By Sheila Anne
Used by permission of the author.
When I was an anti-feminist, I thought I had created myself. I didn’t think I was affected by herstory, culture, language or by anyone else around me. I didn’t think my thoughts, feelings, or actions were influenced by anything or anyone. No one, absolutely no one was telling me what to do.
I grew up listening to the news, media–well, just about everyone ridiculing and trivializing the Women’s Liberation Movement. I knew that I didn’t want to be anything like these “picky,” “oversensitive” women. I was tough. I could handle myself. And actually, I was terrified. I was terrified of sexuality. I was terrified of my femaleness, my vulnerability as a female. I was terrified of being laughed at–like “those wimmin.”
But No One was telling me what to do.
I didn’t know that I was being told what to do, think and feel before I was born. I didn’t realize that I was being bombarded with words and images from every possible direction that kept me in both a state of terror and denial that there was anything to fear.
And how this all works best is that those who have real power to affect and change my life, do it so well and so constantly, it can be undetected, life as expected. But these “women,” they easily stood out on the landscape and they were easy to blame and laugh at. “These women,” I told myself, were not telling me what to do, how to act and how to talk. But they were not the ones with the power to “make me” do anything. We rarely seem to hold the ones with real power to make us do things accountable in anywhere near the same way as we charge wimmin who raise difficult issues but have no power to “make us” do anything.
Not having my language or behavior corrected (detectably) was very important to me. Coming from a working-class background, I had a sense of not fitting in with the middle-class status quo that we were all supposed to aspire to, that I wouldn’t be able to–and so I didn’t want to. I had discovered other ways of feeling powerful and right.
As a kid, I learned how to fight and defend myself physically, but in most situations, my best weapon was my mouth, the snappy comeback, “colorful,” graphic and especially violent, sexually violent metaphors. I loved to argue, verbally spar and found in my cultural heritage and experience a rich tradition of “having a way with words.” The way with words wasn’t about how to communicate fully and clearly my deepest feelings and thoughts to others, but how to feel in control, keep feelings hidden and protected, how to make others laugh and enjoy themselves around me, and if anyone tried to “mess with me,” it was about how to quickly “put them in their place.”
I punctuated my sentences with the “F-word.” I could use it as noun, verb, adjective, and adverb. My favorite sentence was, “You f-ed-up f-ing f-.” I found that when making a point–well, talking about anything–my sentence for some reason had greater “thrust” if I threw an “f” in somewhere, especially if I said it with some anger or passion. I also found that anything I said was less likely to be challenged if I threw an “f” in. I wasn’t conscious of all this at the time. I would have denied it. I would have said, this is just the way I talk, or that I didn’t “mean” anything in particular by the words I was “choosing” (fairly automatically). I would have accused anyone who was uncomfortable with my language of being “uptight,” “too serious.” Later, when I had figured out only enough about class to use it as a defensive weapon, I would have told anyone who challenged me that they were being classist.
Slowly, I became more conscious about language and power, the role of language in limiting options and in oppression. Slowly I “got it” about the most blatant examples of oppressive language that I had internalized. I began dropping words and expressions from my vocabulary–not because anyone was telling me what to do, not because of the demeaning concept of being “politically correct” where it is suggested that we make changes in language and behavior because of something like fashion or external approval; but because once it was clear to me what I was participating in by using certain words, it became uncomfortable to continue using them. I didn’t want to use them anymore.
But no one was dare challenging me on the “swearing and cursing” words and I wasn’t interested in “giving them up.”
And now this is the hard part.
My life took an unexpected turn in the early 1990s when in my efforts to build and sustain community with other Dykes, I found that many of us had incredibly entrenched obstacles and barriers preventing us from aligning and identifying with each other on any deep level. I began to understand that many of us had been turned against ourselves and each other fairly purposefully by experiences of abuse as children.
I began to understand that this was not a personal issue or a therapy issue but a political issue of power and control on a very large scale. As I became aware of child sexual abuse, a continuum of abuse including ritualistic and cult-related abuse, I also became much more aware of the culture that supports and reinforces the damage of these crimes.
