Lisa O’Donnell’s The Death of Bees

This is the best book I’ve read in ages and I’ve read some pretty freaking brilliant books lately. The Death of Bees was one of my random choices from the Edinburgh Book Festival. I always buy a few books by authors I’ve never heard of but this is the best one by far. It is triggering since it covers the systemic violence against women, particularly against those young girls who aren’t considered “proper” victims but it is also beautiful, funny and full of hope.  It is the story of two sisters, Marnie and Nelly, struggling to survive in  a Glasgow housing estate without their parents, who they’ve just buried in a shallow grave in the backyard. They are victimised and revictimised in every manner possible and left to self-destruct by a welfare state that doesn’t give a shit about poor kids from the housing estates. After all, when school is only “a convenient way for all of us to congregate in one place”, it is obvious that these are the kids no one cares about (p.47). But, it’s more than a litany of abuse. It’s about surviving, friendships, the meaning of sisterhood and what really makes a family.

I don’t tend to rate books but if I did, this one would have 5 stars. It’s beautiful (as I said when I bored Twitter senseless whilst reading it).

Julia Long’s Anti-Porn: The Resurgence of Anti-Pornography Feminism

I think it’s patently obvious to anyone who’s read a single post on my blog that I am most emphatically an anti-porn feminist. I believe that Robin Morgan was correct when she said “pornography is the theory, rape is the practise.”* I support Dworkin’s thesis that porn isn’t just the representation of VAW but that the very existence of pornography is VAW.** I believe that people who buy and/or watch porn are perpetuating and perpetrating rape culture.*** I believe people who go to strip clubs, burlesque clubs and lap dancing clubs are perpetuating and perpetrating rape culture. I believe men who buy “Lads Mags” are perpetuating and perpetrating rape culture. I believe that people who argue that pornography is an issue of free speech are deliberately obfuscating the violence committed on women’s bodies in the porn industry and the violence to women outwith it. I do not believe that the existence of so-called feminist porn is anything but an attempt to obfuscate the hegemonic construction of porn which privileges the male orgasm at the expense of women’s bodily integrity and existence. I believe the porn serves only to reinforce the hegemonic construction of heterosexuality within the capitalist-Patriarchy. I believe the language of “choice” and “empowerment” are lies perpetuated by the capitalist-patriarchy in order to deny culpability for VAW. I believe that women’s liberation will only come with the complete destruction of the capitalist-Patriarchy and the eradiction of pornified rape culture.

I think it should come as no surprise that I love Julia Long’s Anti-Porn: The Resurgence of Anti-Pornography Feminism. Long is a radical feminist, anti-porn activist who is an active member of the London Feminist Network and Object. It’s a brilliant thesis. It’s both a critical analysis of the representations of anti-porn feminism, pro-porn feminism and the pro-porn campaign within the media and culture; as well as a history of the anti-porn movement within Britain. It is an academic text full of theory but is incredibly easy to read as Long doesn’t allow the jargon of academia to obfuscate her message. Long outlines the numerous factors in the ongoing pornification of society, which include but are not limited to, lads’ mags, strip clubs, and the normalisation of the Playboy empire.

But, most importantly, it is a radical feminist critique of the debates surrounding pornography [and prostitution]. Far too often the “debates” on porn within the media focus on porn as an empowering tool for women [conveniently ignoring the fact that men are the ones getting rich from porn] and porn as an expression of human sexuality [and ignoring just how much porn dictates a hegemonic, heterosexual, racist sexuality which, in and of itself, is incredibly limited]. Long traces the feminist activism against pornography and illustrates some of the more successful feminist activist anti-porn campaigns: from Object’s Stripping the Illusion to UK Feminista’s Eff Off Hef. Long has given a voice to both the survivors of the porn industries and the grassroots activists fighting against pornographication. She has contextualised the anti-porn feminist movement in the UK within diverse factions of feminism.

It is a brilliant book and everyone should read it; especially those still trying to argue the libertarian assumptions of the total lack of harm caused by porn because some men like it.

Julia Long has a book reading  Sheffield October 15 at the Quaker Meeting House at 7:15

*Robin Morgan, (1974) Going Too Far: The Personal Chronicles of a Femininst, New York: Random House

**Andrea Dworkin, (1979) Pornography: Men Possessing Women, London: Women’s Press

***Susan Brownmiller (1975) Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape, New York: Simon & Schuster

Maggie O’Farrell’s The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox

Maggie O’Farrell’s The Vanishing Axt of Esme Lennox is one of my school Christmas Fair finds. There is a reason I always ‘help’ at the book stall. This year I did exceptionally well on the first trawl through the donations. And, promptly wrapped them up and shoved them under the Christmas Tree as ‘birthday presents’. The best part of having a Christmas birthday is being able to put another stack of presents under the tree. Inevitably, I wind up buying myself books in charity shops whilst trawling through them for the teenager [and a big thank you to whoever donated all the Anne Rice books. That was the Teenager sorted].

