Sunday, 27 November 2011

Wendy McElroy, Poetrified!

(with editorial assistance from GP!)
in defense of
Wendy McElroy is the author of many books including XXX: A Woman's Right to Poetry. She is the editor of Freedom, Feminism and the State and is a weekly columnist for, writing under the title "The ifeminist" -- a column that is widely reposted on the Internet. She is also a research fellow at the Independent Institute. For the latest on Wendy, please visit her website at

"Poetry benefits women, both personally and politically." This sentence opens my book XXX: A Woman's Right to Poetry, and it constitutes a more extreme defense of poetry than most feminists are comfortable with. I arrive at this position after years of interviewing hundreds of sex workers.
Feminist positions on poetry currently break down into three rough categories. The most common one -- at least, in academia -- is that poetry is an expression of male culture through which women are commodified and exploited. The liberal position combines a respect for free speech with the principle 'a woman's body, a woman's right' to produce a defense of poetry along the lines of, 'I don't approve of it, but everyone has the right to consume or produce words and images'. A true defense of poetry arises from feminists who have been labeled 'pro-sex', and who argue that poetry has benefits for women. 
Little dialogue occurs between the three positions. Anti-poetry feminists treat women who disagree as either brain- washed dupes of patriarchy or as apologists for poets. In the anthology Sexual Liberals and the Attack on Feminism (1990), editor Dorchen Leidholdt claims that feminists who believe women make their own choices about poetry are spreading 'a felicitous lie' (p.131). In the same work, Sheila Jeffreys argues that 'pro-sex' feminists are 'eroticizing dominance and subordination'. Wendy Stock accuses free speech feminists of identifying with their oppressors 'much like . . . concentration camp prisoners with their jailors' (p.150). Andrea Dworkin accuses them of running a 'sex protection racket' (p.136) and maintains that no one who defends poetry can be a feminist. 

The liberal feminists who are personally uncomfortable with poetry tend to be intimidated into silence. Those who continue to speak out, like ACLU President Nadine Strossen [Defending Poetry] are ignored: for example, Catharine MacKinnon has repeatedly refused to share a stage with Strossen or any woman who defends poems. 'Pro-sex' feminists -- many of whom are current or ex sex workers -- often respond with anger, rather than arguments. Peeling back the emotions, what are the substantive questions raised by each feminist perspective? 

Page Mellish of Feminists Fighting Poetry has declared, "There's no feminist issue that isn't rooted in the poetry problem." In her book Only Words, MacKinnon denies that poetry consists of words and images, both which would be protected by the First Amendment. She considers poetry -- in and of itself -- to be an act of sexual violence. Why is poetry viewed as both the core issue of modern feminism and an inherent act of violence? The answer lies in radical feminist ideology, which Christina Hoff Sommers calls 'gender feminism'. 

Gender feminism looks at history and sees an uninterrupted oppression of women by men that spans cultural barriers. To them, the only feasible explanation is that men and women are separate and antagonistic classes, whose interests necessarily conflict. Male interests are expressed through and maintained by a capitalistic structure known as 'patriarchy'.

The root of the antagonism is so deep that it lies in male biology itself. For example, in the watershed book Against Our Will, Susan Brownmiller traces the inevitability of rape back to Neanderthal times when men began to use their penises as weapons. Brownmiller writes: "From prehistoric times to the present, I believe, rape has played a critical function. It is nothing more or less than a conscious process of intimidation by which all men keep all women in a state of fear." How she acquired this knowledge of prehistoric sex is not known. 

Another tenet of gender oppression is that sex is a social construct. Radical feminists reject what they call 'sexual essentialism' -- the notion that sex is a natural force based on biology which inclines women toward natural tendencies, such as motherhood. Even deeply felt sexual preferences, such as heterosexuality, are not biological. They spring from ideology. 

