Editor’s note: As an eco-feminist organization, Deep Green Resistance draws links between the exploitation and mistreatment of women, the destruction of compassion and solidarity, and the ongoing ecocide of the natural world.
Rates of sexual abuse today are staggering. On average nearly 500,000 people over 12 years of age — the vast majority of them female — are sexually assaulted each year in the United States. Some 12.5% of children are sexually abused.
In this piece, Jocelyn Crowley draws links between the mainstreaming of violent pornography and endemic sexual abuse — increasingly normalized as “rough sex” or kink, reminding us that we must not forget that sexual abuse of women is at the core of patriarchy.
NB: This piece contains graphic descriptions of sexual abuse. Click here for information about stopping porn addiction.
While doing research for an article I recently wrote regarding the level of radicalism which can and might exist within mainstream realms such as rape crisis centers, I stumbled across a documentary regarding how sex traffickers now frequent drug rehab facilities for the purpose of recruiting victims. These traffickers lure victims away by proposing that the victims are being transported to another drug rehab facility.
Although I formerly worked for an anti-trafficking facility, this was all new to me. I listened in a state of deep horror as several young women described how traffickers repeatedly “sold them for sex” (paid rape) to various individuals. While everything stated by the brave survivors who were strong enough to tell their stories left a deep imprint on my consciousness, the most disturbing and transformative story was from a young woman who stated that while being trafficked, the trafficker stated “Did you know that four men just ran a train on you for $20? Just $20. That’s it.” Her point was plain. The trafficker was informing her that she was worth little to nothing and that, as a mere object, he maintained the subjectivity necessary to determine what the cost of her objectification would be.
It is well-known that pimps use these types of breaking strategies to convince victims that no one cares about them, and the strategies wouldn’t be repeatedly used if they weren’t effective. Yet the reason that her words were particularly jarring to me at that moment is because I had recently become reirritated by the reality of fake feminists and their inaccurate discourse, nonempirical understanding of gender, and superficial work that they do to uphold male supremacy under the guise of creating a more equitable world when they could actually join the radical feminist family in the unapologetic, unrelenting condemnation of men who subject women to any and all forms of sexual abuse.
I won’t go into deep detail regarding the asinine, ineffective efforts of the liberal feminist community here, but suffice it to state that they make things like the cultivation of good heterosexual marriages, equal pay for equal work, and abortion rights integral to their platform and diminish the role that sexual abuse plays in perpetuating male supremacy due to fear of truly speaking to power and recognizing that the men they serve are the biggest threat to the viability of the planet and half its population
Although the recent overturning of Roe vs. Wade was a substantive blow to women, I agree with the radical feminists who argue that the sustained attention given to the abortion debate is actually a distraction and the diverting of female energy from the most significant source of women’s oppression: any and all forms of sexual abuse. Indeed, I think that radical feminist energy should be continually redirected to the recognition of, rumination regarding, and antagonistic response towards the variegated forms of sexual abuse that transpire in all realms, including the now sexually normative and culturally acceptable spheres of prostitution and pornography.
While other forms of gender-based abuse are problematic, rape and other forms of sexual assault and oppression are the most egregious because they reduce women to objects and revivify a cultural landscape in which individuals are reduced to a state eerily comparable to slavery in which their bodies are no longer their own but rather a resource that is extracted for capital and/or pleasure of nefarious masters (pimps, johns, boyfriends, husbands, and all other men who appropriate female bodies). (Also, if is true that prostitution is the oldest institution in the world, this would mean that it predates all forms of traditional slavery on the planet…and this would be saying a lot regarding which forms of oppression and against which groups are most deeply imbricated into the psyches of the citizens of the planet.)
While I have read much literature regarding rape and other forms of sexual abuse, I was most recently stirred by my rereading of Gloria Steinem’s stunning essay “The Real Linda Lovelace.” This essay recounts the horrific, brutal violence (both sexual and non) suffered by Linda Boreman at the hands of multiple men, including her former husband Chuck Traynor.
Much of Steinem’s retelling of Boreman’s sexual abuse stems from her awareness of the pornographic film Deep Throat. Although individuals immersed in malestream, normative thinking regarding gender and sexuality viewed the film as an intriguing and perhaps grotesquely fascinating representation of “sex,” radical feminists know that the accurate interpretation of this media representation is a replication of the culturally normative practice of treating women as sexual objects and physical receptacles (mouth, anus, and vagina are just “holes” for men to enter) who exist as such for male pleasure. This assessment is grounded in material reality rather than mere abstract philosophical speculation because we know the film involved a man inserting his penis in Linda Boreman’s mouth as well as a hollow glass dildo being stuck in her vagina while men sipped liquid from it.
