Working Our Chasms

The 1984 book Pleasure and Danger (edited by Carol Vance) starts with the premise that women have continued their vitriolic divide around sexwork, pornography, and other things sex-related because there is a basic disagreement about how we see sex itself—either as primarily pleasurable or as primarily dangerous.

The two articles here reviewed, “The Limitations of Anti-Sexism” (Sissy Doutsiou, We are an Image from the Future), and “Thinking through Perpetrator Accountability” (unnamed, Rolling Thunder #8), encourage an extension of this premise beyond the topic of sex, to people’s perspectives on life in general.

The 1984 book Pleasure and Danger (edited by Carol Vance) starts with the premise that women have continued their vitriolic divide around sexwork, pornography, and other things sex-related because there is a basic disagreement about how we see sex itself—either as primarily pleasurable or as primarily dangerous.

The two articles here reviewed, “The Limitations of Anti-Sexism” (Sissy Doutsiou, We are an Image from the Future), and “Thinking through Perpetrator Accountability” (unnamed, Rolling Thunder #8), encourage an extension of this premise beyond the topic of sex, to people’s perspectives on life in general.



Doutsiou fairly represents the pleasure angle. She positions herself in expansiveness—culturally/internationally, socially, and philosophically. Her discussion about sexism and anti-sexism is in the context of anarchist activity in Greece in December 2008—a time of expanding anarchist action, relevance, and awareness—as well as her experience in various European anarchist circles. To make her points she draws on Judith Butler, Françoise Denevert, Guy Debord, Simone de Beauvoir, etc. And her argument is for sexiness, for sensuality, for contrast, and for people celebrating their own particularities.

We choose to free ourselves from normality to become the most extreme of beings. We want to break through identities established by society, by tradition, and even by anarchist spaces. .

She names anti-sexism as a specific kind of reaction to sexism, one that ends up reifying sexism itself, much in the way that Alfonso argues “Why APOC is a White-Supremacist Organization“, or how sociologist Joshua Gamson (who she quotes) posits that queer identity is necessary for queer liberation /and/ perpetuates the binary that predicates queer oppression. And her primary critiques of anti-sexism have to do with the limitations that they rely on:

Language shapes us, composes us, and forms us. Language is based not on words per se but on the use of this word and the meaning of it at a specific time and place. However, the anti-sexist hysteria [ouch!] with language, with both creating new words and not using certain words, only makes those feel guilty who express themselves using words in a colloquial manner. […] The meaning of a sentence cannot be captured solely by the definitions of the words that constitute the sentence. Those purporting to be anti-sexist only end up as jailors of semantics and detectives of the prohibited colloquial expressions.

As in the quotation above, this article acknowledges the raw components that anti-sexists work from (language, cultural events, etc) but challenges what anti-sexists make from those ingredients.

Doutsiou contrasts the simple support of the spectacle (those people who are content to take on the gender characteristics that are most simple and proscribed — sex kitten for women, macho man for men), with the anti-sexist specatacle that is the knee-jerk reaction to sexism (“women who express their aggression towards men in order to show tha they are not subjugated… men who avoid an honest aggressive dialogue with women because they must behave gently… even anarchist men and women who locate erroneous behaviors and explain them as sexist…”).

Nameless RT author, on the other hand, is, predictably, firmly in the danger, constraint camp.

Although she starts out with some room to manuever, both in acknowledging her own specific experiences and in her rejection of the idea of a single model for response to abuse, or a single definition of consent, the overall article is still very much invested in the paradigm of fragility and danger.

For example, perpetrators should disclose their transgressions, but they have to do it properly, having gotten permission and carefully examined their motivations. Abuse dyads are neatly categorized into perpetrator and survivor. Support groups for perpetrators and survivors should exist, but must have all kinds of skills and know what they’re doing or they will fuck up the situation even worse. There is even containment in the fact that the piece only addresses situations where there is clearly a /bad guy/, since it bypasses the messy character of the most common experience (at least in the @ scene), which is that it’s hardly ever clearcut or simple to figure out what’s going on. Readers (and writers) of essays about abuse must beware the tendency to take the clearest and worst case scenarios as indicative of every abuse event. By far the most common scenario in my experience is that the milieu is put in the position of figuring out what happened, and negotiating questions of complicated agency, rather than simply dealing with someone who obviously fucked up and another person who was merely the recipient of that fuck up.

The survivor/victim shift is a good example of the language policing that Doutsiou refers to. The anti-sexist rationale of changing the label from victim to survivor is to shift the way that we look at those who are abused—to remember that survivors are capable, that they have strengths, that going through a hard time doesn’t mean that they are forever weak, to celebrate the skills of people who have gotten through (or are getting through) difficulties. But given that the model that the culture works from goes far deeper than a simple word change can address, the most common result of this is to merely have people agree to a jargon change without actually changing the existing attitude towards the perpetrated-upon. If people were to take seriously the name “survivor” then surely expectations would be different. If people thought of abuse survivors as people who swam through a flood, or lived through a snow storm, or beat off a mugging, then surely that strength would be celebrated, rather than the currently more common eggshell-walking and whim-catering.

