Radical feminism, by definition, seeks to dis-cover and examine the root of women’s global oppression by men, and the sources of male power. In our work, we have discovered that there are several key themes that appear over and over, and which transcend time and place — this is evidence that women’s oppression by men is class-based, that is, that women as a sexual class, around the world, share the experience of being oppressed by men because we are women.
In this series, republished in part from Radfem-ological Images, we present 17 themes for discussion and analysis. Like all radical feminists previously and presently, we do this because it is the truth, and radical feminists accept the truth no matter what it is, especially the truths about women’s lives and what men do to us.
In Part Four, the final part of this series, we present the following themes: Pornify girl children/infantilize adult women; Primacy of the nuclear family; Reversal; Support patriarchal institutions (medicine/religion/law); Woman as “useful object”. Part One is here. Part Two is here. Part Three is here.
Pornify girl children/infantilize adult women
Under patriarchy, very young girls are sexualized and mature women are made to resemble sexualized girls. No girl is too young to be penetrated by men; older women who are both sexually experienced and of full mental and legal capacity to consent to intercourse are relatively unappealing, and can be made more appealing if their apparent life-experience and capacity to consent are removed by making them look like children. Both presentations are evocative of the rape of female children by boys and men.
Pornifying girl children/infantilizing adult women — and raping very young girls — supports male power. Raping girl children is a powerful grooming technique, whereby men condition young, inexperienced girls to accept penis-centered sex and penetration under all circumstances and regardless of context, and to expect physical pain from it, before they are old or experienced enough to know what is “sexual” (ie. sexually pleasurable) for them. And raped girl-children are known to grow up to be “promiscuous” adults, often running away from home only to be recruited into human trafficking and rape-slavery, and often working in prostitution and porn. A permanent class of previously abused women for whom sexual abuse and pain, including painful intercourse, has been normalized and is expected, benefits men, who can “purchase” economically coerced women on whom to practice abusive sex, and who benefit from women’s “promiscuous” unpaid male-centric sexuality.
Primacy of the nuclear family
Under patriarchy, the nuclear family is privileged and prioritized over all other familial or living arrangements. Marriage and children are portrayed as the ultimate success for women, and a situation that fosters women’s health and creativity; and the generally-happy-housewife is portrayed as the norm, when in fact the happy housewife may be the aberration.
The primacy of the nuclear family supports male power. The heterosexual partnership, including marriage, is the site of much, if not most, of women’s sex-based oppression, around the world. The nuclear family and “the home” or private sphere is the location of girls’ and women’s sexual, domestic and reproductive servitude, where women are isolated from other women and from extended family and friends, and where male-pleasing is synonymous with partner-pleasing, and fostering domestic harmony and healthy relationships for women. Considering what kind of pornographic, abusive and generally female-exploitative situations many men find pleasing, the requirement that women be male-pleasing is a huge problem for women in all contexts, and yet the abusive potential of the nuclear family is never discussed. In reality, the home is where the majority of rapes and other assaults happen to both girl children and adult women, and where women’s economic dependence, which often increases when children are born, ensures that women will be sexually available to men, with the understanding that PIV in particular is required to maintain the partnership, and often without regard to whether the PIV or its attendant reproductive consequences are desired by the woman. And coercive PIV, as we all know, is rape.
The household is also the site of egregious thefts of services, where women perform thousands of hours of work annually but are not paid for it, and in fact sink more deeply into dependance and poverty the more committed they are to their families, whereas men benefit from women’s domestic work and often would not and indeed could not succeed outside the home without it. Women also frequently perform tasks for men that are directly related to men’s paid employment or careers, such as co-writing (or writing) men’s novels, or men stealing ideas from their wives without ever giving proper credit or compensation. Men individually and collectively become increasingly successful where it counts — in the public sphere — and build their empires on women’s backs and through women’s labor without sharing power with women individually or collectively, and male power is then wielded over all women abusively.
Under patriarchy, we encounter patriarchal reversals. Orwell used a concept similar to the “reversal” in his infamous dystopian novel “1984” where the oppressors deliberately alter reality through manipulating language and disseminating obviously false political propaganda; for example, the three “slogans” of Orwell’s oppressive political party were WAR IS PEACE; FREEDOM IS SLAVERY; and IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH. And like the other mechanisms of oppression in Orwell’s novel, the concept of the reversal is based in reality and is known to be politically useful. And while Orwell described the use — and the usefulness — of the reversal under a more generically-oppressive political regime, Mary Daly took it further and showed how reversals are used — and useful — against women under an oppressive patriarchal regime.
Reversals support male power. Mary Daly described the mechanism by which men and male institutions create false narratives that are not reality-based, but where the actual truth might serve to undermine male power, or where a complete 180-degree reversal of the truth would be supportive of male power. For example, the ideas that “sex decreases stress” and “women are sluts” are examples of reversals, where “sex” meaning intercourse actually increases stress for women, and where men are sexually promiscuous and have no biological or social inhibitions to having penetrative sex. Reversals specifically relating to PIV effectively turn harms into benefits, and reverse the subject and object — the actor versus the acted-upon — and make it impossible to recognize in which direction the harms and benefits flow, or to recognize constants and patterns whereby men benefit from intercourse at women’s expense.
