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Thursday, September 23, 2010

UNMASKING MALE PRIVILEGE (1991)

by Nikki Craft

There is also a certain kind of justice in usurping from rapists and other sex offenders such a fierce symbol as a ski mask, usually reserved for the male domain, in order to yank these men from their anonymity and hold them publicly accountable.
In May of 1991 I was invited to speak at a Western Washington University conference. I went there for three days and left three months later. The conference, on eating disorders, was organized by Lucy Colvin, Heather Wlochowski and the campus Women's Center. A week after the conference, we organized a colorful demonstration against the local beauty pageant (the woman holding the Miss Whatcom County beauty pageant franchise is also the owner of the local Diet Center). Our demo was complete with a trophy of a nude Barbie doll on her knees, vomiting into a pink plastic toilet. The trophy was labeled: "Kneeling at the Altar of the Patriarchy.
     Several months later, we founded our newest fly-by-night organization: the A.C.L.U. (Always Causing Legal Unrest). Now, we don't mean to be confused with the American Civil Liberties Union! It's only a coincidence that our acronyms are the same. We're NOT that group that supports the pornographers, the Nazis, the KKK, the tobacco industry, and the child pornographers. We're NOT those guys fixated on reciting defamatory, whining mantras about Andrea Dworkin. Instead, our ACLU is concerned that conservative values such as corporate trademark laws, private property rights and individual privacy (as opposed to public safety and welfare), severely infringe upon and limit free expression, and they enjoy more rights (legally, socially and politically) than women do in the public and private domain. Our motto is "We tear into sexism." And we do. We don't let laws of any kind get in the way of our free expression. No siree. That summer in Bellingham we went on numerous crime sprees. Since that time the ACLU has decorticated many copies of Bret Easton Ellis' novel, American Psycho and other books that were asking for it.
     One of our first actions was when Sharon O'Connell and I staged a "Laugh-In" at a Bellingham movie theater. One night we went to a showing of Andrew Dice Clay's movie The Adventures of Ford Fairlane, and got so disgusted we had to do something. While the rest of the audience would laugh when he'd talk his racist/sexist hate lines, we laughed when Clay's best friend was killed, and when his car and house blew up. We must have laughed for ten minutes when the rock and roll singer was electrocuted at the beginning of the movie. We almost rolled in the aisles when his guitar burned. For those present in the audience when we did our theatrical protest, it raised issues about what people laugh about and why. Some of the men in the audience lost their sense of humor and got visibly irritated at our sacrilege. We giggled at the possibility of being thrown out of a comedy for laughing too much, but it never happened. This was a fun action and the thing about laughing is that once you get started, you don't want to stop.
     In July, I was arrested at the Mt. Baker Theater during a showing of the movie Kill Me Again. I was the one hurling candy at the screen during the sexually violent scenes. When they found out I was in the audience, rather than dealing with me, the theatre manager refunded everyone's admission. I returned the next night and they attempted to prevent me from entering. I went in anyway, bought two big boxes of Sugar Babies, and by the time the police arrived, I was already pelting the candy at the screen. The movie is about an 'attractive' (of course) woman who pays to stage her own murder. She becomes sexually aroused in a cheap motel while a guy pours a gallon of blood over her semi-nude body while she coos, "I've always wondered what it would be like to die a really violent death." Then he stuffs her body into the trunk of a car. In the end, she dies. And nobody really cared, not even me. You know the plot: the bitch wants it, she deserves it, and in the end she gets it -- with lots of violence, sex, blood, and car crashes to exercise the adrenals and other organs. The satisfaction I got from my Sugar Baby bombings, and the clatter they made when they bounced off the screen onto the linoleum floor, was well worth the night I spent in jail for that one. Charges were quietly dismissed after I left Bellingham.
     I was also arrested for tearing up $11.00 worth of Esquire magazines. For this one I spent 23 (count them hatch-mark-on-the-wall style) days in the Whatcom County jail. The theme of Esquire that month was, "Your Wife: An Owner's Manual." Need I say more? My jailers would not release me on my own recognizance unless I agreed to abide by all the laws -- everywhere. Because of my commitment to fighting pornography and inequality with civil disobedience as political resistance, I would be hard pressed to make any agreement of that sort. Besides, as I told the prosecutor, he was kidding himself if he thought he could control me outside Washington. I was held there until the "authorities" finally realized that I would never comply, and then they threw me out of jail. The headlines in the local newspapers read: "Feminist Thrown Out of Jail." The article read: "Yes, Nikki Craft has been thrown out of a lot of places before, but never before has she been thrown out of jail . . ."
     The high point of this action came at an unexpected time. By the time I went to trial I was exhausted. I was relieved when author and scholar Diana Russell arrived in Bellingham to testify as an expert witness. She was fresh energy with a clear, radical analysis to offer as a guiding force. We were all so disgusted by the judge's repressive, censorial tactics (among other things, he refused to allow Diana to testify) that we began organizing another action before we left the steps of the courthouse. That night, at about midnight, Sharon Black, Sharon O'Connell and Diana were arrested at the porn shop, this time for tearing up about 80 magazines.