Furthermore, it is easy to read into this piece a tacit assumption of males as perpetrators and females as recipients. For example in the disclosure section, nameless complains about being put upon by perpetrators who want her help (as a female-bodied person), and refers to “so many men” who “consistently seek support solely from the women in their lives.”

If that is where the author’s experience lies, then it would have been better to be clear about that, instead of muddying the waters by using the gender-neutral pronoun “they”. It is true that the experience of women as perpetrated upon and men as perpetrators is by far the most common, especially given that people who talk about this stuff have usually been trained by or otherwise influenced by NGOs—shelters, hotlines, etc. (As anarchists we must see the limitations of theories about power and practices that come from non-profits and mainstream feminists, who will use—or at least not challenge—women-as-victim ideology if it means that their agenda is advanced.) But it is also true that examples of non-het abuse (or, for that matter, het relationships in which the woman is abusive to the man) have a lot to show us about our assumptions of power and agency (not to mention increasing our availability to help people who are in non-het relationships).

In cases where there is same sex abuse, without the socially-provided markers of who is supposed to be the survivor/victim and who is supposed to be the perpetrator, there is a lot more confusion about who is to blame, who has the most agency in the situation. “Lesbian Battering: an examination” (Barabara Hart, Naming the Violence: speaking out about lesbain battering) defines the difference between abuse and simple violence as being the imposition of control, and relates the confusion that lesbians in abusive relationships feel about who is abused and who abuser (especially if they have both been physically violent to each other).

For many, the batterer has instigated and reinforced this blaming of the victim—this reversal of reality. Sometimes the batterer will threaten to report acts of violence by the battered lesbian to the police, pointing out that if the battered lesbian has acted violently to such an extent that she could be criminally liable, then she surely is not battered and has engaged in mutual violence. Sometimes the batterer points out that the battered lesbian has hit her in public, so that no one will believe that she is tyrannized in private.

In the same article is a footnote describing the confusion of battered lesbians about whether they were battered or batterer, as well as stories about battering lesbians feeling less in control than the women they batter. (This piece certainly perpetuates the clear divide between perpetrator and victim, by sliding right over the problem of what “in control” actually means, or the possibility that it could possibly shift within a relationship.) The confusion felt by the women in the relationships, much less by people paying attention from the outside, helps us to remember that agency has a million ways to express itself, a realization that is easier to forget when people more easily fit into cultural stereotypes.

But the beauty of the pleasure/danger premise is that these perspectives don’t cancel each other out. We all want pleasure, and we all deal with danger. Surely as anarchists, it is our goal to create and enjoy the world in ways that are currently impossible. But the focus of the people who emphasize danger is something that can be useful, when it is not allowed to overwhelm us or them. The challenge is to find how to express the awareness of danger in ways that add to our understanding, that help us feel pleasure, rather than shutting us down and tieing us to definitions of ourselves that we reject. We do all have different strengths, surely we can figure out how to use them in tandem, rather than either fighting each other or creating false unities.

16 thoughts on “Working Our Chasms”

  1. buzzy:
    when thinking about the lierre controversy, i realized that i would only pie someone if i liked them. it’s sort of an endearing way to be public about a critique. but i’ve been known to be odd, so i guess this is that again.

    hey ag. thanks for the kind words.
    as for subjective realities (what does that phrase mean exactly?), as someone who was involved in feminist (and secondarily anti-racist) organizing for the entirety of my youth (into my 30s), i have had too much experience with people who use the language and the ideas in ways that are antithetical to anarchist thinking (or in ways that make the issues worse). and my exposure to most women/men who call themselves anarchists and feminists has shown that the anarchism for such people is an afterthought, that they do not challenge anti-sexist theories from an anarchist viewpoint, but merely accept them.
    and i guess i disagree that in this case the flawed model is better than none. (well, also, i don’t think that there would be such a thing as no model. people will fight against sexism and abuse no matter what. the current “flawed” model is a barrier to finding things that work.) but at this point (without concrete examples) we’re just trading opinions, i guess. probably even with concrete examples we’d just be trading opinions.

  2. say more about pure humanity.
    i have knee jerk negative reactions to both of those words individually, and even more of one when they’re put together. but i will try to restrain myself so that i can understand better what you mean…

    and i’m not sure why you pull out the racist connotation of fear, instead of any of the other connotations. what makes that one worthy of being noted here? all fears are touched by all other fears, no? and all fears are also distinct/situational. if i am walking by a group of men-of-a-different-race-than-i-am on a corner and i’m afraid, how do i attend to the different fears that are going on in a way that doesn’t just get pigeonholed into racial, class, sexual, etc stereotypes?
    in that one hypothetical situation, there are fears of violence, of shame, of not fitting in, of being invisible, of being too visible, of culpability… but given the framework we’re only encouraged to pay attention to one of those fears, and that’s the one you seem to be focusing on too…

    anyway. i’m still thinking about this.

