Friday, August 11, 2017

On the Torture of Lesbians: A double affront to male sex right

Susan Hawthorne

Australian Women’s Studies Association Conference, Melbourne, 10 July 2006

Animal House

How long is a day?

They arrested us just before dawn.
Pulled from our narrow bed.
There was terror and a tearing
as if the body were separating from itself.

Would there be another day?

They took us to the animal house.
The stone-floored rooms
smelled of urine mixed with fear.

Time is filled with fear.

They put electrodes against my face,
against my neck,
against my tongue,
against my …

What will they do next?

The tongue swells in my mouth.
Will I ever shape words again with my tongue?
I am screaming from the inside,
I am screaming out loud
and there’s no one who wants to listen
to a lesbian who’s been tortured
because she’s a lesbian

Can I live with the memory of this? (Hawthorne 2005: 215)[1]

What is torture?

Torture is the infliction of pain by the powerful on the powerless. Pain here can be defined as physical pain or as mentally disorienting and disintegrating techniques.
Some of the techniques of torture include:
           Infliction of physical pain especially through pain on vulnerable areas of the body – e.g. the soles of the feet.
           What is misleadingly called “self-inflicted pain” through enforced body positions e.g. standing against a wall hands high, legs apart so that a lot of weight is placed on the fingers. Try standing like this and you will begin to feel the body create it’s own pain – of course no one would “choose” to do this so it’s not self-inflicted (but reversals are common in torture literature). The victim is made to feel responsible for their own pain and suffering.
           Scrambling the biorhythms of the body: sleep deprivation, manipulation of time by feeding at irregular intervals, reversing day and night or making it impossible to tell which is which through constant low light and or bright lights and or darkness (hooding) as well as a constant low rumble that prevents audio cues.
           Use of mind-altering and mood altering drugs to create a sense of unreality and psychological disorientation.
           Use of electroshock pain producing implements, particularly in vulnerable parts of the body including the sexual organs.
           Humiliation: personal or sexual e.g. running a tape loop that repeats “my mother hates me” or humiliation through rape and infliction of pain mixed with sexual arousal. This mix causes disorientation of the self and is like the “self-inflicted pain” mentioned above. It becomes a twisted self-betrayal.

All of the above create a state of fear as well as of existential chaos. The human mind collapses, sometimes falls into a kind of psychic regression, or dependence on the torturer who might create structure in the life of the victim.

What I have found interesting in reading up about torture is just how much I am reminded of how women are oppressed.
           Think of the threats of pain or actual instances of pain that men (the powerful) inflict on women. Think of the state of fear most women inhabit when they hear footsteps behind them in the street at night.
           Think of the stress positions women are placed in, in the interests of fashion whether it be high heels, bare midriffs, or skin tight clothing – all of which create “self-inflicted pain” for which women themselves are responsible.
           Think of the body manipulations – anorexia, electrolysis, piercing etc – also “self-inflicted”.
           Think of the ways in which a woman’s biorhythms are scrambled because she has to get up to feed the baby, to have sex with the husband, to be there for the teenage son or daughter, to be there for anyone and everyone. Sleep deprivation is a major problem for women around the world.
           Humiliation and shame: think of all the down-putting comments (it hasn’t stopped), the advertisements, the fact that she let herself get drunk and so was raped; that she got pregnant and is ashamed; that she had or didn’t have an abortion and is ashamed no matter which decision she makes.

Physical pain does not simply resist language but actively destroys it (Scarry 1985: 4)
Scarry also goes on to talk about how hard it is to understand the experience of torture of people whom one doesn’t know and who live in far away places – that is how is it to be “politically represented” (Scarry 1985: 12)? And further, that invisibility of an event results in it receiving little attention.

"Intense pain is world destroying" (Scarry 1985: 28) writes Elaine Scarry, and she goes on to say, "Intense pain is also language-destroying: as the content of one’s world disintegrates, so that which would express and project the self is robbed of its source and its subject" (Scarry 1985: 35).

Now think about the word lesbian

Those of us who use the word lesbian do so in order to wear away at the connotations of shame. The shame is there because it is culturally inculcated. Just as it is in the word cunt. These are considered two of the worst words in the English language – so let’s get them said.

Lesbians stand up to male power. And it is this threat to male power that makes lesbians so scaaary. Over thousands and hundreds or years lesbians have been killed for standing up to male power – or male sex right.