During one of our missions at the Bellingham masturbation center we went into one of these private stalls. There was a money machine chained to the wall with a sign above it that read: "This machine will take more than one quarter at a time." Beside it was mounted a Kleenex dispenser. There was a TV monitor with stale sperm shot all over it. It was pretty disgusting. That's what gave us the idea of calling porn shops masturbation service centers.
     You see, the porn store is really a masturbation service center, which supplies all the necessities, including the requisite images of women in various attitudes of sexual submission. Men habitually drop in there to "get off" with the help of these lies and stereotypes about women's nature and sexuality.

After that on one of our many escapades and nightly raids, we entered the Green Apple, another downtown masturbation center, with a jar of mayonnaise, and splattered it all over a video monitor. True life in these seedy quarters is stranger than anything we could ever creatively concoct with art. The idea came when we went the night before to scope the place out. Some man had shot sperm all over the screen in the room we went in. It's a common occurrence, we were told. We then made up a leaflet called, "The Masturbation Box."
The Crux Of The Issue
Then, Lucy Colvin, Sharon Black, Steven Hill, Darcy Alexandra, Chad Knuckles, Sharon O'Connell, and I donned ski masks and converged on the downtown Masturbation Service Center (Great Northern Books, a local pornography shop). Throughout July and August, we stood, for hours at a time, photographing hundreds of men (and one or two women), who entered the porn shop. Those of us who took part in this community experiment were all dedicated activists who have always taken individual responsibility for our work, words, and deeds. Some of us wore the ski masks because we feared for our personal safety. But we had other political points to make, too.
     In March,1977, I published The Kitty Genovese Women's Project. It was a twenty-five page newspaper listing 2,100 indicted sex offenders in Dallas, Texas. We distributed 25,000, copies and on International Women's Day we read the names on the radio for thirteen hours. One night, I went to the Dallas ACLU chapter to gain their support for our newspaper. At the meeting they expressed disgust at what we had done, and told me we had no right to invade these men's privacy. I was 27 at the time and naive to the double standard of tolerance that civil libertarians apply to rapists, pornography users, corporations and men in general. I understood then (and it was reaffirmed many times thereafter), that the ACLU did not function as an organization that would defend my speech. Supporting the KKK is one thing, but when it comes to fundamentally challenging male power, that's a whole nuther bag of beans. It was a good lesson to learn. So, fifteen years later when I was involved in the Unmasking Male Privilege action, I had no illusion that civil libertarians, or anyone else for that matter, would support the work. We did it anyway.
     We did it because because we believe strongly that men supporting the pornography industry must be publicly identified -- whether they are our next door neighbors, sexual harassers, prominent citizens, or convicted predatory sex offenders.
     We took the photos with the intention of publishing them in our free speech leaflets. Several leaflets were published and posted throughout Bellingham. We gave these customers the public recognition they deserved for being porn users. The color photos are now framed and waiting to be included in an art exhibit called "When the Viewer Becomes the Viewed." We have yet to find a gallery willing to display the prints.
     Neither the hordes of porn shop goers, First Amendment Liberal Fundamentalists, nor the local newspaper The Bellingham Herald, exactly jumped to defend our First Amendment Rights to publish our little newsletter. In fact, they tried in every way they could to stop us and even tore our posters down. The local newspaper censored and misrepresented us.
