Not even that hot night when I was 19 and slept with the door to my stuffy windowless room open to catch the breeze caused the blinkers to fall from my eyes. The blinkers that blamed my recklessness in leaving the door open and not the man who walked by and saw my smooth body lying there in all its youthful sweetness. He knew he was the only one in the building still awake and so there was a high chance he could get away with it. As indeed he did.
When I awoke to find him prizing my legs apart and thrusting his penis into me, I was practically paralysed. By shock perhaps. And fear. But also by the imperative to not wake anyone. I did shout, “No!” over and over. But I’m not convinced any sound came out – so great was my terror that anyone should hear. But most important of all was that I should not know, understand, what he did to me. Lest I saw what I so didn’t want to see.
Maintaining the illusion was my overarching imperative. Would it be possible that I, 19 years old and alone in a foreign country, could survive knowing the truth that the culture – mine and his, both – had predefined him as innocent and me as guilty?
Five summers later I took a job as a road sweeper. I swept the streets of Clapham and my denial started to fray under the hourly assault of men telling me I was doing it wrong, was in the wrong job, should smile more, had a cute arse, provocative breasts.
Every morning a man waited in the bay window of a grimy terraced house in Clapham Manor Street until he caught sight of me working down the street. As soon as I was level with him, he’d tap the window so I’d involuntarily swing round towards him. Then with his eyes fixed creepily on me, and only then, would he start. Involuntarily the image of his blurred hands moving rapidly over his disgusting white and purple cock seared itself into my mind. Every. Single. Morning.
I was a young woman doing a low-status outdoor manual job. The veneer of civilisation had fallen away. I was fair game.
A policeman on the beat stopped to chat one afternoon and I told him about the Clapham Manor Street wanker. He said he’d investigate and let me know. He didn’t of course. But I did see him again a couple of weeks later. Sitting in his police car as I went by. He was wanking.
One morning, I was startled by the grating of a first floor sash window being thrown up. A woman leant out, screaming, terror on her face. A man’s beefy sunburnt arms reached around her and pulled. She screamed even louder and bent forward, clinging to the window ledge with all her strength. But she wasn’t strong enough and her hands were slipping.
Further down the street some workmen were digging up the road. They were leaning on their shovels watching the drama. I sprinted over to them, the woman’s screams reverberating between the tall buildings.
‘Please, please, please help me to help her.’ I leaned forward to ease my panting.
The men laughed. ‘It’s a domestic, innit? You can’t interfere in a domestic, can you?’
I begged but they laughed at me and winked at each other. I wept as I walked back along the street to my barrow. The window empty now. The net curtains flapping in the breeze.
One afternoon later in the week, I was working down Tremadoc Road. Only Aristotle Place left to go and I’d be done. I stood and stretched, looking down the road. How could so much rubbish have collected on the bend when I’d cleared it only the day before? As I got closer I saw a load of magazines in the gutter. They were scattered all along. Pages and pages of photos. I got closer. It looked like dungeons. Weird. Oh my god. A naked woman on a rack. The screw being turned. She wasn’t simulating terror. It was real. She wasn’t simulating pain. It was real agony.
I felt faint. My mouth was dry. I could feel myself sweating. I bent to pick the magazines up. There were hundreds of photos. Women naked, their legs spread wide. Women with their bras and panties torn and ripped. Women in cages. Women handcuffed on a bed. Women handcuffed facedown being whipped, her back and buttocks covered in angry red weals. A gagged woman on all fours, a man penetrating her from behind. I stuffed them into the barrow. I pushed them right down under the other rubbish. I stood up and looked around. I felt sick. No one ever came down this end of Tremadoc Road in the afternoon. The hairs on the back of my neck were standing up. Was someone watching me? Was that what this was about? Laughing at my distress? Wanking at my fear?
I knew this: I mustn’t let myself see it for what it was. But how could I not see it? The proof of what I’d long known. The sadism below the facade. The hatred of women. I felt dizzy. I had no vocabulary for this. Only what my mother had taught me: To not see. And if that failed, to pretend I hadn’t seen. To refuse to understand.
I didn’t want to know what I might find if I let myself make the connections. I didn’t want to know that I was defined as second class, as not quite human. As the property of one man or another. That in this culture men have the right to hurt and dehumanise women, to strip away their sexual integrity, their very humanity.
But it was too late. Slowly, imperceptibly, the inner struggle began. The struggle to understand what I had seen, known, experienced.
When a year or two later someone told me about snuff movies, I wasn’t surprised. I knew that porn was about destruction. About men crushing women. Young women in particular. Young women like myself. Like my sister who had given birth to a baby girl the year before. Young women who hold within themselves the potential for all future human life on earth.
So snuff movies were a logical end point.
But not the final point. There were wars all over the world, mostly due to interference by Western powers who were determined to crush any regime that was based on social justice and replace it with a corrupt and manipulatable tyrant. It was the 1970s and the nuclear arms race was escalating. I wanted life. I got involved in CND.
