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In a time where inclusion has become one of feminism’s key priorities, a founding idea has fallen particularly out of favour: separatism. The mere accusation of not being “intersectional” (something that actually is imperative but is mostly misapplied by the same liberals calling for “inclusiveness”) is enough to shutter events, spaces, and organizations that center women. The idea of separatism, even among many feminists, calls to mind the dreaded hairy-pitted second-waver who spells women with a “y,” or those unfuckable dykes, buzz cuts and all (LOL, amirite?). You’ll see prohibitions against separatism any time any group of women tries to organize anything, ever. “This event is for anyone marginalized by patriarchy,” liberals will say. Thank you, but literally everyone is “marginalized” by patriarchy in some way.
Liberal feminists and leftist dudes alike have lost the plot — feminism is separation from a system that keeps women subordinate to men and funnels resources straight off women’s backs into men’s hands. The reason this tactic is cue for a laugh track is because our Patriarchy knows that separatism is a legitimate threat to male supremacy. In fact, it is the first bralatov cocktail lobbed.
If you want the real story, read Marilyn Frye’s pamphlet, “Some Reflections on Separatism and Power.” First published in 1977, it’s only 10 pages long. Since you’re a modern woman, you’re probably reading this on your cell phone in the bathroom, at one of your jobs, so I’ll summarize it for you as directly as possible.
Feminism is separatist
Frye explains that feminism is a philosophy, not for, but against inclusion. The dominant paradigm says, “Men have a right to women’s bodies, to women’s labour. Women are invited to participate in public life to the degree that we, men, decree.” Feminism says, “No. That is not the natural or inevitable order of life on Planet Earth.” We don’t want to come to your capitalist imperialist hegemony party.
Male separatism is status quo — from petty public space (Manspreading on the train! Catcalling!) to the highest halls of power (scant representation of women in government and industry). This means that feminist separation is rebellion — women excuse ourselves from “institutions, relationships, roles, and activities which are male-defined, male-dominated, and operating for the benefit of males and the maintenance of male privilege.”
And here’s the really important part: “This separation being initiated or maintained, at will, by women [emphasis original].” It’s not about advocating for an island of lesbians cut off for eternity from half the human race (OK, I wouldn’t turn it down, but I’ll admit it’s not practical), rather, it means we say when the walls go up and for how long, who passes through the gate and who waits outside.
Men are parasites
Maybe the thing that would get Frye in the most trouble today is the assertion that males and females live in a relationship of parasitism. The wisdom of patriarchy says that the female is subordinate to the male because he protects and provides for her. But women have always contributed to our own material support — in fact, in whatever capacity men provide or protect us, it is because the circumstances of patriarchy itself “are designed to make it difficult for women to provide for [our]selves.”
All sorts of studies concerning the happiness of heterosexual marrieds show that the men in these relationships are significantly happier and healthier than unmarrieds, while the reverse is true for women. Women involved with men report greater depression, worse health, and less stability than the men with whom they’re partnered.
It’s super unpopular to say this, since most of us have men in our lives who we like, and who we’d like to call our feminist allies if not also brother, father, husband, pal. The fact is, however, that male privilege makes men thieves of our mental, spiritual, and physical energy, or as some of my favorite sisters like to call it, our gynergy. Sometimes you just need a break, even from the good ones (#NotAllParasites).
Access is power
Frye lays it out thusly:
“Differences of power are always manifested in asymmetrical access… The super-rich have access to almost everybody; almost nobody has access to them. The resources of the employee are available to the boss as the resources of the boss are not to the employee. The parent has unconditional access to the child’s room; the child does not have similar access to the parent’s room… Total power is unconditional access; total powerlessness is being unconditionally accessible. The creation and manipulation of power is constituted of the manipulation and control of access.”
Throughout patriarchal history, men have had virtually unlimited access to women’s bodies. They have engineered and maintained this through marriage, denying access to abortion, and undervaluing women’s labour, among others too numerous to list off. When women cut off that flow of benefits, we begin to assume power, and it drives men bonkers (and too often, murderous).
Definition is power
Under patriarchy, women are defined as beings unable to say no. Whether overly sexual or nurturing and indulgent, “woman” is a person who has boundless capacity for self-sacrifice. In fact, she exists only in relation to a man. Men are the default people, and women are both men’s reflection and their shadow. A woman who separates defies this definition.
In the act of separation, women expand the idea of what females are capable of, what we look like, and who we love. Women come up with new language with which to self-define, but we often can’t change the language of those around us. “Generally,” says Frye, “when renegade women call something one thing and patriarchal loyalists call it another, the loyalists get their way.” But while saying something does not make it so, creating one’s own community makes space for shared language.
“When we take control of sexual access to us, of access to our nurturance and to our reproductive function, access to mothering and sistering, we redefine the word ‘woman.’”
What separatism looks like now
Men, of course, are the master separatists. They refuse to make room for women even in relative trivialities like movies and video games. Just look at what MRAs say about Mad Max: Fury Road and Gamergate.
When women try to separate, to create space for ourselves to think, to relax, to heal, to organize, to learn, all fucking hell breaks loose.
Men terrorize and stalk their wives even once they are in domestic violence shelters. Elliot Rodgers broke into a sorority to kill women because he felt rejected.
In 31 states, rapists can sue for custody of their children. Not even women who have been legally victimized by men are granted separation by the state.
My local lesbian bar, The Wild Rose, is full of straight bros looking to sitesee in Homodelphia. About as many “cis-het” dudes marched in Seattle Dyke March this year as nonbinary/genderqueer/butches/femmes/or otherwise-identifying lesbians.
The Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival is over. At its peak, it was the largest gathering of dykes and woman-loving-women in our solar system. Think about that for one fucking minute. Think about what it would feel like to come from all over the world, from countries where it’s illegal to be a lesbian, from small towns in the Midwest where you’ve never even seen a woman in Butch regalia (except in your dreams), to come to a place and suddenly see yourself everywhere, and suddenly feel safe to be your authentic self. Now, liberal feminists, MRAs, family-values types, and — hardest of all to swallow — the queer community, delight in its destruction. No matter where you stand on what makes a woman-born-woman, the fact is that the MichFest community struggled in earnest with self-definition (which, one more time for the record, included transwomen). However, women, and especially lesbians, are not allowed to self-define, so we cue up that laugh track again and share some Everyday Meninism articles about how awful and evil Michfest was.
The thing that all separatist spaces have in common is that all of them are at-will spaces for women to retreat to. They all have different reasons for separation. They all define for themselves the separation criteria, i.e. what folks inside should share in common. And in each case, they are threatened and attacked, mostly by men and sometimes by loyalist women.
Arguments against separatism are post-feminist. They pretend our work is done and that men are not responsible for and complicit in the subjugation of women as a class. Not only do they harm women, they also harm those men who would be our allies, because these arguments suggest that men are too fragile to be denied access to women. They suggest that women benefit from a relational identity to men, when really, women are fine as entities unto ourselves. For courageous women, for feminists, what lies in the woods of Michigan, or the halls of the Seven Sisters, or behind whatever wall women have put up, is the opportunity for self-love.
Jocelyn Macdonald is a Seattle-based writer, editor, and podcaster.
I’m hopeful that we will be able to reach some kind of consensus, if not about issues and theories and the way that we approach, politically, these different issues, but at least in the way that we treat each other and in the way that we speak about each other and move forward and knock on the head what appears to be a phobia about having differences of opinion.
What seems to have happened, certainly in the past decade, maybe a little bit longer, is that identity politics (which to me, is like the old 1980’s identity politics, but without the politics) has taken over on issues that are of grave importance to deal with. Whatever your position on the sex industry and whether its harmful or whether its labour, on gender and whether its a social construction or whether its innate, on religious fundamentalism and whether it’s the woman’s right to wear a full-face veil or whether its oppressive to woman — all of these issues that seem to have created an absolute hellish cesspit of vitriol… It’s almost irrelevant what your position is. What we need to get out of this discussion is that we move forward constructively, that those of us who identify as being on the progressive left recognize that [it is far more important to get this Conservative Government] out of office than it is to argue over who is “whorephobic.”
I want to start with a little bit of the history of how this no platforming of radical feminism began by using a bit of my story and bringing in stories of other woman who have been similarly targeted.
But I just want to make two things clear before I do that.
1) This isn’t about me at all. I’ve become a kind of whipping girl. I represent, as far as those on the other side of my debate are concerned, all that is wrong with anything to do with feminism that names men and men’s violence as the problem. So this isn’t about me, I just happen to have been the target of most of it.
2) This isn’t about the transgender issue. It really isn’t. It’s about whether or not you take a neoliberal approach to certain feminist issues or whether you take a radical approach to certain feminist issues. That is my view, though this is something that is absolutely up for grabs in terms of this debate and discussion.
But from my point of view — how I see it with my eyes, having been involved in this movement for thirty five years — is that it is the perfect arena for a backlash against radical feminism. It means that white straight men can stand up in any political or social context or on social media and scream “whorephobe” and “transphobe” at those of us who prioritize ending violence against women and children but still be seen as progressives.
Those men have got free reign to do that and unfortunately (because this is the nature of women’s oppression — we’re the only oppressed group that’s required or expected to love our oppressor) they are aided and abetted by a number of women. That’s either because those women are also threatened by, or hate, radical feminism (radical feminists) or because they are maybe new to the movement or young or both and are bullied and battered down if they don’t say, “Yes you’re right, Bindel, etc. is whorephobic, transphobic, islamophobic, biphobic, etc.”