     Men in the community harassed us on the streets. Several, including Robert Sensarnie from Mission Beach, British Columbia, and one Christopher John Shelly from Everson, Washington (a nudist and now convicted child molester [see page 1]), physically assaulted us. Both were found guilty of assault in separate trials.
     In the police report, Sensarnie said he attacked one of our demonstrators because he was upset that he was being photographed. In court, Sensarnie claimed the reason the assault took place was because I supposedly yelled at him, "Fuck you, nigger." I would never use that racist language. There were witnesses that will attest to the fact that Sensarnie lied in court that day.
     Edward Ross, the same judge who sentenced me to 90 days in jail for ripping up four Esquire magazines, gave Sensarnie no fine and a suspended sentence for assaulting women. As Sensarnie left the courtroom, he was smiling and gloating. There was no media coverage of either the assaults or the trial. In fact, even though we had been physically assaulted by these males in front of the porn shop, The Bellingham Herald would not allow me to write in an editorial that "some of [them] are dangerous." I was also not allowed to say that some of them were "prominent citizens."
     These days it's often difficult to tell if the media is being stupid or malicious, but in Bellingham that summer we encountered plenty of both. The Bellingham Herald ran one article and one editorial about our actions that did a real disservice to the community by misinforming them about our work and our intent, thereby threatening the safety and well-being of our group. The editors trivialized our work in an attempt to diminish our credibility because we chose to mask our identities for this particular action. The Herald's tactic resulted in distortions and unnecessary misunderstandings by the general public.
     The Herald ran one editorial called "Credibility Lacking," where the editor (who was not individually identified) lambasted our tactics, calling us "shadowy figures" who refused to be identified. (It was well known within the community who most of us were because of our past involvements.) After we stated that we feared retaliation, one Herald reporter published our names anyway. In the same article, he respected the anonymity of the manager of the porn store. They have refused to allow us to identify the owner of the store in an editorial.
     The article (about our demonstration on July 3, 1990) called "Women Harass Customers of 'Adult' Store" should have been more accurately titled "Men's Porn Shop Associate Assaults Anti-Pornography Activist." That day, Chris Shelly, a man identified by the manager of the porn shop as one who "does things" for the store (according to police reports, he was allegedly a dildo repairman), chased Sharon O'Connell and me down the alley behind the porn shop. He caught Sharon, furiously yanking off (and stealing) her ski mask from behind, pulling her hair in the process, and trashing her leaflets. Our experience with Shelly corroborates the testimony of Amy, Ginny and Ryan. We all know Shelly to be a male who resorts to physical force and violence to get what he wants, because he did it to us.
     In the police report, he lied claiming we were "closing in on him" -- though no demonstrator was standing closer than twenty feet away when he began chasing us. There were many witnesses, so he ended up pleading guilty to assault charges. Then, a little over a month later on August 12, 1990, Shelly was again arrested, this time for child pornography, child molestation, and rape of a child, for an incident that took place at the local nude beach. (See story on pg. 1.)
     We were surprised to learn that in one discussion several police officers postulated that criminal charges (for assault) should not be pressed against Shelly. The police justified Shelly's attack because he had been enraged that he was photographed. Others in the community took this same view as well. (See letter to Bellingham Herald printed in box below.)
     

