Archives for posts with tag: feminism

As a childhood sexual abuse survivor, a workplace sexual harassment survivor (fired for reporting my incident), and as a teen and young adult male who was almost certainly guilty of sexually abusive behavior toward some of the girls and women in my life, I am really encouraged by the “Me, too” movement sweeping the world. My individual accountability is important, but unfortunately, it is not enough.

Awareness of a problem is crucial to solving it. And the “Me,Too” campaign is acknowledging and increasing that awareness. However, avoidance, denial, rationalization, minimization all contribute to our institutions not producing a comprehensive problem-solving response to sexual abuse and harassment. In part, that’s because there is no solution to it as an isolated problem. We are perpetuating the denial if we operate as if there actually is one. Unless we address this as just one bar, of the many, that keeps us in the male supremacy cage that author Marilyn Frye described many years ago, we are unlikely to ever solve this problem. Girls and women lack the right over their own bodies, their right to reproductive freedom, their right to equality under the law, their right to education, their right to control of property and money, their right to not be considered property, their right to equal pay, their right to authority over their children, and any other rights we can think of. These are all bars in that cage.

All this is a natural outgrowth of a patriarchal living system–A Dominator System, as Riane Eisler calls it, rather than A Partnership System.

As I worked for over twenty years coordinating a program to help hold men accountable for battering their partners, while I volunteered for, and sat on the local rape crisis center board, as I spent years on an anti-violence task force, and co-leading a Men Against Rape group, presenting trainings to school systems to prevent sexual harassment, according to FBI statistics, the violent crime rate in The United states steadily declined in all but two areas: domestic violence and sexual assault.  This is not a coincidence.  It is also not a coincidence that well over 90% of all violent crimes against women and men are committed by men. We are the problem—as long as we allow ourselves to be. To use an appropriate metaphor, our trained-in violence is just the tip of the spear. Boys are trained to be served by women. We are taught that we are better than women.  We are the ones that matter. We are the family of Man. Not long ago a survey showed that when boys were asked what they would do if they were suddenly turned into a girl, some said they would kill themselves.

In study after study, we find that when a work product is being identified as created by a woman, both women and men rate it as inferior to one identified as created by a man. We know that every major institution in our society is shaped by men and the values that have been perpetuated for at least 3500 years. We know that the orthodox form of all current major religions on the earth were shaped and developed in patriarchal, male dominated cultures, and they reflect those values.  These are the bars of that cage. If we want to fix the problem, we must identify it.

The sexual objectification of women, the use of women as tools for sexual gratification, the coerced or forced cooperation for that gratification, are just bars in that cage. If we want to eliminate them as a problem, men everywhere must face our own culpability, recognize and challenge the institutions that shape our attitudes and actions, make a commitment to be accountable, learn to listen to, and join with our sisters, the feminist wombin who are, and have been, leading the struggle to dismantle and transform the cage into a great table where we can all share the feast that life has to offer us.

Through this process we will gain the genuine opportunity to solve the problem of sexual harassment and assault.

River Smith is still the same troublemaking eco-feminist punk he’s always been.

The following essay is excerpted from Like She Is In Him: Selected Work from a Troublemaking Eco-Feminist Punk (2010)

As a social justice educator, I work from a position of privilege.  I am a white, professional, heterosexually active, usually abled, USA born, gendered male.  So, of course, there’s a lot I don’t know about a lot. 

There’s a lot I think I know, that I don’t. There’s bound to be much I miss about what others know. Moreover, there’s more than enough to sink the boat about what I confuse or misinterpret in our universe. I often spend my time in a pseudo reality that blocks my view or experience of much of that universe. To paraphrase, 19th century humorist Josh Billings, writing about Americans in general, it’s not that I’m ignorant; it’s that I “know so much that just aint so.”

When I stand before a group, there are a handful of things I believe I must remember. That is one of them.


The three most common methods I use to deal with my profound ignorance are very simple.


