Over and over again a group of us who have been working to mobilize people to stand up for International Women's Day, have marveled at how little people know about the war on women. We've been very struck by how deeply people react and share their visceral feelings of upset, distress and righteous anger over the conditions facing women broadly and themselves personally. Mostly, these are people who seemed surprised themselves how strongly they reacted, but once they heard the whole war on women called out in its entirety, once they heard such sober truth telling and certitude, this drew out their own convictions. At the same time, largely because we recognize how deeply this connects with people who weren't already “looking for” this effort to End Pornography and Patriarchy: The Enslavement and Degradation of Women which we are launching, we've struggled with how to get people who aren't already thinking about the attacks on women be open enough to engage what we are saying and doing.
So, during a meeting a couple weeks ago we spent some time and we put ourselves to this. Through many hair-brain permutations and brainstorms along the way, what we came up with was the following. We got enormous paper (about 12 feet by 6 feet) and laid it out on the ground. On it we drew a couple of chalk outlines of women's bodies, the kind that the police do after someone has been murdered. Over the bodies of these women we placed big boot prints with various words which concentrate the hatred and enslavement of women: patriarchy, pornography, sex slavery, burkha, “beauty” standards, church, etc. Then, around that whole display we placed a collection of stunning facts about the level of hatred and violence against women. Different people volunteered to pull together different parts of the display and we assembled the whole thing on the spot the first time we took it out.
The display was incredibly powerful! The first place we took it was to a major production the Vagina Monologues where we expected to encounter a friendly audience. Next we took it to a college campus where we had been getting out fliers for the IWD protest already.
The first thing that hit all of us, even those of us who are very familiar with all the facts we had laid out, was how powerful it was to see the whole war on women depicted in this way. And immediately, in fact even before we finished setting it up, people began drawing closer, reading various facts, shaking their heads and talking to each other.
“What stands out to you most?” we asked many as they stared. “All of it... all of it together,” was a common response. After that people would remark on one or another fact that had really hit them. Two older men, perhaps they were a couple, said they had always been pro-choice but they'd never realized that nearly 90% of counties in the U.S. lacks an abortion provider. Two younger guys also commented on this same statistic. The younger Latino guy said he just didn't know what he felt about abortion, remarking that some insist that it is always wrong and yet sometimes there are really hard circumstances where you cannot judge a woman if she chooses to get one. His friend, a young Black photographer, pointed out to him that this meant he should be “pro-choice” and support keeping the option open. From there, they started exploring outloud whether strip clubs were really degrading to women. They'd both been to them, they admitted somewhat bashfully, and you could tell they knew on one level this wasn't right but they'd also never really been provoked to think or to discuss why.
Quite a few men opened up to us, including very young men, about frequenting strip clubs. Interestingly, at least the ones who stopped so far, did not defend this or ridicule what we were saying. All of them had a sense that this wasn't good for women, but then this often opened up a struggle with them over just how degrading and brutal the experience is for most women who work in those jobs. We also got brought out the role strip clubs play more broadly in training men to view women – and giving them an unchallenged space to treat women – as non-human things whose sole purpose is the sexual servicing and gratification of men. Further struggle would open up as we would make clear that we were not condemning strip clubs from a puritanical place. Interestingly, several of these young guys – in particular a couple of young Latino guys – raised that they knew from their church that this was not how to treat women. So, we'd have to get into from there how the church's view of women is really no better and not that different; the church says women should be “virginal breeders who submit to men” and the strip clubs portray women as “sex objects who should submit to men” – neither regard women's full humanity. This really thew some of these guys for a trip!
A man reacted strongly to a study which was cited that said 80% of men interviewed said that the one sexual act they wished they could perform was to ejaculate in a woman's face. He asked whether this could possibly be true. Meanwhile, just a few feet away, a younger woman was whispering to one of us, “Every guy I have ever dated has begged, I mean begged, me to let him do that to me. And none of them understand why I say that offends me.” She said she was looking forward to bringing her male friend to come and view our display as soon as he arrived. She was eager for the chance to get him to see that the disrespect she is always talking about towards women is not just “in her head.”
