really seems to get the trolls going. So the body acceptance movement (and especially the fat positivity movement) could definitely use your help!

  5. Silencing becomes decentering privileged voices: As someone who is lucky to be able to spend most of her time with only other women, it’s very striking to me when in mixed-sex spaces quite how much women’s voices are pushed to the margins. I’ve written briefly before on the subject of how pro-feminist men could act in discussions to fight this, but there are very few pro-feminist men prepared to do that work compared to the number of misogynists (whether or not they claim “feminism”) who are against it.

    Where white cissexual women’s voices may be taken away by socialisation, transsexual women may be threatened with Self-annihilation if we speak, to be treated upon opening our mouths as not a real human being, a freak. To be clear, many transsexual women feel the need to change our own voices to alleviate sex dysphoria. But there are also social expectations of transsexual women to speak with “female” (really: “cissexual feminine”) voices, and these expectations can silence us beyond the effects of dysphoria.

    And I’ve read Black women writing about both the way that the stereotype of the vocal Black woman silences less vocal Black women (since “all Black women are vocal”, if a Black woman isn’t speaking, white people claim she must simply not want to speak, not that she’s being silenced) and how, even if they do speak, if their words are undesirable to white listeners, they’re dismissed as “angry” or “hostile”, as bell hooks describes:

    During a heated discussion with another white female student in a racially mixed women’s group I had organized, I was told that she had heard how I had “wiped out” people in the feminist theory class, that she was afraid of being “wiped out” too. I reminded her that I was one person speaking to a large group of angry, aggressive people; I was hardly dominating the situation. It was I who left the class in tears, not any of the people I had supposedly “wiped out.”

    Racist stereotypes of the strong, superhuman black woman are operative myths in the minds of many white women, allowing them to ignore the extent to which black women are likely to be victimised in this society and the role white women may play in the maintenance and perpetuation of that victimization.

    bell hooks, Feminist Theory: from margin to center (South End Press, 1984), p13

    When I’m in mixed-sex spaces, they are usually overwhelmingly white and mainly middle-class, and a process I see there is one where middle-class white men seize the ground of the “objective” point of view, which naturally positions everyone else as “subjective”. Since this is a section about “objectification” vs. “subjectification”, those two terms need some explaining! The “objective point of view” is a way of relating to the world which assumes that the “objective” person is neutral and has full information. Since people are complicated, and can’t be fully understood, this means that everyone apart from the “subjective” person must in fact be objects which he can understand and predict.

    I can most easily talk about how this is done by men to women, but I don’t mean that it’s only done by men to women. From men to women, though, to simplify one main argument made by Catharine MacKinnon in Toward a Feminist Theory of the State: Because men believe they are objective, but also believe lies about women, they need women to conform to the lies in order to preserve their own believed objectivity. As people with power, men are able to arrange reality in this way. And so processes of objectification are what’s necessary to close the circle between men’s belief in their objectivity and men’s incorrect views of the essential nature of women – views that a truly “objective” person wouldn’t hold. Men’s objectivity is the “objectivity” of a boss who believes he knows how the world works and who bullies the other people under his command into acting along with his reality.

    The stance of the “knower”… is the male standpoint socially…. the relationship between objectivity as the stance from which the world is known and the world that is apprehended in this way is the relationship of objectification. Objectivity is the epistemological stance of which objectification is the social process, of which male dominance is the politics, the acted-out social practice. That is, to look at the world objectively is to objectify it. The act of control, of which what I have described is the epistemological level, is itself eroticized under male supremacy. To say women are sex objects is in this way redundant. Sexualized objectification is what defines women as sexual and as women under male supremacy”.

    Catharine MacKinnon, Feminism Unmodified: Discourses on Life and Law (Harvard University Press, 1987), p50 (MacKinnon’s argument is also discussed further here by Evangelia Papadaki, Papadaki also links to some criticisms which I won’t engage here).

    Women (and some others identifying with non-male genders), on the other hand, are positioned as having a “subjective point of view”, which is a very generous treatment of us as subjects for a change, entitled to our own understandings and emotions. But they’re only our own, and men who consider themselves objective – plugged into the pure truth stream of the universe – look at those individual understandings, rooted in emotion, experience and shared wisdom, as something inferior.

    They couldn’t be more wrong. Men who believe in their own objectivity are just under an illusion caused by not being aware (sometimes wilfully so) of the ways in which they’re subjective. Male privilege is a good example of a way in which most men live in at least one false world which insulates them from reality, making it impossible for them to be objective. One insulating layer, of course, is typically made up of women – serving as an tool yet again. Women, existing without male privilege, are more in touch with the reality of unprivileged gender than men, whereas men must listen to women’s voices to get a fuller picture. This is an example of bell hooks’ ideas of “margin” and “centre”:

    Living as we did – on the edge – we developed a particular way of seeing reality. We looked both from the outside in and from the inside out. We focused our attention on the center as well as the margin. We understood both. This mode of seeing reminded us of the existence of a whole universe, a main body made up of both margin and center… This sense of wholeness, impressed upon our consciousness by the structure of our daily lives, provided us an oppositional world view – a mode of seeing unknown to most of our oppressors…

    bell hooks, Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center (South End Press, 1984), preface

    The answer isn’t for women to claim objectivity. There is no “women’s voice” to position as the objective voice, because “women” don’t have one voice. Some women are white, and we can use our white privilege to marginalise women of colour. Middle-class women and academic women can silence women without academic and class privileges. Seizing “objectivity” is a power play, only available to the powerful, and it naturally crowds others out because there is no one objective voice. Of course, it’s also no good to say that all voices are valid, that any viewpoint is right as long as one person holds it. That leads to a tyranny of the majority and again it puts power into the hands of those who are most able to get their “equally valid” views heard and acted upon.

