Radfem Reboot Day Three: Reclaiming Women’s Space and Sexuality
August 23, 2012 9 Comments
Sunday’s presentations didn’t begin until 2 pm, so I had a chance to spend some more time regrouping and hanging out in Portland. It is such a fun city! I had been told that it was a rainy place, but so far it was nothing but clear skies and cool weather. I had some delicious Thai food for lunch, and enjoyed a leisurely approach to the venue.
Cathy Brennan’s discussion was entitled Organizing for Lesbian Reality : Legal and Political Responses to Conflicts Between Lesbian and Transgender Communities. Her talk is reprinted in full here so I won’t summarize it, but I did want to emphasize several important points she brought up.
She mentioned the International Bill of Gender Rights which states, among other things:
“no individual shall be denied access to a space or denied participation in an activity by virtue of a self-defined gender identity which is not in accord with chromosomal sex, genitalia, assigned birth sex, or initial gender role.”
In other words, the authors of this bill have an agenda to eliminate sex-segregated space. That is, female/women only space would no longer be allowed, if they have their way. Although I was aware that this was a goal of trans activists, hearing it lain out in a declaration from the early 90s was another thing. Amazingly, trans activists have been very successful in breaking down woman only space since the declaration was written. Even this summer, as many of you know, Conway Hall in London bowed to pressure and booted the RadFem 2012 conference because it was supposed to be a specifically woman-only event.
Another worrying point that Cathy brought up was the definition of gender identity legislation that has been enacted in many states. Many legal definitions of “gender identity” are similar to this definition used in Washington, DC:
“Gender identity” means a gender-related identity, appearance, expression, or behavior of an individual, regardless of the individual’s assigned sex at birth.
Definitions such as this one “suggest or codify into law that there are ways of expressing one’s self (or behaviors or appearances) “consistent or congruent with biological sex”” [quote from here]. Radical feminists know that this is a problem, since we want to abolish gender. As Lierre Keith said earlier, gender is a hierarchy and harms females. These types of legislation suggest that if women do not identify, appear, or express themselves in a way that is in line with their assigned sex at birth, they are trans. Obviously, radical feminists seek to destroy gender constraints, and hope for a world in which there is no such gendered behavior typically associated with our assigned sexes at birth. These types of legislation suggest that there are gender presentations that are appropriate for female persons, and others appropriate for males. This presents a risk to females, as such definitions codify the notion of stereotypes based on sex into law.
Cathy Brennan’s presentation was dynamic, and gave me a lot to think about. It was also lovely to meet her.
Finally, we saw an awesome presentation from Maggie entitled How Patriarchy has Hijacked Women’s Sexuality on Every Level, and What We Can Do to Fight Back. Maggie spoke about the male-centric vision of sexuality that we are sold through PIV sex, sadomasochism, and the use of dildos in lesbian encounters.
This male-centric sex uses media to spread its propaganda– media such as “women’s magazines” like Cosmo, Seventeen, and even lesbian publications such as autostraddle.com and Diva magazine in the UK. Even though these magazines are for both lesbian and heterosexual women, both frame women’s sexuality in terms of “f*cking”—which is a very male-centric view.
Another example of male-centric sexuality in lesbian media is through the television shows The ‘L’ Word and Lip Service in the UK. In these shows, beauty- and gender-compliant women are shown using dildos and engaging in BDSM—both practices which mirror dominance/submission paradigms of male-centric sex.
As Maggie eloquently put it, our entire societal order is based on the hierarchy of dominance and submission. There is nothing egalitarian about our society. In this context, sadomasochistic sexual practices make sense. If all we know is dominance and submission, how can we organically envision a mutually respectful egalitarian sexuality? For this reason, BDSM practices can never be separated from male domination—even when practiced in an all women environment. As Maggie said,
“We’re programmed to get off on our own oppression, and orgasms don’t make it right.”
But, some (non-radical feminists, of course) might object at this point by saying, “what about women who consent to these practices? If they consent, how can we criticize?” Maggie reminds us to not pay attention so much to the act of consent, as to the practice that is being consented to. If we are consenting to torture, perhaps the horrifying nature of the act is what is important, rather than whether or not consent has been offered. As Susan Hawthorne commented at this point in the presentation, those who ask for consent are typically the ones who have power— and those who give consent are the ones who do not. I found that statement to be quite true, as well as revelatory.
So what is the solution to this male-centric sexuality?
We must decolonize our bodies and psyches from sadomasochistic culture. We must do this without shaming women who are currently engaged in these sexual practices. Instead, we must work towards a positive view of egalitarian, female-based sexuality.
I was really inspired by Maggie’s presentation to continue the process of de-colonizing my own mind and body from our sado-society’s anti-female practices. Not only that, but Maggie was such an awesome person to meet!
I left the weekend with feelings of inspiration, fellowship, and genuine love for the women I had been spending time with. I realized that I want to do more towards the goals of liberating women, and I found myself developing the strategic and visionary tools necessary to start that process. I also wanted to find more radical feminists in my own area to organize with—or if not to find them, then to help radicalize feminists I already know!
I was so, so very privileged to have participated in the Radfem Reboot in Portland, OR. I want to thank the organizers, the members of Sisters Underground, the presenters, and finally the women who were able to prioritize this moment and were able to make it. Truly—this is only the beginning of something wonderful.