Lesbians dare to use words like lesbian and cunt positively – how scary is that? It’s like the tape loop – played over and over throughout our lives – lesbians are unnatural, lesbians are evil, lesbians will seduce you, and the sex you get will be all cunt! If you’ve never listed to an Eminem song and you feel like a bit of humiliation – that’s the kind of thing you can expect to hear. Of course, all jauntily set to a the rhythm of Rap.

As Nicole Brossard claims, “A lesbian who does not reinvent the world is a lesbian in the process of disappearing.” (Brossard 1988: 136)

It appears to me that these examples reflect very precisely the ways in which patriarchal culture reflects the system of the torturers. And when I overlay the experiences of lesbians there is a terrifying kind of resonance among the different elements.

…victims are made to feel responsible for their own suffering, thus inducing them to alleviate their agony by capitulating to the power of their interrogators (McCoy 2006: 52).

The most recent “innovations” in torture show that there is a conscious striving to replicate what happens to people who are oppressed and abused. A number of methods are employed. Scrambling a person’s biorhythms. Messing up eating times and deprivation of food and drink. Playing loud noises. Sensory disorientation. On top of this is added humiliation and denial of a person’s reality. Psychological torture has the “advantage” of “leaving none of the usual signs” (McCoy 2006: 53).

The victims of this kind of torture go through a number of stages including “agitation, … thinking difficulties, and finally … panic” (McCoy 2006: 53).

Think about the portrayal of lesbians. What strikes me as common is the denial of lesbian reality. Invisibility and disappearance of lesbians is so common as to be almost not worth mentioning. Daily, I am confronted with lies about lesbians, with distortions and misrepresentations, with hatred of lesbians and with a complete dismissal that lesbians might just have something very interesting to say about the state of the world. Try to raise money for a lesbian film; try to raise money for lesbian health; try to start a campaign that acknowledges that lesbians are victims of torture.

Listen to FannyAnn Eddy, who attempted to do just that. She was a lesbian activist in Sierra Leone, and less than a year before her murder, she said:

Silence creates vulnerability. You, members of the Commission on Human Rights, can break the silence. You can acknowledge that we exist, throughout Africa and on every continent, and that human rights violations based on sexual orientation or gender identity are committed every day. You can help us combat those violations and achieve our full rights and freedoms, in every society, including my beloved Sierra Leone (Eddy 2004).

But who listened?

Alongside the hatred of lesbians, my research has taken me to read about the horrors of lesbians who are tortured. Like other victims of torture, these lesbians have rarely committed crimes. Rather the “crimes” for which they are punished are the result of expedient criminalisation. That is crimes invented in order to create criminals of a particular group.

Let me mention some of the violations without going into too much detail[2]:
           In Russia Alla Pitcherskaia was charged with hooliganism and incarcerated in a mental asylum. Her punishment fits the psychological disorientation methods, including drugs, electroshock “treatments” and incarceration.
          In Zimbabwe, Tina Machida was raped daily on the order of her parents until she bacame pregnant. Feminists have long argued for the centrality of rape as a method of torture – Millett, Stiglmeyer, Kappeler, Caputi – just to name a few. Rape is used to humiliate, to cause pain, to dehumanise and in the case of men, to feminise (and therefore to humiliate, cause pain and dehumanise). In the case of lesbians, rape is also used as punishment. In detention facilities, lesbians are at risk of rape not only by the guards, but also by male prisoners.
           In Iran, lesbians have been reported to have been pushed off buildings.
           In Sierra Leone on September 29, 2004, FannyAnn Eddy was found dead after being repeatedly raped. She had been working in the offices of the Sierra Leone Lesbian and Gay Association (Human Rights Watch, 4 October 2004, Morgan and Wieringa 2005, 20). The media would have us believe that lesbians no longer suffer the pain, humiliation, and shame of systematic discrimination and torture, let alone murder.

Rape, beatings, humiliation, forced pregnancy, infliction of physical and mental pain, false diagnoses of mental illness, forcible confinement and detention, and death are clearly all events that have immediate and long-term implications for the individual lesbians affected. Further, the promotion of sado-masochism by Califia (1988), Weiss (2005), and others contributes to the escalation of violence and social acceptance of violence under the guise of “free choice.” Carole Moschetti (2006) names this collusion “sexual relativism.” Sexual relativism excuses and invisibilizes sexual violence against women on the grounds of “naturalness” and the “male sex right.” In the context of the torture of lesbians, it can be seen as the extreme violations of lesbians for their resistance to heterosexuality and the model of the male sex right. Sado-masochism by lesbians complicates the issue, but domination, an integral part of male sex right practices, is the model for lesbian sado-masochism.