 I have been presenting workshops and classes addressing oppression since the 1970’s, successively named Liberation Politics, Multiculturalism, and Diversity Training.  I’ve done thousands of hours of research.  I’ve been challenged and have challenged myself scores of times to grow and learn in areas of diversity, oppression, and privilege.  All of this experience creates the danger that I’ll become convinced that I know what I’m talking about.  And, yes, I do know some things about my experience of growing up in a racist and sexist environment. My work in this area has helped to enrich my understanding of my relative privilege as a working class Euro-American, heterosexually active male. I don’t expect that I will ever be an expert on the experience of being a person of color in white dominated society. Nor do I know the experience of being a woman, a transgendered person, and so on. I know sometimes my insights about power dynamics and history are useful to myself and others.  I know my communication skills help at times. My willingness to rock the boat and spill the beans can also be of use, especially when I’m spilling them on me.


 I operate with an openness, always as a learner, recognizing that I have to work with the knowledge I have until the next moment when I have the opportunity to enhance, refine, or expand that knowledge. Each moment can be that opportunity, as long as I keep the windows and doors to my heart and mind open. While sometimes it takes great effort or is uncomfortable, I know from experience what a joy learning can be, and mostly look forward to it, even if it’s difficult.


 I don’t guilt myself for not knowing something, or for acting in an ignorant way. Others may want to hold me accountable for that action, and I am available for that, but it’s of no use for me to get caught up in long term remorse or recriminations. I can’t take back what I have done or said. I can listen for what another needs from me, including reparations. I can express my regret. Offer amends. Offer restitution if possible. Make a deep commitment to act or speak differently in the future. Make a deep commitment to continue my education, and pass those insights on to others. This is all I would expect from another, and this is all I’m usually going to expect from myself. Others will decide whether that is adequate for them to forgive and trust me.


 So, as I operate, using these three methods to help me with my ignorance and the knowledge of “what just aint so,”  I also remind myself that I don’t belong on the stage speaking about anything unless I can show cognizance of The Oppressive Power of Naming.

 In addition to force and the threat of force,oppression is per­petuated through the generation and recycling of systematic misinforma­tion about the nature, history, and the abilities of the target group. Because this misinformation is socially empowered and sanctioned, it functions as the justification for the continued mistreatment of the target group. 

Erica Sherover-Marcuse



Is it a crime to steal someone’s


Steal a tire

Steal a Porsche

Steal somebody’s lawnmower

And you could get busted, of course.

 But       what about a voice?

 Who will report you?

 Who will listen when the victim cannot speak,       or

When the survivor’s cries are muted by the crime,

 When no crime is evident?*


I was reflecting recently on the film, Castaway (2000). The Tom Hanks character is stranded on an uninhabited island with the debris that washed ashore from an airplane crash. While there, he creates a companion out of a soccer ball, (using his own blood to make the face) which he names Wilson, after the company name imprinted on the ball.  Now this Hanks character is totally isolated, and it’s both understandable and touching that the writer, William Broyles, Jr., would have the character do this.  The ball is an inanimate, manufactured object upon which the character projects the qualities he needs the object to possess to help him maintain his equilibrium in an impossible situation. There is no measurable harm to the ball that I noticed.


In the real world of human and other sentient being interaction, such naming, of course, is disastrous to the health of our Earth community.  It is relatively safe to say that most of us want to have the power to define ourselves.  We want to have a voice in how others view us. It is profoundly disempowering when someone who doesn’t know us defines us for others who don‘t know us, especially when that reinforces an oppressive power relationship.


When I was a child I lived in a totally segregated, racist neighborhood.  I never once saw a person of color on those streets.  Not once.  Yet, my mother, the sweetest, most generous person I knew, used to warn me as I went off to the matinee at the neighborhood show, “Remember, don’t put your mouth on the water fountain. You never know, a n-gg-r might have had his lips there.  My sweet mother had internalized her father’s virulent racism. Like most of the adults in my neighborhood, she and her brothers and sisters taught us that those people were lazy, dishonest, dangerous, dependent on the government, and somehow generally repugnant. Having little opportunity to test those generalizations, I tentatively accepted them until one day I had the chance to read part of a letter sent to my mother from her sister in Minnesota.  I caught the lines at the bottom of the page. They read something like this “….they’re so damn lazy. Always on the dole. They don’t take care of nothing and always with their hand out looking for drinking money.”

