Blog: Oil Wells in Our Minds- On Ecofeminism and Rape Culture

In this blog post written in a personal capacity, CHE director Svenja Meyerricks addresses the recent Roosh V controversy from an ecofeminist perspective.

A few years ago, I took an overnight ferry from Germany to Helsinki in Finland. Random fleeting encounters with fellow travellers are one of the perks of slow long-distance travelling, so I started conversing with some of my fellow passengers in the cramped low-budget zone on board of the ferry. It was the first time I came across a man who called himself a ‘pick-up artist’ and considered himself part of a revelatory ‘movement’ of men who use psychologically manipulative techniques to increase their chances to bed women. He didn’t demonstrate his techniques to us female co-travellers as this would have instantly stalled the conversation, which was already more than awkward. Or if he tried, they didn’t work.

The social media outcry and opposition to Daryush ‘Roosh V’ Valizadeh’s events reminded me of this pathetic real-life encounter with a so-called ‘pick-up artist’. Enough has been written about Roosh V’s online bile and the wider culture of misogyny upon which it thrives – I will not link to any of the rape promotion, blatant misogyny and homophobia, trolling self-promotion, or the pathetic insecurity which feeds it. It’s not worth paying attention to, other than as being symptomatic of the deeply ingrained misogyny in wider society which provides the fertile ground for pathetic trolls to have a voice. In that sense, perhaps most revealing of the misogynist mindset was one article in which he compared women to oil wells: commodities for men to mine. This comparison reminded me of an otherwise brilliant and powerful poem by Maya Angelou, where she uses the oil wells as an unfortunate metaphor for female empowerment. Oil is power after all – extractive, non-renewable power which will eventually be depleted. This kind of symbolism makes a powerful case for the ecofeminist critique that all oppressions are connected.

We are not oil wells. Women1 are not resources to be exploited and sucked dry as a means to gaining something else – consumer products of sex, desire or cheap labour. We are not a crude product to be refined to suit someone else’s tastes. Equally, we can’t afford to keep extracting and using the decomposed remains of bygone organic life forms to fuel our cars, planes and petroleum-based consumer products. Over the last few decades, women have gained significantly more rights, and we seek to fuel our consumerist desires with more renewable alternatives. Meanwhile cultural norms that have been established over long periods of time continue to give rise to extractive, colonising and oppressive mindsets. As long as these mindsets are active, we will continue to exploit nature and each other – not only some genders, but also other ethnicities, those who hold different beliefs, are differently abled or express different sexualities.

The struggle with our darkest inclinations and wanting mindsets has been highlighted in various spiritual traditions throughout history. It is our responsibility to overcome them; after all, our own and the planet’s survival is at stake. The way we treat the Earth is symptomatic of how we treat each other, and vice versa. The more our worldview is based on the extraction of scarce resources, the more our social interactions will be based on how much we can extract from one another, not on how much we can willingly give. And the more we seek to exploit one another, the blinder we may become to how fundamentally we exploit the natural world as a resource, overstretching planetary limits in the process. After all, we are nature, and if we damage each other, we are damaging nature itself.

However fiercely we campaign against the Tories, Trumps, Roosh Vs and other replaceable nemeses of the day, they will only keep on coming. They’re riding on top of those social and cultural waves which give them a voice. The biggest challenges we face are addressing cultural and structural kinds of oppression which form the background noise upon which open violence can thrive verbally, politically or physically. Without wider social and cultural oppressive structures and status quos, individuals who promote hateful doctrines would not have a platform, but would instead be dismissed as the offensive cranks they are, forced to retreat into their marginal corners, licking their wounds.

Yet culturally embedded oppressions are often the hardest to point out – they push many buttons, because these are conversations and negotiations which happen in our work places, friendships and relationships, and in the products of culture that we cherish. Those who are brave enough to point them out are often severely punished – like Anita Sarkeesian, who encountered countless threats in response to her ‘Tropes vs Women’ series, in which she analysed sexism in video games on her informative and entertaining channel Feminist Frequency. After all, she pointed out oppressions in which we are all entangled. Culturally depicted oppressions entertain, turn on and provide escapism from life’s hardships. Pop culture mirrors and shapes society, and while sexist representations of women in films or video games can hardly be equated with physical violence, one may give rise to the other. Culture is to a large part where rape culture is born, or where it can be nipped at the bud.

Cultural oppressions are hard to challenge because they are painful to admit to ourselves. We all participate. As women we are sometimes our own worst enemies, putting our own needs last in the quest for male approval. We are often devalued and listened to less, and as a result feel less confident to speak up or to be assertive. We question ourselves more. Sexualised imagery surrounds us from the day we are born to the day we die, reducing us to our bodies and insulting our complexity and intelligence where it is used simply for the purpose of marketing consumer goods. A chronic lack of female role models in films and positions of leadership means that we see fewer possibilities for ourselves, or at least that we have to work harder to better ourselves simply because we are female. We are so deeply entangled in historically shaped, and culturally perpetuated, webs of oppression that they have become invisible to us. Worse than that, we don’t want to see them. After all, we’re not endorsing racism, sexism, homophobia or polluting the planet. They are – at least more than us.

Cultural oppressions are also hard to challenge because we can’t legislate our mindsets. We must want to change them – and how can we want to change that which is often invisible? To build more empathic societies in which we respect others even where we don’t fully understand them, the first step is acknowledging our own prejudices, even if it’s painful. In Joseph Campbell’s terms, the hero’s journey is an inner one at least as much as an outer one. We continue to campaign, protest and create alternatives to harmful status quos – but if we want to embark on the heroic quest to bring about change in the world, we need to also identify and overcome our personal demons. We cannot do this on behalf of someone else, but we can help to build a culture of understanding prejudices, and of naming and challenging them where they give rise to bigotry. We must replace our extractive mindsets with mindsets that nurture empathy and create space for solidarity.

For none of us deserve to be treated like oil wells. Not even oil wells.

1‘Women’ includes everyone who identifies as a woman.

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