The long-term implications of acts of violence for the health of the social matrix is also significant. When a society allows or enables violence against a group of its members, there is an impact on social health. Such violence generates fear and distrust. It fosters social disconnection. It condones violence. It calls for scapegoats and creates what we are now seeing in the Western world: a new kind of Fascism. Postmodern Fascism, slippery as an eel, multifaceted, dispersed, and often difficult to pinpoint. In a social sense, it is like the experience of pain in the body. It is hard to talk about, although many of us feel the distress and discomfort.[3]

Let me explain for a minute a recent conference presentation by Margot Weiss (2005).[4] In her paper Weiss discusses attending a BDSM[5] class in California at which two people – a woman and a man – present BDSM “scenes” around the use of a “spy.” The “spy” – a woman – is penetrated with a hammer handle. The use of a condom seemed to legitimize this action in the presenter’s eyes. Electroprods are used on her – and at this point I could not take in the third element of the “play torture.” She specifically stated that BDSM is not torture; indeed, she described it as consensual. Weiss went on to say that BDSM classes are “consensual non-consent play” and that Amnesty International documents are a useful source of ideas to create interrogation scenes. Later in the “play torture” one of the players holds a knife to the throat of the “spy,” and an unloaded gun is pointed at her. The clothes are cut from the body of the “spy,” who is lying prone and spreadeagled on the floor. The “spy” then tries to kick at the “torture players.” The “spy” can stop the “consensual non-consent” by using the word “Rumsfeld.” Weiss’s question at the end of her description of “play torture” is, “What does this performance tell us about the Abu Ghraib photographs?” Abu Ghraib, she argues, is merely a scene, a spectacle. And SM serves as a critique, as it disrupts how people understand the world. And further, that because “scenes” are parodic, they become a creative re-enactment about powerlessness over the war. The thing about torture is that you do not know whether you will be alive at the end of the day. You do not know when it will end. It is more than just “powerlessness”; it is subjugation, degradation, abandonment, and dehumanization. To defend such acts as “performative” is an instance of moral neglect.

Among the difficulties experienced by anyone subjected to torture is how to convey the experience of pain inside the body. As mentioned above, Elaine Scarry, in The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World (1985), argues that pain in itself “is language destroying” (1985, 19). For a lesbian this is doubly difficult because the heteronormative discourse of society is not open to understanding the utterances of lesbians. It is hard enough to get people to empathize with and understand a person from another culture, another political regime, an unknown country. Add to that the prospect of lesbian existence and lesbian culture, and the difficulty of the task is amplified still more. Here I am intentionally speaking as if the reader is a heterosexual. For the lesbian reader, the experience is likely to be very different.

Within heterosexual discourse the lesbian epitomizes the body untrammelled. The lesbian body is a body out of control in a heteropatriarchal sense; that is, it is ungoverned by heteropatriarchal rules. For the torturer, the prisoner’s body has also become a body out of control, and this lack of control is shown each time pain is inflicted.

Elaine Scarry writes of the prisoner’s lack of control, and the way in which responsibility for it is deflected back to the prisoner so that the confession “will be understood by others, is an act of self-betrayal” (1985, 47).

Graham, Rawlings and Rigsby (1994) argue that women’s social relationship with men suggests a form of societal Stockholm Syndrome, that is that the institution of heterosexuality and the individuals who patrol it – men and apologists of men’s power – act as through women are hostages to men. The captive perceives the behaviour of the captors as ranging from extreme violence to kindness. The kindness creates a belief in safety in the midst of violence and abuse.

These “acts of self-betrayal” are promulgated through the latest techniques of torture, namely through was is misleadingly called self-inflicted pain. I described this earlier. They are those positions which held long enough create stress on the body. This is a quintessential patriarchal technique used against women as a method of control. Interestingly, such stress positions are frequently resisted by lesbians. Perhaps this is why lesbians are so severely punished under extreme patriarchal regimes.

We can see the ramping up of hatred of lesbians in statements by George W Bush. On 5 June 2006 he said: “Marriage is one of the most fundamental institutions of civilization” (ABC Radio National News Report).

