Feminism on Drugs: Suffragists, Benzodiazepines and Biopolitics
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Feminism on Drugs: Suffragists, Benzodiazepines and Biopolitics


WASHINGTON - January 29, 2019

Drugs and drug policy were much discussed in 2018 in connection with the spread of HIV, their impact on human intellectual abilities, the repressive prison and police system, the DarkNet and the internet in general, hip-hop and youth culture and, of course, football and sports. Here's another angle: feminism and drugs. It would seem that these concepts are not connected, but in their history, and in theoretical and political approaches, they are closely entwined.

The first wave of feminism

The movement for Women's Rights in the late 19th-early 20th century was very closely connected with the modern drug policy and interfered actively in the processes of the legislative regulation of drug production and distribution.

Many prominent activists who fought for women's rights (Susan B. Anthony and Francis Willard in the United States, Lily May Atkinson and Kate Sheppard in New Zealand, Emilia Ratu in Sweden) also participated in sobriety movements that promoted abstinence and a ban on alcohol, tobacco and other psychoactive substances.

Feminists believed that alcohol consumption is the cause of physical and emotional violence by men (spouses and fathers) against women and children.

They also argued that spending on drinking depletes the budget, negatively affecting family well-being. drunkenness leads to violations of public order, cultural and moral degradation and harms the health of the nation and its reputation.

On the other hand, according to some studies, the alcohol use problem (as well as opium or tobacco) was a sphere for the relatively legitimate involvement of women in public affairs and politics in the context of patriarchy. As a housewife, mother, nurse and caregiver, the woman had power -- albeit relative and limited to the private sphere -- and could express an expert opinion on health, care, family, upbringing, morality, emotions and feelings.

The struggle for sobriety understood as a concern for the health and well-being of the nation made it possible to make women's expertise public and thereby legitimize women’s participation in domestic and international politics.

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the trade in opium and other substances received much attention in colonial and anti-colonial strategies, and women's organizations were actively involved in domestic and international drug policies.

For example, the Woman's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), founded in 1873 in the United States, by the beginning of the twentieth-century already had offices in 52 countries around the world. The Union fought for the prohibition of tobacco and alcohol and for women's political rights.

Moreover, both agendas were inextricably linked: It was believed that only with full political rights would women be able to effectively address issues of social morals and health.

Christabel Pankhurst, one of the most famous of the English suffragettes, claimed the same when she wrote that women should have a voice in the eradication of prostitution (another male sin).

This rhetoric was widespread and politically effective. Women's organizations dealing with drugs and other social ills have been recognized at the national and international levels. They managed to become important sources of expertise in the social spheres they were engaged in. The women's movement for sobriety and abstinence was very strong.

For example, in New Zealand -- the first country in the world where women gained the right to vote (in 1893) -- the local WCTU branch was the most influential and numerous suffragist organization.

The modern feminist researcher Annemieke Van Drenth and Francisca De Haan from the Netherlands think that women's organizations, which fought against social evils, invented and put into use a new type of government at the national and international levels -- the power of caring, or caring power.

Van Drenth and De Haan compare caring power with disciplinary power--a concept developed by historian-philosopher Michel Foucault.

Disciplinary power is, by and large, the power of external coercion; it's a prison, a hospital, a school -- places where individuals must obey the order established without their participation.

Caring authority acts internally to convince the individual that submission to the rules is in accordance with his or her own interests. One example of such power is the Magdalene shelters (Houses of Tolerance), places where women engaged in commercial sex were held. These shelters were considered not so much a punishment as a chance for correction, redemption and new life. As Van Drenth and De Haan noted, although caring power is different from disciplinary power, it is not necessarily less repressive -- it just has other action mechanics.

Alcohol for suffragettes of the late 19th-early 20th century was abjection (Vreel) -- that is, an object that was ousted, censured and denied, but at the same time it made possible (at least in part) the formation of feminism and the women's movement as a political subject.

Second wave of feminism

Some representatives of the second wave of the feminist movement were also interested in the problem of psychoactive substances and their use.

Feminism on Drugs: Suffragists, Benzodiazepines and Biopolitics

The 1960s-1970ss in the United States was an era of benzodiazepines. Especially popular was valium (diazepam) -- a sedative, which was prescribed for anxiety, fears, sleep disorders, neuroses, emotional stress and increased irritability, but if you take it for a long time, it is addictive. However, then valium was considered a relatively safe drug, and doctors gladly prescribed it to their patients (often housewives).

According to some reports, up to a third of all women in the United States at the time had experience taking benzodiazepines. Feminists called valium a tranquilizer for women. In their opinion, such wide use of this drug meant that women are in uncomfortable conditions: limited space at home, emotionally and physically overloaded, tired, under stress.

Not surprisingly, many of them suffer from anxiety, insomnia and irritability. The reason for the unhealthy women state is the patriarchal organization of society, infringing and limiting their rights, their activity, their peace.

But valium doesn't change the situation -- it only makes the oppression invisible and allows for coping with its negative effects. Feminists believed benzodiazepines to be a kind of apparatus for the production of false consciousness, working to preserve the patriarchy. Therefore, the spread of valium has become a significant object of feminist criticism.

But some feminists considered the banned psychoactive substances as potential allies in the fight against patriarchal control and the cultural hegemony of masculine values. Andrea Dworkin, one of the most famous and radical American representatives of the second wave of feminism, in her first book Woman Hating (1974), wrote that through the use of psychoactive substances, radical political action and open sexuality, most women can get rid of the patriarchal and bourgeois attitudes of consciousness. At the same time, Dworkin didn't hide that she was a lesbian.