Some “double standards” may be more accurately identified as flat-out reversals, such as the double standard whereby prostituted women have been singled out for oppressive and restrictive state interventions meant to “stop the spread of disease” but male johns weren’t. (See Sheila Jeffreys, The Spinster and her Enemies, chapter 1). But idea that prostituted women carry and spread disease is also a reversal, when in fact it is male johns who are more likely to infect prostituted women than the other way around, the johns often first becoming infected themselves through having penetrative sex with other men. Thus, the patriarchal reversal often serves as a pretext, justifying patriarchal controls on women that are indefensible and serve no legitimate non-patriarchal purpose.
Support patriarchal institutions (medicine/religion/law)
In her groundbreaking 1969 book Sexual Politics, Kate Millet advanced a theory of sexual politics, whereby “sex” (meaning the reproductive sex with which one was born) could be seen as a “status category with political implications.” (See “Sexual Politics” chapter 2). She noted that the existence of a patriarchy at once becomes clear when one considers that all of society’s institutions, and institutionalized power, including the military, industry, technology, universities, science, political office, finance, and the coercive power of the police lie entirely in men’s hands. While individual men may have varying degrees of power in relation to each other, all men are powerful over women; and all of society’s institutions are designed to and do actually empower men as a sexual class. Millet noted that in democracies, females hold either no power or are represented in such miniscule numbers as to be below even token representation. Her theory of sexual politics and observations of men’s institutional power, of course, hold true today. The realities of male-held institutional power and female tokenism are commonly mirrored in media images; indeed, it is difficult to imagine a world that does not mirror the power structures of our own, and when this is attempted it is presented as science fiction and represents an exceptional departure from reality, where patriarchal power is the rule.
Supporting patriarchal institutions supports male power. Male power is institutionalized, whereby men make the rules to benefit themselves; women have to “go along to get along” and are often brutalized, exploited and neglected by patriarchal institutions that were designed by men to benefit men, at women’s expense. The ways male-designed institutional policies overlap and work in tandem with each other to support men’s individual and collective power may be best observed in how medicine, religion and law all have specially-designed rules and controls that attach to women and women’s bodies at the moment we are impregnated, in ways that these institutional controls never attach to men and men’s bodies and lives. And because men hold the power to impregnate women through mandatory PIV and rape, men have granted themselves the power to open the door to these institutional patriarchal controls on women. This is, obviously, deliberate. Women’s very lives hang in the balance and we are made to pay false gratitude when we are tossed crumbs from men when they release their grip on us the tiniest bit, but we are always in danger of those crumbs being taken away.
And of course, the academy itself is a patriarchal institution, and it is difficult to find a university that does not advance the values of religion, medicine or law specifically, and all patriarchal values generally. This indicates that the patriarchal value system replicates and perpetuates itself through education and the very creation of knowledge, where the patriarchal context, perspective and agenda is always central and yet remains insidiously hidden.
Woman as “useful object”
Under patriarchy, women are continuously objectified — presented as non-human objects existing only to better men’s lives and to help men achieve their own goals. Women are used by men like all people use literal objects to better their lives, for example, objects like toasters, or brooms: just like a toaster is a useful object for a person who likes toast, a woman is a useful object for men who enjoy PIV, a clean home, a personal secretary, event planner or social director and for (re)production of biological heirs. But when the toaster no longer works, or it starts burning the toast, or otherwise doesn’t fulfill the ends for which it was intended, one generally feels no remorse in getting rid of the toaster and perhaps even getting a new one; and indeed this is how many men treat the women who have cared for them and bettered their lives, often for decades. Women who stop functioning properly might be taken to a psychiatrist or gynecologist just as one might take a particularly useful object to a mechanic, to see if it might be “fixed” and when it is possible, we are fixed by medications, procedures, surgeries and the like, to get us back to our condition as useful objects working toward patriarchal ends. But once we cease to be functional, and it is men who define women’s role and what that means, women are disposed of like so much garbage.
Woman as “useful object” supports male power. Women are literal objects under patriarchy, and exist only to serve men, male interests and male power. Women dutifully fulfill numerous male-centric ends all the time, including unpaid sexual, domestic and reproductive labor, underpaid “women’s work” in the public labor market, and exploitative sexual and domestic labor such as in human trafficking, sexual and domestic slavery, prostitution, and porn. Men’s individual economic power increases as women’s labor allows them to work more hours in the public workplace and to focus on their careers, while women’s economic power decreases the more time women spend outside the workplace caring for their children and the marital home. Men also steal women’s ideas all the time, and take credit for them such as in women writing men’s books, or using their wives as unpaid consultants on matters that ultimately benefit men outside the home. Women’s labor and life energies are constantly being used toward patriarchal ends to benefit men, and we are left drained and exhausted, with nothing left over to create our own culture, or to help ourselves and each other. Women around the world are literally used up by men, until we die from it: women are raped literally to death, we are subjected to numerous unwanted pregnancies that are known to kill us and in fact do kill some 500,000 women globally every year, and we are driven to illness and suicide from the stress and torment of living and laboring under the brutal conditions of patriarchy and of individual men.
Also telling is the fact that women who are being used as objects to benefit men and male power see their own worth and earning capacities decreasing over time, even though these women are gaining experience and “seniority” that would be valuable in other contexts. This indicates that women are being exploited, and are not “workers” in an ordinary or legitimate sense when they toil domestically, or in other exploitative contexts such as modeling, acting, prostitution and porn.
This concludes the Radfem 101 series. Please feel free to comment below.