Saturday, April 12, 2014

Scar Tissue

About a month ago, I watched Twelve Years a Slave. I felt hot and had this gnawing nausea in the deep pit of my stomach that lasted for several days. I often have this visceral, bodily reaction to stories, films, and news and that shake my faith in humanity.  As a post-hysterectomy endometriosis, adenomyosis, polycystic ovarian syndrome, and pelvic adhesions survivor, I am sure hormonal imbalances could explain part of my incendiary response.   

The film is an adaptation of Solomon Northup's autobiographical account of being captured as a freed man in the north and sold back into slavery in the south in the mid-19th century.  While it is a harrowing tale of Northup's horrific experiences and survival as a well-educated slave in this "peculiar institution," it is also more broadly an examination of the dehumanization and hatred required to maintain and reproduce institutionalized and internalized systems of oppression. 

Two scenes of extreme brutality stuck with me. Envious of the favoritism the relatively merciful plantation owner shows the thoughtful artisan Northup, a white worker on one plantation assaults him. Northup fights back.  A severely beaten Northup is hung from a branch with his toes barely touching the muddy ground, tenuously hanging to life.  Other slaves and workers on the plantation, scarcely showing awareness of the "strange fruit" hanging in the tree, mill about and continue with their daily activities as he struggles to gain a foothold in the mud.  The scene is distressingly protracted.  The harder he struggles, the more he moves the mud out from under his feet.  The mud is the ground upon which his embodied existence depends, and he unwittingly aids his march to death the more he tries to get grounded. Toward the end of the scene, one female slave risks her life by bringing water for Northup to sip.  Eventually, the plantation owner cuts him down. 

Because Northup would likely have died at the hands of his white attacker if he stayed on this plantation, he is sold to another slave owner, Epps, who is known for his "expert" and vicious "breaking" and "taming" of unruly slaves. It is on this plantation that Northup meets Patsey, Epps' prized possession, a slave who expertly and feverishly picks more cotton per day than other slaves on the plantation. Epps has taken a keen sexual interest in Patsey and rapes her repeatedly. Epps' wife is aware of his sexual proclivities and verbally and physically assaults Patsey, at one point throwing crystal at Patsey's head, scarring her face.  The (sexual) assaults become more frequent and abusive, and Patsey begs Northup to kill her. 

Patsey leaves the plantation one day to make a trip to a neighboring plantation to get soap as Mistress Epps would not allow her to have any to wash herself. Epps confronts her when she returns. She tearfully pleads with him, saying that her odor, undoubtedly made worse by Epps' stench, makes her gag.  At Mistress Epps' urging, Epps orders Patsey to strip her clothing, and he ties her to a whipping post.  He commands Northup to whip her.  Epps becomes frustrated with Northup's perceived lack of force in his whipping, takes the whip and nearly whips Patsey to death. The brutality of this scene is unsettling at best and made me feel physically ill.

After more than a decade as a slave, a Canadian worker helps Northup get word to his family. Northup wins back his freedom and returns to his family in New York.  There is no such sanctuary for Patsey, clearly distraught as her friend Northup leaves.  Presumably, she continues living a private and isolating hell as a cotton-picking sex slave. 

The story of contemporary slavery is the story of Patsey.  Walk Free estimates that nearly 30 million people around the world are (sex) slaves.  An overwhelming majority are girls and women, and poor girls and women of color are particularly vulnerable to becoming sex slaves in the global human trafficking trade.  Many are sold as child brides. In recent weeks, President Jimmy Carter has made news for his book, A Call to Action, where he focuses on the abuses and atrocities girls and women face across the globe.  According to Carter, the world lost more than four times the female fetuses and infant girls than the 40 million deaths in World War II to abortion and infanticide in this generation. 

While certainly the global sex trade affects more girls and women where extreme poverty is entrenched as a way of life, girls and women in the developed world also face the effects of a truly global rape culture that values women for their bodies, sexuality, youth, and reproduction.  In the U.S., from the Steubenville rape case to the Cleveland house of horrors, it seems that rape culture is everywhere yet goes largely unnoticed.  One in four women on college campuses are sexually assaulted. The sexual assault of female military personnel is rampant. Rape culture encourages women who do not meet the standard of beauty represented in the airbrushed centerfolds of pornography and Victoria's Secret models to purchase cosmetic tools and services to re-shape their faces and bodies, including everything from make up to breast augmentation and labiaplasty.  Rape culture casts women who refuse to conform to male adolescent sexualized fantasy as bitches and those who do as whores.

My students are often shocked when I show the film Dreamworlds 3 in my gender and sexuality course.  The film very clearly demonstrates links between what music producers and artists construct as female sexuality in music videos and scenes of real sexual violence, including video camera footage from the sexual assaults that occurred in Central Park during the 2000 National Puerto Rican Day Parade in New York City.  As in other forms of media, most music videos construct female sexuality as insatiable, ever-present, as available even when women say no, and as inextricably connected to objectified body parts.  Music videos largely depict women as interchangeable as long as they meet the standard of the male pornographic gaze.  As Sut Jhally, the producer of Dreamworlds 3, asserts, the problem is not that music videos present women as sexual beings. The problem is that record label owners are predominantly wealthy, white heterosexual men, and their stories about female sexuality, including the sexuality of women of color, are the only stories told.  Thus, these stories deny women as subjects and deny women the right to construct their own version of sexuality. 