That, to me, is what this is about.
Bearing in mind that we have a chronic situation all over the world with violence against women and children, the oppression and discrimination of women and children, by men — by the male ruling class — I wonder if we can come up with some answers as to why radical feminists are now the enemy and the oppressors and why pretty much anyone else who takes a neoliberal view or an individualistic view is now the oppressed? That oppression now doesn’t have to be rooted in anything material or structural, it can literally just be the politics of the personal.
“I’m polyamorous, you’re oppressing me,” is something I’ve heard on several occasions… So those with much privilege, who are Oxbridge educated, who are white, have now located themselves as “the oppressed” because there is some weird, queer, Judith Bulterized notion that everything is a floating signifier and nothing really matters except the personal experience.
When feminists said ,”the personal is political,” we definitely didn’t mean that.
In 2004 I wrote an article that was seen as offensive, and bits of it were offensive. I used language and humour which was inappropriate. And yes, I would write it differently now, for sure. I was angry. I was very new to journalism (in fact I wasn’t actually a journalist at the time, which doesn’t take away any responsibility), but it was stupid and it was also unlucky, in a way, because it was pretty much the first time that The Guardian started putting up things from The Guardian Weekend Magazine online and so those that said far worse things than me before (I mean, good for them) didn’t really get any airing.
Because I am who I am — by then I was already quite well known as a feminist for having radical views — it was a great opportunity for the pile-on.
So the pile-on began and it has never ended — it never will end. So that’s just something that I accept. But what happened after that was kind of a beginning of a response to feminist politics, with me as a conduit. So everywhere I went to speak about sexual violence there was a crowd outside screaming and shouting “she’s a transphobe.” And very, very quickly it started to be combined with the pro-sex work lobby.
Almost immediately transwomen (never transmen) would turn up screaming “transphobe,” but also “whorephobe.”
There were two issues there — one is that some transwomen said that because they had been involved in survival sex work, I was being doubly oppressive to them by saying prostitution is an abusive, oppressive industry. But there were also pro-sex workers’ rights activists who saw an opportunity to give me a good kick in the gut and turned up in order to shout alongside them.
And these two issues became completely indivisible. So if I was put up for an award (which I never asked to be) they would bully and email the sponsors, trying to get the venue to shut it down. This was as early as 2006.
I would turn up at conferences outside of the UK and this very small lobby of transpeople who, as far as I’m concerned, do not represent transpeople at all, would organize the picket and would organize the screaming and shouting and banging on the windows. And this was when my colleagues and I were trying to discuss how to reduce sexual violence towards women and children, not because I was speaking about this issue.
I have spoken about transgenderism when I have been invited, and there’s always been transgender people with me on the panel and it’s often been at the invitation of transpeople, but others will try and get that debate shut down and the transpeople who wish to have that discussion and debate with me are screamed at and called “transphobe” themselves.
The number of transwomen that I have as friends outnumber the lobby — the actual physical lobby — of those who are creating this shit-storm, which is quite interesting. Some of those friends are friends on social media and some are friends that I know in person. I’m not doing that “some transwomen are my friends” thing, it’s just that I get lots of emails from transwomen saying “God, this is shit, this is shit, but if we say anything then there is a pile-on on us.” And bearing in mind that the trans community is so small and so vilified, it’s not surprising.
So that’s how it panned out. And then I was in a bit of a lonely place. There was me, Janis Raymond, Sheila Jeffreys, and maybe one other prominent radical feminist who were vilified and who had their employers written to and who had grant-givers written to, to say “withdraw that grant, because this person is contravening your equal opportunities policy.” That happened to me all the time — every single grant or editor I’ve had… It still does happen.
But then some younger women — interestingly mainly heterosexual — just said, “Fuck this with this gender nonsense — what’s all this ‘female brain’ and ‘male brain?’ We’re not having this. Of course we’ll stand in front of any transperson who’s been vilified and bullied and attacked, because that’s oppression, cruelty, and bullying. But we don’t have to buy into this ‘brain sex’ thing. We don’t have to abandon socialist and radical feminist theory and principals — which is that gender is a social construction and is how patriarchy works.”
It wasn’t a matter of being personally vitriolic towards individual trans people, it was just saying, “Of course, be as you wish.” We were talking earlier with Miranda [Yardley] and another transwoman friend about misgendering and I said, “I will refer to you as ‘she’ and ‘woman’ because I reject the term for me. It’s all made up, it’s all nonsense. I don’t know what it feel like to be a woman, I really don’t. I know what it feels like to be treated as a women… But I was born a baby, just like everyone else. So of course I’ll use the pronoun, ‘she’ — it’s basic manners. And it doesn’t exist anyway.”
So these young women started to say, “We’ve had enough of this being told that there’s such as thing as ‘brain sex’ and that gender is the same as sex and that we have to abandon everything that we believe in and we have to abandon everything from Simone de Beauvoir and everything since where we have tried to suggest that an end to patriarchy can only come when you say everybody can live free from gender constraints and gender rules that benefit men and oppress women but that also harm men.” (Men are quite unhappy under patriarchy often, as we’ve heard from pro-feminist men.)
So that started to really whip up the frenzy. Because there were now quite a few feminists who dared to say, “No, gender isn’t innate,” “No, the sex industry isn’t great,” there was a hell of a kerfuffle. And although left and liberal publications always published much more pro-trans, pro-sex work articles than they did the opposite, the second a feminist got her article in somewhere like New Statesman, there was a huge outcry, as though it’s not allowed to be said. There is no debate allowed. There is no dissent allowed.
And then I started hearing from a number of students — female and a couple of men — who said, “You have just been no platformed from our University, you may not know this… But here’s a copy of the minutes where it was decided. The majority of us didn’t want you to be no platformed, but it was carried through by the gender officer or the trans officer or the queer officer or whatever, and therefore you are banned again and I’d like you to know on what lines.” And it was that they couldn’t have me speaking because, [according to] these people who are banning me, I’m whorephobic, transphobic, biphobic and islamophobic. And the articles they chose to highlight this was me saying, about transgender, “this doesn’t stand up as a medical diagnosis from the fifties because gender is a social construction.” Whorephobia was, “the sex trade really harms women and girls.” Islamophobia was, along with many of my Muslim born sisters and colleagues, saying that the veil is a symbol of women’s oppression, like the nuns habit, etc. And the biphobia accusation was about me saying, “I don’t quite get why bisexual people are saying to lesbians that we are oppressing them.” It was just, you know, debatable stuff, some might even say controversial stuff, but definitely not hate speech and definitely not violent speech.
So these women who emailed me would say, “We don’t know what to do because we can’t speak out. The last student who spoke out in favour of you, just to say, ‘I’d like to hear her speak,’ was sacked from her position as an officer in the feminist society.”
Another one, I was told, who innocently sent around an article I’d written about rape and the low conviction rate was screamed at by the male “safe space officer” that she was a transphobe and a whorephobe — simply because she sent something around that was written by me.
So I have become toxic. It’s not that my “transphobia” or “whorephobia,” in their view, is toxic — I am toxic.
Then when I would go to universities (invited by staff rather than the NUS because, of course, the NUS no platform me and make sure that other student bodies lose their funding from them if they invite me), I would go onto campus… For example, last time I was at Essex University I was invited to debate a pornographer and the usual petition (I must say that Change.org has really benefited from this row — this online petition thing, I mean they are so busy with it all) went around: “Ban Julie Bindel from campus, her presence on campus for Muslim students, queer students, bi students, polyamorous students, sex working students and trans students will be an act of violence.” (This is all online, all for you to see. I don’t even need to exaggerate, which is breaking my heart because that is what I love doing more than anything.)
So they were saying that I was a physical danger and I realized, at that point, that what’s going on with student politics is that this neoliberalism that we are living under has given them the opportunity to think that they are doing great activist work and are achieving a huge amount by stopping actual violence on campus without stopping violence on campus — because it’s too big a job, because then you would have to stop all the men from raping the women — but just by banning me. Because I am violence.
So I went onto Essex University campus and I meet the pornographer on the train and we politely say hello. This is a man who has produced porn for years, has given awards to porn sites such as ExploitedAfricans.com, which completely pornifies women coming from the Congo on boats, that have to be fucked by anyone because they’ve got no choice, because they’ve got no papers. There is another one which is a parody of the John Worboys taxi rapist… And this man’s given awards to these porn sites and I’m there getting ready to debate him and we are walking through campus and I see this rag-bag group of students who’d obviously got up a bit late to meet me at the actual campus gates, shouting and screaming “transphobe,” “violent,” “phobic” this, “phobic” that, at me. And I thought, well, we are living in Orwellian times as well as McCarthyite times. Because in what way is this pornographer, walking through this campus, with no dissent and no concern at all from these so-called feminists and pro-feminist students, and I’m being screamed at.
And there you have it. That is the climate in which we are living.
So whatever your view is on the sex industry, on gender, on anything — there’s only one side being screamed down, and that’s the feminist side. I don’t mean the fun feminists — the pole-dancing-is-the-new-way-to-liberation feminists — I mean the feminists like me: miserable, hard-faced, going on about men being abusers all the time…
Now we have an absolute phobia about debate. There seems to be a view that there is a right not to be offended. The fact that we can be offended (which I am at least a hundred times a day) is now being seen as violence, so that we experience it as internalized violence and we are triggered and we are traumatized. In fact, I am my own trigger warning — I found an article with the trigger warning, “Julie Bindel.”