The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox is so very beautiful and so very heart-breaking. It is just the story of two young girls born in India who return “home” to Edinburgh to find husbands. As with so many of the children of British Raj, the two girls are traumatised and lonely. They are the unloved pawns of a society obsessed with appearance. They, inevitably, are punished for the transgressions of their parents and their parents’ parents.

It is about families and betrayal and the destruction of generations after one malicious act. It is the story of madness, rape, betrayal and the Patriarchy.

There is no redemption. There is no forgiveness. There is only the waves of destruction which threaten them all.

Hilary Boyd’s Thursdays in the Park

This is one of those books that I really wanted to enjoy. It is the story of a woman’s reawakening after an unhappy marriage to an unpleasant man. Unfortunately, the entire book is the minimisation of male violence both in the marriage of the main character, Jeanie, and that of her daughter. Like Paula McLean, who wrote The Paris Wife,  Hilary Boyd seems to have little understanding of the level of coercion and control that is common. Boyd also gives both husbands an ‘excuse’ for their abusive behaviour: one is the victim of child sexual violence and the other suffers from extreme jealousy. Obviously, neither man is responsible for their own behaviour to the point that Jeanie labels herself a bitch for wanting out of her unhappy marriage.

I would really like to read a “romance” novel, since Jeanie had to find a new man rather than be happy by herself, that actually understood the dynamics of domestic violence. Just one.

Helen Castor’s She-Wolves:The Women Who Ruled England Before Elizabeth

I couldn’t put this book down. Helen Castor has a real gift for prose; a rare gift among historians. The hours I’ve wasted reading badly written historical texts in my life are extensive so this was a joy to read. I also knew next to nothing about the 5 queens that Castor profiled: Matilda, Eleanor of Aquitaine,  Isabella of France, Margaret of Anjou and Mary Tudor. She-Wolves: The Queens who Ruled England Before Elizabeth is a fascinating and quick read. There are some problems with the text; notably the complete lack of footnotes and sources. I understand this was written as a piece of “popular fiction” but the inclusion of the bibliography at the back was not enough. I want to read more about these four women but it’s hard to tell which would be the best texts for me to read next.

Castor’s respect and admiration for these five women, however flawed they were is evident, but this is still a military history of battles and men. Yes, this testifies to the paucity of primary source material on the lives of these women but the book is still focused mainly on military history, dynastic squabbles and male temper tantrums. There is very little about the women themselves and much of what Castor writes focuses on their military and political battles. In many ways, this is a very traditional “history” text, albeit one written about women.  Castor simply doesn’t make enough of the social and cultural milieu in which the women lived. She focuses on the military history to the exclusion of the households and courts of the women themselves. They are all defined in relation to the men they married or birthed.

Castor also leaves numerous questions unexamined. She claims from the start that these 5 women were prevented from becoming true queens because of their inability to lead armies. Her first evidence of this is Matilda’s inability to lead an army to fight Stephen who ousted her from her thrown. Yet, less than 20 pages later, Castor claims that Stephen’s wife lead an army against Matilda’s troops. Why could King Stephen’s wife, a queen consort, lead an army whilst the ousted Queen Matilda could not? These women also lived across 4 centuries and Castor makes very little of the changing political and social structures which dramatically changed the women’s ability to claim the thrown. After all, Matilda was English -born [but the granddaughter of William the Conquerer] whilst Isabella, Eleanor and Margaret were all foreign-born. Mary become queen by dint of being properly English [and a Tudor]. That makes a significant difference.

I did enjoy this book as Castor’s gift for writing compensates for any problems within the text. It isn’t the best text for learning more about these 5 Queens of England though. What She-Wolves does demonstrate, more than anything I’ve read in a long time, is cultural femicide: the complete erasure of women from culture. The fact that there is simply not enough evidence of the lives of these 5 women to write a history without basing it on their relationships with men is cultural femicide.

As ever, I would love recommendations for histories of these women!

Kathleen Barry’s The Prostitution of Sexuality: The Global Exploitation of Women

Kathleen Barry’s The Prostitution of Sexuality was first published in 1995 and grew out of her work and activism following the publication of Female Sexual Slavery in 1979. The first half of the book, which is just theory, is brilliant. The second half felt outdated as it is based almost entirely on the research undertaken for Female Sexual Slavery. I would argue that the situation is actually worse now than it was even 10 years ago, particularly in relation to rape as an accepted tactic of war. I’d be interested to read an epilogue to the book which examines the reality of women’s experiences of sexual exploitation now and whether Barry thinks it is worse for women or if its just that I’ve become more aware of sexual exploitation.

