Eroticizing Violence Against Women Is A Feminist Issue — So Why Don’t We Say So?

September 24, 2012, 12:13 pm

            Not sexy, dude, even in France.

Mostly I have been keeping my mouth shut about the vogue in mainstream S/M. I am certainly restraining myself on the pressing topic of the day, Naomi Wolfe’s vagina. There seems to be so little to say about these things after all the regular critics have finished with them except to be mean about heterosexuality and how dull it is becoming. Is it interesting that A Trillion Fifty Shades of Grey is popular among straight girls?

Not really. What’s more interesting, from this historian’s perspective, is that the Grey books, which feature the possibilities of changing your life by becoming involved with a wealthy kinky man, are being carried in Barnes and Noble; that having a man “do what a woman wants without being asked” doesn’t seem to include having him give her equal pay for equal work; that a good spanking for the 47% is not in the GOP platform; and that popularization has finally eviscerated S/M as an edgy sexual practice when, in the 1980s, radical feminism and the New York Department of Health only seemed to make power-exchange practices more attractive to your average suburban couple (for more on this, see Margot Weiss’s Techniques of Pleasure: BDSM and the Circuits of Sexuality (Duke: 2011).

Furthermore, are Naomi Wolfe’s ideas about the brain-vagina connection really worth discussing? Not really. What does seem worth discussing is why so many intelligent women agreed to review a book they hate, thus giving it oodles of publicity; and that every reviewer of Vagina: A New Biography (2012) seems to be using the same stupid quotes — which makes me wonder if they really read it or if they are just working from the highlights and page numbers featured in the press release.

Repeat after me: How you feel about vaginas, your own or anyone else’s, has nothing to do with the current political crisis. Nothing. Nothing. Nothing. Let’s take this further: whether you live with a nice, caring penis or a mean, selfish penis doesn’t matter to anyone either.

But now someone has got this finally got this feminist’s attention: it’s Si Newhouse, who should have learned his lesson about publishing violent images 35 years ago but apparently did not. One of those media services that I subscribe to delivered the current cover of Vogue Hommes International today, and it features a woman being groped and choked. Guess what? She loves it!!!!

What is interesting to me is not that this is new, or even that I am particularly shocked by such images at a moment when covering up rape and assault, and blaming women for their complicity in these acts, is as prominent as it ever was in the Bad Old Days. In the subway a few years ago, a movie poster featured a woman who had been beaten, strangled, and had her slashed forehead (from which her brain had presumably ben extracted) closed with a row of staples. That shocked me.

No. I am interested in the fact that, as the mainstream media reports on protests about the cover, they do not mention that eroticized images of violence against women are a longstanding feminist issue, with a feminist history. It dates back to the earliest days of New York Radical Women, a socialist feminist group formed in 1967 that organized the “No More Miss America” protest in 1968.

In 1976, feminist critiques coalesced into a campaign against The Rolling Stones’ Black and Blue album. The billboard, which featured a tied up and beaten woman with the legend,  ”I’m Black and Blue for the Rolling Stones and I Love It,” galvanized the creation of Women Against Violence Against Women in Los Angeles.

WAVAW, which organized primarily against media depictions of violence against women, then split: one group of activists organized in major cities as the feminist anti-pornography movement, while many of the original organizers worked with major corporations, often successfully, to remove violent and sexist images from the media. For more on this great story, see Carolyn Bronstein’s Battling Pornography, The American Feminist Anti-Pornography Movement, 1976-1986 (Cornell, 2011), as well as articles from my own new research here and here.

Returning to the present day: despite the fact that four feminist organizations – Sanctuary for Families, Safe Horizon, NOW NYC and Equality Now (at least two of which, and my guess is all, have a long history of principled feminist opposition to eroticizing domestic violence and rape) have written a joint letter, as feminists, to publisher Si Newhouse, why is this not being reported as a feminist issue?

I guess this is why the good Goddess made the blogosphere.


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