Maybe you’re curious like me. How do people get from place to place, idea to idea? What’s their story? I’ve been fascinated with the details of people’s personal journeys ever since discovering online feminism. The idea for interviews this time around is nothing more than my curiosity given a voice. -pisaquari
pisaquari: Who are you known as on the internets?
S.M. Berg: Just ‘sam’ on blogs for the most part, but I can also be found under the incarnations of Sam Berg, Samantha Berg, and S.M. Berg.
pisaquari: Site(s) you blog? Write? If any?
S.M. Berg:I hang my hat at http://www.genderberg.com when not a-courting at the sizable number of radical feminist blogs out there. My writings have been published at news, politics and entertainment websites of various sorts but my main gig is genderberg.
pisaquari: Places you most frequent/comment (can be nonfeminist)?
S.M.:Feminist-blogwise, I’m a perennial fan of Women’s Space and Reclusive Leftist, and lately Hoyden About Town has kept me coming back for more. I read The Guardian and Popmatters.com every day, and at least once a week I check out what’s going on with my favorite music artists. Some of those Lolcats make me bust a gut and I occasionally romp through their cheezburgers.
pisaquari: How would you describe your background? Naming as many points for which you are privileged and oppressed as possible.
S.M.:I grew up in a lower-middle class New York family in the archetypical post-war suburb, Levittown. Dad worked a blue collar union job in Manhattan and mom mostly didn’t work. Half my family is Catholic and half Jewish so my parents scrapped both for Lutheranism, but I had healthy doses of exposure to each religion from relatives. My parents’ guiding principle in childrearing was that children were home-grown slaves, and I wish that were a joke or exaggeration. Public officials who noticed the bruises and neglect tried to save me once when I was seven, but they failed.
After the court battle, my parents moved to a small town in the Catskill mountains where no one can hear you scream. My internship in Purgatory, NY ended with relocation to a huge state university and the beginning of my true life. Grades soared once I was in control of my own destiny, and I graduated with honors in English literature and as valedictorian of my linguistics class. Soon after getting my degrees I moved to Costa Rica to test my independence, then soon after coming back I moved into a lovely railroad apartment in Brooklyn with my life partner, the man who still makes my insides surge with undiluted affection over a decade later.
That’s twenty years in two paragraphs.
pisaquari: The abuse you describe sounds severe (and I am so sorry for it, child abuse has many immeasurable effects)–how did the officials come to know of the abuse?
How did the officials fail?
S.M.:It’s a boring story, really. They saw bruises on me at school, the school sued to have me removed, my parents won by lying about the abuse and then skipped town. Who can say now if it would have been better to place me in a foster home? It unfolded as the Fates decreed and made me who I am today.
pisaquari: As for your degrees, how many did you receive and what were they?
S.M.: I double-majored in English and linguistics as part of my plan to travel the world teaching English as a second language. I’ve worked for a language translation and interpretor company near the United Nations building and as a Berlitz teacher in Costa Rica and New York, but my favorite stint was doing accent reduction with a group of Harvard-educated biochemists. These Chinese folks were geniuses working on the cure to Hepatitis C but because they couldn’t pronounce words like “blood” as well as native English speakers they got racist crap from colleagues.
pisaquari: And what prompted the move to Costa Rica specifically? Also more interested in the independence you speak of–since you had already moved away from home, what were further tests to prove?
S.M.: I adore the rush of traveling and had done some backpacking in the UK, so when the constraints of classes fell off like shackles I needed to stretch my legs. Moving to Singapore was considered, but Costa Rica was more in my price range. In between graduation and the plane ride to Costa Rica, I happened to fall google-eyed in love. Leaving him so soon after finding him sucked, but I had decided to travel and teach ESL and that’s what I did. The glorious love letters I got were worth the moments of missing him, and I proved to myself that no matter what, I was my own woman who could make my own way anywhere in the world.
pisaquari: What made you want to move back?
S.M.: Visa regulations. Costa Rican police actually did a raid on the language school one week after I left and kicked some of my co-workers who overstayed their visas back to the USA.
pisaquari: And how did you meet this love?
S.M.: We both worked at a bookstore and were friends until one raucous night of fancy-dress dancing when we became more.
pisaquari: So where were you in your feminist journey at this point?