I turned the page over and continued reading, “Why don’t they just go back to the reservation.” Reservation! I suddenly realized Aunt Lena was writing about Native Americans, not African Americans, and I began to wonder about some things that I later came to recognize as artifacts of oppression. Whether it’s the widely published nineteenth century cartoons depicting Irish immigrants as apes, or the caricatured depictions of Italians, Chinese, Native Americans, Jews, Arabs, or the many other groups identified as the other, the outsider, these stereotyped images serve to define these groups for the general population and justify the rest of the trappings of oppression.


A few years ago, feminist social justice advocate, Judy Wildwater Beckman and I attended a day long diversity  seminar in Cleveland, Ohio. The introductory speaker, a county official who had been lauded for his commitment to diversity, spoke of work the county had done, and applauded the commitment of those in the audience to educate ourselves about diversity issues. In wrapping up his ten minute talk he clearly wanted to remind us of our common bonds of community. This was the beginning of baseball season, and the opening game was being played just down the street from our meeting. The speaker was very excited about the home team, and implored the audience to be just as engaged in celebrating the team‘s exploits as a unifying force of our community. He received an enthusiastic response, and then immediately left the room.  Judy’s hand shot up, and a facilitator called on her. Judy’s words can be many things. One of those is inconvenient.  She asked the simple question, how could the introductory speech at a diversity seminar applaud the Cleveland Baseball team, whose name was The Cleveland Indians, and whose mascot was Cleveland’s own “Little Red Sambo,” Chief Wahoo. The answer quickly became apparent when the hostile reaction from many in the audience burst forth.  There were protestations that there was no racism involved.  Most Native Americans didn’t care about Wahoo; the name was a tribute to an old Native American ballplayer; it was an honor that the team was named after them; besides, the baseball team’s tradition was way more important than the feelings of some small group that was taking the Wahoo and the nickname too seriously.


Having videotaped many anti-Wahoo demonstrations, sponsored by The Committee for 500 Years of Dignity and Resistance and The National Committee to End Racism in Media, I had watched the painful, patient urgings of Native Americans attempting dialogue with baseball fans over and over again, as they explained that the whole mascot process not only disrespected their cultural and religious symbols, but “named” them by shaping images and ideas that promoted a caricatured identity of native peoples. They wanted the simple power to name themselves for their children and the world, by not having commercial entities shape those impressions.


The absence of a loud voice is in part because of the genocide and resulting lack of population–Native Americans make up less than 1½ percent of the USA‘s people. Of course, this is not the only cause for the difficulty in hearing their voice. The dominant group (Euro-Americans) needs to continue to perpetuate images and understandings that allow the mass of the population to maintain our equilibrium and accept the status quo. No images of the massacres. No mention of the genocide.


Andrea Dworkin and Katherine MacKinnon demonstrated their understanding of this power of naming over two decades ago. They reinforced this point when they argued for civil rights legislation that would allow women to sue pornographers for provable damages to individual women.  The definition for pornography that would be actionable was the following:


…the graphic, sexually explicit subordination of women whether in pictures or in words that also includes one or more of the following: women are presented dehumanized as sexual objects, things or commodities; or women are presented as sexual objects who enjoy pain or humiliation; or women are presented as sexual objects who experience sexual pleasure in being raped; or women are presented as sexual objects tied up or cut up or mutilated or bruised or physically hurt; or women are presented in postures of sexual submission; or women’s body parts are exhibited, such that women are reduced to those parts; or women are presented being penetrated by objects or animals; or women are presented in scenarios of degradation, injury, abasement, torture, shown as filthy or inferior, bleeding, bruised, or hurt in a context that makes these conditions sexual (emphasis added). *


Other representations of sexuality that some might call pornographic are not included in this definition, and, therefore, would not be actionable.


While you or I might not fully agree about what should be included in the definition, we might ask what is wrong with having a civil ordinance to help victimized women sue those specific pornographers for damages whose actions can be proven to have caused the women harm?    