So what do we do?
I think that the tide is starting to turn because younger or newer feminists are realizing that they now have no opportunity to learn from the rest of us and we, in turn, are not able to learn from newer and younger feminists. Because we are not allowed to be in each others spaces, each others campuses, even each others living rooms and say, “What do you think about that? Why do you think that sex work can be liberating?”
And they are not able to say to me, “What evidence do you have that the legalization of the sex industry has failed?” And we’re not able to talk about gender any more, which was the basis of socialism and feminism when we looked at how capitalism wielded families and wielded patriarchy. So it’s really harmful to the left as well as feminism, in general.
And the left now has this weird Orwellian view where everything is topsy turvy: The sex trade is empowering to women (in what way does capitalism not come into this?). That obviously there’s a male brain and a female brain… (In what way are you pro-equality if you think that we are different but equal? When people said that about black people and white people there was an outcry, and rightly so.) That the full-face veil is not in any way a symbol of oppression to women, when there are women in Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, elsewhere who are saying, “Stop marching with these crazy fundamentalists who are fascists and support us.”
So the left has become, in a way, the new right and that’s why I talk about neoliberalism. We have no consistency within the left anymore because we have been battered down to take the view that anyone who says, “Me, me, me — I’m a Muslim woman and I have the right to do this. Me, me me — I’m a sex worker. Me, me, me — I’m a trans woman who knows I was born in the wrong body.”
We have no right, now, to challenge that orthodoxy. And this is what the left is built on. So unless we actually start to chip away at that — to challenge it and to be brave enough to stand up and disagree with it, then this will effect a damn sight more than me and a few others that are the targets, radical feminism in general, and the left in total. Because the right wing — I see this all online — they are laughing at us. (I mean they are writing some actually quite good and funny stuff about this whole nonsense, you know, “The Stepford Students,” etc.) They are absolutely laughing all the way to the election because we have been disabled by fear and by bullying and by this monolithic, crazy, view that what is actually oppressive is the new liberation.
Ashley Judd, Annabella Sciorra, and Salma Hayek at the 2018 Oscars.
On Sunday night at the Oscars, the big #MeToo moment was brought to us by Ashley Judd, Salma Hayek, and Annabella Sciorra. While these women have been incredibly brave in sharing their stories of abuse and harassment in Hollywood, it seems the industry is still dictating the message.
“This year many spoke their truth and the journey ahead is long but slowly a new path has emerged,” Sciorra said. And while a new path has indeed emerged, as women have banded together to speak out against men’s abuse in numbers I have never witnessed in my lifetime, I’m left wondering where that path will lead us, without a clear understand of the issues at hand.
“The changes we are witnessing is being driven by the powerful sound of new voices, of different voices, of our voices, joining together in a mighty chorus that is finally saying, ‘Time’s up,'” Judd said. “And we work together to make sure the next 90 years empower these limitless possibilities of equality, diversity, inclusion, intersectionality.”
But what is truly powerful about the voices leading #TimesUp and #MeToo was strangely excluded from Judd’s list of “limitless possibilities”: women.
This past year has been made possible only by the feminist movement. Our understanding that sexual assault and sexual harassment are bad things is a direct result of the work women have done to show how men’s power is systemic and how their violence is normalized because women are constructed as less-than-human under patriarchy. Feminists’ work analyzing and articulating sexual objectification underlies what preceded this mass conversation, allowing comments about grabbing women “by the pussy” to be seen as a literal manifestation of that objectification. So to hear three women who took great risks in speaking out about what Harvey Weinstein did to them, in order to contribute to a larger conversation about how men’s dehumanization of women leads to violence and to hold men accountable for behaviour they’ve gotten away with for centuries, because of a system that institutionalizes men’s dominance, without mentioning either women or the feminist movement was shocking to me.
While all good and progressive concepts, neither “equality,” nor “diversity,” nor “inclusion,” nor “intersectionality” will stop men’s violence. None of these vague, gender-neutral terms address the system that offers up women as things to be used and abused by men. Indeed, these terms have been used to usurp the women’s liberation movement, in large part because of their lack of clarity and political investment in ending patriarchy, specifically.
“Diversity,” for example, can easily be (and, consequently, has been) manipulated to defend the idea that simply allowing more diverse people and bodies to be objectified will resolve any problematic aspects of, for example, the beauty industry or sex industry. Hugh Hefner touted himself as a champion of diversity for allowing a black woman to sell his magazines for him, making Jennifer Jackson Miss March in 1965. He was similarly self-congratulatory (and celebrated) for putting trans model Caroline “Tula” Cossey in the magazine in 1991. In an attempt to escape their sexist reputation, American Apparel, a company then-run by a man famous for sexually harassing and exploiting his young female staff, launched “The Next Big Thing,” a contest to find plus-size models.
Clearly, these are not people or companies invested in women’s liberation… Yet, it’s easy for them to pose as allies when we offer up vague, gender-neutral terms to replace more accurate ones. Similar to “diversity” and “equality,” terms like “body acceptance,” “strength,” and “empowerment” have all been co-opted to further sell porn culture and objectification for the same reason: lack of specificity.
What’s so great about the term “feminism” is that it is specific about its focus on women and it’s opposition specifically to patriarchy. Though many attempt to water-down its radical roots and and meaning, the term “feminism” is not in fact about “equality.” Women do not want equal access to misogynist systems, we want an end to those systems.
The notion that “rights” and “equality” for marginalized people will be achieved by fitting them into a patriarchal vision of the world is exactly the problem with these words. “Including” women of colour or women who don’t fit conventional standards of beauty in pornography or other misogynist industries does not address the problems with those industries.
While it is necessary for Hollywood to address it’s white-centric, male-centric blind spots, it’s disappointing to see what is truly a feminist movement erase its roots and radical aims. What’s even worse is that I’m certain this was done in order to avoid making those not on board with the feminist project uncomfortable. In other words, these actresses were likely concerned about alienating men in the room.
But there’s a very good reason that feminism makes men uncomfortable: it centers women, and refuses to cater to male feelings and preferences. For once, we have a movement that is about us and us alone. Altering the language to avoid the uncomfortable feelings men might have about their power being named and challenged strikes me as contrary to our goals.
Feminists have long championed the mantra, “name the problem.” If anything, that is what #MeToo has done. Let’s not stop now.
Reading Renate Klein’s elegantly argued Surrogacy: A Human Rights Violation, it’s difficult not to keep repeating to oneself, “How did we get here?”, all the while trying to keep at bay a sense of despair.
“Here” is an allegedly civilized world in which treating a woman’s body as a commodity is regarded in polite liberal circles as not just acceptable but a sign of being progressive. Klein’s analysis of surrogacy focuses on the renting of women’s wombs, what she and others appropriately describe as “reproductive prostitution.” The term reminds us that many liberals also endorse “regular’ prostitution, men’s use of objectified female bodies for sexual pleasure.
How did we get to the point where this reduction of women to bodies is accepted and even celebrated — not only among many men but also many women, even among some feminists?
Klein’s Surrogacy, the third book in the new Spinifex Shorts series, reminds us that these social practices are the core of patriarchy: Men’s claims of ownership and/or control over women’s reproductive power and sexuality. Times have changed in sex/gender politics — largely for the better, because of feminism — but patriarchy has proved remarkably adaptable and resilient. It’s difficult to imagine anyone reading Klein’s book and ignoring a radical feminist critique of these patriarchal practices, yet much of the allegedly civilized world does exactly that — embracing a capitalist liberal/libertarian dogma that focuses on decontextualized choices. From the liberal perspective, when poor and vulnerable women “choose” to rent their bodies in this dangerous and dehumanizing practice, no further analysis is necessary.
Klein will brook none of these evasions. Near the end of the book, she puts it bluntly:
“… New reproductive technologies are used to literally ‘cut up’ real live women into our eggs and wombs, treat us with invasive dangerous hormonal drug cocktails, and, in surrogacy, psychologically manipulate us to believe the myth that gestating a baby without a genetic connection will not cause us to feel any attachment, and hence these ‘surrogate’ babies are not our ‘real’ children. This man-made compartmentalizing ideology creates Test-Tube Women. The idea is that ‘playing God’ (as 1980s critics of reprotechs were wont to say) continues the 6,000 years of patriarchal domination of women in which two points were, and are, central: One, men cannot gestate life and give birth to children (necessary to continue the species Homo sapiens). Two, men as a social group loathe women and our bodies for this power. Conversely, when women ‘fail’ to reproduce, the disdain expressed is stark.”
Klein’s rejection of this compartmentalizing — a function not only of patriarchy but white supremacy and First World imperialism, capitalism, and the worship of high technology — feels like a simple plea for our collective humanity, for seeing each other as fully human and not as things. That Klein’s book is so desperately needed signals how far we are from such basic values.
Klein’s definition of surrogacy reflects those basic values: “Pared down to cold hard facts, surrogacy is the commissioning/buying/renting of a woman into whose womb an embryo is inserted and who thus becomes a ‘breeder’ for a third party.”
Key observations and insights that Klein’s book provides include:
While many people have strong emotional desires to have children, there is no “right” to have a child genetically related to you. The moral claim for surrogacy is an illusion.
The surrogacy medical machine comes with risks for the women who sell eggs and those who carry the fetus, as well for the children born through this method, and there has been little research/testing on the long-term health effects. The health claims of surrogacy are distortions.