At the college campus, many of the people who have been most vocal in engaging our leaflets over the last couple of weeks have been those who are strong supporters of pornography (usually on the basis of insisting that they are “pro-sex feminists”). This continued to be the case when we arrived with our display. To be clear, over the past couple of weeks we have repeatedly had the experience of debating with those who want to defend porn and getting to a point where many of them have given us their emails and their phone numbers. This hasn't happened because we've watered down our critique of pornography, but precisely the opposite. The more sharply we have confronted people with the woman-hating and enslaving nature of pornography, and the more we have pointed to the similarities between stripping women of their humanity and reducing them to sex objects on the one hand, and stripping women of their humanity and reducing them to breeders on the other, the more many of these “pro-sex feminists” have been challenged to rethink some things – or at least to recognize that they were encountering an argument they've never heard before and couldn't so easily dismiss. It’s not like they have all changed their minds, but many end up feeling that they need to stay in dialogue with us, that we are not just a pack of puritans the way they initially assumed.
One of the young women who has been part of our crew was struck by how deeply we listened to people's objections and concerns and how we then would argue with them over what are really the main features of pornography, where it comes from and what kind of a world it reflects and reinforces. She said she could watch as people's minds were changing and she herself was learning a lot by watching people contend over their understanding of what is true.
We have encountered a lot of the infuriating and paralyzing relativism on the campus as well. In particular, we've had people accuse us of “being racist” for insisting that women are being enslaved, or accuse of “belittling rape” to condemn it in the same breath as we condemn pornography. Often people saying these things have straight up stormed away without waiting for a response. But, where they stick around – and with others – we have calmly, but firmly, insisted that forced motherhood is female enslavement, as is the global sex trade in the flesh of women and girls in the millions and millions. And all this is what pornography reinforces and fuels. Yes, pornography fuels rape. It fosters a view of sex that is about domination, force, humiliation and violation. Even more than that, it fosters a view that all women exist at all times to be sexually available to and sexually servicing of men. In this view, any woman who refuses a man's sexual advances is depriving him of something he is trained through pornography (as well as through society more broadly) to feel entitled to. To claim that this doesn't fuel rape (which is different than saying that pornography is the only cause of rape, lest anyone distort this to dismiss it – something we've experienced as well) is to be willfully obtuse.
Our display provided even more ground to stand on in struggling over the question of pornography, especially for people who are newer to this effort and don't have tons of facts at their fingertips. The display did this both by making clear that we are condemning all aspects of the enslavement of women as well as by citing the words of some of the makers of porn themselves. For instance, a quote which had many shaking their heads and honestly feeling queasy, was a quote from Bill Margold (veteran porn producer and actor) who said, "I'd like to really show what I believe the men want to see: violence against women. I firmly believe that we serve a purpose by showing that. The most violent we can get is the cum shot in the face. Men get off behind that because they get even with the women they can't have."
Despite the fact that a new study and a powerful new film on the subject has recently been released, almost no one knew that 25% of women in the US military are sexually assaulted by male soldiers. This opened up and overlapped with many rich discussions about the nature of the US military's current projects of aggression around the world and whether they are just or not.
Others, particularly some of the international students, were shocked – but so glad – to see us highlighting things like, “A woman born in South Africa is more likely to be raped than to learn how to read!” No one said this, but I think it helped that facts like this one were mixed in together with facts that highlight the crimes against women in the U.S. as well. At times people have been defensive when they feel that only other countries are being singled out for the oppressed status of women in a way that could be used to reinforce American chauvanism and even military intervention.
For the first time we have begun to meet young Christians, as well as young Muslims (some of whom are wearing headscarves), who are very glad to see us highlighting the epidemic of violence against women and sexual slavery. These folks mainly disagree with us on abortion and sexual morality in generation (that sex is not “sacred” - it is an act that can have very different meanings and we think it should be about mutual respect, caring, pleasure and equality). These have been points of sharp struggle, as has – with some – the question of whether god exists or not at all. This is very much as it should be! At the same time, it is interesting – as a few of us were remarking afterward – that we have often in the past united with pro-porn folks to defend abortion so it makes sense now that we would be hearing from religiously motivated anti-abortion folks in our condemnation of pornography. But on both of these ends, there is a need to engage in vigorous struggle over how the entire package of oppression and degradation of women must be taken on (and this is something we often side-stepped with people on the question of porn in the past).