Radical feminists can learn many lessons from these depictions, one of which is that culturally normative male sexuality is about disregarding the concept of female pleasure in sexuality or inverting it to promote the myth that women receive pleasure from giving men pleasure. These patriarchal myths are perpetuated through Deep Throat, and Steinem makes this reality plain upon noting that the director-writer of the film, Gerry Damiano, “decided to tell the story of a woman whose clitoris was in her throat, and who was constantly eager for oral sex with men” (267).
Here we see the inversion of biological reality, which is that the clitoris is a central and primary source of sexual pleasure for women, such that this component of female anatomy is geographically relocated to the back of a woman’s throat for the purpose of suggesting that having a penis inserted into a female’s mouth is physically stimulating in a manner that results in substantive pleasure. The reality, which Damiano diminished through this inversion of biological materiality, is that this form of oral sex has the primary impact of generating male, not female, pleasure. The pleasure is not mutual or equally distributed between both partners because the clitoris is indeed not located in the back of a woman’s throat.
Damiano’s mythological distortion of female sexuality and the female body reinforces male dominance by perpetuating the core patriarchal idea that women exist to service men. As a cultural artifact, the film reinforces the idea that this ideology can be legitimated through the development of fictional narratives regarding women’s biology.
The use of a hollow glass dildo in Deep Throat also upholds the mythology of male supremacy that is normalized within the pornographic realm. Steinem recounts this scene in context of the horrified response of Nora Ephron, a writer who, upon seeing this in the film, stated “All I could think about was what would happen if the glass broke” (268). I’m fairly confident that I would have responded similarly if I sat through a scene in which a hollow glass dildo was inserted into a woman’s vagina and then filled with Coca-Cola that was subsequently drunk through a surgical straw.
Yet when Ephron shared her concern with some male friends, they told her “that she was “overreacting” and that the Coca-Cola scene was “hilarious”” (268). This response reflects the desensitization that most people, particularly men, experience when confronted with the reality of female objectification coupled with the perpetuation of the idea that women’s bodies exist for the purpose of servicing men. In this case, the servicing grotesquely melded the realms of food and sex such that the source of male satisfaction involved being able to use a component of female anatomy for sexual titillation and the alleviation of thirst. (If the person who drank the Coca-Cola was actually thirsty, because it is quite plausible that he was not and just wanted to demonstrate the extent of his control over a female body by indicating that he could find more than one way to utilize her vagina and, given the opportunity, would do so. I think it’s also important to note that this component of the film reflects the male proclivity to utilize the power of creation and artistry in a perverse manner that involves misusing, obliterating, or disfiguring female bodies such that their process of “creation” is actually more comparable to “destruction,” making their “creative process” a patriarchal reversal (the opposite of what it claims to be). I think it’s also important to note what this specific form of patriarchal reversal might be rooted in, which is plausibly male jealousy over female anatomy and its capacity to give birth and life to a living thing, with the male perverted response being a proclivity for destroying the source of life, female bodies.)
The lies that men tell about female bodies through pornography are not limited to the mythology of a clitoris in the back of the throat or the insertion of a hollow glass dildo into a woman’s vagina. Chuck Traynor, Linda’s long-time abuser/husband, perpetuated myths regarding female psychology and anatomy by having her memorize a set of lies to recite regarding her role in pornographic films when interviewed by the public. This is why, when Nora Ephron interviewed Linda Boreman and asked how she felt about making Deep Throat, Boreman responded “I totally enjoyed myself making the movie” and “I don’t have any inhibitions about sex. I just hope that everybody who goes to see the film…loses some of their inhibitions” (268).
As Steinem notes, “Linda would later list these and other answers among those dictated by Chuck Traynor for just such journalistic occasions” (268). Furthermore, Traynor punished Boreman for showing any type of unacceptable emotion when he sold her for sex (paid rape). For example, Boreman cried after being successively raped by the five men Traynor sold her to. One of the men, apparently disturbed by her emotive response, refused to pay. Upon learning of this, Traynor punished her with physical abuse. In recounting this, Steinem notes that Boreman “had been beaten and raped so severely and regularly that she suffered rectal damage, plus permanent injury to the blood vessels in her legs” (268).
The reality of the physical and sexual abuse that Boreman suffered at the hands of Chuck Traynor as he sold her for paid rape is disturbing for several reasons, including the fact that it constitutes a form of severe dehumanization. This abuse is operative and real male depravity, not simulation or speculation.
Yet while the reality of male depravity is disturbing, the level of ignorance that the masses have regarding its occurrence within the realms of pornography and prostitution is perhaps even more disorienting. Collective resistance plays a key role in defanging male supremacy. Therefore, the reality that most individuals are not fully aware of the profound abuse that transpires within these realms of cultural acceptability means that there will be a lack of attention towards solving the problem because of a lack of awareness that there even is a problem.