Surrogacy routinely involves the exploitation of poorer women, increasingly in the Third World. The political practice of surrogacy is exploitation.
Klein, a co-founder of the Australian feminist press Spinifex that published the book, has decades of experience in teaching and research, with expertise in health/biology and social theory, as well as feminist activism. The breadth and depth of her knowledge and experience is evidenced throughout the book, as she moves easily between technical scientific details, moral philosophy, legislative proposals, and organizing strategy. [Disclaimer: I have published a book with Spinifex, which Klein edited and in that process I acquired firsthand knowledge of her considerable intellectual abilities.]
But most for me, the distinctive feature of the book is Klein’s compassion for people on all sides of the issue. When arguing for political positions we hold passionately, it’s all too easy to valorize our side and demonize opponents. But even when Klein writes with an honest understanding of why some women may be on the other side, she doesn’t hesitate to criticize sharply the profiteers who exploit without concern. I finished the book feeling grateful for the way Klein models a humane approach to debating the subject.
But make no mistake, Klein doesn’t mince words in her analysis, asserting that surrogates “are reduced to incubators, to ovens, to suitcases. And the product child is a tradable commodity who of course has never consented to being a ‘take-away baby’: removed from their birth mother and given to strangers aka ‘intended parents’.” Returning to the parallel between surrogacy and prostitution, she drives home the common features of patriarchal practices:
“… Well regulated sex (or fertility) industries, according to their promoters, create happy hookers (happy surrogates) and happy sex buyers (happy baby buyers). Pimps and brothel owners equal IVF clinics, surrogacy lawyers/brokers, pro-surrogacy advocacy groups, as well as surrogacy/egg ‘donor’ agencies. The difference is that apart from deeply harming women in both industries, the end ‘product’ in prostitution is a ‘faked girlfriend experience’, whereas in surrogacy it is the creation of new human beings: children.”
Klein’s willingness to take on these questions goes a long way to alleviating some of the sense of despair that comes with facing honestly the routine dehumanizing practices of the modern world. But the question lingering just below the surface of almost every page of the book — as well as just below the surface of many of the “normal” activities in our lives in the affluent sectors of the world — remains troubling: How far can people drift from being human animals before we stop being human beings?
By that, I mean that we are organic creatures, products of evolution like all others, with material bodies that we can’t transcend, no matter how much high-energy technology allows us to manipulate the rest of that material world and insulate ourselves from it. But the more we treat high-tech interventions such as surrogacy as routine and uncontroversial, the compartmentalization continues, making routine the exploitation of vulnerable people and widening the gap between people and the larger living world. Can we be truly human beings, in the moral sense, if we do not accept the limits that are imposed on all creatures by that larger world? Do we lose our own humanity when we lose our creaturely bearings to such a degree that we imagine that we can create life on our own through high-tech manipulation?
This concern is not rooted in science-fiction fears of humans becoming robots or robots taking over the world, but rather is a real concern for today. Yes, humans have long used technology, whether Stone Age or Space Age, but the differences in technology matter. Yes, humans have long tried to control natural processes and reshape ecosystems to our advantage, but that doesn’t mean we cannot ask critical questions about the assumptions behind, and implications of, each of the interventions we may want to attempt.
The fact that it is difficult to draw lines does not mean we abandon the obligation to draw them. For me, some of those lines have long been easy to draw: No decent society is possible if men rent women for sex. Klein’s powerful argument makes it just as clear that no decent society is possible if women are reduced to a womb that carries a fetus for the privileged. Social justice and ecological sustainability come together in one clear mandate: stop surrogacy now.
We talk about intersectionality a lot these days, but what does it really mean to combine our analysis of race, class, and gender? While we know women from all walks of life suffer male violence, how are working class women and women of colour impacted particularly? How does all this play out in Canada, in particular?
I spoke with Daisy Kler to answer some of these questions and more. Daisy is a collective member at Vancouver Rape Relief and Women’s Shelter and is the founder of South Asian Women Against Male Violence. Daisy has worked at Vancouver Rape Relief for over 18 years. In those years she has played a role in training and maintaining volunteers and as a media spokesperson. She now assists in operating the rape crisis line and transition house. In recent years she was voted one of the 100 most influential Indo-Canadians in British Columbia. Daisy is a proud Punjabi whose paternal grandfather came to work here in 1905. She is rooted in the history of Vancouver’s South Asian immigrants and continues to fight for all women’s equality.
Meghan Murphy: After the racist violence in Charlottesville and a general rise in white nationalist activity in the US, conversations about racism have grown in North America. What has been discussed less is the role that misogyny plays in all this. What connection do you see between white supremacy and male supremacy?
Daisy Kler: First of all, we know the driver in Charlottesville, James Alex, had been charged with assaulting his mother. So there is a direct link between his misogynistic behaviour and racism. He displayed that he’s both a misogynist and a white supremacist. In a larger discussion, male supremacy and white supremacy are premised on very similar ideas: that women and non-whites are inferior. [Those who support systems like patriarchy and white supremacy] use this ideology to justify the unequal power relationships between men and women, and whites and non-whites.
They use this justification to steal Indigenous wealth, to hoard power, and as basis to refuse to share resources, power, or wealth. So, in my mind, male supremacy and white supremacy fit well together.
Combined, they serve as a lethal mix when it comes to Indigenous women and women of colour. If you add class, there are three forces holding women down.
The individual white guy is one power, but his power is reinforced by every institution, because all the power structures are predominantly run by rich, white men. This reinforces the relationship between the two. They are easy bedfellows. And if you think about how women and people of colour are described in derogatory ways, it’s almost exactly the same. We are said to be over-emotional, irrational, dirty, polluted, unclean, not sophisticated, hysterical… You could be describing women or people of colour with those words.
So, in my mind, male supremacy and white supremacy share the same ideology. They are both used to justify men’s unearned power and privilege. On top of that, if you look at male violence against women as an enforcer of women’s inequality, the message conveyed through violence against women is: Stay in your place. You are meant to be kept down — don’t try to get up.
There are grave consequences for women, including death, if they overstep those boundaries.
And this is very similar to what’s going on in America and here in Canada with Indigenous people, if you think about the attacks from white supremacists, but also the attacks from the police or the state.
Meghan: I’m interested in talking about the role that women play in the alt-right. It does appear to be a movement that’s led by white men, but do you think women have any responsibility in terms of the rise of white nationalism in the US in particular?
Daisy: I think one straightforward answer is, yes — every person is responsible for the decisions they make, and obviously women who are joining the alt-right share that responsibility. But, I see it as similar to when women are fronted in the prostitution fight. When you see the pro-sex industry and the pro-pimp industry propping up women as their spokespeople, we have to understand that men are still running the show. Men are still the ones who are benefiting from everything that happens in the sex industry, and this is also true with the alt-right.
Yes, women can be spokespeople in these movements. Yes, they have some agency. But let’s not fool ourselves as to who’s really running the show: white men.
It reminds me of people who play devil’s advocate, which is a serious pet peeve of mine. Lots of white guys do this with me… They’ll say, “Women oppress too.” They will bring up women like Margaret Thatcher and Hillary Clinton to prove that women are responsible for the oppression of women and people of colour. But since I don’t believe in biological determinism, I don’t believe women are born naturally kind or less oppressive, so of course they can play a role in the oppression of others. But it’s limited by the fact that they, too, are oppressed. So they’re not at the top of the hierarchy when it comes to gender, and nor are women of colour when we talk about the race hierarchy. Men still rule the world.
Feminism is a theory and a practice. No one is born into feminism. It’s a political commitment to the liberation of women. Obviously, women in the alt-right and white nationalist groups don’t subscribe to this practice, and should be held accountable for their decisions. At the same time, I think of Dworkin, who argued that you don’t only fight on behalf of the women you like — you fight for the liberation of all women. So, I’m fighting for those women as well.
A question that should inform our feminist analysis on this issue is: Who’s got the power? It’s still the men who are running the show. And eventually, those men who are part of the alt-right will betray their own women — they beat their wives, because there is no race or class of men who don’t perpetuate violence against women. So [the women who subscribe to alt-right beliefs] are facing oppression as well.
Meghan: The trouble with political conversations around both racism and misogyny is that we often centre the US in those conversations. Which makes sense, since the US dominates media in North America and everywhere, really. But it’s frustrating because Canada is different in some ways and has its own particular struggles around racism. How have you seen racism and sexism intersect and play out in Canada specifically? What are some issues specific to Canada that you’d like to see discussed more in public discourse?
Daisy: I think the most notable difference between Canada and the US, in terms of how the intersection of race and sex oppression plays out, is in Canada’s relationship to Aboriginal people, in particular Aboriginal women. Aboriginal populations in the US were decimated far more than in Canada. There’s an uprising happening there as well, but the uprising here is phenomenal. The way Indigenous women have been treated in Canada is a is a stark demonstration of how racism and sexism play out here. We know that Indigenous women are eight times more likely to be murdered than non-Indigenous women. The impunity with which men execute that violence is breathtakingly horrific. If you look at the example of Cindy Gladue, the Aboriginal woman in Alberta who was killed by a john, the level of violence that he used was shocking. But state institutions and the police immediately believed the man when he said he just found her there [having bled to death] and didn’t know what happened. They didn’t even hold him as a suspect until the autopsy report. As Canadians, we have to look at the way the criminal justice system spoke of her as a prostituted woman and as an Aboriginal woman and what this means about us as a society.
