Society must choose whether women count as human

Lierre Keith / Deep Green Resistance

Feminism has always been a contested area of politics. Fierce arguments centre on what it is, and why we need it. The best definition I know is from Andrea Dworkin: “Feminism is the political practice of fighting male supremacy on behalf of women as a class.” In one elegant sentence, she names both the problem ― male supremacy ― and the solution ― political action.

Implicit in those 16 words are also the two requirements of the human heart: love and hope. It is an act of love to notice women. Women are on display everywhere of course ― naked, for sale, the coin of the realm in a pornographic culture ― but being an object is the opposite of being human. Noticing the harm that is being done ― insisting that it is harm ― starts from love.

Such noticing tends to have an inverse relationship to hope. When harms against a people are both vicious and everyday, hope becomes a combat discipline. But, whether grim or glad, hope is possible only because change is possible. This is the promise of feminism: as endless as the horrors seem, they could end. We, as a society, could end them.

Armed with love and hope, I travelled to London recently for a conference on male violence and how we might end it. I left the US still braced against the details that had come out of Ohio: three women, one six-year-old girl, a basement strung with chains ten years long.

I arrived in London to news of Mark Bridger’s trial: his catalogue of images of murdered girls, his library of sadistic child-porn, the stalking that escalated from online to real life. This meant real death to a perfect promise of a girl named after spring. Her parents are now condemned to a deep winter of grief; how they will survive is anyone’s guess.

Then there was the long fall of Chevonea Kendall-Bryan, the 13-year-old who fell to her death from the window of her home, having suffered sexual bullying. Longer still was the fall from human to object, through rape, and more rape, landing finally on the unyielding surface of complete public violation. Does it matter whether she jumped or fell? Her life was shattered either way.

This is where we stand or fall as a society. We will have to choose. Right now, our society is choosing to make cruelty normal. We are choosing saturation in sadism. The choice turns on whether women count as human.

A few brute facts will answer. Globally, one in three women will be raped or beaten in her lifetime. Half of all sexual assaults are committed on girls under 16: might as well start the lesson early. In the UK, a woman is raped every nine minutes. There are plenty more numbers, and inside each and every one are the broken shards where body and soul, self and world, once met.

The numbers should speak for themselves, but numbers don’t actually speak, of course. They need human voices to carry them. The result of subordination, though, is always silence. Silence is what happens when people are turned into objects. Violence will do that. Sexual violence especially will do that. Sexual violence against children is a shroud of silence that can take a lifetime to unwind.

Amnesty International reports that rape is the most traumatic form of torture. In fact, women who have survived prostitution have higher rates of post-traumatic stress disorder than soldiers who have survived combat, which is to say that the war men are waging against women is in many ways worse than the wars they inflict on each other.

If you need convincing, type the word “rape” into Google images. Or, if you have the stomach and the spiritual stamina, try “torture porn”. What you will see is not entertainment, or sex, or freedom. What you will see is hell. What you will also see is that men by the million have been there before you.

We need feminism because, without it, the realities of women’s lives are unspeakable ― each woman cut adrift in a hostile, chaotic sea. Apply feminism, and that chaos snaps into a sharp pattern of subordination ― from the small, daily insults to body and soul, to the shattering traumas of incest and rape.

The crimes that men commit against women are not done to women as random individuals: they are done because women belong to a subordinate class, and they are done to keep women a subordinate class.

None of this will change unless we face the truth. I wrote above that every nine minutes a woman is raped. That is hard enough, but it is not the truth. This is: every nine minutes a man rapes a woman. And I am left with a human howl of “Why?” After 30 years spent fighting male violence and pornography, I still have no answer.

I am a feminist because I think women count as human. But feminism also insists on the humanity of men: we think that men can do better. The anthropologist Peggy Reeves Sanday studied 95 societies, and found that almost half were rape-free. It is not random. It is actually rather straightforward. Rape-free cultures value co-operation whereas rape-prone cultures reward competition. In the former, political and economic power are shared by the sexes; in the latter, women are dispossessed.

Whereas in the one, the sacred has both female and male aspects, in the other, God is only ever male. And now we come to it: in rape-free cultures, anyone can assume positions of ceremonial importance. In rape-prone cultures, men exclude women from roles of spiritual intercession.

Social subordination is like a set of concentric circles. The innermost is where the worst occurs: the cattle cars, the severed limbs, the missing girls found as bone fragments and blood stains. But every circle in the set helps to constrain the people trapped inside. The outer rings shore up the inner horrors, making them both normal and invisible.

How can such things happen, we ask in anguish? They can happen because each successive circle ― each institution and social practice ― creates the bull’s eye where Chevonea landed and April will never be found.

We have a choice, as individual men and women, and as a society. We can keep other humans barricaded inside such atrocities, or we can bring those barricades down. Either women will finally count as human, or the rancid pleasures of sadism will continue to rot our society and our souis. Choose now, before another girl falls, and another goes missing.

Originally published in the June 28, 2013 issue of Church Times