Michigan Womyn’s Music: Thoughts on Michigan from a Festie Virgin

Michigan Womyn’s Music: Thoughts on Michigan from a Festie Virgin

Where to begin? First of all, the feeling of complete safety that everyone told me I’d feel was definitely there. Yet, it went deeper than merely experiencing a lack of the threat of sexual assault – I actually felt the outposts of patriarchy in my head fall away, if even for a week, and I felt safe from patriarchal mind-control. The sisterhood, freedom, and openness present at the festival were like nothing I have ever experienced, or imagined was possible. Even the looming political controversies did not quell this feeling.

The issues at Michigan this year included, as in past years, the practices of S/M women, and the presence of transsexuals. I attended two workshops representing two takes on S/M – “Understanding S/M,” and “A Feminist Response to S/M.” “Understanding S/M” was presented by three S/M practitioners, and was designed to be informational. Presenters discussed race within the S/M context, having a feminist consciousness while practicing S/M, and incest survivors. The mood at the workshop was fairly light; most participants seemed to be supporters of S/M.

One striking occurrence was the objectification of one of the workshop participants. This woman was wearing a long skirt and a wreath in her hair, and had the image of a butterfly painted over her breasts. Other women encouraged her to pose and began taking multiple pictures of her. What struck me about this was the fact that it occurred within the context of this particular workshop – a space where replication of hierarchies was being celebrated – and likely would not have occurred elsewhere at the festival.

A point raised at the workshop concerned the reality that S/M is a sign of the times, a manifestation of pervasive power plays, and an acknowledgment of power/control issues. How revolutionary is it, though, to merely replicate, and not challenge, these power roles that are clearly linked to the proliferation of patriarchy, capitalism, racism, and homophobia? I should make clear my own position on S/M. I feel that S/M does, in fact, reproduce harmful hierarchies present in our society. Play, though conceived of as harmless, is basically symbolic of real life roles, and has a very real effect on the psyche and consciousness of the players.

I don’t advocate dictating how other women should live, love or play. So I don’t purport to know the way out, but I do feel that S/M is not empowering for women, and it doesn’t give women agency, as the workshop presenters argued. I acknowledge the reality that S/M allows women who have been abused to set the boundaries of the (abusive) relationship, yet, again, how healing is it to consistently relive and reify such a relationship, as well as allow a consensual partner to assume the role of your abuser?

An especially glaring point of illogical mindfuck was the assertion by one participant that the lens for viewing S/M is patriarchy. Yet, it’s not merely a matter of perspective, or using different lenses. The reality is that we live in a patriarchal world and, control issues or not, we have a responsibility to transform it. Regardless of our brand of feminism, patriarchy is not a lens, but a reality. S/M is both a structure and a replication of the patriarchy. These points were raised in the comparatively less well-attended workshop, “A Feminist Response to S/M.”

Another workshop, “A Feminist Response to Drag,” led by Susan Glen, presented drag as a colonization of women’s space, and a way for gay males to fortify their phallic prerogative. According to Glen, gay men have to hold a public display of acting out against women in order to maintain male privilege. A subordinate contingency of female supporters only serves to bolster their admittedly fragile, yet all-too-real place in the patriarchy. Glen pointed out that the women caricatured in drag shows are victims. Drag queens also emphasize the controlling image of women as bitchy and pretentious. Glen calls on women to look beyond the gender-fuck image of drag shows, and pull our support of them. The consensus on drag kings was that such caricatures go further in terms of challenging gender roles, and are about social change.

All of these issues, including the transsexual question, center on the very real need for women to have safe space – a need that has grown directly out of the abuses of patriarchy. The S/M controversy turns on the need for women to have space free from abuse, and replications of the hierarchies that are pervasive in patriarchy. The issue of drag centers on reifying harmful gender role constructions and stereotypes. Finally, the issue of inclusion of transsexuals at Michigan turns on the need for women-born women, with a unique set of experiences under patriarchy, to have safe space.

So, despite, and, in fact, in light of, the way these tensions were handled, all of the energies at Michigan coalesced for me in the most profound way.

Copyright Off Our Backs, Inc. Oct 1999

Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning Company. All rights Reserved

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