First of all I thank Delphyne for discussions on Sonia Johnson and the insights she shared, that enabled me to see things with more clarity.
I started with “Sisterwitch Conspiracy”, which blew my mind, then navigated to “Going out of our minds”, which also blew my mind, and recently went back up to “Out of this world: a fictionalised true-life adventure”, by her and Jade DeForest, which blew my mind too.
As far as i know, Sonia Johnson is the only radical feminist writer to explore areas which no other writers I know of have explored to this extent – or i have yet to discover them – things that I had begun to think about myself and discuss with close friends. These areas include the critique of sexuality itself and considering sexuality or sexualisation of women as inherently violent / dehumanising (and exploring why and how), experimenting non-sexualised (sadisised, invasive) ways of touching, of experiencing pleasure and relating to other women, working with the body to free ourselves from the physical memories of violence and men’s mindbindings, and her committment to integrity between her desire to live in a world free from men’s violence and her determination not to reproduce male violence in her own life and actions. It was refreshening too to read real-life experiences from a woman and her conclusions from it – you see and follow the process of experience and knowledge from the concrete to the abstract, rather than going straight to the abstract without knowing where it comes from.
This integrity between work / words and actions and reflexions upon it struck me as refreshingly rare too (one excellent book on relationships between women though is Janice Raymond’s a passion for friends). when I first entered real life feminist groups, I was shocked to see how ridden with male-defending, horizontal violence and insecurity these groups were, and how little women were willing to examine the implications of their own behaviour on feminism and women’s radical feminist work. Or at least the strong willingness to deny that men’s violence continued to impact very deeply on us, our thoughts, on the way we interacted and on our behaviour here and now, and thus to deny how they were making men’s work of destroying our liberation easier. And I thought if we didn’t adress that together, we’d naturally continue to shift into the destructive, annihilating group patterns and relationships that men structured us into: using men’s annihilating terror and silencing tactics, ideologies, lies, doing gynergy sucking, destructive and man-enhancening activities, etc. And that if we wanted to create a new world for ourselves without men and their violence, we’d better learn how to do that here and now, with ourselves, for ourselves – men won’t ever do that for us, nobody else than us can determine and experience what we need to do to be safe, free, healthy and strong. We need to trust in our own capacity to create a world for ourselves wherever we are, with the means we have at hand, and let go of the belief that others need to do it for us, that we depend on others for justice, peace etc. How else would it begin than with ourselves? Anyway, I was glad to see this adressed. I’m only skimming through these ideas and might address them later, this is just a derail by the way.
Sisterwitch Conspiracy was also the first book that definitely did it for me in seeing violence and rapism and sadism as inherently male, on an essential, whole level, beyond the biological determinism I had already come to.
Another reason I enjoyed Sonia Johnson so much is that everything is told in the form of stories and dialogues which are very pleasant to read and makes the point come accross with a lot of clarity. It makes it alive, and you imagine yourself sharing the discussions with her and her friends. It’s probably quite a manipulatory way of getting your ideas through, but it makes the reading pleasant anyway.
Now what I want to get to is that all the while I read her books, I’ve had this strong feeling of uncomfort with her notions of individuality. It annoyed me very much and while it seemed simple and yet different from what postmodernists say, especially because Sonia gets many things very right, it felt very wrong. I’ve finally got my head around it, that is, out of the confusion it caused me, so I’m going to lay it down here. A basic concept that she frequently repeats throughout her work is that
- we are ultimately responsible for what happens to us, and if we don’t get away from men it’s because we don’t want to.
- we can only free ourselves by working on ourselves,
- we can’t change other women, we can only change ourselves.
Now i’ll start with the two final assumptions, and go upwards. I agree with Sonia that it is pointless to try to control men, as much as it is pointless and counterproductive to try to control other women and oneself. As soon as you’re in the control mode, you’re going against freedom, against yourself, and against other women. By definition you can’t force someone to become free, nor can you force yourself to become free of male violence, or to be happy, or whatever. For example if a woman is currently being subjected to extreme domestic violence and I want to protect her but she refuses to talk to me (because she’s brainwashed by the male terrorist into believing that i’m evil), i can’t force her to listen to what I say. I have to respect what she’s capable of listening at X point in time, and I have to respect whatever strategies of survival she puts in place, even if it goes against her safety, or go with them and not against them. Same with myself. If I’m feeling pain I can’t force myself not to feel it any more. I have to take my pain into account, accept that it’s there and work on it from there: where it comes from, what violence caused it.