“Only on the question of women and sexuality do the fundamentalists of either side begin to converge. Homosexuals and loose women are held responsible for God’s turning away from the US, just as they are sometimes blamed for the woes of Islam” (Brennan 2003, xvi).

There is an element here of wondering just why it is that sexual orientation has been considered outside the ambit of UN Human Rights rules and why lesbian refugees struggle so hard to be recognized, heard, and acknowledged as “genuine” refugees. It is about the self-betrayal of the body. If lesbian existence is a choice, so the argument goes, then the lesbian can just as easily choose not to be a lesbian. The problem is that her body betrays her. Her speech as a lesbian is taken to be a self-betrayal. The situation is read this way, rather than as a problem of patriarchy and oppression. It is an instance of what Mary Daly names “reversal” (1978)  in which the victim is perceived to be the one at fault, rather than the perpetrator.

The torturer, through this process, dispenses all culpability, all responsibility for the pain inflicted on the tortured person. His conscience is clear. It is all her fault. If only she would do what is best for her, she would not have to suffer. In fact, he will help her by raping her, by showing her what a real man can do for her, how what she needs is “a good fuck, from real men” (Rivera-Fuentes and Birke 2001, 656). This psychological stance, I suggest, is the source of the proliferation of male sexual fantasy about the torture of lesbians.

To summarize my argument: The prisoner of torture is considered out of control; the lesbian is considered out of control. The tortured lesbian is therefore doubly out of control (and in a society where lesbians are defined as mentally ill, triply out of control). Since she is so clearly out of control, anything that happens to her is her fault because if she chose to behave differently, she would not be tortured. The torturer/male sexual fantasist/pornographer is therefore able to abandon all sense of responsibility for his actions and for his beliefs about lesbians. It is in her interest that he torture her, rape her, show her just how good he is.

Lesbian is the only concept I know of which is beyond the categories of sex (woman and man), because the designated subject (lesbian) is not a woman, either economically, or politically, or ideologically. For what makes a woman is a specific social relation to a man, a relation that we have previously called servitude, a relation which implies personal and physical obligation as well as economic obligation (“forced residence,” domestic corvée, conjugal duties, unlimited production of children, etc.), a relation which lesbians escape by refusing to become or to stay heterosexual (Wittig 1992, 20).

Lesbians who step outside the patriarchally and heterosexually normative modes of behaviour will be punished. Lesbians epitomize the “other” in the western philosophical tradition, and the lesbian body is very clearly a world of “otherness.” As I have argued elsewhere (Hawthorne 2003), the non-existence and erasure of lesbians in heterosexual discourse is central to the normative structure of our society. Lesbians share with torture the denial of existence.


We are living in dangerous times. I believe a new fascism, postmodern fascism, is on the rise. It takes the form of defending the freedom of the powerful whose hate speech is protected: corporations, armies, men, the wealthy, and the elite. It defends pornographers and pimps, pharmaceutical companies and reconstruction teams, soldiers and torturers. We know now how these political policies are run. It is through false kindness (Graham et al. 1994); it comes wrapped in choice; it comes with the word freedom emblazoned across it. We need to invent strategies for exposing these systems of injustice for what they are. We also need to invent ways of fighting social demoralization and of increasing the social glue. Indigenous communities in Australia (dé Ishtar 2005) have found that increasing the social power of women strengthens the social fabric and reduces violence. In the last thirty years, as a radical lesbian feminist, I have been active in women’s communities that are creating vibrant feminist and lesbian cultures and in groups that are working to reduce social injustice. However, at a conference in the USA in 2005 I saw feminists and lesbians support the practice of torture because it was called BDSM, because it was categorized as “play” and as “consensual non-consent.” This in a country engaged in widespread abuses of power, including torture against its own and other people. If feminists and lesbians pivot toward “consensual violence,” we can expect to see increased violence against women and indifference toward the torture of lesbians.

If violence against lesbians is a matter of indifference, and lesbians remain outside the scope of social justice reform, then everyone’s civil and political rights remain in jeopardy. The most difficult political reforms to make are, in the long run, the most important, because they give us a clue as to the limits of our preparedness to live an ethical existence. If we are unable to be concerned for the lives and well being of those who are most different, then we are incapable of defending justice for all – even at the most basic level, that involving freedom of association, freedom to love.