I do think that there is some smugness that goes on with Canadians in thinking that we’re so much better than our American counterparts. But we have lots of racist policies. If you look at immigration and if you look at those who are incarcerated in our jails — it’s the same as in the US: Aboriginal people and people of colour. So we are not much better than the US. We uphold the Canadian Charter, and take pride in what it promises. If we look at the experience of Indigenous people, particularly women, we see a uniquely Canadian system of racial and sexual oppression.
Meghan: In Canada, the investigation into the missing and murdered Indigenous girls and women has been ongoing. Have you seen progress in terms of the way the Canadian government and Canadian media are approaching that issue? What are your thoughts on the inquiry so far?
Daisy: First, I want to acknowledge that the only reason there even is an inquiry is because of the tireless efforts of Indigenous women fighting for this, and the work of feminists. The missing and murdered women only came to light because Aboriginal women have struggled to see justice on this issue for the past 20 years. That this inquiry was launched is the achievement of women, in particular Indigenous women.
Having said that, there are some concerns with the inquiry. Some criticism has been covered in the media, but what the media rarely picks up on are feminists’ concerns and criticisms. For example, we can already see that there is no focus on men — who are the perpetrators of this violence — and no discussion on how to hold them accountable. Indeed, the inquiry has no power to hold individual men or institutions accountable for their actions. We also worry about the individual stories of the condition of Aboriginal women’s lives being on public display. Because of this, it ends up being a process in which women’s lives are being scrutinized and pathologized, rather than one that looks at the role of institutional racism, sexism, and violence. We should be looking at all the range of men who have been attacking these women, including the violence perpetrated by Chief and Band Council members, police, johns, pimps, and battering husbands. We’re worried that individual men in these institutions will not face scrutiny as a result of this inquiry.
We also know from Indigenous feminists that the Assembly of First Nations does not represent Indigenous women’s concerns. Indigenous women — in particular, feminists — need to be speaking in their own voices, and they need to be able to articulate their analysis of the problems and solutions. We’re not sure they will be given the opportunity to do this as part of the inquiry.
The Commission can make recommendations, but it cannot compel systemic changes, nor compel individuals to do anything. Merely making recommendations and not being able to demand systemic changes is a weakness to us.
Meghan: You’ve done anti-violence work for a long time now. You know how women of colour are specifically impacted under patriarchy. What have you learned from doing front line work — and anti-violence work in general — about how misogyny and racism connect to harm women of colour?
Daisy: Vancouver Rape Relief has been around as a collective for over 40 years now, working on violence against women. I know from my own experience doing this work that any disadvantage of race and class position further intensifies the already severe gender disadvantage of women. So, it’s worse for women of colour and women who are poor. And if you’re an Indigenous women who is poor, it’s even worse.
What we see is that men will attack women who they see as below them or at the same level as them in the race hierarchy. Because of racism, we have a hierarchy. White men are at the top, and women of colour and Indigenous people are at the bottom. So men will attack within their own race or class position and down. These are general phenomena that we’ve noticed over the years. Obviously, there are exceptions. But what that tells us about perpetrators of violence know we live in a racist and sexist society and use the race and class hierarchy to their advantage.
Men will use the fact that women face racism from police, the criminal justice system, and all other state systems to attack them. They know that Indigenous women will likely not get a response from the police. Add to the mix a poor Indigenous woman or a prostituted woman, and the odds are even higher that she will not get any kind of response from the police.
White men will say racist things as part of their attack on women of colour and Indigenous women. I’ve heard what men say to women in these contexts, and it’s awful. It’s used this as part of the attack and as part of the degradation and violence. But it’s more insidious than that. Men know that the institutions, criminal justice system, immigration, welfare system are all stacked up against women in general. Add another barrier such as race or class, and they know the systems are against women, and they will use that to their advantage. I had one woman tell me that her partner told her to go ahead and call the police: “Who do you think they’re going to believe? You or me?” He was a white guy and she was a woman of colour. He knew what the score was. So that’s one way men use sex and class to disadvantage women.
As women of colour, we also have to face the accusation of being traitors to our people and to our race if we call out men on their sexism. Men use the experience of racism — that they experience racism from the state — as a way to guilt women of colour and Indigenous women into not using the state and not calling the police. Men will accuse women of using a racist system against them and call her a traitor. So men will exploit women’s solidarity with them on race to excuse their sexist violence. Women of colour and Indigenous women know that more men of colour and Indigenous men are in prison — not because they do more crime, but because the system is stacked against them. So women will often not want to use the police or activate any part of the system because they know that an abusive man likely won’t be getting arrested because he hit her, but because he’s a brown or Indigenous man… And we’re talking about a low number of women who actually want to use the state in the first place.
I founded South Asian Women Against Male Violence for a few reasons. One being that I wanted to hold the men in my own community accountable for the violence that they perpetrate, or that they allow to happen by their silence. But I also wanted to be a voice against the racist backlash on the South Asian community. I could see the media covering male violence within South Asian communities as though we were backward, as though there was something inherently wrong with South Asian men, and I did not want that to go on — not in my name, not as a feminist. I also wanted to be out front as a South Asian woman — vocal, fighting and resisting, to be a model for other South Asian women. Because what violence against women does to all women is tell you to retreat back into the domestic sphere, back into your one-down position. I wanted to form a group that could actively resist that, to hold South Asian men accountable, while also not letting racist stereotypes be perpetuated. There was a spate of attacks on the South Asian community in 2007 and 2008 when I organized the group. I think there were three high-profile cases. One woman was burned to death; one was shot and blinded; another was murdered in her home — all by their husbands. So there was a real media frenzy and the South Asian community was under scrutiny and attack, and I wanted to fight that as a feminist.
Women of colour, Indigenous women, and working class women are constantly having to unfairly split their loyalties in order to reveal [men’s] violence to their community or to the state. They have to make a choice, because they will be accused of turning their backs on their people. As a feminist, I’ve been accused of being “too white” or duped by “white feminists” by men in the South Asian community, in particular (but not only by those men). My response is that white women don’t have a monopoly on the notions of justice, equality, and freedom.
Meghan: To what levels are sexual assault and other forms of male violence against women of colour and working class women ignored or not addressed effectively by the authorities and the courts? What are some cases or examples where these incidences are ignored or not taken seriously because of racism and institutionalized racism.
Daisy: In terms of sexual assault, there are lots of statistics on this. In her research, criminology professor Holly Johnson estimated that 460,000 sexual assaults occur every year in Canada, though the legal data reveals only (roughly) 15,000 are formal complaints or made to the police. Of those, only 2,824 are prosecuted in the court system. Just over half of those result in a guilty verdict. The result is a conviction-to-crime ratio of 0.3 per cent. To put it in simpler terms, 997 assailants out of every 1,000 walk free. That is abysmally low.
As a woman of colour, I think it’s important that we understand that male violence against women is kind of the great equalizer, as all women experience male violence. There is no culture or community that doesn’t. There are some things unique to women of colour and Aboriginal women, but what’s similar to all women and where we have solidarity is that women of every community experience male violence. And no one is getting a good criminal justice response.
Cindy Gladue was a particularly horrific example of how Indigenous women are treated. The police failed to take her death seriously from the beginning. [I read] some of the court documents and how they talked about her as a prostituted Aboriginal woman, as if that made what he did to her okay — as if he bought the right to hurt her in the way that he did, murder her in the way that he did, and as if it was somehow consensual and a mistake that he just carried too far. This was a profoundly important case and it only really came to light because Indigenous women fought back and were on the streets when he was found not guilty.
The arguments, for example, [seemed to state] that she consented to this horrific violence because she was a prostituted woman. They used the words “Indigenous” or “native girl” or “native woman” 26 times, and referred to her as a prostitute 25-26 times. So they were implying all sorts of things. But what they implied the most was that she somehow consented to this violence and that he wasn’t guilty of the horrible racism and misogyny that he perpetrated against her. I also think it revealed the racist and sexist bias within the criminal justice system.
Male violence against women is not addressed effectively by the state or the police. Most women don’t even want to use the police, because they know they will be treated horribly, not believed, or accused of lying. The Ghomeshi trial unfortunately reinforced all those beliefs. This sends a message to all women to not even bother engaging. The good thing about the Gladue case is that it is under appeal and we’re hoping for a better decision.
Meghan: We’ve seen a surge in anti-racist activism in the US and in Canada (though not to the same extent). Black Lives Matter, for example, has brought conversations about racist police violence to the forefront. I wonder if you’ve seen a similar surge in feminist activism? Do you think misogyny and violence against women have been able to galvanize people in the same way that racism has? What is your perspective in terms of how progressives, the left, and liberals address racism versus how they address misogyny and violence against women?
Daisy: My experience with liberals is that they do take racism more seriously than misogyny. I’ll probably catch some heat for saying that, but that has been my experience. Being brown and being a woman, it’s hard to tear the two apart. They’re both parts of who I am. But among white liberal men, I don’t know why they can galvanize themselves towards fighting racism, but not towards sexism in the same way.
I think the women’s movement has the most potential to have a resurgence. I think we’re sort of in one right now. It’s hard to harness the momentum and work as a united force… It certainly seems harder with the many cuts to women’s groups over the last 15 years.
