I read the other day that after all the public discussion of the prevalence of rape and sexual assault on campus, colleges still have consistently failed to develop a system to hold sex abusers accountable. This is very disturbing, but not surprising. There is a natural tension between justice for the person victimized, and fairness for an accused victimizer. That tension will likely continue to inhibit the development of procedural remedies.
I believe there is something much deeper that we must consider when we look to change the reality of sexual assault on campus. Below is an excerpt from an essay in my 2010 book, Like She Is In Him: Selected Work from A Troublemaking Eco-feminist Punk.
Sparks Everywhere and The Struggle to Transform CAPSS
The most important event in my life to date took place in my early adulthood when I met Judy Wildwater Beckman, a radical feminist thinker and activist. She has been teaching me since. She introduced me to Andrea Dworkin, The Red Stocking Brigade, Mary Daly, Alice Walker, bell hooks, Audre Lorde, Marilyn Frye, Barbara Smith, Marilyn French, Carol J. Adams, and countless other feminist/womanist thinkers who have helped shape my view of the universe since then. Her expectations, demands, tolerance, and generosity have led me to become a powerful, loving man who I hope is getting better and better at challenging my sexism, racism, and other issues of oppression.
For nineteen years I have coordinated a community based, feminist oriented, volunteer run program to address domestic violence against women. Over twenty-five years ago I helped coordinate the child care for the first Take Back The Night March in Cleveland. In the early 1980’s I volunteered for the local rape crisis center. In 1985 I connected with the National Organization For Men Against Sexism, and became part of its leadership collective. I was communications coordinator for the first International Brotherpeace Day in 1986. I co-founded Cleveland Men Against Rape twenty years ago. As a teacher, a radio commentator, a columnist, an alternative TV producer, and a therapist, I have focused attention over and over again on sexist oppression, and I’ve done scores of other activities supporting women’s causes through the years.
I am proud of those things I’ve done, but does all of that make me not sexist in my daily life, make me a safe companion to women? I like to think it demonstrates a certain widening of consciousness, but I am a member of a privileged group who has been taught from the day I was born by almost every institution in my experience to engage in the oppression of over half the human race. I have been informed in thousands of ways, day in and day out about what my attitude is supposed to be towards members of the other group, and what my behavior as a member of the privileged group is supposed to look like. I learned early to enjoy that privilege–Enjoy that privilege, to experience that privilege as if it is natural.
Two of my closest friends belong to oppressed groups over which I hold privilege. No matter how close we feel to each other, I work to always stay aware that, in spite of being a victim of classism and adultism, and to a lesser extent, heterosexism, I can never fully relate to my friends’ conditions, and as long as we live together in the patriarchal, white male system, can never expect them to fully trust that I wont use my privilege consciously or unconsciously against them.
Recently, Judy Wildwater and I playfully came up with the term, CAPSS. It stands for Chronic–Acute Penile Supremacy Syndrome. Everyone in the culture is victimized by this insidious patriarchal illness. As I recall, Z Budapest said that comparing the cost of sexism for men to that of women, was like comparing a hangnail to an atomic bomb. While I agree with the sentiment, I believe that as this infectious dis-ease (CAPSS) has destroyed or virtually crushed hundreds of millions of women’s lives, it has contorted the very meaning of existence for boys and men. It has made us traitors to our own species, the biosphere, and by extension, ourselves.
Oppression has no logic–just a self-fulfilling prophecy,
justified by a self-perpetuating system. Gloria Steinem
It is gynocide that gives rise to genocide. Mary Daly
For we have, built in to all of us, old blueprints of expectation and
response, old structures of oppression, and these must be altered at
the same time we alter the living conditions which are a result of
those structures…. Audre Lorde
The animals of the world exist for their own reasons. They were
not made for humans any more than black people were made for
whites or women for men. Alice Walker
Thanks to the insights of a number of brilliant, generous women, for many years I have grown in the conviction that we live in a culture that is infected by patriarchy (CAPSS?) and speciesism. I believe that the domestication of animals for more than occasional “use” established the normalization of creating an other whom we had the right to control, to make to exist for our purposes. It is at least partially out of this process that the patriarchal illness has developed. I’m certainly willing to entertain other hypotheses, but this is one from which I currently draw much of my sense of the world.
