Andrea Dworkin’s Pornography: Men Possessing Women

Everyone’s got an opinion on Andrea Dworkin and it’s frequently one based in myth. I love Dworkin’s writing. I don’t always agree with her (and she’s sometime historically inaccurate) but she was an utterly brilliant polemicist. Her gift was amazing. She was a truly brilliant woman.

I’ve collated some quotes from the text here and here but the full text is available on the online Andrea Dworkin library.

Karen Boyle’s Everyday Pornography

Karen Boyle’s Everyday Pornography is an inter-disciplinary collection of 13 essays which are situated within the anti-pornography movement. Its focus is on the pornification of mainstream culture but also on the mainstream of pornography; that is to say the heterosexual male audience and the materials created specifically that audience. This is the praxis of the “everyday” of pornography and this is what makes Boyle’s book so powerful: it destroys the myth that porn is an isolated part of our culture that we can refrain from being exposed to. Karen Boyle’s personal contribution to the book “Porn Consumers’ public faces: Mainstream media, address and representation” demonstrates the ubiquity of porn within popular culture through films like American Pie, Showtime’s Porn: A Family Business and the extremely tedious program Friends. Sarah Neely examines how pornography and other parts of the commercial sex industry are reflected and constructed within the virtual online reality game Second Life. Meagan Tyler’s research focuses on how the porn industry defines itself. Tyler’s findings demonstrate that degradation, abuse, and violence are not only common in pornography but that the industry actively promotes it. Lisa Jean Moore and Juliana Weissbein’s is a fascinating study of the fetishisation of semen. 

The academic language of the text can make it easier to disassociate from the violence within. In many ways, Everyday Pornography is the perfect companion to Melinda Tankard Reist and Abigail Bray’s Big Porn Inc: Exposing the Harms of the Global Pornography Industry. Big Porn Inc. written by a collection of activists and radical feminists. I had a more immediate visceral reactions to the violence committed during the making of pornography in the text Big Porn Inc. Everyday Pornography was easier to process despite the fact that it is equally distressing. 

Everyday Pornography is a necessary read. It is hard but we can not destroy the capitalist-patriarchy unless we understand just how just how it functions: Jennifer Johnson’s analysis of porn’s use social networking is essential to this understanding.

Big Porn Inc: Exposing the Harms of the Global Pornography Industy


Big Porn Inc: Exposing the Harms of the Global Pornography Industry, edited by Melinda Tankard Reist and Abigail Bray, is a collection of articles from radical feminists, activists, and academics who all believe that pornography is not about “pleasure, self-empowerment and freedom of choice”; rather that  pornography represents the systemic subjugation of women as a sex class.  Therefore pornography is not about sex, it is a form of violence against women. I am an anti-porn, anti-sex industry feminist so it’s fairly clear that I agree with the basic premise of this book.

I wasn’t prepared for what I read. I had already read Gail Dines’ Pornland and Robert Jensen’s Getting Off. I even attended the Challenging Porn Conference in London in 2011. I already knew the links between pornography and the pharmaceutical/ medical business. I knew how the pornography industry uses “free sites” to suck people into payed-for porn. I knew the violence perpetrated on women’s bodies. I knew how porn was predicated on racist constructions of the human body. I thought I understood just how mainstream violent and child pornography actually is. I had seen images I never wanted to see in the first place. I still wasn’t prepared for this book.

I wasn’t prepared for the soul-destroying mundanity of it all; of realising just well pornography is integrated into the capitalist economy; how horrifically common-place extreme violence is. I wasn’t prepared for just how normal porn involving children and teenagers is. I wasn’t prepared to read what men do to the bodies of women and children. I wasn’t prepared to realise just how many men hate women.

I have  storified some of the quotes I tweeted out over the weekend whilst I was reading hereAllecto from Liberation Collective has written an excellent review here. It includes a graphic description of child rape so please take care before opening this link.

Big Porn Inc is an incredibly powerful book and I’m going to recommend it to every single person who tries to convince that porn is just a laugh and women like being brutally assaulted.

Angela Bourkes’ The Burning of Bridget Cleary

Angela Bourke’s The Burning of Bridget Cleary is a social history of the use of fairies and other myths to control people’s behaviour in Ireland in the 19th century. She traces the history of these myths to contextualise the brutal torture and murder of Bridget Cleary by her husband and kinsmen. It is very powerful but equally horrifying. What impressed me the most is that Bourke places the murder of Bridget firmly within a narrative of domestic violence. There are no excuses for male violence so, whilst the murder is contextualised with a history of faeries, changelings, power struggles, and jealousy  Bourke holds the murderers accountable. Bourke then situates the trial of Bridget’s murderers within the political context of British Home Rule of Ireland and the British construction of Irish people as savages.