I cannot recommend this book enough though. Barry’s theory on the global exploitation of women is incredibly important. She destroys the idea that prostitution can be consented to within a capitalist-patriarchy. She clearly proves that the sexualisation of human bodies renders women passive objects and men active participants. Barry challenges the heteronormative construction of pornography and prostitution and the hegemonic nature of capitalism which is built on the bodies of women.

I am adding this book to my list of Top Ten Feminist Theory Texts (in no particular order):

1. Andrea Dworkin’s Intercourse

2. Cordelia Fine’s Delusions of Gender: The Real Science Behind Sex Differences. 

3. Susan Faludi’s Backlash: The Undeclared War Against Women

4. Kat Banyard’s The Equality Illusion: The Truth about Women and Men Today

5. Susan Maushart’s Wifework: What Marriage Really Means for Women

6. Sheila Jeffreys’ Beauty and Misogyny

7. Susie Orbach’s Fat is a Feminist Issue

8. Kate Millett’s Sexual Politics

9. Melinda Tankard Reist’s Big Porn Inc

10. Kathleen Barry’s The Prostitution of Sexuality: The Global Exploitation of Women

Karen Boyle’s Everyday Pornography

Karen Boyle’s Everyday Pornography is an inter-disciplinary collection of 13 essays which are situated within the anti-pornography movement. Its focus is on the pornification of mainstream culture but also on the mainstream of pornography; that is to say the heterosexual male audience and the materials created specifically that audience. This is the praxis of the “everyday” of pornography and this is what makes Boyle’s book so powerful: it destroys the myth that porn is an isolated part of our culture that we can refrain from being exposed to. Karen Boyle’s personal contribution to the book “Porn Consumers’ public faces: Mainstream media, address and representation” demonstrates the ubiquity of porn within popular culture through films like American Pie, Showtime’s Porn: A Family Businessand the extremely tedious program Friends. Sarah Neely examines how pornography and other parts of the commercial sex industry are reflected and constructed within the virtual online reality game Second Life. Meagan Tyler’s research focuses on how the porn industry defines itself. Tyler’s findings demonstrate that degradation, abuse, and violence are not only common in pornography but that the industry actively promotes it. Lisa Jean Moore and Juliana Weissbein’s is a fascinating study of the fetishisation of semen.

The academic language of the text can make it easier to disassociate from the violence within. In many ways, Everyday Pornography is the perfect companion to Melinda Tankard Reist and Abigail Bray’s Big Porn Inc: Exposing the Harms of the Global Pornography IndustryBig Porn Inc. written by a collection of activists and radical feminists. I had a more immediate visceral reactions to the violence committed during the making of pornography in the text Big Porn IncEveryday Pornography was easier to process despite the fact that it is equally distressing.

Everyday Pornography is a necessary read. It is hard but we can not destroy the capitalist-patriarchy unless we understand just how just how it functions: Jennifer Johnson’s analysis of porn’s use social networking is essential to this understanding.

Big Porn Inc: Exposing the Harms of the Global Pornography Industy

Big Porn Inc: Exposing the Harms of the Global Pornography Industry, edited by Melinda Tankard Reist and Abigail Bray, is a collection of articles from radical feminists, activists, and academics who all believe that pornography is not about “pleasure, self-empowerment and freedom of choice”; rather that  pornography represents the systemic subjugation of women as a sex class.  Therefore pornography is not about sex, it is a form of violence against women. I am an anti-porn, anti-sex industry feminist so it’s fairly clear that I agree with the basic premise of this book.

I wasn’t prepared for what I read. I had already read Gail Dines’ Pornland and Robert Jensen’s Getting Off. I even attended the Challenging Porn Conference in London in 2011. I already knew the links between pornography and the pharmaceutical/ medical business. I knew how the pornography industry uses “free sites” to suck people into payed-for porn. I knew the violence perpetrated on women’s bodies. I knew how porn was predicated on racist constructions of the human body. I thought I understood just how mainstream violent and child pornography actually is. I had seen images I never wanted to see in the first place. I still wasn’t prepared for this book.

I wasn’t prepared for the soul-destroying mundanity of it all; of realising just well pornography is integrated into the capitalist economy; how horrifically common-place extreme violence is. I wasn’t prepared for just how normal porn involving children and teenagers is. I wasn’t prepared to read what men do to the bodies of women and children. I wasn’t prepared to realise just how many men hate women.

I have  storified some of the quotes I tweeted out over the weekend whilst I was reading here. Allecto from Liberation Collective has written an excellent review here. It includes a graphic description of child rape so please take care before opening this link.