All systems developed within that larger infected system also carry the infection within them. So, whether we are talking about family systems, government systems, corporate systems, knowledge organizing systems, culture generating systems, culture or government disrupting systems, or other relational systems, they are all distorted by, and suffer from, these life eating infections. Corporate capitalism, Leninist-Stalinist-Maoist interpretations of communism, most religious hierarchies are all particularly painful and damaging manifestations of this.
The dis-ease has infected and affected just about anyone within the reach of these words. Unlike many other diseases, an integral part of this dis-ease is the inability to identify that we are infected or even when the infection is affecting our thinking or behavior. From the beginning of this affliction, it directly affected men, and has since served to confuse at least that half of the species regarding the nature of power and the value of intimacy, comity, community, and balance. This confusion distorts not only our view of the world, but our experience in relation to it. The very nature of what constitutes threat, what constitutes safety and security, what constitutes emotional connection, what constitutes accomplishment, what is essentially important to our wellbeing, is distorted. This distortion creates an insecurity and paranoia so deep that most men live in an almost always scary unreality where there is constantly a dangerous other, separate, disconnected. Whether that other is identified as a part of ourselves, another individual human, another group, another species, the natural world, pain, or death, there is an assumption that it is natural that we must fight against, compete with, degrade, or fear that other. With this unrelenting fear of, and imbalance in, our world, there is an overwhelming, often pressing, need to find stasis through some level of control of, and power over this dangerous environment and those others in it. The fist must be formed, the walls built, the missiles manufactured, and the weapons aimed; the ropes fashioned, the chains shaped and linked.
The first victim is the estranged alienated self of every boy child born into this infected environment. As the infection grows, it increases the boy’s capacity to victimize others, to numb oneself to the internal distress and the external results, and to cooperate in a comprehensive process of denial. Women, and by extension, the issue of their great power, children, are the first others within the species to be victimized. This victimization continues in an ongoing spiral that results in such an alienation from the real world that we end up soiling our own nest and endangering the whole biosphere. Simultaneously, the boys and men within the group are rated and forced into the hierarchy under the threat of being labeled one of those others.
Since men are born into a system created and reinforced by the men who came before us and their self-hating women subordinates–a system within which we are alienated from women, children, our environment, our bodies, and ourselves, it feels better for men to belong, even within the tenuous conspiracy of oppression and control over others. It feels better to be accepted as a part of the group called men. Also, because of the all encompassing indoctrination, it not only is terrifying to not be considered a man, it is hard to conceive that there is anything else worth being. In fact, that feeling is so prized that often men will do the most hurtful or insane things to continue to be considered part of that group.
Sex abuse, battery, war, the norm of violence between men, the epidemic of addictions, most anxiety, most depression, heterosexism, racism, classism, and most other oppressions are symptoms of the dis-ease. The general society’s behavioral and cognitive responses to them are severely limited because the systems we have in place are so infected by the dis-ease themselves. As a result, most “good” works are at least partially sabotaged by the infected systems in which they take place.
Whether we’re executives, anarchists working in the streets, community activists, workers at the plant, small business owners, urban farmers, or social service workers, unless we are consciously challenging the messages we have been fed about the need to control the others (that there are really others) and the need to numb ourselves, our success at experiencing happiness or love in our lives, and our power to liberate ourselves and the planet will be limited.
Beyond that, not only have men oppressed women, but members of our group have spent millennia trying to convince women and girls and boys that the unreality stemming from the dis-ease is actually real life. That the world is really a naturally dangerous place filled with dangerous others. If a woman or girl or a man or boy openly refuses to acknowledge that distorted reality, an effort will be made to somehow make them or their ideas invisible, irrelevant, or some way unacceptable. Unfortunately, as a natural response to fear, many members of the men group will also do almost anything to prevent disruption of the tenuous security we feel. Some strategies include the mass murder of women, the systematic degradation of what is identified as the feminine, the societal wide acceptance of dominance and control. There is the always looming intimidation of rape and battering if women (or male allies) in any way threaten to disturb our stasis or confuse our unreality. When these methods are not effective, the system may create space to address individual violence, harassment, even discrimination within certain confines, as it continues to resist full awareness of the unreality and the actual illness that causes it.