The Burning of Bridget Cleary is one of the most fascinating and well-researched books I have ever read. Bourke traces multiple layers of  history and myth to tell the story of the murder of Bridget Cleary. It’s rather like Kate Summerscale’s The Suspicions of Mr Whicher* but from a feminist perspective rather than a comprehensive social history. 

I honestly can not recommend this book enough. It is brilliant, insightful, frightening and, above all, a true picture of the complicated processes required to tell the history of women. 

*The Suspicions of Mr Whicher is worth a read too as it contextualises the origins of detectives in British society within the literature of the day particularly in relation to the work of Wilkie Collins and Charles Dickens.

Barbara Kingsolver’s Pigs in Heaven

I love Barbara Kingsolver’s books. I know I’m late to the party on this having only discovered her books two years ago but she is an amazing writer. The Poisonwood Bible is one of the best books I have ever read. Pigs in Heaven covers the same terrain as The Poisonwood Bible: motherhood, sisterhood, female friendships, family and surviving.

Pigs in Heaven is the story of Taylor and her adopted daughter Turtle who is Cherokee. The central plot is who Turtle really belongs too: the woman who illegally adopted her but who nurtured her through the trauma of her extensive physical and sexual abuse or the Cherokee nation into whom she was born. Kingsolver asks complicated questions about family and sisterhood and, whilst the ending is too pat, it is, fundamentally, a testament to how we should be raising our children: not as possessions but as members of extended communities built on love and tradition.

These are my two favourite quotes: 

Alice realises something important about her daughter at this moment: that she’s genuinely a mother. She has changed in this way that motherhood changes you, so that you forget you every had time for small things like despising the color pink. 

… 

Sympathizing over the behavior of men is the baking soda of women’s friendships, it seems, the thing that makes them bubble and rise.  

For obvious reasons. 

Helen Castor’s She-Wolves:The Women Who Ruled England Before Elizabeth

I couldn’t put this book down. Helen Castor has a real gift for prose; a rare gift among historians. The hours I’ve wasted reading badly written historical texts in my life are extensive so this was a joy to read. I also knew next to nothing about the 5 queens that Castor profiled: Matilda, Eleanor of Aquitaine,  Isabella of France, Margaret of Anjou and Mary Tudor. She-Wolves: The Queens who Ruled England Before Elizabeth is a fascinating and quick read. There are some problems with the text; notably the complete lack of footnotes and sources. I understand this was written as a piece of “popular fiction” but the inclusion of the bibliography at the back was not enough. I want to read more about these four women but it’s hard to tell which would be the best texts for me to read next. 

Castor’s respect and admiration for these five women, however flawed they were is evident, but this is still a military history of battles and men. Yes, this testifies to the paucity of primary source material on the lives of these women but the book is still focused mainly on military history, dynastic squabbles and male temper tantrums. There is very little about the women themselves and much of what Castor writes focuses on their military and political battles. In many ways, this is a very traditional “history” text, albeit one written about women.  Castor simply doesn’t make enough of the social and cultural milieu in which the women lived. She focuses on the military history to the exclusion of the households and courts of the women themselves. They are all defined in relation to the men they married or birthed.

Castor also leaves numerous questions unexamined. She claims from the start that these 5 women were prevented from becoming true queens because of their inability to lead armies. Her first evidence of this is Matilda’s inability to lead an army to fight Stephen who ousted her from her thrown. Yet, less than 20 pages later, Castor claims that Stephen’s wife lead an army against Matilda’s troops. Why could King Stephen’s wife, a queen consort, lead an army whilst the ousted Queen Matilda could not? These women also lived across 4 centuries and Castor makes very little of the changing political and social structures which dramatically changed the women’s ability to claim the thrown. After all, Matilda was English -born [but the granddaughter of William the Conquerer] whilst Isabella, Eleanor and Margaret were all foreign-born. Mary become queen by dint of being properly English [and a Tudor]. That makes a significant difference.

I did enjoy this book as Castor’s gift for writing compensates for any problems within the text. It isn’t the best text for learning more about these 5 Queens of England though. What She-Wolves does demonstrate, more than anything I’ve read in a long time, is cultural femicide: the complete erasure of women from culture. The fact that there is simply not enough evidence of the lives of these 5 women to write a history without basing it on their relationships with men is cultural femicide.

As ever, I would love recommendations for histories of these women!