  3. I am tempted between two controversial conclusions: a. it seems inevitable that untying the distant capillaries of a hostile heart only creates further entanglements (but on the other hand the entire vascular system becomes a non-problem once the heart at the centre has been stilled); b. that pro-revolutionary thought must become womanly, i.e. that whilst (regrettably) it will still be carried forward mainly by men it must seek to establish itself within a feminine register in order to properly articulate that which it conventionally sidesteps – i.e. the refusal to be represented of those elements which refuse to be represented within masculine discourse.

    This project of feminisation will create a corrective or negative feedback rather than the spiral of masculinist discourses of transformation which have historically passed for pro-revolutionary thought (and which much of feminism has unwittingly positively fed into). This proposed constraint of what we understand as the female by what we understand as the male and visa versa may seem to veer towards an ideology of ‘balance’ but I prefer the term, [i] steady state[/i] (i.e. a situation where extremes are permissible and correct each other indirectly and thus preserve and maintain a relation [i]as if by accident[/i]).

    I am not overly keen on the figures of ‘survivor’ and ‘perpetrator’ as I tend to think problems cannot be solved on their own terms but I would not act to discourage investigations of this kind as we must accept, within the context of such a low level of engagement, that such registers are preliminaries to more reflexive conceptual tools. Acceptance is vital, even as we all brim over with impatience at the seemingly primitive internal oppositions of certain discourses.

    All discourses aimed at liberation must be allowed to encounter their own limits and attempt to break out of them into new registers. In the meantime, those of us already stuck at what seem like further limits and in desperate need of other people must wait. I am therefore defining the term woman within pro-revolutionary theory as the condition and function of [i]waiting[/i].

    What is the word for where the activity [i]is[/i] the goal?

    From the beginning we have been waiting for the figure of a Madame Dupont, one who will fully establish the pro-revolutionary perspective within the feminine register. And yet I can also see that the waiting and the activity that the waiting induces – the incantatory building of the nest as it were – precludes the arrival and also contributes to the conditions for something or someone quite other to what we are preparing for. She, the one we need, will never appear. Maybe someone else will turn up instead. So it is that problems are not solved as much as are re-presented over time until they lose their energy and disappear altogether.

    (please forgive my formatting errors, if I have to live without italics I cannot live without a reference to them)

  4. there is certainly no she-who-will-come. there is only she-who-we-can-incorporate, no?

    and yes, against unity, and for constantly correcting equilibrium, definitely.

    re: italics, it’s <> not [], i believe.

  5. The question of who incorporates who is always open to debate and is not clear to those involved… for example, traditional patriarchy did produce a defined separate feminine space whilst radical feminism collapsed that separate sphere of influence and historically occurred at the point (and to some extent mystified) how women were being included into capitalist reproduction and thereby having a deflationary effect on wage costs. Radical feminism’s critique of the patriarchal role for women outstripped their critique of capital because capital has always powered the critique of traditional roles.

    For my part, I have always expected to be swept off my feet by unexpected terms and forces which resolve the problems which occur in my individual life – I am in readiness for revelation by liberatory forces which I do not yet understand. I do not expect to resolve my own problems but only hope to as clearly articulate them as is possible. I do not expect more and more hard work on the same issues to have a liberatory effect in my life – working hard reproduces the same not the different. What didn’t free me yesterday will not free me tomorrow.

    This is not to say that I desire to be either ‘incorporated’ or to ‘incorporate’ others but only that I accept that the combination of all individuals’ various problems might produce a condition of receptivity which will allow for them to be resolved within terms we have not yet anticipated. The thought that this force is the Other, is ‘woman’ (because it is precisely ‘woman’ who does not appear in pro-revolutionary thought) is (I accept) in some ways a return to a patriarchal ordering of the world.

  6. I’m also rather unhappy with some of the discussion here at The Anvil in an essay which seems to be from an insurrectionist standpoint–although there are problems with anti-sexism and the current discourse around sexual assault, I just don’t trust “Anti-sexists: the Real Sexists”-style logic. Fine, on a purely theoretical level–you can’t have anti-rape activism without naming some groups or people as likely to rape, thus reifying the discourse. But ignoring the many, many material and social structures that reinforce the incentive and ability to rape in favor of a pure critique of reification isn’t very helpful. The whole angle of that conversation is more about creating a tight “winnable” argument than about the lived experience of people who are sexually assaulted and the people who commit sexual assault. — from anon (of course)

    “from an insurrectionist standpoint”? why do you say that?

    the “anti-sexists are the real sexists” is your formulation. i would say that anti-sexists are frequently still just sexists, as are regular sexists, just as other sorts of reaction only reify what they are supposed to be rejecting (satanism for example). the sissy article and my review both state that explicitly.

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