Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Kyle Payne and the Problem of Profeminism

It's not new news.

In fact, it's a story that has been extensively discussed in some circles of the blogosphere: Kyle Payne, a white anti-racist, anti-globalization pro-feminist has been charged and convicted for sexually violating a woman over whom he had complete control. She had no meaningful agency at the time of him violating her through entrance of her room leading to him touching her and photographing her, for his own sexual purposes. (He wasn't documenting bruises for a police report, for example.) He did what he did while she was unconscious from inebriation.

The gist of a quote by Andrea Dworkin comes to mind: the consequence to women of getting drunk ought to be a hangover, not date rape. Kyle, according to the news story, did not commit date rape: they were not on a date, and it remains unclear exactly to what degree he violated her body. But he did use and abuse her in various ways that are abhorrent and outrageous, and antithetical to profeminist values and practices.

Kyle's job, as RA, was to make sure she was safe and secure in the dormitory. His job, as a white male supremacist, is to take advantage of his many privileges and entitlements, including having access, on demand, to women's bodies.

What led to her inebriation is not part of this story; it is irrelevant to what Kyle did. The fact of her being so inebriated is indeed an important factor: it means she didn't have the agency and ability even to shout, "Get away from me, Kyle." Our patriarchally mythic childhood stories tell us that men get excited because a woman is a catatonic thing. "Is there anything more alluring?," male supremacists ask each other, men who disgruntledly must do the extra work of violating women who move and speak.

In Western patriarchal mythology, and in the societies which perpetuate them, women are supposed to be used and abused in ways men desire, which, as Dworkin notes:

Antifeminism defends the conviction that the male abuse of women, especially in sex, has an implicit logic, one that no program of social justice can or should eliminate; that because the male use of women originates in the distinct and opposite natures of each which converge in what is called “sex,” women are not abused when used as women — but merely used for what they are by men as men.

– Andrea Dworkin, Right-wing Women

If we pay attention to a range of white Western men's tales (or if we live in reality), we notice it is women of all colors, across the globe, who are there for the taking. Men act on these entitlements with frequency oppressively effecting millions of women and girls directly; this fact is, depending on how you look at it and experience it, horrifically alarming, or frustratingly commonplace. The Kyle news may be met with a comment like "that hypocritical f*cker!" or "of course: what else is new?" I tend to have both responses when I hear about stories such as Kyle's abuse of a woman student, perhaps in part to my knowledge of what other profeminist men have done, and of what antifeminist men do with considerably less anxiety.

The problem of profeminism is that its practicioners don't state what our principles and values are, exactly. Given the variety of forms feminism takes, to whom are profeminist men accountable: the women we call feminists? Time and again, when arguing with the sort of white heterosexually active man who speaks "progressively" of his use of pornography featuring Asian women, or his enjoyment of sadomasochistic sex, including calling his sexual partner his sex-slave, he'll use the line, lying or not, self-servingly at any rate: "My girlfriend is the one who suggested it" or, at least "she enjoys it." Perhaps she did and perhaps she does. And perhaps there is more to the story than that.

My positition as a radical profeminist is that those of us who call ourselves profeminist had better be clear on what our politics, practices, and values are. The fact that some women are drawn to or introduced to sadomasochism by men or pornography, are ethusiastically engaged in or compulsorarily acting out sexist heterosexuality, or being femme in heterosexist ways, does not alter my understanding of how patriarchy works; rather, it confirms it. This doesn't mean I am entitled to tell women with whom and how to be sexual or social; to believe I am entitled to do so is utterly patriarchal, and not at all profeminist. I believe, instead, in calling out men who use women's feelings, experiences, and conditions inside patriarchy to defend our own patriarchal behavior.

The problem of profeminism is that Kyle may be seen as a deviant in our midst, a betrayer to the rest of us allegedly "good boys." The harsher truth is that most men, profeminist or not, remain fully entitled to behave in ways detrimental to the goal of achieving women's liberation from patriarchy. And a key component of that entitlement is that it not be addressed and challenged by men. Men do not, as a rule, accurately name what we do, let alone take responsibility for it. Rarer still is the phenomenon of men making the commitment to see to it that our male supremacist entitlements are revoked, or that the price paid for acting on them is so high as to make men fear for their lives.

The problem of profeminism is that the presence of The White Brotherhood's own value system--its politics and practices--are not sufficiently identified, challenged, and collectively rejected as antithetical to our work as profeminist activists.

If, in fact, Kyle is us and we are him, where does he, and where do we, go from here?

To cast him out of our "club" is to do what? Pretend we are now purified of men with pornographically rapist tendencies and histories? To sympathetically support him is to do what? Reinforce his entitlements and pretend that what he did is not an act of gross inhumanity?

For me, the radically profeminist challenge is take a third approach: to demand that he be accountable to feminists. To demand that he be in regular contact with profeminists who are directly accountable to feminists who work against the atrocity of rape and the harm of pornography; to make sure he doesn't violate another woman, to the best of our abilities; to make sure he learns all he can from what he did in order to become a humane and responsible member of the profeminist community; to let him know what the consequences will be if he violates another woman; and to follow through with those consequences should he violate a woman again.

Feminist bloggers immediately discussed the Kyle Payne case. It is not surprising to me, and it is outrageous, that so few male bloggers will take this matter on, critically. This absense of action reveals the extent to which The White Brotherhood demands our silence on all matters about which we should speak up and otherwise act in ways that are distinctly and radically antipatriarchal.