Jewly Hight’s Right By Her Roots: Americana Women and Their Songs

The problem with this book is that it is just one book. It should be nine separate books: the eight singer-songwriters that Hight adores so much:
And, Jewly Hight herself; because Hight might claim to be writing the stories of these eight women singers-songwriters and their examination of “their geographical, cultural, familial, and religious roots in their music” but Hight’s actually written herself into the text. I want to know more about the 8 female artists and Hight.  A longer book would have allowed the inclusion of more of the lyrics by these talented women but also more of Hight herself. Right by Her Roots is a love affair with these talented women singer-songwriters and it’s love-affair that just isn’t long enough.

It’s all fascinating but at 200 pages, there simply isn’t enough space to really examine these issues and fully explore the back catalogues of the music of these women. I want to know more about all 8 women but equally I want to know about Hight. I want to know about how Hight traces her roots and I want more of Hight’s personal responses to these women.

I definitely recommend this book but with fingers crossed that Hight writes more in-depth books about these women (and herself).

 

Barbara Black Koltuv’s The Book of Lilith

I’m in two minds about Barbara Black Koltuv’s The Book of Lilith. I found the history of the myths surrounding Lilith, and her previous incarnations in other cultural traditions, utterly fascinating. This is a history of women and myth that I knew nothing about. Koltuv’s choice to quote large sections of original text were of immense value. On the other hand, I was less fond of Koltuv’s use of psychoanalysis because I felt it involved an essentialist construction of women as being either Eve or Lilith. This is obviously an odd criticism considering Koltuv is a well-respected psychoanalyst but the constant reference to the power of modern women’s sexuality detracted from the origin myths of Lilith. 

Prior to reading this, I knew nothing of Lilith and I will have to reread this book as there is just so much information packed into such a short text that I feel I have missed out on pieces of Lilith’s story.  I knew Lilith was the first woman in one version of the Christian tradition but I did not know about Lilith’s construction within Jewish texts. I certainly did not know that Lilith is purported to be one of the two “mothers” of the infant in the Biblical story the Judgement of Solomon. I want to know more but I found myself distracted by Koltuv’s inclusion of her current patients. Koltuv’s use of psychoanalysis to read the stories of Lilith throughout history was really powerful and riveting but the references to her modern practise were simply not. 

Lilith’s rewriting as mother and whore, as the moon but also a deity fascinates me. So, if anyone has any excellent recommendations to read on the story of Lilith [and written by women!], please let me know.

Lisa See’s Snow Flower and the Secret Fan

My mother bought this book for my daughter two years ago. My daughter has never bothered to read it since it lacks vampires (sighs) so I read it instead.

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is an utterly beautiful book about the relationship of two women in 19th century China. It is the story of the friendship between Lily and her laotong Snow Flower. I had never heard this term before but Lily’s aunt defines it as “made by choice for the purpose of emotional companionship and eternal fidelity. A marriage is not made by choice and has only one purpose – to have sons.” I can’t decide if the acknowledgment that women’s emotional needs are worth consideration and are, therefore, encouraged formally makes me sad or relieved.

The relationship between Lily and Snow Flower is not a healthy one. The two women are very different and Lily’s insecurities all but destroy Snow Flower. Their friendship should have saved them, and it does maintain them through their footbinding as children, but both suffer dreadfully throughout their lives. Snow Flower’s husband is violently abusive, whilst Lily, who ‘marries well’ remains deeply unhappy and hurts those she loves the most.

In many ways, the book is about the power of women’s friendship and the trauma when it is torn asunder. Despite this particular friendship being destroyed by jealousy, it is the thought of the friendship which sustains both women through civil war, VAW, marriage, childbirth and infant loss.

It is a young adult fiction book but I enjoyed it very much.

Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible

The Poisonwood Bible was the most recommended book on the Mumsnet Feminist Book Club board when I started my #readingonlybookswrittenbywomen. Honestly, you’d think I’d admitted to kicking puppies for shits and giggles due to the level of shock by my admittance that I hadn’t read it.

For those heretics who have not yet read it, The Poisonwood Bible is the story of an American family who travel to the Congo as missionaries in 1959. The father is an emotionally abusive, misogynistic and racist evangelical Baptist who drags his wife and 4 daughters across the planet in order to “save the savages through Christ”. He’s an arsehole whose arrogance tears his family apart. The redemption of his daughters in postcolonial Africa is the story of women paying for the crimes of men but it’s also the story of sisterhood and the binds of family that tie us together. 

I could go on forever blathering about my love for this book but the best review was from a woman sitting near me on train who told me she was jealous that I was reading it for the first time. Now, I feel the same. I am jealous of those just reading it for the first time.