The material conditions of women’s lives are also much harder now — there’s more entrenched poverty and welfare is at an abysmally low rate. I hear you could live on welfare at one point, which is absolutely not true now. The loss of most social safety nets has made it harder for most women to have time for activism. Many women now have two or three jobs to make ends meet, and there’s no housing to speak of. These things have an effect on how women can participate in fighting male supremacy.
Having said that, if you look over the course of five or six years, there’s been quite a surge in feminist activism since the Jian Ghomeshi case, and in terms of public discussion of male violence against women. Even before Ghomeshi there was #BeenRapedNeverReported, #YesAllWomen, the campus activism against sexual assaults, the fightback all over the world against the rape of the woman in India, the uprisings in Poland around abortion, the Brazilian women protesting the rape of the young girl… I think there is a lot of feminist activism right now and the public discussion has been phenomenal. But in terms of new groups forming and being active — other than on social media — it’s a little harder to gauge, certainly after Trump and the Women’s March. That was a great start, and we’ve intensified the discussion of violence against women as a result. I think all those things are indicative of the gains of the women’s movement. They’ve paved the way for these discussions.
We still have a long way to go. If you look at Black Lives Matter’s set of guiding principles, they do say they are fighting misogyny and I believe the local Black Lives Matter (in Vancouver) is led mostly by women. #SayHerName was a specific response to police violence against black women, because women felt that issue was not being given much weight. I think we’re doing pretty well when it comes to accepting feminism and being active. How to harness that as a unified movement is the million dollar question.
Meghan: Do you believe the left is addressing misogyny and male violence specifically in their activism? Do you believe they should be?
Daisy: Yes, I think they should be. The “left” is a very broad term so I’m bound to offend someone from the left in my response, here… I try to be specific, because generalizations prove to be a problem. So I’ll pick some specific examples of what I see as indicative of some..
In a routinely delusional world, what is the most dangerous delusion?
Living in the United States, I’m tempted to focus on the delusion that the US is the greatest nation in the history of the world — a claim repeated robotically by politicians of both parties.
In a mass-consumption capitalist society, there’s the delusion that if we only buy more, newer, better products we all will be happier — a claim repeated endlessly in commercial propaganda (commonly known as advertising and marketing).
I’m also white, and so it’s understandable to worry about the delusion that white people are superior to non-white people. And as a man, I reflect on the delusion that institutionalized male dominance is our fate, whether asserted to be divinely commanded or evolutionarily inevitable.
But all these delusions that rationalize hierarchies within the human family, and the resulting injustices that flow from those hierarchies, are less frightening to me than modern humans’ delusion that we are not bound by the laws of physics and chemistry, that humans can live beyond the biophysical limits of the ecosphere.
This delusion is not limited to one country, one group, or one political party, but rather is the unstated assumption of everyday life in the high-energy/high-technology industrial world. This is the delusion that we are — to borrow from the title of a particularly delusional recent book — the god species.
This ideology of human supremacy leads us to believe that our species’ cleverness allows us to ignore the limits placed on all life forms by the larger living world, of which we are but one component. What we once quaintly called “environmentalism” — which too often focused on technical solutions to discrete problems rather than challenging human arrogance and the quest for endless affluence — is no longer adequate to deal with the multiple, cascading ecological crises that define our era: climate destabilization, species extinction, soil erosion, groundwater depletion, toxic waste accumulation, and on and on.
Playing god got us into this trouble, and more of the same won’t get us out.
This inability to accept the limits that come with being part of “nature” — a strange term when used to contrast with “human,” as if humans were somehow not part of the natural world — was on my mind as I read two new books about controversial topics that typically are thought of as social, not ecological, issues: Transgender Children and Young People: Born in Your Own Body, edited by Heather Brunskell-Evans and Michele Moore, and Surrogacy: A Human Rights Violation, by Renate Klein.
Both books offer a feminist critique of the ideology and practices of these movements that herald medical/technological “solutions” to struggles with gender norms and infertility.
Brunskell-Evans’ and Moore’s book brings together researchers, activists, mental health practitioners, and parents who question such practices as puberty suppression to block the development of secondary sex characteristics as treatment for gender dysphoria. Are such disruptions of a child’s development with powerful drugs warranted, given the lack of testing and absence of a clear understanding of the etiology of transgenderism? The authors challenge what has rapidly become the liberal dogma of embracing medicalized approaches to the very real problem of patriarchal gender norms (the demand that boys must act one way and girls another) that constrain our lives.
Klein marshals research and the testimony of surrogates to point out that another liberal dogma — affluent individuals have a right to “rent a womb” so they may have a child genetically related to them — involves considerable risks for the surrogate mother (sometimes referred to as the “gestational carrier”). The author’s assessment is blunt, but well supported: modern surrogacy is a form of exploitation of women and trafficking in babies.
Both books demonstrate the enduring relevance of the radical branch of feminism that highlights men’s attempts to control and exploit women’s reproductive power and sexuality as a key feature of men’s dominance in patriarchal societies. And both are critical of the naive celebration of high-tech medicine to deal with issues that stem from patriarchy’s rigid, repressive, and reactionary gender norms.
Those radical feminist challenges dovetail with a radical ecological critique that reminds us that being alive — being a carbon-based creature that exists within the limits of the ecosphere — means that we should be skeptical of claims that we can magically transcend those limits. The high-energy, high-tech, human-defined world in which we live can lull us into believing that we are like gods in our ability to shape the world, and to shape our own bodies.
Of course, drugs, surgery, and medical techniques routinely save lives and improve our lives, in ways that are “unnatural” in some sense. To highlight these questions does not mean that lines are easy to draw between what is appropriate and what is ill-advised. But we invite serious miscalculations when we embrace without critical self-reflection the assumption that we can manipulate our human-centered worlds without concern for the limits of the larger living world.
Many of us have experienced this in end-of-life care decisions for ourselves or loved ones. When are high-tech medical interventions that prolong life without concern for quality of life a mistake? I have had long conversations with friends and family about where the line should be drawn, not only to make my own views clear but to search for collective understanding. The fact that the line is hard to draw, and even harder to face when arriving at it, doesn’t make the question any less relevant. The fact that there is no obvious and easy answer doesn’t mean we can avoid the question.
Elective cosmetic surgery is perhaps the best example of the culture’s rejection of limits. All living things eventually die, and human appearance changes as we age, yet many people search for ways to stave off that aging or to change their appearance for other non-medical reasons. In 2017, Americans spent more than $15 billion on cosmetic procedures (surgical and nonsurgical), 91 per cent of which were performed on women. The two most common surgical procedures are liposuction and breast augmentation. Although some people who get liposuction are overweight, it is not a treatment for obesity, and breast augmentation is rarely related to physical health. These procedures typically are chosen by people seeking to conform to social norms about appearance.
With this humility about high-tech human intervention in mind, how should we understand the experience of feeling at odds with gender norms? How should we reconcile the physical inability to bear children with the desire to have children? There are no obvious or easy answers, but I believe that as a culture we are better served by starting with the recognition that we are not gods, that we cannot endlessly manipulate the world without risking unintended consequences for self and others. How does the rejection of limits impede our ability to first examine and then resist the impositions of patriarchy, to find new understandings of sex/gender and new social relationships for caring for children?
At the planetary level, we have considerable evidence that our faux-god attempts to dominate the ecosphere — which started most dramatically with the invention of agriculture 10,000 years ago and intensified with the exploitation of fossil fuels — now make the future of a large-scale human population uncertain. The lesson some of us take from that is to turn away from the “technological fundamentalism” that leads us to see all problems as having high-energy/high-tech solutions and consider different ways of living within the biophysical limits of the planet.
That same perspective is compelling on the level of these questions around gender and fertility. Here’s a sensible place to start: We should step back from the hyper-individualism of neoliberal ideology and examine more deeply how the institutionalized male dominance of patriarchy has shaped our collective thinking about gender and identity, and about women’s status and parenting. Such reflection reveals that the liberal ideology on transgenderism and surrogacy embraces the technological fundamentalism that embraces medical and market “solutions” rather than enhancing the sense of integrity that we seek.
Integrity is a key concept here because of its two meanings — adherence to moral principles and the state of being whole. We strive to act with integrity, and to maintain the integrity of both the living body and the larger living world. In hierarchical systems that reward domination, such as patriarchy, freedom comes to be understood only at the ability to control, others and the world around us. Andrea Dworkin captures this struggle when she writes:
“Being an object — living in the realm of male objectification — is abject submission, an abdication of the freedom and integrity of the body, its privacy, its uniqueness, its worth in and of itself because it is the human body of a human being.”
Freedom in patriarchy is granted only to those in control, and that control turns other living things into objects, destroying the possibility of integrity-as-moral-principles and integrity-as-wholeness. Real freedom is not found in the quest to escape limits but in deepening our understanding of our place in a world with limits.
We are told that mental health problems are on the rise in the Western world, particularly among young women. Supposedly, these issues will only be exacerbated if “left untreated.”
In an article at The Guardian, clinical psychologist Nihara Krause states that during 2014-2015 only 20 per cent of those who “needed help” in the UK received it. By “help,” Krause means “therapy.” Experts like Krause say this increase in “mental health issues” is related to issues such as financial difficulties, homelessness, pressure to perform (in school and on social media), and (in the case of women) severe insecurities about our bodies. Despite knowing this, psychology does not exist or function to address these issues and the systemic reasons behind them — the oppression of the poor, racialized, and female, for example. Rather, therapy aims only to address each individual’s emotional reaction to their circumstances. It can make you wonder what good psychology actually does for society at large, and for women, in particular.