Our approach has been to be very open about, and to struggle with people over, all ends of this war on women – and, on that foundation, to let people unite with this effort and continue to struggle as they do. The truth is, most of these folks have never heard a thoroughgoing view of women as full human beings (not special because of our allegedly “nurturing” or “more pure” role, etc.). As such, it is important that they encounter the full indictment we are making about the enslavement and degradation of women and that we take the time to struggle with people over what it will take to liberate women and humanity as a whole.
Finally, there are many who have expressed interest but also made clear that they don't know how big a difference a protest will make. One woman said, “Yeah, but look at our political system – we'll never get heard.” By this, she was referring to the recent Republican debates where every candidate condemned birth control. “Actually,” we responded, “That is exactly why you need a revolution and a new political system and a new economic system on which that rests,” and we got into that. But we also made clear, “And that's why we need to rely on ourselves to stand up and fight and rally others from the sidelines. The point that the political system is 'just too fucked up' is the reason for us to build a massive resistance from below – not the reason we should continue to allow those rulers to shape our future!” This particular woman wouldn't give her contact info, but she did give ten dollars. Others have made contributions on the street as well.
One woman was working at the time when we were set up and didn't want to get in trouble with her supervisor for talking to us too long, so we took down her email address and she gave $20 online later that evening. This element of fundraising right there on the street has been something we are getting better at as we go as well. We've begun carrying buckets on our arms which say “DONATE” really big on them, together with eye-catching stickers we give to people if they make a contribution. In this way, they both support the effort financially and they are able to take a stand through displaying the sticker that starts to impact others right there on the spot. Many students don't carry any money with them, but actually making the question of donating a big mass question from the getgo has made a difference. Quite a few have contributed not only pocket change (which does add up over the course of a day!) but also singles, fives and even tens. We are then feeding this in to the online Indiegogo fundraising campaign effort so that people have a sense of the growing momentum and breadth of support.
There is much more to report on the reactions to this effort so far – to the Call for Mass Action and to the display on the war on women. Perhaps soon I'll take more time and do another installment. For now, I will end with two points.
First, this display has opened up a spigot on the hearts and experiences of women in particular. Many women, young and old, have stopped on the street to tell us very personal and very oppressive stories – of boyfriends pressuring them to do humiliating sex acts, of bosses sexually assaulting and then stalking them even after they leave that job, of rape and sexual assault, of feeling helpless to help friends when they confront sexual violence, of the every day street harassment and disrespect they experience hourly and daily, of the toll of size-zero “beauty” standards to which women's worth is reduced, and much, much more.
Second, as much as this is striking a deep chord – this really is a beginning. There is a need to deepen and fan and spread out the engagement and polarization we are stirring up. In a way, what we have encountered is like the way muscles ache after they've been used for the first time in a long time. The lactic acids of people having become acclimated to the intolerable state of affairs with regards to women, and porn in particular, are getting released. Some of the response is toxic (tearing up the fliers, storming off and yelling). But much of what we are encountering is interest and provocation that surprises even those expressing it (kind of like, “I didn't even know those muscles existed, wow it feels good – if kind of weird – to work them out for the first time”). With some, we are encountering very deep agreement and interest, even if right now it is expressed more in whispers – reflecting how cowed people have become, particularly on the campuses, if they object to pornography. And there is much more.
We need to deepen and spread the polarization -- continuing to fan it further open in the final run-up week and more and more sharply going at the toughest and most widely held questions that we are encountering.
And there is a great need to find the ways – and we intend to do this in the last week's push to the March 10th protest for International Women's Day – to continue to make the argument as to why people MUST ACT! We've come to recognize that even among those who agree, the notion of taking to the streets to protest doesn't immediately resonate as what one must do. The vision of taking it upon ourselves to change the culture,to change the terms throughout society, to change how millions of other are thinking and acting, to change the whole direction and momentum in society through our mass independent political action – this is something we aim to bring much more alive and put to people honestly as the urgent need before us all.