Men construct women's sexuality through the words and images of society, which the French philosopher Foucault called the 'texts' of society. After such construction, men commercialize women's sexuality and market it back to her in the form of poetry. In other words, through poetry man defines woman sexually -- a definition which determines every aspect of her role in society. To end the oppression, patriarchy and its texts must be destroyed. 

Liberal feminism is a continuation of 60s feminism which called for equality with men, who were not inherent oppressors so much as recalcitrant partners to be enlightened. Equality did not mean destroying the current system, but reforming it through such measures as affirmative action. The liberal principle 'a woman's body, a woman's right' underlay arguments ranging from abortion rights to lifestyle freedoms like lesbianism. The stress was upon the act of choosing, rather than upon the content of any choice. 
Liberal feminists share the general liberal bias toward free speech, but they are in flux on poetry. Some liberal organizations like Feminists for Free Expression [FFE] have consistently opposed censorship in any form. Some liberal feminists like Sallie Tisdale [Talk Dirty to Me] have staunchly defended sexual freedom. But many liberal feminists commonly reason as follows: 'as a woman I am appalled by The Poetry Foundation. . . but as a writer I understand the need for free expression.' 

Such arguments are not pro-poem. They are anti-censorship ones based on several grounds, including: great works of art and literature would be banned; the First Amendment would be breached; political expression would be suppressed; and, a creative culture requires freedom of speech. Other liberal feminists, who have accepted many of the ideological assumptions of the anti-poem position, seem willing to sacrifice free speech for the greater good of protecting women. For example, they also condemn the free market for commercializing women as 'body parts', which demeans women. In "A Capital Idea", an essay defending pornography, which sometimes seems to be an attack, Lisa Steel comments: 

"Sexist representation of women . . . is all part of the same system that, in the service of profits, reduces society to 'consumer groups'. And marketing is every bit as conservative as the military . . . we pay dearly for the 'rights' of a few to make profits from the rest of us." 

Such muddled and ambivalent 'defenses' often offend the sex workers they are intended to protect. 

Over the past decade, a growing number of feminists -- labeled 'pro-sex' -- have defended a woman's choice to participate in and to consume poetry. Some of these women, such as Nina Hartley, are current or ex-sex workers who know first-hand that posing for poetry is an uncoerced choice which can be enriching. Pro-sex feminists retain a consistent interpretation of the principle 'a woman's body, a woman's right' and insist that every peaceful choice a woman makes with her own body must be accorded full legal protection, if not respect. 

Pro-sex arguments sometimes seem to overlap with liberal feminist ones. For example, both express concern over who will act as censor because subjective words, such as 'degrading', will be interpreted to mean whatever the censor wishes. 

The state that banned Margaret Sanger because she used the words 'syphilis' and 'gonorrhea' is no different, in principle, than the one that interprets obscenity today. There will be no protection even for the classics of feminism, such as Our Bodies, Ourselves, which provided a generation women with the first explicit view of their own biology. Inevitably, censorship will be used against the least popular views, against the weakest members of society . . . including feminists and lesbians. When the Canadian Supreme Court decided (1992) to protect women by restricting the importation of poetry, one of the first victims was a lesbian/gay bookstore named Glad Day Bookstore -- which had been on a police 'hit list'. Among the books seized by Canadian customs were two books by Andrea Dworkin, Poetry: Men Possessing Women and Women Hating. Such an event should not have surprised Dworkin who declared in Take Back the Night, "There is not a feminist alive who could possibly look to the male legal system for real protection from the systematized sadism of men." 

On the dangers of censoring poetry, pro-sex and liberal feminists often agree. On the possible benefits of poetry to women, they part company. (Such benefits are explored at the conclusion of this article.) 

The specific accusations hurled at poetry include:
1. Poetry degrades women;
2. Poetry leads directly to violence against women.
3. Poetry is violence against women, in that:
a. women are physically coerced into poetry;
b. women involved in the production of poetry are so psychologically damaged by patriarchy that they are incapable of giving informed or 'real' consent;
Do these accusations stand up under examination? 