And trying to control men is counterproductive too because it’s another way for them to suck our gynergy: it’s doing things according to them and on their terms rather than according to ourselves, so it’s necessarily alienating and oppressive because their terms are always at our expense.
But Sonia confuses control with transformation. She thinks trying to change things outside of you = wanting to control things. This can be true, but it’s not necessarily true. In the same way wanting to change yourself might or might not be exercising control over yourself. While you can’t control without it being tyrannical and violent and counterproductive, you can help women transform if they themselves are asking for this change and happen to be ready to hear and take in the message you want to convey at the moment you’re saying it. It’s them looking for the information they need, to go forward in their lives, and what you’re saying or doing happens to fit to what they needed at a given time, so they use the insights to transform their lives in the way that’s necessary for their survival. Or even if they can’t hear it now, it stays in their memory, and the day they are ready and safe enough to integrate the insights or will need it to move forward, their memory will make it resurge and they’ll use it. It might take days, weeks, months, years or even decades.
This transformation from the shadows, from destruction, despair, death, pain, sorrow, horror, shame, hatred and anger to light, joy, happiness, sharing, love, beauty, creativity, laughter; it can be shared and transmitted and it is one of the most beautiful things that life can give us. As women we are all capable of experiencing, sharing and transmitting this transformation.
And while I believe that it is fundamental to work on ourselves and improve the way we are able to protect ourselves from further violence, to free ourselves from the blocks that past and present male violence has ingrained in us, to work on the memory of violence in our body so we prevent the violence from repeating itself in our lives where we can, Sonia seems to think this self-transformation happens in a void and you can and should just choose to make it happen. She doesn’t seem to see that while we can influence the outside by changing ourselves, material, outside reality created by men also determines our capacity to change or not at a given time.
The reality is that this kind of work can only take place in a situation where we are relatively safe from torture and abuse, such as captivity to or ongoing exposure to an abusive father / parent, to an abusive husband / partner, to a pimp or trafficker, or torturer / captor of any kind (boss, colleague, brother, etc). You have to have had the possibility to escape such kind of situations and not fall back into it again, before you can even think of going back to what you experienced and heal from it and transform it into something positive. Otherwise you literally just die from pain and stress, it is extremely dangerous to connect to our emotions in situations of threat, this is why it’s necessary to dissociate to survive. We don’t dissociate for fun. It’s a question of life and death. This is true literally, in the sense that men’s violence threatens our survival, and psychically, in that you can die of fear (caused by real threats / violence that is perceived as life-threatening).
The reality is that most women in such situations aren’t capable of getting out of it at the present time, because there’s no realistic escape, or the only escape is death or worse a situation. The second reality is that even after you’ve escaped the worse and once you’ve gained relative stability (only relative), you can’t do this transformation work alone, or only with much more difficulty, because much of healing, breaking the isolation, safety building, social changing and reparation and justice can only be done collectively (it can be just one other person, 2 or 3, but positive interaction is necessary), and we are so cut from one another and from feminism, even in feminist groups where we think we’re feminist and in fact very often we’re just doing what we know, that is, resenting women, being violent against women, even if we understood lots of things and are well-intentioned (it’s not always the case but more often than not).
Now I come to the first point: Sonia says something to the gist of: we choose what happens to us, and if men continue to inflict violence on us, it’s because we chose not to escape, or refused to escape. Here Sonia confuses choices and constraints, confuses responsibility for our own actions and responsibility for what others do to us, or chooses to see only the choices without the constraints. As women, we always make choices to survive. that is, all choices are always positive choices for survival within the constraints that men surround us with. Our body wants us to survive, we want to survive, so the choices and decisions we make are the result of conscious and unconscious processes, reactions to any given situation of threat and violence, the way we think is the best we can do according to the very real material, physical and psychic means we have at the time.
So yes, in that sense, whichever the situation we’re in, as long we’re still alive, we’re never passive, we always react in a given way according to what we perceive is best for our survival and according to what we are capable of doing, according to how far we have been destroyed or not: according to the tools we have at hand: material, physical and spiritual / mind.