In a letter to The Bellingham Herald, I wrote: "Why, when a man behaves as Shelly did, do some people wonder if the woman didn't provoke his attack and justify his actions because he must have felt threatened? Like the rapist who claims the woman provoked him, men are accustomed to being able to use all kinds of irrational excuses to justify their abuse of women.
     "Why, when we spend a law-abiding afternoon distributing leaflets, discussing the issues with passersby, and photographing men entering the store, is it called harassment rather than the assertion of our constitutional right of free speech? Why, when we take part in an exemplary, creative, thought-provoking and completely legal political demonstration, are we criticized for our tactics?
     "We wore masks, partly to shield ourselves from possible retaliation. Let's get this straight: it is not women who assault men on the street. Activists against pornography are often subjected to harassing phone calls or threats of violence. We had already been threatened numerous times, assaulted several, and we were maced at an anti-pornography demonstration in Seattle. In the past, I have had my life threatened several times because of my work against sexual violence." --Nikki Craft
     
One thing I was struck by was the fact that the type of men who were in front of the porn shop bitching and complaining about how we didn't have the "right" to take their picture because they were entitled to their privacy, were the same type of men I had been encountering at the naturist/nudist events for years. These nudist men argued that if a woman had her clothes off on the beach, which was a public place, anybody (read: any man) who wanted to take her photograph had the "right" to do so, even if the woman objected. --Nikki Craft
Naturism and The Pornographic Mind
For years I have confronted voyeurs and nudist men photographing unclothed women and children at nude beaches, Naturist Society and American Sunbathing Association events. I have also challenged individual men all across the country who were buying pornography at stores where we demonstrated.
     During the Bellingham action I was struck by the fact that the type of men who were in front of the porn shop bitching and complaining about how we didn't have the "right" to take their picture because they were entitled to their privacy, were the same type of men I had been encountering at the naturist/nudist events for years. These nudist men argued that if a woman had her clothes off on the beach, which was a public place, anybody (read any man) who wanted to take her photograph had the "right" to do so, even if the woman objected. The arrogance of these men, the hypocrisy of their actions, and their male supremacist political position is appalling to behold.
     Men take for granted their right to be unexposed. When they go to leer at images of women at the porn shop they want no one to violate their privacy. It's even considered a social faux pas for men to look at each other once inside the porn shop. Our demonstrations intentionally violated a near sacred totem by shining a spotlight on these men, their behaviors and their habits. We wanted to create for them the opportunity to experience what it feels like to be psychologically invaded -- not a comfortable feeling to be sure, but certainly no justification for physical assault.
     We also wanted our masked presence to serve as a reminder to the community that women are often sexually violated by men who maintain their anonymity, some by wearing masks just like the ones we are wearing.
     There is also a certain kind of justice in usurping from rapists and other sex offenders such a fierce symbol as a ski mask, usually reserved for the male domain, in order to yank these men from their anonymity and hold them publicly accountable.
     We felt some vindication and pleasure by turning the tables so that men can experience the feeling of being vulnerable, exposed and threatened, albeit in a minuscule dose. In fact, we realize it will take much more radical actions, and more of them, to explore these various possibilities. Women's experience of being vulnerable, exposed, and threatened are far too common in their day-to-day existences and with few exceptions women's experiences of fear and restriction are unfathomable to men.
     The very concept of privacy is nearly inconceivable to many women. The spread-legged images of women inside the porn store certainly allow women no privacy. In fact, the voyeuristic "turn on" of most pornography depends on the violation of women's privacy. Out on the streets, many women unfortunately do not assume they have the ability, much less the right, to even go to the bus stop without being visually or verbally assaulted.
     The "Unmasking Male Privilege" action was an inspiring, rejuvenating experience for all of us involved. It is particularly appealing because it affords us our anonymity while exposing the real perpetrators. We urge other anti-pornography activists throughout the country to try it and examine some of the related possibilities. But it is not an action to take part in without plenty of forethought.
     
Susan Q a.k.a. Terra Rysing, an eighteen-year-old feminist activist from Santa Cruz, formed a local chapter of the AC.L.U. there in March, 1991. She was physically assaulted by the first man she photographed. Fortunately, she had four friends inside the porn shop who rushed to her aid. Make sure there are at least five women present before you try this tactic in your community.
     Photographing these men was stressful and confrontive on a level like no other action I have ever done before. On many levels, the repercussions can be awesome and the immediate hostility of the male patrons will be shocking to the experienced and inexperienced alike. One hour on the streets with your camera in hand and your mask in place, and you will get the point: this action exposes pornography and the patriarchy by getting right to the crux of the issue.

Originally published in the ICONoclast, Summer 1991 / VOL. 3, NO.2.

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