We have been raised to fear the yes within ourselves, our deepest cravings. But, once recognized, those which do not enhance our future lose their power and can be altered. The fear of our deepest cravings keeps them suspect and indiscriminately powerful, for to suppress any truth is to give it strength beyond endurance. The fear that we cannot grow beyond whatever distortions we may find within ourselves keeps us docile and loyal and obedient, externally defined, and leads us to accept many facets of our own oppression as women.
Lorde writes this within the context of erotic power – the “yes” here refers to sexuality, which we have been taught to suppress, especially as women, as something that gets in the way of, ultimately, leading a productive life (as defined within the context of our economic system). In our culture sexuality is framed very gendered: Male sexuality is an expression of power and female sexuality is something mysterious, yet dangerous. This gendered frame prevents us from using sexuality as a form of connection, as the bonobos use it, and places it squarely in the realm of violence – from microaggression to rape.
In their book Sex and World Peace, Valerie Hudson, Bonnie Ballif-Spanvill, Mary Caprioli, and Chad Emmett define gendered microaggression as the composition (17):
of all those many choices and acts in the routine day-to-day existence that harm, subordinate, exploit, and disrespect women. These “little” things, experienced day after day, year after year, ground the society in gender inequality and all of its sequelae. Given that gendered microaggression becomes entrenched in daily living, these pernicious norms are the air breathed in by children of both sexes, and they become as natural and invisible to that next generation as air itself. What is viewed as normal is not only invisible but becomes something that is not spoken about either. Silence, often self-imposed, is the sturdy ally of gendered microaggression.
Declaring women’s “deepest cravings” to be “suspect and indiscriminately powerful” is a form of microaggression. The gendered frame is a form of microaggression. Actually two: When men learn to use sexuality to express and maintain their power, it harms and exploits women and when women’s sexuality is shrouded in mystery, it disrespects women. It also contributes to the perpetuation of the microaggression: Women learn to fear male sexuality, completely removing sexuality as a form of connection.
What happens, though, when sexual power becomes the only available means of expressing power for men? When they have been disempowered by a hierarchical system that puts a few men on top of the pyramid? Violence against women increases. That’s the case, for example, in South Africa and in India. And it will probably get worse as the economic infrastructure weakened by increasing inequality crumbles even more.
This, then, implicates the economic structure of society in the extent of violence against women: A society that creates classes, hierarchies that put some in power and others under those in power, perpetuates violence against women because it combines a power-over structure with an ethos of masculinity that brings this power-over into gender relations. Put differently, as long as we have an economic system that breeds and rewards competition, violence against women will be endemic because this will be how powerless men are taught to express their power diverting their frustration from a system that disenfranchises them, thus ensuring that the system remains unchallenged.
As Audrey Lorde points out, women learn to accept these definitions, making us complicit in our own oppression. This internalized oppression is also a microaggression because it prevents us from standing up for ourselves, or as Lorde put it, it “keeps us docile and loyal and obedient” easy victims of violence against women. And that, too, ensures the continuation of a system that disenfranchises the many by empowering the few.