During a workshop at a women’s gathering I attended this summer in France, Sheila Jeffreys argued that psychology individualizes the effects of patriarchy and separates women from each other. This once common feminist analysis was completely new to me, and I realized, as I discussed it with other young women (most of us in our 20s), that I had been living in a bubble wherein psychology was never questioned.
I’m not the only one. In response to our friends’ struggles, women are quick to suggest therapy to deal with issues like lack of self-esteem, distress in social situations, habits of self-harming, relationship problems, or difficulty accepting their female body — all issues that are impacted by living under patriarchy, as can be inferred from the sex discrepancy in, for example, self-mutilation and anxiety. “Seek therapy” has become a standard piece of advice. The words, “You need help” are accepted as well-meaning and sound, when directed at friend and foe alike. What “help” refers to is understood by all, since alternatives are generally not offered.
We don’t question whether or not therapy is useful, but even psychologists acknowledge that it is impossible to prove which (if any) kind of therapy is the most effective. An author at Psychology Today writes:
“We cannot even agree what a ‘successful’ result should be. Symptom relief? Personality change? Improved relationships? Better ability to love and work? Personal growth and fulfillment? All of the above?”
What do these things even mean, outside of a psychology framework? And how would you determine and measure the results? Personal growth, improvement, realization, actualization, and empowerment sound like noble aims, so we are understanding and encouraging when women name them as “personal goals.” We are all exhausted, stressed out, depleted, depressed, and distressed, and so can relate to and empathize with women experiencing the same. But, as feminists, we know patriarchy exists and that we face various forms of oppression in this world, so why don’t we question the oft-repeated advice, “Take care of yourself first,” when a sister expresses her troubles, and instead say, “Let’s help one another.”
Divide and conquer is the oldest trick in the oppressor’s book, and it is working against us. In her 1975 book, Psychotherapy: The Hazardous Cure, Dorothy Tennov detailed what therapy truly is, in terms of a profession and study, demonstrating how difficult it is to prove that it’s helpful at all, at a time when psychology was gaining traction. Many of her concerns for the continued normalization of psychotherapy have come true, as it has become more and more socially accepted for women to see therapists, and become therapists themselves. But the destigmatization of therapy is not a positive for the feminist movement. As Tennov concluded:
“There is no question that the person who goes to a psychotherapist and learns to adapt to a situation, to adjust herself, is less likely to apply pressure outward in an attempt to bring about change in society. Psychotherapy is a distraction from other pressures.”
We have been taught, through the normalization of therapy, to individualize our struggles and look inward, rather than outward. Therapy works to prevent us from connecting with one another. It isolates us — each of us is appointed our own therapist, who teaches us how to cope with our “issues” privately. We learn we must take care of ourselves, and work on our personalities in order to better cope with the world around us, before we can act. What therapy doesn’t teach us is that women’s anger is justified, that our suffering is real, and that what we often describe as “mental health issues” are mostly caused — or greatly exacerbated — by structural oppression. Psychology pretends that the solution to — or “treatment” for — our problems is in improving our attitudes and ability to cope, instead of tackling the problems together.
Writing for The Conversation, Zoë Krupka explains that therapists are taught to look to blame at least part of the problem their clients are facing on the clients themselves. Because they cannot dismantle systematic oppression or empower their clients in a genuine sense (that is to say, by giving them actual power in society) in private sessions, therapists have to find issues to resolve within their client. In cases of male violence, for example, the terms “trauma-bonding,” “co-dependency,” and “Stockholm syndrome” all exist to place some blame on the victim (the woman), while the existence of “anger management” exists as apologist propaganda for the perpetrator (the man). “This contributes to women’s disempowerment and to our overall inability to see the violent forest for the trees,” Krupka writes.
There are many examples of how psychology has infiltrated our vocabularies and shaped discourse, for example the idea that women may suffer from “internalized” misogyny or homophobia, rather than speaking about these issues as being a result of external, systemic prejudice and hatred. It has also influenced how we approach friendships and relationships with other women. Venting to a friend is sometimes described as “therapeutic,” and women will often say they played “armchair therapist” when consoling, advising, and listening to their friends. Good therapists are described as being empathetic, attentive, and, most of all, people we trust and can speak openly to without being judged. These are all qualities one would hope describes a good friend, but we have been taught that we are not enough, and that there are “professionals” who are simply better at empathy than us. When our friends and loved ones are deeply upset, we support them in seeking “professional help,” as if a one-sided arrangement, wherein a stranger — detached from their everyday lives, in a position of power over them, and paid for — will be better able to care for them than we would be. We don’t trust ourselves to care for our own because there is an alternative “professional” option.
This professionalization of empathy and care has deeply affected the feminist movement, as rape crisis centres and battered women’s shelters become increasingly staffed by those with the ability to get degrees, rather than by regular women — including those who have been victims of male violence and may have sought help at these shelters themselves. Vancouver Rape Relief and Women’s Shelter (VRRWS), Canada’s longest standing rape crisis center, still operates through a peer counselling model and as a collective. The trend of professionalization of anti-violence work has impaired our ability to help and act as feminists, as Pauline Funston, for VRRWS, explains:
“Now we see ‘clients’ and provide a ‘service,’ a clear indication of the dilution of feminist principles and practice. The battered women who come to the transition houses now sees us as other rather than the same as they are…
… The erosion of feminist standards towards professionalism is costing battered women their dignity, autonomy, and their right to participate in the feminist movement.
… We are reduced to becoming another social service which then individualizes the battered woman’s experience and works against political change for her and all women.”
Therapy opposes collective feminist action both by determining some of us are unfit to support other women if we don’t have degrees, and also by claiming we are unfit mentally — in need of therapy ourselves. It places the burden of overcoming the effects of patriarchy, along with the blame for it, onto us as individuals. I myself was often told by therapists, when I expressed how powerless I felt in terms of my ability to improve the situation of women in our society, that I could not focus on trying to save the world until I first saved myself. I was in too fragile a mental state to make any difference, they said. I couldn’t be an activist without damaging myself in the process. Just as our foremothers were labelled hysterical, we are taught that we are too mentally unwell or unstable to be effective activists. We learn that we suffer from things like social anxiety, depression, various phobias, bipolarity, and trauma that we need to personally overcome and heal from, through professional “help,” before we can focus on organizing and changing anything beyond ourselves.
In the past, women learned through consciousness raising that they were not alone, and this was a source of strength. Their anger was not debilitating, their sadness was not a character flaw, and their fear was not a diagnosis. Their “problems” were not only personal, but broad, and affected all of womankind. It was through meeting and sharing with other women, in person, that women were able to shed light on and name things like patriarchy, male supremacy, misogyny, racism, anti-lesbianism, abuse, poverty, and oppression, instead of “depression,” “mental illness,” “internalized self-hatred,” and “stress.”
Even young women who scoff at the idea that “self-empowerment” can be found in makeup and clothing still fall for the idea that we can empower ourselves through therapy and self-care. Instead of using our pain and our anger, we have to assimilate with the mentally stable status quo. As if there were a state within patriarchy for women that is more natural and logical than upset and rebellion.
The idea that we must first heal ourselves before we can act to our full extent is as fallacious as the idea that we must first “love ourselves” in order to be loved by others. As they watched the lesbian and feminist community get swallowed by psychobabble, Celia Kitzinger and Rachel Perkins, in their 1993 book, Changing Our Minds, wrote:
“Psychology claims that ‘loving ourselves’ is an essential prerequisite to loving others, and to effective political work. We cannot believe this claim…
Loving others, and being effective politically, is not something you magically become able to do once you ‘truly love yourself.’ Rather, you learn how to love in theprocess of loving, how to engage politically through political engagement.” [emphasis theirs]
This message remains just as important today, as the notion of psychology has gone largely unchallenged by modern feminists.
In order to move forward, we have to rid ourselves of the idea that we need mental health “professionals” to be our friends and allies, and that a different attitude and mindset is what will enable us to bring patriarchy to its knees. Systemic oppression is not addressed by learning to cope with it, by processing it with a paid professional, or by becoming that professional. It needs to be dismantled as an institution, through unrelenting organized feminist action open for all women, as does the institution of psychology which traps us in our own minds, isolated from each other, and structural analysis.
Ironically, it is often a mental block that hinders so many young women from being effective feminists. But that block is not anxiety, depression, or stress — rather, it is the idea that our emotions and problems are personal, and to be overcome on our own. We have to let go of the idea that the wrong is with us, and not with the world. We have to reach out and organize in real life, help each other, be supportive and understanding, listening and empathetic, tolerant and kind, but also firm and truthful. We must understand that we are all hurt, frustrated, and angry — and that this is not something we have to deal with alone.
I urge young feminists who feel powerless and frustrated to meet each other in real life. Look for established feminist groups in your city or area to join, women’s shelters to volunteer in, reading circles, book clubs, self-defence classes — and if you can’t find any, start your own group. Be each other’s support network and strength, show up to rallies and demonstrations in groups; make signs, slogans, stickers, and pamphlets to distribute together; organize activities and protests. I strongly encourage having ties to older women, in order to learn from their experience and knowledge, though it is equally important to act independently as a new generation of feminists and form our own networks. I was able to find friends and eventually form a feminist organization, aimed at facilitating women-separatist spaces, through radical feminist forums on Facebook and blogs on Tumblr. Dare to take the next step and meet up in real life. Join the organizations and groups you’ve been eyeing forever. Push yourself to go out and meet new women.