The traditional legal argument in our nation is that rather than creating any legal interference with the pornographers’ rights to free speech, we just have to allow more speech from the targeted group to remedy any misnaming. This argument may work when Kraft Foods is saying something negative about Pepsi-Cola, because here you have two corporations with enough power and influence to challenge each other in the public marketplace of information and ideas. It’s not so easy in the world of real life for common people.  If someone has a much more powerful voice than we do, how can we be heard over their message?  How can the remedy work? This abstract notion of justice commonly gets in the way of oppressed people, and, of course, serves to reinforce the status-quo (their oppression).


This issue is apparent in the struggle for our legal system to grasp the essence of the battered women’s syndrome in relation to a self defense claim in a murder or attempted murder case.  Our legal/moral system has consistently argued that unless you are responding to imminent danger with appropriate force, you are not acting out of self defense. A man attacks another man and beats him with a stick on Tuesday morning. Tuesday afternoon the attacked man returns and shoots the man who nearly killed him earlier.  He is likely to be prosecuted for murder. The threat was long passed. If he had shot him at the time of the attack, in most cases it would be considered self defense. It doesn’t matter if the original attacker had been violently harassing the man, or even threatened to kill him later; in most cases, the shooter would be charged with murder if he attacked after an interval. In the abstract, this formulation makes some sense. If one is not facing imminent life threatening force, in theory, a person can withdraw from potential danger, and therefore, avoid the possible threat. If we deviate from that rather rigid model, can’t defendants come up with all sorts of rationalizations for why they had to kill or harm the other person?


Unfortunately, we do not live in the abstract. In the real world countless men and women, not at immediate risk of life or extreme harm have, nevertheless, reasonably concluded and felt that their very existence was threatened, and didn’t feel safe using the police. A systematically threatened, dominated, battered woman may act when she is in the least imminent danger. There are numerous stories of women killing their abusers while the men slept of were passed out. An early case establishing a battered women syndrome self defense claim involved a terrorized woman whose drunken partner appeared to load a shotgun, then handed it to her, put his chest up against the barrel, and dared her to pull the trigger. Her overwhelming fear of him and authority in general, her confused issues of morality, and shock prevented her from pulling the trigger in that moment. Later, after he had passed out on the bed, she picked up the gun and shot him.  She was found guilty of murder. The white Euro-American, and other male dominated systems of justice are realistically unable to create space for the reality of the continuum of oppression–the inter-laced, multi-layered and multi-dimensional, self-reinforcing maze of control and dominance.


The power imbalance, the control of reality defining (naming) institutions by the privileged groups, and the internalized oppression by members of the oppressed group make it almost impossible for the culture at large to recognize the consequences of the comprehensive oppression. If we are to render the concept of self defense a relevant term with meaning for real people, then of course we must include the reality experienced by the oppressed group member, and create laws and procedures reflective of that knowledge.


The same can be concluded in relation to pornographic exploitation. Two issues pointed out by Dworkin and MacKinnon are the overwhelming evidence of damage, and, because of the profit motive and the privileged groups’ need to rationalize the status quo, the overwhelming dominance in the public sphere of the constantly reinforced messages that the pornography sends regarding women’s sexuality and subordination, and acceptance of rape, domination, and degradation.


In her essay, Against The Male Flood, Andrea Dworkin argues “the radical responsibility is to isolate the material means of creating inequality so that material remedies can be found for it.”  Sexual subordination is a crucial tool used in the oppression of women. Pornography, as defined by Dworkin and Mackinnon, is part of that.


In part, because of the predisposition of both privileged group members and members of the target group to numb ourselves to the horror of what is being done to the participants and what is represented there, and because of the multi-billion dollar nature of the industry, it takes quite an effort to hear women and their allies naming this reality. Dworkin’s and McKinnan’s fight for  the right to legal civil action could have increased that volume just a little.  Instead, because of our love affair with a rigid, abstract interpretation of the First Amendment (perceived necessary in an un-liberated system), they found few allies in this struggle. The enlightened voice of the oppressed group members is still barely and rarely heard as, instead, the celebration and exhibition of sexualized oppression (confused with empowering sexuality) has moved further into the mainstream of our social intercourse.