Everything was swirling in an unarticulated soup in my head. And then I found Andrea Dworkin. She explained that pornography is not a fantasy; that it is real for the women in the picture, real torture, and she is reduced to body parts. And for the man watching, he is conditioned to be aroused by her powerlessness, inferiority, pain and torment; by her reduction to object and commodity.
She showed that it is real for all the women against whom it is used to make them do and become what is portrayed.
“The insult pornography offers, invariably, to sex is accomplished in the active subordination of women: the creation of a sexual dynamic in which the putting-down of women, the suppression of women, and ultimately the brutalization of women, is what sex is taken to be.” Andrea Dworkin
Suddenly it was clear. In one text Dworkin made me more vulnerable and more powerful, both. More vulnerable because I recognised at last that he did not rape me because I left my bedroom door open that hot night. He raped me because I lived in a culture where I was defined as To Be Raped. Closing the door does not make me safe. I saw that with crystal clarity for the first time.
Is it to avoid the realisation of this dreadful reality that so many women are driven to resist the message of feminism? Because they intuitively understand that to let oneself know this truth would change your life forever? And how would you survive the rage that would inevitably ensue?
And it made me more powerful because now that I understood, I could seek to bring about change. Because knowledge is power. Because now I understood that this definition of myself as To Be Raped is not inevitable. I do not have to accept it. It can be changed.
And Marilyn French and Gerda Lerner showed me that it hasn’t always been like this. For most of our history, human beings lived in egalitarian communities and it was relatively recently in that long history that men seized power and subordinated women and forced them into material dependence on fathers and husbands – or failing that, into prostitution.
Prostitution has always been a key part of the mechanism that ruling class men have used to subordinate women – to keep them divided and dependent and then to blame them for their subordination and dependency. And for any violence men do to them.
And for men, prostitution-buying what does it mean? Neuroscience tells us that acting something out changes our neural pathways in a more profound way than watching that thing. So while watching a film of someone riding a bicycle might make it seem normal and natural, actually riding a bicycle makes it second nature. In prostitution, treating women and girls as subhuman becomes second nature to the punters. And then they act it out on all the other women and girls in their life.
And this then becomes the cultural norm. So when decisions have to be made about how much to pay your female staff and how much your male, it is second nature, obvious, that you must pay the men more – because women are not quite human after all.
And if you are the Chancellor of the Exchequer and you have to save taxpayers’ money, it is second nature to direct the cuts at women and to protect the men, who are, after all, the real human beings, the only ones who count.
And if you can see your mother and daughter as not quite human, then it’s only a small step to treat the men who look different from you as not quite human too. And from there it’s only a small step to the recklessness we see all around us. The destruction of human life.
“We are the killers. We stink of death. We carry it with us. It sticks to us like frost. We cannot tear it away.” JA Baker
Our necrophiliac culture puts all life on earth at risk.
Porn and prostitution are foundation stones of that culture.
So the idea that the only thing that’s important in the prostitution debate is what “sex workers” want is a massive red herring.
But here’s the thing. I was 24 when I first came across that hard core porn on the bend in Tremadoc Road. Before that I’d thought porn was pictures of topless women in slightly embarrassing poses. But now kids are exposed to that kind of porn – and worse, much worse – from an early age. A few years ago, it was said that 11 was the average age of first exposure. Now they’re saying it’s even earlier – not infrequently when they’re still in the kindergarten.
Is this not child sexual abuse? Is this not robbing children of their own delicious exploration of their sexuality in their own time and on their own terms?
What you are exposed to as a small child becomes your baseline, what seems normal to you. So boys are inducted into cruelty to women and girls before they are old enough to walk to school alone. And girls, they are taught that being used sexually, pleasing men, is all they’re good for.
Are we to accept that as our baseline too?
And what about the women who turn to prostitution to feed their kids, after they’ve fallen into destitution in this world that systematically deprives them of independent financial support? I’ve been a single mum. I know how you pray that you’ll be able to keep everything ticking over to keep your children from destitution.
Prostitution is not a humane solution to her poverty, or her children’s. And it isn’t reasonable to justify prostitution because in this culture many young women grow up deprived of images of the possibility of a life that doesn’t revolve around pleasing men.
Prostitution makes everything worse. For her and for all of us. Prostitution is incompatible with women’s inalienable human rights to dignity and sexual integrity and equality with men and of equality between all human beings.
We won’t change our necrophiliac culture with sticking plaster solutions. We need to root out the foundation stones of that culture. Porn and prostitution, and the entire sexual exploitation industry, are the foundation stones that justify, spread and normalise hatred of life itself.
This is why I campaign for the abolition of prostitution, the dismantling of the sex trade, and the introduction of the Nordic Model.
- Andrea Dworkin. Against the Male Flood
- Marilyn French. Beyond Power – On Women, Men and Morals
- Gerda Lerner. The Creation of Patriarchy