This, for instance, results in the grudging acceptance of the push for women’s equality within the sick, dysfunctional system. This keeps us from uniting to pull the chains from the wall, to stretch, to reach for women’s liberation (and men’s) and the healing of this horrid dis-ease that has plagued us for so long.
And, now when four hundred generations of half the species have attempted to control what you do, what you believe, what you think, what you feel, it is hard to resist that. When you’ve been so exposed to the illness, some version of the sickness is bound to manifest itself within you. The fear, alone, is an extraordinarily powerful mystifier and indoctrinator. Yet, amazingly, in spite of some symptoms, many women and some male comrades have somehow passed down through the generations the knowledge of the actual reality in which our species lives. (This is the natural harmony with itself and the other species and eco-systems of our existence.) For many generations now women and their allies have been finding more and more ways to develop an immunity to, and a natural cure for the dis-ease. They are finding methods to resist it. As I write, we continue to develop strategies to reduce the symptoms as we strive toward strategies to wash it out of our system.
So Lyn or Jane or Dee, or Cousin Jeanie, or my mother spent or spend their lives paying the profound cost for my illness and privilege. The crazy dis-ease continues to rage on the TV or radio I will turn on tonight, in the book any of us may pick up at the library or the bookstore tomorrow, in a million places on the internet. In my brain. My training was just about as complete as most men’s in most societies on our earth. So was yours.
My minimum commitment to my clients as a feminist systems therapist is to bear witness and to help them redevelop a narrative that is true to their essence, that will help them heal and hold those who harm them accountable for their actions. My minimum commitment to the rest of the women of the world is to challenge myself and my brothers every single day, and to be open to account to every woman who comes my way.
PARTING RIFF: Boat Rocking, Trouble Finding, Bean Spilling
I believe that the concepts of father and warrior are artificial constructs–symptoms and enablers of the patriarchal illness, that lead to further symptoms and enablers. When we were living in the natural harmony within our species and with the rest of the species of our biosphere, there were no warriors. Even as the dis-ease developed over thousands of years, the construct of warrior was late in developing. The concept only exists as an eventual result of our dis-ease. I’m not interested in being a Warrior for peace or justice. I will strive with every ounce of my energy and blood to help heal and transform us.
More importantly, for most of the history of humanity, there was no father role, partially because there was no direct association of men with pregnancy. The role appears to not be natural to humans. We are all nurturers to our group. All mothers. All part of the caregiver family. Some with the blood-baby magic. Some without. How’s that for trouble finding? What do you think? Oops, I hear the music. Gotta go. I’ll leave you with this poem…..
Biogliding In America***
Invitation to investigation, indigestion, introspection,
instigation of an imitation of light–
Boys lying about the birth of Earth,
Birth of birth
of each and every notion–the motion rocked in the ocean when there was love in the water with the sharks,
when the Chalice wasn’t christian,
when mohammed had no mission,
when an angel could still pin the lying son of a son.
Those were the days when being Human was good enough,
when being buddha wasn’t such a hot idea—
No need to hide from half the race,
No need to control the gates,
because there were none.
Not that there wasn’t trouble.
Not that we didn’t create some rubble.
Not that we didn’t rumble, didn’t stumble,
But it was okay because we could make every movement
Every moment a chance to be music:
Biogliding, slipping, sliding, kissing Sweet Mother Eternity–
Long before the fraternity–
Just family flubs, occasional snubs and stubs,
Just cubs seeking manna from their mama.
I feel like dancing when I sing this song,
Feel like moving and jiggling free,
Feel like dancing, while we’re romancing
this splendendant ecology.
Watch me now…… fufupapadu papadu fufupapadu papadu…papadu fufupapadu………
River Smith is a poet, psychologist, and former co-chair of The National Organization for Men Against Sexism (NOMAS).