Naming by members of the dominant group, and those who have internalized their own oppression, prevents us from seeing the comprehensiveness of dominance and control.  Marilyn Frye, in her book, The Politics of Reality describes the initial invisibility of oppression by using the analogy of a bird cage. If you narrow your vision to only one bar and the space immediately around it, you don’t understand what keeps the bird from leaving the cage. If we look at assault against a woman as an isolated problem, if we look at sexual harassment as an isolated problem, if we look at job or credit discrimination as an isolated problem, if we look at a woman’s poverty as an isolated problem, if we look at a teenaged girl’s prostitution as an isolated problem, if we look at pornography as an isolated problem, then we can’t understand the power of the cage to control the targeted group. Out of our ignorance and privilege then comes a construction of the world that names things either through a partial analysis or a totally inaccurate one that doesn’t take in the multi-layered reality of the vast majority of beings on the planet. As Josh Billings said, “(we) know so much that just aint so.”


Animal rights activists are particularly sensitive to the absence of a voice from those harmed by the naming.  Whatever the communication methods of other species, we generally don’t understand them. Members of our species decided a long time ago that, in general, we could use other beings as we see fit, without much regard for their wellbeing or desires, unless those things affected their availability for our use.  Although our species is unquestionably omnivorous, and there is irrefutable evidence that eating animal remains or products harms our health and our planet, citizens of developed and developing nations are eating more animal remains than ever. The mass marketing of animal products takes up so much space, and the voices protecting the industry are overwhelmingly loud and experienced at naming. This is also true in the research industry, where millions of our cousins are tortured and murdered annually. The voices are so loud, we cannot hear the animals or their allies.


Animal rights activist John Robbins explains it this way:


It is all very simple.

1. The whole show is a charade. It is a game based on repression and untruth.

2. Awareness is bad for the meat business.

3. Conscience is bad for the meat business.

4. Sensitivity to life is bad for the meat business.

5. Denial, however, the meat business finds indispensable.    


Years ago, Ann Wilson Schaef wrote in her book, Women’s Reality, that many problems in our culture came from the fact that although there was more than one “living system” from which people operated, our culture was run by only one of them: the white-male system. Further complicating the situation was that we were all taught that it was the only system. She argued that there was nothing particularly wrong with that system.  The  problem was it‘s exceptionality. This ignorance of other realities created disrespect in the white males for the other systems, and by necessity, misnamed others, and reinforced an internalized oppression in members of the non-white male system.


A few years later Schaef altered that position in her When Society Becomes An Addict. In this work she argued that not only was it bad that the society was run exclusively by the white male system, but also that it was such a dysfunctional system, it perpetuated a predisposition to addiction and denial throughout the society. While this may have been news to white heterosexual men, the rest of the society, all the others, were, by necessity, aware, even if not fully conscious of these and other costs. As I write, we still have a long way to go transform that dynamic.


Since naming reality is critical to our ability to respond and transform it, I consider it my sacred responsibility to listen intently to the voices of all those who are members of oppressed groups. I believe it is my responsibility and privilege to find ways to provide a megaphone that those of the oppressed group may use as they see fit, to name their reality. I believe that it is my responsibility to use my humility, openness, and generosity to take in those experiences, and pass them on to my brothers and sisters, whether from the front of the room, my seat at the table, or from outside whatever privileged circle I’m near, always acknowledging the limits of my knowledge.


So, if you want to be an ally, if you want to actively contribute to the liberation of this planet, you may want to use some steps I use.  And then add your own.


  1. Listen openly to the voice of any being cast as an other.

  2. Maintain a rigorous and vigorous inventory of your own feelings, thoughts, and actions.

  3. Make a commitment to live with humility, openness, and generosity toward yourself and others.

  4. Make it your job to learn about power, privilege and  oppression.

  5. Be accountable to those over whom you hold privilege.

  6. Be ready and willing to act for Liberation in any moment.

  7. Be willing to get in the way, even if the cost to you may be substantial.

    And use your heart to open your mind to a shared vision of a truly liberated Biosphere.


    *The Reason Why: Essays on The New Civil Rights Law Recognizing Pornography as Sex Discrimination, Dworkin and MacKinnan, 1985.

    *Thanks to Victor L. Lewis for helping me with an early version of this essay.