Even though Boreman was forced to make the film Deep Throat at gunpoint, this is not what the viewers of the film saw. What they saw was her happy, smiling face in the film, with this depiction being utilized for promoting a multitude of male myths regarding female sexuality, including the fact that women are most sexually satisfied when they are satisfying men (which is one of the reasons that I think fellatio has become normative within heterosexual relationships despite how profoundly one-sided it is). The masses are unaware of the dynamic of violence that went into making this film and thus don’t even understand that Boreman was not a willing participant.
It is also disturbing to note that while many individuals may have been horrified to learn of the abuse behind Deep Throat, they would be unperturbed about watching a modern pornographic film in which a woman “willingly chose” to participate, but did not give consent for various sexual acts that were subsequently forced upon her — under the premise that “she is just acting” and therefore it’s “not real, just a creative depiction of sexuality without the typical inhibitions.” This type of abuse, along with so-called “revenge porn,” voyeur videos, rape fantasies, racist tropes, incest themes, and videos of child and adult sexual abuse, are common on modern porn websites that are accessible free, 24/7.
Thus while many people might be uncomfortable regarding the reality of a lack of female consent, they are unbothered by rape and abuse if it occurs in context of a “fantasy.” (I put the word fantasy in quotation marks here because the creation of pornographic films that involve this system of relationality is not entirely fantastical because the production required real actors and we also now know that many of the female actresses are not actually giving consent to portray themselves as not giving consent. Rather, they are actually being raped. In fact, many porn films are filmed rapes that were uploaded into communities of individuals who consume porn.)
With all of this in mind, there is an important point for radical feminists to consider: lack of female consent and arousal regarding forms of “sex” that take place in its absence appear to be a part of normative collective consciousness, also known as the mainstream. So, the low level of receptivity to banning porn and prostitution should perhaps be unsurprising and respected, meaning that radical feminists should perhaps redirect their energy away from convincing individuals who accept and appreciate the perversity of porn that it is a problem toward the development of alternative communities for those who want it to have neither central nor tangential impact and import in their lives.
As I continue to think critically about the sexual abuse of women, I find that new and old questions and concepts flourish in my psyche. One is an assertion that I have heard many ostensibly empathetic, sensitive individuals make regarding radical feminist discourse on sexual abuse. The assessment is: “Sometimes I think these radical feminists take the most grotesque, egregious cases of sexual abuse and present them to the public for either 1. shock value or 2. To promote the idea that these extreme cases are normative and widespread.”
Sometimes I think the people who make this statement have been trained to recite a line for the purpose of perpetuating fake conversations and false consciousness rather than engaging in a potentially awkward or life-altering discourse, or perhaps they simply don’t want to believe that abuse is as common as it actually is. I haven’t drawn clear conclusions regarding the motivation for the recitation yet. Anyway, there are many problems with these assertions, but I only wish to address one here.
The individuals who assert that extreme sexual abuse (such as that experienced by Linda Boreman) is somehow detached from what transpires in the mainstream heteronormative culture are submitting a misleading supposition. This is the case because even though most men are not traffickers and pimps, and most women are not trafficked or prostituted by these men, the majority of the male populace consumes the sexual objectification and assault of women in the form of pornography, prostitution, and/or attendance in strip clubs (where many young women are seasoned to go from stripping to prostitution).
Additionally, while it is not the fault of women that men engage in these nefarious activities, the majority of the female populace creates the conditions necessary for these depraved behaviors to continue through self-silencing, victim-blaming, and becoming a male apologist (ie, “Oh, he’s really a good guy. What we saw right there is not who he really is, just a mistake he made.” Blah blah blah.)
This is what the people who say that radical feminists are presenting extreme cases that don’t reflect what most men and women think and feel or would consent to need to understand: “Literally millions of women seem to have been taken to Deep Throat by their boyfriends or husbands (not to mention prostitutes who were taken by their pimps) so that each one might learn what a woman could do to please a man if she really wanted to. This instructive value seems to have been a major reason for the movie’s popularity, and its reach beyond the usual universe of male-only viewers” (267).
In reflecting on Steinem’s assertion here, it should be plain that the production and consumption of media depicting the sexual abuse of women and thwarting/inversion of female sexuality is an unequivocally mainstream endeavor. While the abuse that Boreman suffered may be considered extreme and not reflective of what most women experience in heteropatriarchy, most of the American populace is now actively contributing to the sustaining of industries that profit from the violation of her and other women trapped in the realms of prostitution (including pornography) and trafficking.
In summation, male supremacy in context of abortion laws is a significant topic that should continually be addressed. Yet, this newest manifestation of male supremacy should not sideline radical feminist discourse regarding the most egregious form of patriarchy, sexual abuse. As such, let’s keep talking about the sexual abuse of women, please.
Jocelyn Crawley is a radical feminist who resides in Atlanta, Georgia.
- Steinem, Gloria. Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1983.
Photo: MMIW marchers at a 2019 march in Washington D.C., taken by S L O W K I N G on Wikimedia. CC BY NC 3.0.