S.M.: Like so many young women, I felt the injustices done to my gender but didn’t articulate or organize the thoughts until I was about 20-years-old. Classes on postmodernism and queer theory opened my eyes to the fluidity of gender, but in the beginning I could only see the organized prejudices against gay people and my scant political activity circled around gay rights. While living in Brooklyn I got heavily involved with RESULTS, a grassroots citizen’s lobby seeking to alleviate the worst aspects of poverty, and I noticed that my success rate getting letters to the editors published was incredible. The 2000 Presidential Selection bumped my political involvement up a few notches as I became one of the many thousands of people Ralph Nader has inspired to civic duty.
Immediately upon moving to Portland in 2001 I threw myself into growing the Green Party and supporting the local Planned Parenthood, but the Pacific Green Party wasn’t very welcoming to women so I shifted more efforts to PP. I began writing pro-choice articles for a local progressive newspaper and co-started a PP splinter group of young activists called SHAG (Sexual Health Activist Group) that I wound up leading on mischievous reproductive rights adventures for two years.
pisaquari: And what of radical feminism? How did that conversion finally happen?
S.M.: Since I’ve written in the past of my political progression from liberal to radical (in these two essays 1 & 2 ), I’m going to use this opportunity to talk more personally about what motivates my radicalism.
Somewhat unusual for a radical feminist, I dedicated my website to a man named Phillip Michael Peck. Phil was my best friend in junior high school, a gay boy from Long island serving out his term in Purgatory, NY after his parents divorced. He helped me survive to adulthood. I did not help him survive adulthood so well, because at thirty-two he died from complications with medicines taken for the HIV a john gave him. “Sam,” he told me, “I could’ve gotten this death sentence for twenty extra bucks for a bareback.”
We met over Whoopie Goldberg in the back of the science room. We hadn’t said a word to each other until he had a gaggle of girl adorers around him talking about celebrities, and one girl said Whoopie was ugly. Phil indignantly exhorted, “Whoopie Goldberg is beautiful!” and the gaggle scoffed for the half-moment it took me to lift my head and solidly confirm, “Whoopie Goldberg IS beautiful.” His eyes met mine for the first time and we fell in love.
At fourteen Phil was turning tricks with older men who solicited him in NYC mall bathrooms while visiting his dad. From there he went on to do pornography, live sex shows, and drag performances using my middle name, Marissa, as his stage name. He ran a gay escort agency until he got arrested in a hotel overlooking Madison Square Garden.
I used to brag to people with sex positive pride that I had sexy sex worker friends who were happy and living the good life, thereby boosting my own sexee self by choosing not to relay the stories Phil told of getting raped, stealing drugs and money from tricks, and getting various sexually transmitted diseases. He once told me about stealing a huge bag of cocaine from a trick with, “Honey, this city better be big enough for the two of us because I can’t see him again.”
Phil kept turning tricks after learning he was HIV positive. No worried lecture from me could change his need for money and his lack of any other way to get it so I didn’t bother. None of my conscience-buckling at the thought of him spreading AIDS could change his reckless behavior so I supported him with the unconditional love of lifelong friends. We were friends his whole short life long.
Of course I don’t blame myself for what he went through at the hands of male johns and male cops, but I can’t help wondering if things might have been different if I didn’t selfishly encourage his prostituting for the years before he finally exited. He had a former trick who kept hiring him to clean his massive Westchester house, but every time the man made a sexual advance towards Phil it got refused. “It’s not worth it anymore, not for all the money he has,” Phil told me over coffee the last time I was in New York.
I have loved two people destroyed by men who believe it is their right to economically coerce sexual submission whenever and however they please. Phil was the first and the worst, because I loved him through all fifteen years, from start to finish to the end.
pisaquari: was the death of Phil The spark for radical feminism?
S.M.: No, Phil died a year and a half ago, but don’t underestimate the radicalizing powers of being a girl from a lousy family with a gay boy best friend in rural New York. There was even one phoned-in death threat.