Bagaric, Mirko and Julie Clarke. (2005). “Not Enough (Official) Torture in the World? The Circumstances in which Torture is Morally Justifiable.” University of San Francisco Law Review, Vol. 39, No. 3.
Brennan, Teresa. (2003). Globalization and its terrors: Daily life in the West, Routledge, London and New York.
Brossard, Nicole. (1988). The Aerial Letter. Toronto: Women’s Press.
Bush, George W. (2006).  Interview. ABC Radio National, News Report. Australian Broadcasting Corporation.
Califia, Pat.  (Ed.) (1988). The Lesbian S/M Safety Manual. Boston: Alyson Publications.
Caputi, Jane. 2004. The Age of Sex Crime. London: The Women's Press.
Daly, Mary. (1978). Gyn/Ecology: The Metaethics of Radical Feminism. Boston: Beacon Press.
Dé Ishtar, Zohl. (2005). Holding Yawulyu: White culture and black women’s law. Melbourne: Spinifex Press.
Eddy, FannyAnn. (2004). “Testimony by FannyAnn Eddy at the U.N. Commission on Human Rights. Item 14 – 60th Session, U.N. Commission on Human Rights.”
Graham, Dee L. R., with Edna I. Rawlings and Roberta K. Rigsby. (1994). Loving to Survive: Sexual terror, men’s violence and women’s lives. New York: NYUP.
Hawthorne, Susan. (2003a).  “The depoliticising of lesbian culture”. Hecate, 29, (2), 235-247.
Hawthorne, Susan. (2005a). The Butterfly Effect. Melbourne: Spinifex Press.
Hawthorne, Susan. (2005b). Ancient Hatred and Its Contemporary Manifestations: The Torture of Lesbians. The Journal of Hate Studies. Vol. 4. 33-58. Online at
Kappeler, Susanne. (1995) The Will to Violence: The Politics of Personal Behaviour. Melbourne: Spinifex Press.
McCoy, Alfred W. (2006). A Question of torture: CIA interrogation, from the Cold War to the War on Terror. New York: Metropolitan Books.
Millett, Kate. 1994. The Politics of Cruelty: An Essay on the Literature of Political Imprisonment. London: W.W. Norton.
Morgan, Ruth and Saskia Wieringa. (2005). Tommy Boys, Lesbian Men and Ancestral Wives: Female same-sex practices in Africa. Johannesburg: Jacana.
Moschetti, Carole. (2006). Conjugal Wrongs Don’t Make Rights: International Feminist Activism, Child Marriage and Sexual Relativism. PhD Dissertation, Political Science Department, University of Melbourne.
Rivera-Fuentes, Consuelo and Linda Birke. (2001). Talking With/In Pain: Reflections on bodies under torture. Women’s Studies International Forum 24, (6): 653-668.
Scarry, Elaine. (1985). The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Stiglmayer, Alexandra Ed. (1994) Mass Rape: The War Against Women in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press.
Weiss, Margot D. (2005). “Consensual BDSM and ‘Sadomasochistic’ Torture at Abu Ghraib.” Paper presented at “Trans/Positions: A Conference on Feminist Inquiry in Transit”. Purdue University, 7-9 April 2005.
Weiss, Margot D. (2009). “Rumsfeld!: Consensual BDSM and ‘Sadomasochistic’ Torture at Abu Ghraib”. In Lewen, Ellen and William L. Leap (Eds) Out in Public: Reinventing Lesbian/Gay Anthropology in a Globalizing World. Wiley Blackwell, Chichester, West Sussex, pp. 180-201.
Monique Wittig. (1992). “The Straight Mind” (1980). In The Straight Mind and Other Essays. Boston: Beacon Press.


[1]           This poem was performed at the annual New Zealand Women's Studies Conference at the Massey University Events Centre, Palmerston North, New Zealand, 22 November, 2003.
[2]           For more detail on  the following examples see Hawthorne 2005.
[3]           In the US and Australia, legal theorists are arguing for the legalization of torture. See for example, Bagaric and Clarke (2005). The push to legalize torture is not substantially different from the push to legalize prostitution. It serves the interests of similarly powerful parties.
[4]           I have requested a copy of the paper by Weiss from the author, but have not received it. The quotations here are based on notes taken during her presentation in 2005. As an aside in 2017, Weiss has since published this paper. See  Weiss 2009.
[5]           In this paper I use the abbreviation S/M when speaking generally about sad-masochism, and I use BDSM when discussing the paper by Weiss (2005).

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