I became aware that when I acted automatically and unconsciously, I was a part of this abusive culture.
I started to notice the violence in my language and how it affected other Dykes around me; eventually, I noticed how it affected me, the changes in my energy and presence to myself. I began to notice that I was surrounded by a culture that I’ve begun to call “rape culture.”(1) With this awareness, I found myself facing off with what had been a favored word, tool and yes, now I know, weapon. The word fuck. What did it mean, what was I saying? OK, it refers to sex. Big deal, right? People are far too uptight about it, right? Well, it certainly doesn’t refer to loving, tenderness, “love-making.” It refers to a violent sexual act, aggression, anger, power over. It refers to rape. It means rape. When used it implies or makes the threat of rape and for the user, it carries that sense of power, the ability to rape, terrorize.
Once this dawned on me, once I fully took this all in, I could no longer be at any peace in using this word. And from this point on, I’ve been in a very difficult and painful struggle.
The struggle with myself is ongoing, daily. I say “f” in my head, under my breath automatically at common annoyances and frustrations, fighting off the sources of my aggravation with that threatening thrust of “power.” It would just be ridiculous to go around saying if it weren’t also so intrinsic to a culture that is so successful at controlling and terrorizing females, psychically numbing us with constant overload that rape culture is the norm–so much so that many of us would deny that we live and participate in a rape culture.
I’ve had success with conscious effort–like efforts I’ve made to eliminate other demeaning and oppressive words–in not using “f” in my talking with others. At the same time, I try not to blame myself for how firmly rooted rape culture is in my mind. It impresses me about how difficult and complex is our struggle for freedom, and how important it is to fight for our minds, to resist our own minds being used against us.
Since I have been separating myself from rape culture, I’ve been experiencing deeper connection with myself and my feelings. It was like every “f” I used was covering, blocking some part of me, some authentic emotion. It was interfering with my presence to myself. It is still an ongoing process where I continue to reclaim more of myself.
The most painful struggle with this word, this manifestation of rape culture, is with other Radical Feminist Lesbians. The resistance and defensiveness has been intense; in fact, it has been silencing. It feels overwhelming for me to challenge otherwise highly conscious Lesbians on using this word. I haven’t done it very much. I also know I need to.
With my present awareness, each “f” is a sting of violation, and once I’ve tried to explain this to another Dyke, it feels much worse when they continue to use and defend this word. It hurts–and I end up feeling very alone in a terrible struggle.
I’ve had Dykes treat me like how men treat women and feminists. Dykes have covered their mouths and said, “Ooops, I shouldn’t swear around you.” Implying that this was just my issue, my little problem, that I was just some prude who found strong language distasteful. And of course this reaction is a huge blow to my lingering bravado, from how I have been in the past.
I’ve had Dykes, again, much like how men defend their offensive, degrading and oppressive remarks to wimmin, tell me they “didn’t mean anything” by using “f,” that it didn’t have the same meaning for them that it did for me. And maybe my suggesting that we get rid of such language could be classist. Now my old excuses and defenses were coming back to get me. Please grasp that these same Dykes would never accept, nor should they, any of these excuses in defense of any other language that could be oppressive in any way–and I know they would argue hard that what was really “meant” or “intended” is not relevant.
What these experiences underscore for me is that we live in rape culture that is incredibly entrenched in all our minds, that this works powerfully against us no matter how conscious we feel we are.
I would like to raise awareness and not defensiveness. I know from my own experiences that no one moves on something or makes changes that go against the current until they are ready to internally. But I invite you to think about it and consider that this awareness could bring the possibility of greater freedom, the ability of being more fully who we are.
1. What I am calling “rape culture” is derived from Mary Daly’s term “rapism (n): the fundamental ideology and practice of patriarchy, characterized by invasion, violation, degradation, objectification, and destruction of women and nature, the fundamental paradigm of racism, classism, and all other oppressive -isms.” From Webster’s First New Intergalactic Wickedary of the English Language conjured by Mary Daly in cahoots with Jane Caputi.