Earlier this season on “American Horror Story,” a Dunham-dipped episode cartwheeled us back to the 1960s with the rise and fall of radical feminist and attempted Warhol assassin Valerie Solanas and her women-strong cult. Their mission: Dismantling a patriarchal society which cements women as subordinate to men, the dominant ruling “class.” The episode showcases SCUM (Society for Cutting Up Men) and historically depicts how grassroots movements are organized.
This wasn’t my first introduction to Valerie or her branch of feminism.
At the age of 19 I lost my virginity after bottles of cheap sparkling wine at a New Year’s Eve party. Gaping holes in my memory and blood on the white linen, I left the next morning thinking, “Will this be my trauma?” A year and a half passed before I was sexually active again. In retrospect that timeframe hosted much importance in shaping my sexual identity, directly coinciding with my college education. I developed an intense fascination in gender theory and feminism. I read, studied, wrote on women’s oppression, the sexual revolution and the prison of masculinity, irrevocably molding how I saw society. Once you read Gloria Steinem, Judith Butler, bell hooks, Audre Lorde ― Valerie Solanas, too ― a layer of the world is peeled back, and you’re left with an uncomfortable reality.
These theorists were joined by many others in providing the oars to navigate my uneasy sexual experience. Discussions with friends ― mainly women ― offered a life-jacket, a sense of safety, legitimacy, solidarity. In telling my story I realized that for many it was a resoundingly similar script, albeit a different cast. That empathetic and knowing smile, “that happened to me… me too” is melancholic ― simultaneously comforting and disturbing. It’s painful. It’s reassuring. You don’t want your experience to be felt by others and yet it makes you feel a little less alone. This use of storytelling (or consciousness raising) has historical roots within the second wave of feminism (ala SCUM). It’s taking the personal and making it political. It was one of the first times I actively used feminism as a vehicle to negotiate a personal experience.
The “AHS” episode crescendos to the murder of gay alt-right cult member, Harrison Wilton (played by Billy Eichner). In a direct interpretation of SCUM a circle of “Cult”’s leading women helm a chainsaw to tied Wilton: “you of all people know what it’s like to be marginalized, pushed out, you’re a gay man!”. Blood splatters. Wilton squeals “I’m a man!”. This cutting admission perfectly captures an unspoken flaw of gay culture: an under-emphasis of the man when identifying as gay. Often it feels like our minority status grants us get-out-of-jail-free cards for casual misogyny or racism (think: Grindr “preferences.”) Often it feels like we forget that we’re not exempt from the causes of male violence and pressures of masculinity. Because often it’s convenient to forget.
Approaching this through a feminist lens offers misogyny as a product of power relations ensuring that men are at the top of a gender hierarchy. Our misogyny is a consequence of a toxic masculinity - insidious, casual, unspoken. It’s our community’s best kept secret. It’s Mitchell Sunderland (senior editor of Broadly, a feminist publication) sending Milo Yiannopolous emails about which “fat feminist” to take down. It’s adopting the word “bitch” so casually in our vernacular (who gave us authority? who granted permission?). It’s essentializing women down to a particular look - “she’s not fishy enough” (some herstory for Ru fans: “fishy” is a derogatory term used to demean women based on the perceived smell of their vagina. You might think this subversive, but in a world where women are still alienated and made to feel shame because they bleed, it’s anything but.) It’s also difficult to talk about when we’re so outward in our perceived appreciation ― from Judy to Gaga, Marilyn to Mariah.
This type of misogyny hasn’t gone unnoticed. In 2015 Rose McGowan tweeted
gay men are as misogynistic as straight men, if not more so… People who have basically fought for the right to stand on top of a float wearing an orange speedo and take molly.
While she apologized for the form, she stood by the function of her argument, maintaining a lack of reciprocity in gay men’s involvement with women’s issues. 2017 finds a Rose among the pricks with McGowan using her deeply personal and traumatic experience with Harvey Weinstein to amplify the issue of systemic male violence, sexual assault and victim blaming.
I think about my own narrative… the disjointing sense of relief of finally cashing in my gay virginity. I remember my discomfort in speaking with my gay community ― perhaps symptomatic of “never show thy emotion” masculinity ― but also a reluctance in admitting my sexual experience wasn’t very pleasurable. I felt like I’d be betraying my brethren in a culture where sex was a political artifact of liberation and where the rights to our pleasure is so historically sensitive. But I also know that sexual predation is rampant in our community. Gropes. Rape. Drugging. Coercion.
It’s complex when we consider the interplay of misogyny and sexual assault within gay male communities. It’s confusing to imagine that our internalized misogyny is enforcing sexual predation, but it’s difficult to disentangle the two phenomena. Men’s entitlement to spaces and bodies, and our silence in having these conversations, is both consequence and fuel to a taught masculinity which bolsters male violence. Moving forward we need to be more aware of our identity’s complexity. We need not forget that we’ve been brought up in a system that enforces a binary on behaviors, roles and expectations ― we call this gender. We need to acknowledge the consequence of growing up male.
And we need to move beyond a fetishized appreciation of women (her look, her voice, her performance, that sass) and start championing women’s work: writers, politicians, poets, directors, businesses. We need to maintain our pride and use our sexuality as a source of liberation. Coming out of the closet doesn’t just represent a reveal of who we love or lust, it’s also an opportunity to break free from roles and expectations. We need to use our sexuality to redefine the concept ― and consequence ― of our gender. That’s how we queer our cult.