I was what radical feminism is before I knew what radical feminism was. Before I knew anti-war and anti-authoritarian were feminist or radical, I knew war was wrong and thinking you’re better than other people was wrong. My childhood was a good primer for eventually embracing myself as a radfem, but the path ambled before me and the decisions I made consistently steered me in that direction. Always pro-choice and pro-queer, while in college I changed my mind about the death penalty and affirmative action. I’ve never owned a car or had a driver’s license (doesn’t mean I’ve never driven), I will never marry or have kids, and I smoke marijuana legally every day.
One self-realized foot after the other and soon I had strayed farther from mainstream than expected. When you’re in your anti-porn star shirt seriously discussing plans to humanure while ripping up old political placards into the compost pile for your organic garden, American affluenza seems more like slow suicide than a normal lifestyle.
pisaquari: How do you integrate radical feminism into your personal relationships? Buying habits? Love? Family?
I’ve never been a big spender or brand name devotee, but struggling against the urge to consume needlessly was a challenge while living in capitalism ground zero, NYC. Though I have a few inexpensive baubles of yore, I no longer wear jewelry. However, I save pennies and plan for new tattoos, making the concept of adornment very much still in. Hallelujah for the prohibitively high cost of good tattooists and being financially forced to pace myself. I’ve read radical feminist arguments against such body modifications, notably in The Sexual Liberals and the Attack on Feminism, and they score some damn fine points about behavioral conditioning. So do lesbian separatist feminists.
The Brooklyn Years were the happiest of my life, and I feel a loss of innocence when I think of how much my life changed the year before moving to greener pastures in Portland. The debacle of the 2000 presidential process, which I witnessed as a poll watcher for the Green Party, erased my optimistic enthusiasm like it was child’s chalk, and the World Trade Center disaster a few months later finished off any lingering remnants of youth’s ignorant bliss. I don’t mean I’m unhappy now because I’ve rejoiced in my freedom from fear since finding it, but there has been an undeniable, skeptical shift in how I view the world due to a widening radfem consciousness about injustices people perpetrate and perpetuate.
“Personal relationships, love and family?”
Last year I got sterilized via Essure on my birthday. It was supposed to happen several days sooner but bodies are unpredictable sometimes. I never wanted to bear and raise children, and radical feminism bolstered my conviction. Same with marriage; I didn’t desire to be a wife before I became a radical feminist and through explorations and questioning I found the language to express why my soul has always soured on the prospect.
There are facets of radical feminism closed to me because I’m partnered with a man, and like any road not taken it makes for wistful what ifs. My answer to the stock question of lottery-winning fantasies is to buy a chunk of land in Sweden where only women and girls can live, and I muse about the fence that would separate my partner from the women knowing it’s an imperfect solution but whatever, it’s my fantasy and I’ll make it as delectably impractical as I wish. The non-fantasy part is that my pillar of a partner would have no problem being excluded from a few acres out of respect for women, me, and radical feminism.
pisaquari: What has been the hardest part of radical feminism to integrate into your life?
S.M. Berg: Probably refraining from the spiral into a hopeless hole when daily examples of woman-hatred are shoved in my face despite my best efforts to avoid them.
I work seven miles from where I live and every weekday I bike to work and back. Most days it’s a pleasant ride, but whether it’s a porny strip club ad on a telephone pole, some sidewalk guy ordering me to smile for him, or a bar advertising a pimp & ho party with a photo of a woman’s lacquered fingers spreading open her asshole (all true examples), some days my 35-minute ride becomes an angry, pedal-pumping drive.
Portland has several areas where prostitution is a constant, and I live in the city’s worst neighborhood for prostitution while working in the city’s worst neighborhood for gang violence, often prostitution-related. I can go about my workday happy as a sam until hearing a woman outside my window ask her pimp if she can go pee. http://www.genderberg.com/phpNuke/modul … age&pid=55
One late afternoon I saw a girl of about 14-15 prostituting a few blocks from my house and I didn’t make it home before starting to cry. I was having a swell day until then. When I go into pornography stores and strip clubs to educate myself I’m braced for the outpouring of woman-hatred, but unexpectedly seeing that child on the corner discretely wave at cars driven by men sucker-punched me in the solar plexus.
pisaquari: How do you survive/find happiness living in a patriarchy? What are some things you like to do?