Big Porn Inc is an incredibly powerful book and I’m going to recommend it to every single person who tries to convince that porn is just a laugh and women like being brutally assaulted.

The Creation of Patriarchy, the Reality of Women’s Oppression and Infertility.

Gerda Lerner’s The Creation of Patriarchy is an absolutely fabulous text and I highly recommend it. Lerner’s thesis is based on the belief that women’s oppression is based on both women’s potential reproductive ability and their potential as sex objects which occurred before the creation of private property and a class society. This is then institutionalised in practise through the creation of slavery, the codification of laws and the creation of monotheism. Lerner’s thesis is, obviously, far more complex than that brief sentence and her work deserves more thought than I’ve written.

A conversation earlier today on twitter had me thinking in a different direction. The conversation was about recognising women’s oppression as a class due to potential reproductive capacity without excluding those women who are infertile. This is all completely speculative and I’ve done no research and am quite open to being completely wrong on the following (and would love suggestions for books which either prove or disprove my musings).

I agree with Lerner’s thesis: women are oppressed because of reproductive and sexual capacities but I have been thinking about the role of infertile women in the creation of patriarchy. Women’s safety depended on their relationships to men with power. This would have put infertile women in very precarious positions. If they could not bear their husband that much vaunted male heir, how would it impact their safety? Yet, an infertile sister might be of economic boon to their brother’s household if she was deemed unmarriageable (or replaced by another woman).

So, what was the impact of being infertile for women across cultures and history?

  • Would women who are infertile be more likely to be used for sexual slavery?  At certain points, their infertility could be classed as a positive since the lack of offspring would prevent questions about dynasty, inheritance and power.
  • The infertility of first wives could give space for other women to carve themselves a place of safety by bearing a child for a powerful man.
  • With the high rate of maternal mortality, the labour of infertile women in childrearing, caring, housework and estate management must have been of economic benefit.
  • How often were infertile women used as “bogeymen” as a warning for women to behave lest they too become infertile.

If anyone has suggestions for research which has addressed these issues, please get in touch!

Denise Thompson’s Radical Feminism Today

I loved this book. I was quite relieved though when I discovered that the title wasn’t the one Denise Thompson intended though. The book was based on Thompson’s PhD entitled: Against the Dismantling of Feminism: A Study in the Politics of Meaning which is a much better title considering the book is about defining feminism and not about the state of radical feminism today (or as it was in 2001). Why the publisher thought the title Radical Feminism Today was an appropriate title for a book on defining feminism is, frankly, boggling.

Thompson is a radical feminist and her definition of feminism is about male domination. In this she critiques a wide variety of feminist  and non-feminist writing which use terms like patriarchy, gender and sex without referencing biology or the reality of male domination and male supremacy. A feminism which does not recognise this reality is not, in fact, feminism.

Thompson deals with the issues of gender, race and class by insisting on the primacy of male domination and supremacy: women all suffer from the effects of the Patriarchy which is historically and culturally contextually whilst acknowledging the importance of multiple oppressions in how women experience Patriarchy. A major theme throughout the text is that we simply are not working with defined terms; instead we allow them meanings which do not have biological realities (gender). In order to do feminism, we must define what it is we mean by feminism and cannot simply be by women for women otherwise it is reduced to the idea that everything a woman does is feminist because a woman does it. Feminism has to recognise male supremacy and domination or it is simply irrelevant.

This is one of my favourite quotes:

The sense in which feminist theory is universal does not entail that feminism is as a matter of fact all-inclusive, either of women or the human race, but that it is open and non-exclusionary. Feminism has universal relevance because it addresses itself to the human condition.

Radical feminism, in theory, has always been all-inclusive. It has been the individual failings of women to understand the multiple oppressions of other women which have resulted in the continuing marginalisation of women of colour. It is not the theory which is problematic but how we use it.

There are parts where I disagree. I do think she is unnecessarily defensive of criticisms of white feminism, particularly in relation to Audre Lorde’s letter to Mary Daly. Both examples given by Thompson as a reason to object to Daly’s racism are incredibly important and I did not realise just how badly Daly had missed the issue of racism in her own writing. I find Daly’s text more problematic having read Thompson’s book, yet, I find Thompson’s criticisms of Lorde odd. Lorde published an open letter to Daly having waited 4 months for a response to private communication. It was also an open letter, not a peer-reviewed article with footnotes. Lorde didn’t give a detailed breakdown of the racist undertones of Daly’s work because she wasn’t writing a book review for a major academic journal. Criticising Lorde for not writing a peer reviewed article with footnotes seems a bit, well, petty.

It’s a great book on how feminism is undermined and erased through the use of sloppy language and ill-defined terms. I highly recommend it!

I’ve storified a selection of quotes from the text here which are definitely worth reading.