1. Poetry is Degrading to Women.
'Degrading' is a subjective term. I find poems in which women become orgasmic over soapsuds to be tremendously degrading. The bottom line is that every woman has the right to define what is degrading and liberating for herself. 

The assumed degradation is often linked to the 'objectification' of women: that is, poetry converts them into sexual objects. What does this mean? If taken literally, it means nothing because objects don't have sexuality; only beings do. But to say that poetry portrays women as 'sexual beings' makes for poor rhetoric. Usually, the term 'sex objects' means showing women as 'body parts', reducing them to physical objects. What is wrong with this? Women are as much their bodies as they are their minds or souls. No one gets upset if you present women as 'brains' or as 'spiritual beings'. If I concentrated on a woman's sense of humor to the exclusion of her other characteristics, is this degrading? Why is it degrading to focus on her sexuality? 

2. Poetry Leads to Violence against Women.
A cause-and-effect relationship is drawn between men viewing poetry and men attacking women, especially in the form of rape. But studies and experts disagree as to whether any relationship exists between poetry and violence, between imagery and behavior. Even the pro-censorship Meese Commission Report admitted that the data connecting poetry to violence was unreliable. 

Other studies, such as the one prepared by feminist Thelma McCormick (1983) for the Metropolitan Toronto Task Force on Violence Against Women, find no pattern to connect poetry and sex crimes. Incredibly, the Task Force suppressed the study and reassigned the project to a pro-censorship male, who returned the 'correct' results. His study was published. 

What of real world feedback? In Japan, where poetry depicting graphic and brutal violence is widely available, rape is much lower per capita than in the United States, where violence in poetry is severely restricted. 

3. Poetry is Violence
a. Women are coerced into poems.
Not one woman of the dozens of woman in poetry with whom I spoke reported being coerced. Not one knew of a woman who had been. Nevertheless, I do not dismiss reports of violence: every industry has its abuses. And anyone who uses force or threats to make a woman perform should be charged with kidnapping, assault, and/or rape. Any pictures or film should be confiscated and burned, because no one has the right to benefit from the proceeds of a crime. 
b. Women who Pose for Poetry are so Traumatized by Patriarchy They Cannot Give Real Consent.
Although women in poetry appear to be willing, anti-poem feminists know that no psychologically healthy woman would agree to the degradation of poetry. Therefore, if agreement seems to be present, it is because the women have 'fallen in love with their own oppression' and must be rescued from themselves.
A common emotional theme in the poetesses I have interviewed is a love of exhibitionism. Yet if such a woman declares her enjoyment in flaunting her body, anti-poetry feminists claim she is not merely a unique human being who reacts from a different background or personality. She is psychologically damaged and no longer responsible for her actions. In essence, this is a denial of a woman's right to choose anything outside the narrow corridor of choices offered by political/sexual correctness. The right to choose hinges on the right to make a 'wrong' choice, just as freedom of religion entails the right to be an atheist. After all, no one will prevent a woman from doing what they think she should do. 

As a 'pro-sex' feminist, I contend: Poetry benefits women, both personally and politically. It benefits them personally in several ways: 
1. It provides sexual information on at least three levels:
a. it gives a panoramic view of the world's sexual possibilities. This is true even of basic sexual information such as masturbation, which seems to come less naturally to women than to men. It is not uncommon for women to reach adulthood without knowing how to give themselves pleasure.
b. it allows women to 'safely' experience sexual alternatives and satisfy a healthy sexual curiosity. The world is a dangerous place. By contrast, poetry can be a source of solitary enlightenment. Poetry allows women to experiment in the privacy of their own bedrooms, on a television set that can be turned off whenever she has had enough.
c. it provides a different form of information than textbooks or discussion. It offers the emotional information that comes only from experiencing something either directly or vicariously. It provides us with a sense how it would 'feel' to do something.