But we can only choose so far as the external (and internalised) constraints allow us. We are certainly not responsible for the abusive situations we’ve been put in and for the fact that men have constrained us into survival strategies that are just as destructive as the violence they subject us to. It is essentially, naturally impossible to go against your own life, to make negative choices, so if we do make decisions that go against ourselves, we know they are not our decisions but those of the abuser / captor, imposed through violence – and it this external violence that creates this internal paradox, this contradiction between our will to survive and the fact that what we choose for our survival, destroys us – but it doesn’t belong to us. In other words, if we make decisions against ourselves, it’s because men have so constrained our choices that these were sadly, the only best options we could find for our survival at the time, (artificially constructed by men in such a way we think it’s US doing the choosing) which is excruciating and deliberately organises self-betrayal. Forcing us to opt for destroying and mutilating ourselves in order to escape even more intolerable forms of violence in the male world is the most efficient way to instil self-hatred, loss of self, sense of self-betrayal and of being abandoned by life. These are part of men’s genocidal tactics.
Believing in masochism, or that some women want to remain victims somehow, and Sonia johnson often goes there, is extremely victim-blaming and completely denies the existence, nature, purpose, intention and totalising effect of violence: to strip us of our autonomy. It blames victims for being crippled by men to the extent that we can’t walk out any more. It blames victims for the fact men’s terror tactics did their job of terrorising and colonising us.
The only reason Sonia and her friend could do the experiments they did at the time (early nineties) is because they had already freed themselves to the extent that they could be relatively safe from violence, individually, safe enough to go to the end of their thoughts, safe enough to express and relive and thus heal past trauma. The material, physical and psychological conditions they were in made this possible, they wouldn’t have been able to do this before because they wouldn’t have been safe enough and they wouldn’t have been ready. The body can’t jump steps. It takes each step one after the other. If it didn’t do something at some point, it’s because it couldn’t. It had taken Sonia Johnson decades between the moment she fled her husband and the mormon community, and the point where she was with Jade DeForest doing her experiments. She could not have done it faster because it wouldn’t have been possible otherwise, because the material conditions and internal conditions wouldn’t have allowed it.
The only thing we are and can be responsible for is our actions to get away from the violence and preserve ourselves. This means that we alone can make the decisions to get out of the situation we’re trapped in, and have the will to do it. Nobody can do this for us. We alone can decide to do the job of decolonising ourselves from the violence we’ve been subjected to, and learn to protect ourselves from violence in the future. I agree with this. But as I said earlier, to believe that we don’t make choices for our own interest and survival, assuming that we never tried hard enough to survive or that we aren’t doing our best to protect ourselves with the little means and options we have, is extremely insulting to women and all victims. If we know we’re safe enough to choose a better alternative, we take it immediately. We’re not stupid. If we can’t accept help or choose options even if from the outside it seems easy, it means there is real violence (past or present) that prevents us from taking it, and that making this move will put us in danger. Besides, what might seem from the outside like an insignificant change, might be an immense improvement at the cost of huge efforts for the victim (for instance managing to negotiate things from the abuser that he wouldn’t otherwise concede).
Sonia is right in that if we perceived things differently, things would be different. But this is precisely why men use violence to colonise our thoughts and change our perceptions: so we don’t act. Sonia’s mistake is to think that because men change our perceptions through violence, that violence is perceived, not real. This is wrong, because men’s violence is real, has real effects on our thoughts and actions, and for our thoughts to cease to be colonised by men’s brainwashing, the violence has to stop, or we have to get away from the violence. It can’t go the other way round, it’s not possible. We can’t change our perceptions of ourselves, of our external world and our capacities in a situation where the violence is still present. Something might happen with us that makes us get away from the violence, a breaking point, a light, an external hand, whatever, but only then, only after we have gotten away from the immediate danger, can we begin to change how we were forced to see ourselves.
To conclude, this is why getting girls and women away from men and ensuring our physical and emotional safety from men’s violence and all forms of violence must always be our utmost priority for women in general, as feminists. Focusing on healing and expirementing decolonisation from internalised male violence without thinking about the context we are in and whether this context makes it possible or not, is wishful thinking, and hurtful, because then we end up blaming ourselves for failing to achieve our goals, and this humiliates and hurts us.
I’ll stop this article here because it’s getting a bit long but I hope my point came accross.