Women should be like medieval witches who not only controlled the production and consumption of drugs (analgesics, hallucinogens, organic amphetamines), but also arranged with their help orgies and becoming animals.

Feminism on Drugs: Suffragists, Benzodiazepines and Biopolitics

After all, the control of substances is also control over physicality, consciousness and sexuality. However, in utopian Dworkin society, control was canceled generally as a repressive patriarchal instance: people freely have sex with animals, elderly -- with children, all become androgens and accept any psychoactive substances.

The witches’ magic was in an impressive list of medical skills regarding reproductive and psychological processes, deep knowledge of telepathy, auto - and heterotopias, hypnotism and drugs that control mood. (Woman Hating: A Radical Look at Sexuality, New York: Penguin Books, 1974)

However, in the future, Dworkin reconsidered her attitude to control and restrictions, and she began to lead the feminist campaign against pornography and commercial sex, and drugs no longer concerned her.

But Dworkin's other opponents continued to develop her strategy.

For example, Annie M. Sprinkle -- a sex-positive (movement that began in the early 1980s centering on the idea that sexual freedom is an essential component of women's freedom) feminist who was a stripper, sex worker, porn actress, publisher of a pornographic magazine, writer, director and many other things. In 1999, she was invited to speak at a conference on art chemistry, hallucinogens and creativity. In preparation for the performance, Sprinkle wrote an essay on how the use of various psychoactive substances--LSD, psilocybin mushrooms, mescaline, MDMA, ketamine, ayahuasca, etc--transformed her sexuality.

She considered that drugs during sex are used not so much as aphrodisiacs, but as tools for the expansion of the borders of consciousness and sensuality and for new experiences and knowledge of sexuality, physicality and interaction with your partners/partners.

Sprinkle agreed that the biochemical effects of sex are much like the effects of taking psychoactive substances. So sex itself is a kind of drug, and drugs affect sexuality and physicality.

Third wave of feminism

The analysis of prohibited substances in the works of third-wave feminists has been very productive. British cyber feminist Sadie Plant wrote a book about drugs as a secret pleasure, the fantasy of the European Enlightenment. It constantly displaces narcotic substances, but only to put them back in the center of cultural and political discourses. American scientist Avital Ronell developed the concept of the drug analysis of literary texts.

Ronell also introduced the concept of being-on-drugs: Its essence is that there is no "sobriety" as such and that to exist means, in principle, to be influenced by different drugs: substances, ideologies, goods, advertising images, communication, technology, sociality.

Among the many queer and feminist studies of drugs and drug policies, perhaps the most famous was the work of transgender theorist Paul Preciado "Testo Junkie: Sex, Drugs and Biopolitics." In his opinion, we live in a society in which politics and power are intertwined and embodied in chemical formulas, hormones, biotechnology, pornographic images.

Virtual sex, plastic surgery, genetic engineering, reproductive technology, gender change, biomodification, human-induced climate transformation... We all live in a cyborg, mutant world where everything is constructed and produced through symbolic and material objects, according to his book.

The body itself, gender and sexuality are transformed not just into objects of sociomaterial construction, but into fields of tactics, strategies and conflicts that draw the lines of emancipation, the lines of new control. Accordingly, the main policy issue is who has the ability to control and manage the flow of substances.

"Alcohol, tobacco, hash, cocaine or morphine, as well as estrogens and androgens, are not synthetic tunnels of escape from reality, nor are they simply connections between point A and point B, but rather technologies of consciousness, of which new methods of determining the boundaries of human recognizability will be produced. Modern subjectivity is the management of one's own intoxication in a chemically harmful environment." (Paul Preciado. Testo Junkie: Sex, Drugs and Biopolitics, The Feminist Press at CUNY, 2013)

Preciado wrote his book as part of a practical bodily response to the above question. While working on the text, he began to use testosterone bought on the black market, the effect of which he compares with the sensations after cocaine and amphetamine use. The hormone changes not only the author's physicality and sexuality, but also his social and gender status, turning him into a renegade of the official binary system of gender identities.

During the transition and writing books Preciado was, like, between and beyond the categories of male and female. It is also important that this process has not been officially registered.

With this gesture, Preciado tried to show the dual status of psychoactive substances in the pharmacopornographic society. On the one hand, they act as a mechanism of biopolitical control: public institutions can prohibit or force an individual to consume psychoactive substances (hormones and drugs, between which it is not always possible to draw a border) -- depending on what is necessary for the normalization operation. On the other hand, the struggle for power is also a struggle for control over access to various substances.

The state and capitalism are currently trying to establish their monopoly in this area, while biochakers, transgender people, drug users and other rebels of the pharmacopornographic world modify their bodies, sexuality, gender, consciousness with the help of various substances and techniques.

They try to elude the control of the dominant order by using and re-seizing its tools. Modern feminism and queer theory analyze drugs situationally, considering their effects not on their own, but in certain contexts.

Psychoactive substances can be tools for the study of consciousness and sexuality, a way to transform their physicality and gender identity, but they can also act as control mechanisms.

In general, as always: Everything is difficult -- and there are no simple solutions in feminist drug analysis. But if you are offered a choice of two pills -- take queer feminist.

Author: USA Really