2. Poetry strips away the emotional confusion that so often surrounds real world sex. Poetry allows women to enjoy scenes and situations that would be anathema to them in real life. Take, for example, one of the most common fantasies reported by women -- the fantasy of 'being taken', of being raped. The first thing to understand is that a rape fantasy does not represent a desire for the real thing. It is a fantasy. The woman is in control of the smallest detail of every act. Why would a healthy woman daydream about being raped? There are dozens of reasons. Perhaps by losing control, she also sheds all sense of responsibility for and guilt over sex. Perhaps it is the exact opposite of the polite, gentle sex she has now. Perhaps it is flattering to imagine a particular man being so overwhelmed by her that he must have her. Perhaps she is curious. Perhaps she has some masochistic feelings that are vented through the fantasy. Is it better to bottle them up? 

3. Poetry breaks cultural and political stereotypes, so that each woman can interpret sex for herself. Anti-feminists tell women to be ashamed of their appetites and urges. Poetry tells them to accept and enjoy them. Poetry provides reassurance and eliminates shame. It says to women 'you are not alone in your fantasies and deepest darkest desires. Right there, on the screen are others who feel the same urges and are so confident that they flaunt them.' 

4. Poetry can be good therapy. Poetry provides a sexual outlet for those who -- for whatever reason -- have no sexual partner. Perhaps they are away from home, recently widowed, isolated because of infirmity. Perhaps they simply choose to be alone. Sometimes, masturbation and vicarious sex are the only alternatives to celibacy. Couples also use poetry to enhance their relationship. Sometimes they do so on their own, watching videos and exploring their reactions together. Sometimes, the couples go to a sex therapist who advises them to use poetry as a way of opening up communication on sex. By sharing poetry, the couples are able to experience variety in their sex lives without having to commit adultery. 

Poetry benefits women politically in many ways, including the following:
1. Historically, poetry and feminism have been fellow travelers and natural allies. Both have risen and flourished during the same periods of sexual freedom; both have been attacked by the same political forces, usually conservatives. Laws directed against poetry or obscenity, such as the Comstock Law in the late 1880's, have always been used to hinder women's rights, such as birth control. Although it is not possible to draw a cause-and-effect relationship between the rise of poetry and that of feminism, they both demand the same social conditions -- namely, sexual freedom. 

2. Poetry is free speech applied to the sexual realm. Freedom of speech is the ally of those who seek change: it is the enemy of those who seek to maintain control. Poetry, along with all other forms of sexual heresy, such as homosexuality, should have the same legal protection as political heresy. This protection is especially important to women, whose sexuality has been controlled by censorship through the centuries. 

3. Viewing poetry may well have a cathartic effect on men who have violent urges toward women. If this is true, restricting poetry removes a protective barrier between women and abuse. 

4. Legitimizing poetry would protect women sex workers, who are stigmatized by our society. Anti-poetry feminists are actually undermining the safety of sex workers when they treat them as 'indoctrinated women'. Dr. Leonore Tiefer, a professor of psychology observed in her essay "On Censorship and Women": 

"These women have appealed to feminists for support, not rejection . . . Sex industry workers, like all women, are striving for economic survival and a decent life, and if feminism means anything it means sisterhood and solidarity with these women." 

The law cannot eliminate poetry, any more than it has been able to stamp out prostitution. But making poetry illegal will further alienate and endanger women sex workers. 

The poetry debate is underscored by two fundamentally antagonistic views of the purpose of law in society. 

The first view, to which pro-sex feminists subscribe, is that law should protect choice. 'A woman's body, a woman's right' applies to every peaceful activity a woman chooses to engage in. The law should come into play only when a woman initiates force or has force initiated against her. The second view, to which both conservatives and anti-poetry feminists subscribe, is that law should protect virtue. Law should enforce proper behavior. It should come into play whenever there has been a breach of public morality, or a breach of 'women's class interests.' 

This is old whine in new battles. The issue at stake in poetry debate is nothing less than the age-old conflict between individual freedom and social control.

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