S.M. Berg: Predictable as it may be, doing activism gives me a purpose and makes me feel like I’m not just taking patriarchal shit lying down. I don’t promote the forums as a healing space because it’s mainly an information and action-oriented site, but feedback from survivors and other members has been that fighting against pornstitution, however small or with however many other people, heals them by providing a productive, focused outlet and camaraderie with others who get where this hits them.
Less radfemically, I spend a lot of time gardening my way to organic food and flowers, something that came as a surprise since I’m not a homebody generally and I detest cooking. Playing in the dirt is most of the fun, though I’ve gotten more into learning the nitty gritty of soil composition over the years. I devour gardening books from library shelves, sometimes rereading the better ones. Flipping through a catalog of plants seems like dry reading but oh the excitement when I see an herb I’ve never heard of before or a type of Bougainvillea that can grow in Zone 8.
The role of certain drugs in maintaining some semblance of sanity cannot be overstated. Nothing prescription, usually organic. It’s tricky to endorse drug use and I don’t mean to be irresponsible just honest, but it’s true that the first time I dropped acid something changed in my mind permanently and for the better.
Music is a great passion of mine, and I dance often. Any hipster cred received for XTC being my favorite band is purely incidental to the gloriousness that is Andy Patridge’s Tori-sort of kooky musical genius. I love to swim and have a gym membership pretty much just so I can play mermaid any time the mood strikes. My taste for engaging in thrill-seeking sports is limited by my wallet, but if I could afford to I would skydive, whitewater raft, and firewalk over several feet of hot coals again and again.
pisaquari: What sort of activist activities are you involved with?
S.M. Berg: Here’s a rundown of what I’ve been up to in autumn:
There’s the usual writing magic I work with publication pending in a few places, and of course the time and energy it takes to support genderberg members new and old. I’m mega proud that Dr. Melissa Farley saw fit to put a link to my prostitution FAQ at the Prostitution Research & Education website. http://www.prostitutionresearch.com/c-p … facts.html
Locally, I’ve worked on pulling together two forums addressing prostitution in Portland. My neighborhood has five times the prostitution of other Portland neighborhoods and my neighbors are furious, so we convened two well-attended public meetings to make politicians take action. The first community meeting in September went exceptionally well with lots of pro-Swedish model stuff about going after johns presented to the packed house of 300 people. (details here http://www.eastpdxnews.com/index.php?mo … id_art=992)
The second meeting in October focused on neighbors working out solutions. (details here http://eastpdxnews.com/index.php?mod=ar … d_art=1015) There’s no better teaser for the drama that went down at the second meeting than this one from East PDX News, “Learn what a prostitution-fighting expert told neighbors at the “Take Back 82nd Avenue” Town Hall meeting. And, find out why the evening’s second keynote speaker, a reformed prostitute, was visibly angry about a leaflet handed out at the meeting.”
I attended the September 24th meeting of the Oregon Human Trafficking Task Force and helped improve a survey for social service providers who come into contact with victims of trafficking.
In conjunction with the community uprising against pornstitution, I’ve been asked to speak on local radio twice in the past few weeks and have phoned in to other radio shows.
I’ll be speaking as part of a University of Portland forum on human trafficking in late October, and in mid November I’ll be speaking to three Women’s Studies classes in Vancouver, Washington. It’s amazing how much I’m asked to speak when you consider women’s word of mouth has led to every invitation I’ve gotten. Some friends lovingly badger me to send announcements of my speaking availability and I consider it, but I do still have a full time job, writing and volunteer commitments, and a charmed life to live. Plus, public performance elicits nausea and stresses my body even under the best circumstances, so I get the job done despite the emotional and physical toll it takes on me. This is grim, humanity-doubting shit to keep on the front burner in your head.
Then there’s the anarchist activism I can’t rightly speak of because The Man doesn’t recognize resistance to gender oppression as legitimate, but every sticker placed, every sign defaced, every sexist word replaced is a mini freedom-fighting action. Sam’s Greatest Hits are tunes sung in the key of F(eminism) sharp.
pisaquari: Awesome stuff!
pisaquari: Okay, last question. There is a radical feminist island–you are there now: what are you doing?
S.M. Berg: I’m sparking a bowl of pakalolo with a magnifying glass, then heading off to plant fruit trees as the bowl makes its way around the circle of women sitting cross-legged in the sun.
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