    Fortunately, decentering privileged voices doesn’t have to mean setting up a new “centre” or abandoning all possibility of finding truth. Patrica Hill Collins suggests that Black feminist thought may have an answer to this problem in Black Feminist Thought in the Matrix of Domination (the link is to the first edition of the text, but I’ve quoted below from the second edition to reflect the author’s preferred language):

    The existence of Black feminist thought suggests another path to the universal truths that might accompany the “truthful identity of what is.” … This approach to Black feminist thought allows African-American women to explore the epistemological implications of transversal politics… Eventually this approach may get us to a point at which, claims Elsa Barkley Brown, “all people can learn to center in another experience, validate it, and judge it by its own standards without need of comparison or need to adopt that framework as their own”. In such politics, “one has no need to ‘decenter’ anyone in order to center someone else; one has only to constantly, appropriately, ‘pivot the center'”…

    Those ideas that are validated as true by African-American women, African-American men, Latina lesbians, Asian-American women, Puerto Rican men, and other groups with distinctive standpoints, with each group using the epistemological approaches growing from its unique standpoint, become the most “objective” truths. Each group speaks from its own standpoint and shares its own partial, situated knowledge. But because each group perceives its own truth as partial, its knowledge is unfinished. Each group becomes better able to consider other groups’ standpoints without relinquishing the uniqueness of its own standpoint or suppressing other groups’ partial perspectives.

    Patricia Hill Collins, Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment (Routledge, second edition, 2000), p269-270

These last two parts were both devoted to Subjectification, the most detailed Progression. The next part moves on to look at the next two Progressions, which cover the subjects of breaking free from the love of dominance and undoing fetishes.

4 thoughts on “The Prudes’ Progress: Re-membering Feminist Desire, Part V – Resisting Objectification, Be-coming Subjects (2/2)

  1. Wonderful article, thank you!

    I’ve had a feeling for quite a while now (ever since reading Fat is a Feminist Issue) that the increased intensity of size-based oppression and the shrinking “ideal size”, as well as the relatively recent emergence of a particular type of mainstream pornotype, has been a response of the patriarchy to women gradually gaining more and more autonomy. A frightened patriarchy reshapes itself and uses whatever weapons are available to it to keep women subjugated, and I think this comparatively new and intense focus on shrinking and infantilisation (as represented by extreme dieting and hair removal) is a literal attempt on many levels to keep us in our place and prevent us from reaching a state of womanhood (in the Alice Walker sense of acting “womanish”). So one of the things that makes me really happy in terms of owning my body as it is (‘owning’ in the sense of acceptance, pride, direct inhabiting), is this image of a patriarchy mould for ‘female’ that’s far too small, far too narrow, and seeing that mould crumble around me as I stretch and move. The mould, strong as it used to be, crumbles to dust and is scattered by the wind, as I breathe in the fresh air and see the sky.

  2. Btw, I also really strongly approve of the manner in which you declared yourself a fat acceptance ally. I remember feeling stung by a friend who I think of as an ally saying they weren’t sure if a fat acceptance event was for them because they’re not fat (which I think might have been meant as “I don’t want to compromise a safer space”, but which definitely came across to me as “Eugh, I mean, I’m not one of those people”), so I was really happy with the way in which you declared yourself as an ally while not doing it in an othering/”those people” kind of way. Anyway, in my head, fat acceptance is for everyone. I have extremely skinny friends who have nightmares – actual nightmares – about gaining weight. I’ve also seen how the fat/not-fat line shifts around to oppress women wherever is ‘needed’ – in particular, the way it’s been applied to a lot of female Olympic athletes was interesting.

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  4. @Hannah: I thought you might like to know that your thoughts about links between the patriarchy’s use of size-based oppression and the rise of feminism were echoed in an article I read recently; here’s a quote and a couple of citations in case they’re useful:

    Some feminist theorists have forwarded the notion that the (male) desire for women to become smaller coincides, time-wise, with the beginnings of the second wave of the feminist movement. As consciousness-raising groups sprang up all around the country, designed to encourage women to actually find their voices and take up more space, so too did Weight-Watchers flourish, designed to get women to take up less space. The point is that every culture has standards of female beauty, the standards are made up by men, and women are encouraged to strive for them. but the standards are designed to serve men, and the patriarchal society, in some way.

    Sheilagh A. Mogford, The Murder of the Goddess in Everywoman: Mary Daly’s Sado-Ritual Syndrome and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, in Feminist Interpretations of Mary Daly, ed. Sarah Lucia Hoagland and Marilyn Frye (The Pennsylvania University Press, 2000), p147

    Within the quote above Mogford footnotes Kim Chernin, The Tyranny of Slenderness in Race, Class, and Gender in the United States: An Integrated Study, 3rd edition, ed. Paula Rothenberg (St. Martin’s Press, 1995) pp. 238-45, which I’m guessing is an excerpt from Kim Chernin, The obsession: Reflections on the tyranny of slenderness (Harper Perennial, 1994).

    (I haven’t read anything by Kim Chernin, so no guarantees…)

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