Many of my students, particularly my male students, say that they have never really noticed the explicit messages about women's sexuality and rape culture in music videos until I show this film where the images are stripped from the audio track and analyzed as narratives.  This is not surprising as sexual objectification and violence have become so normalized that they hide in plain sight.  For example, one recent disturbing piece of research on the messages contained in British men's (or lads') magazines found that most of the young male participants had trouble distinguishing between quotes from men's magazines and quotes from interview transcripts of convicted rapists in prison. Many young men identified more with the quotes from convicted rapists than with messages in men's magazines. [1]  Another study, published just this month in Gender and Society, reports that girls and young women rarely report sexual assault because they view such abuse as typical and normal.[2]

What is to be done, then, to address women's global (sexual) subordination and abuse? From a public policy and international law perspective, President Carter outlines twenty-three steps for progress on women's rights. From a more personal perspective for everyday life, the most proactive political thing you can do is what you do in the bedroom, or wherever you have sex.  Hold women up as they grapple with creating their own version of sexuality through their experience of sexual pleasure.  Support them so they do not strangle themselves as they struggle to ground themselves in their embodied existence as a sexual human being in the muddied world of rape culture.  Tethered to objectified images of women as little more than interchangeable body parts, the more they struggle to be seen, the more they embody the sexualized fantasies of the male pornographic gaze, the further their humanity diminishes as they (unwittingly) aid in their march toward sexual victimization. 

Men and women lovers, make women's sexual satisfaction a priority.  Help women to feel confident enough to cut themselves loose from the stranglehold rape culture has on their sexual identities and self awareness. Because the messages our culture sends girls and women about how to be and appear feminine and sexy prevent many from verbalizing their desires and needs, and encourages them to suppress those needs and desires while they take care of others, ask women to tell you what feels good and what does not, what they desire and what they do not desire.  Do not assume that what felt good for one woman also feels good for another. Newsflash: Women are not all the same! It may take some time for women to be comfortable enough to tell you what they want as they have been taught for a lifetime that having sexual desire is dirty and whorish, but keep asking.

Men and women, but men especially, do not keep going about your business when others are (sexually) abusing and degrading girls and women.  In much of the research on rape culture, men either report that they or other men believe that women deserved to be punished with sex when they do not respond to men's sexual advances. It is disturbing how much of the language boys and men use resembles the language of slave owners who believed that slaves had to be "broken" and "tamed," repressing their animal natures in servitude to their masters. Some men report that they believe women have to be "broken," "whipped," "controlled," or "fucked hard" in sexual servitude.  Do not be like the other plantation workers who go about their daily activities without doing anything about or even acknowledging the strange fruit hanging in the trees. While I know it seems that the stakes were much higher under the peculiar institution of slavery where one could lose his or her life for helping or fighting back against the oppressor, we do not know how many girls and women we lose to suicide, murder, or a lifetime of sexual servitude when no one stands up for their interests and safety.  "Un-normalize" the normalized.  Call other men out on their sexism and misogyny when they objectify women and call them bitches and whores, especially when there are no women around to hear. 

Women, stop supporting women's degradation and abuse through denigrating and abusing other women who are struggling to find their foothold.  Stop being Mistress Epps.  Patsey's whipping in Twelve Years a Slave was particularly gut wrenching but also important in showing how patriarchy and racism are mutually constructive systems of oppression. Mistress Epps' jealousy and abuse of Patsey are inexcusable. Yet, they are representative of her powerlessness in a system where her desires and needs are subordinated to her husband's, and she has very few opportunities for self-determination.  Instead of seeing Patsey as the victim of rape, Mistress Epps punishes Patsey, almost to her death. This racialized denigration of other women who "cannot keep their legs shut" as "welfare queens," "hoes," "bitches," and the like, continues today and prevents women from fighting some of the common sources of their oppression together, although the oppression women of color face is not the same or equal to the oppression of white women.   

All women struggle with creating a (sexual) identity within a contradictory culture where it is almost impossible to get it "right." If women are sexually chaste, they are admonished for being a prude. If they seek pleasure in sex, they are shamed for being a slut.  Yet, women are defined by their sexuality everywhere you look.  Women, we need each other.  We need to be building each other up instead of tearing each other down.  We need the fire of women-defined sexual liberty and satisfaction to be able to tell Patsey's story and prevent herstory from becoming the contemporary story of being woman.



[1] Horvath, Miranda A. H., Peter Hegarty, Suzannah Tyler, and Sophie Mansfield, "'Lights on at the End of the Party': Are Lads' Mags Mainstreaming Dangerous Sexism?" British Journal of Psychology (2011).
[2] Hlvaka, Heather R, "Normalizing Sexual Violence: Young Women Account for Harassment and Abuse." Gender & Society (2014).