Our goals should not be self-empowerment or self-improvement, but the liberation of womankind.
To those who may feel defensive, let me say that, as someone who was diagnosed with “clinical depression” for a decade, and saw eight different therapists during this period (a new one each time it returned): since quitting therapy and becoming an activist, using my emotions for this cause, and finding friends within this movement — true sisters — I have never felt better, mentally.
Tove Happonen is a Swedish activist, a member in the feminist organization Kvinnofronten and a co-founder of the radical feminist organization Kvinnorum, which strives to facilitate women-separatist spaces and gatherings. The opinions expressed here are only representative of her own.
“I’m not surprised,” women say, in response to the flood of revelations of sexual “misconduct” by men, especially men in positions of power.
But none of us — women or men — should be surprised, because the United States is a patriarchal society and in patriarchy men routinely claim the right to own or control women’s bodies for reproduction and sexual pleasure. Men — liberal and conservative — know that just as well as women.
In such a society, conservative and liberal men will often disagree in public about the conditions under which they can rightly claim ownership. Conservative men argue for control of women within the heterosexual family. Liberal men argue for more expansive access to women. In public, the policy debates about reproductive rights and sexual access rage on. In private, conservative and liberal men claim their “right” to do as they please, which is why women sometimes find it difficult to tell conservative and liberal men apart when it comes to behavior.
What kind of world has that produced? A sexually corrosive pop culture (both in dating practices and mediated images), with expanding sexual exploitation industries (primarily prostitution and pornography), and routine sexual intrusion (the spectrum from sexual harassment to sexual assault). Women are routinely objectified in pop culture, reducing complex human beings to body parts for male pleasure. Men routinely buy and sell those objectified bodies for sexual pleasure, in person and on screens. And when men believe they can take those bodies without challenge, some men do just that.
Male or female, we should not be surprised when in a patriarchal society — a society based on institutionalized male dominance — men exercise that dominance. Of course patriarchy is not static nor unidimensional, nor is it the only system of illegitimate authority. Patriarchy in 2017 is not exactly the same as in 1917; patriarchy in the United States is not the same as patriarchy in Saudi Arabia. Race, class, religion, and nation affect how patriarchy plays out in a specific time and place.
Patriarchy also is not immune to challenge. Feminism makes gains, patriarchy pushes back, and the struggle continues. Women advance in business, politics, and education, and men assert their control over women’s bodies where they can get away with it.
Radical feminism is the term for that component of the second wave of feminism (in the United States, the phase of the movement that emerged in the 1960s) that most directly confronts men’s sexual exploitation of women. In the three decades that I have been involved in radical feminist projects, this analysis has become more useful than ever in explaining an increasingly corrosive society, the mainstreaming of sexual exploitation, and the epidemic levels of sexual intrusion.
Yet both conservatives and liberals routinely dismiss radical feminism as dangerous, out of date, irrelevant. Why would an analysis that offers a compelling explanation of social trends be ignored? My experience suggests that it’s precisely because of the power of the radical feminist analysis that it is avoided. U.S. society is unwilling, or unable, to confront the pathology of patriarchy, a system of illegitimate authority woven so deeply into the fabric of everyday life that many people are afraid of naming it, let alone confronting it.
I remember clearly my first exposure to radical feminist ideas, when I was 30 years old, in the late 1980s. I knew that the women making these arguments, specifically about men’s exploitation of women in and through pornography, had to be crazy — because if they weren’t crazy, I not only would have to rethink what I had learned about the sex/gender system in patriarchy but also change my own behavior. But radical feminism wore me down — with evidence and compelling arguments, along with an undeniable emotional honesty. Once I let myself listen carefully, radical feminism not only explained the oppression of girls and women but also helped me understand why I had never felt I could live up to the pathological standards of masculinity in patriarchy.
I had been taught that feminism — especially radical feminism — was a threat to men. I came to understand that it is a gift to us. Not the kind of gift that makes one feel warm and fuzzy but instead challenges us to be better than our patriarchal culture asks of us, to reject patriarchy’s glorification of control, conquest, and aggression.
I’m about to turn 60, and the half of my life lived with a feminist analysis has not always been easy, nor have I magically overcome all my flaws. But radical feminism allowed me to stop worrying about how to be a “real man” and start figuring out how to be a decent person.
In 2003, Andrea Dworkin wrote, “The world was sleeping and Kate Millett woke it up.” Indeed, Kate Millett was a game changer. In 1970, she published Sexual Politics, which catapulted her to fame, both in and out of the feminist movement. The New York Times called the book “the Bible of Women’s Liberation”, and her publisher, Doubleday, said it was one of the ten most important books they published in the 20th century. In it, Kate argued that male supremacy relies on “the acceptance of a value system which is not biological.” Indeed, her arguments underpin our understanding of feminism today: that “sex is a status category with political implications” and that society, as we know it, is founded on a lie “that insists that gender stereotypes are natural rather than cultural.” Sexual Politics destroyed the idea that social sex roles were determined by biology. Gender, Kate argued, was socially determined, ideologically reinforced by a system of male dominance called “patriarchy.”
An unforgettable feminist icon who paved the way for the rest of us, Kate died on September 6th, while in Paris with her spouse, Sophie Keir. It would have been her 83rd birthday on September 14th.
I spoke with Kate’s longtime friend, Eleanor Pam, about Kate’s life and work, over the phone from her home in New York.
Eleanor Pam was an early feminist pioneer and joined the National Organization For Women in 1966 with Kate Millett where, together, they founded and led NOW’s first Education Committee. She is currently the President of the Veteran Feminists of America, an organization of women who pioneered the modern American women’s movement. Eleanor is also a passionate advocate for women in prison who exposes and speaks out against gender discrimination, guard brutality, sexual harassment, and rape in the Corrections and Criminal Justice systems.
Following in the tradition of Leftists Explaining Very Rationally That Women Are Doing It Wrong, Jacobin, America’s preeminent brocialist rag, published a piece by a graduate student named Erica West, detailing the failings of radical feminism. While no political movement (including radical feminism) is without flaws, in their desperation to take a watery dump on feminism, Jacobin chose to publish something ahistorical, manipulative, and mostly baseless, by a writer who appears to never have encountered an actual radical feminist in her life.
Namely, West blames feminists for the lack of solidarity between feminists and leftists, due to our being big meanies, our failure to prioritize their issues above those of females, in particular, our efforts to work with legislators to, uh, effect legislative change, and (the kicker) our confused class analysis. West writes:
“Plagued by a narrow understanding of gendered oppression and a misguided strategy for change, radical feminism ultimately fails to offer women a clear path to liberation.“
These criticisms are odd to read in a publication that believes prostitution should be treated as a gender-neutral job (like any other) and applies the coded language of “moralism” to those who argue the sex trade itself is a product of a racist, capitalist, male supremacist world. Somehow, it’s only the political analysis of women that can be dismissed as a “moral uproar” or as some version of hysterical “pearl-clutching.” Similarly odd is the accusation that feminists don’t understand class, when it is leftists who refuse to apply their own analysis to the oppression of women, as a class of people. Our class analysis, which extends not only to capitalism (and white supremacy), but to patriarchy, is said to be “narrow,” while limiting that analysis to economics, one gathers, is “broad.” Half the world’s population is too marginal for leftists to consider, I suppose.
The first time I pitched an article to Jacobin, offering a feminist critique of prostitution, was in 2013. The editor expressed interest, but declined after consulting Peter Frase (who had written a piece helpfully explaining that “the issue with sex work is not the sex, [but] the work,” which I can only assume came as a great relief to every prostituted women living with PTSD, who could rest easy knowing their trauma was shared by baristas around the world) and Melissa Gira Grant (who argues that the greatest danger to women in prostitution is not the men who beat, rape, and kill them, but the laws that criminalize those men) who vetoed the thing.
No harm no foul. These aren’t our people, sisters. By then, my naivete at believing the American liberal-left would ever entertain feminist arguments against the sexual objectification of women with any integrity had pretty much come to an end. Indeed, this was one last test.
The left has abandoned women’s interests consistently since the dawn of feminism. Way back in 1830, working class women in France who were part of the Saint-Simonian socialist movement gave up on trying to work with their male comrades and organized a separatist movement. In the mid-1800s, male abolitionists consistently discouraged and even explicitly prevented women in the abolitionist movement from speaking out about women’s rights, claiming it was a diversion. The American radical feminist movement announced its departure from the New Left with a straightforward “fuck off,” having learned that no matter how much they supported male-led struggles, women were still going to be treated as sex objects, wives, and secretaries. This is not a new lesson. We try and continually fail in our efforts to ally with the left, because leftist men, for centuries, have shown us that our interests are unimportant — that we are unimportant.
In other words, radical feminists did not abandon the fight against capitalism, they abandoned the men who proved, time and time again, that their interest in revolution only extended as far as their dicks.
West argues that while radical feminists’ interest in fighting sexual violence is “admirable,” when women actually tried to do something to advance the fight, they went about it all wrong. Referencing Andrea Dworkin and Catherine MacKinnon’s anti-pornography ordinance, which defined pornography as the “sexually explicit subordination of women,” West complains that the two feminists worked with some conservative politicians in an effort to pass the bill. But who, I wonder, are feminists to work with, if not politicians who have the power to pass bills? Should we consult with our “brothers” at Jacobin? Who would undoubtedly call us uptight cunts before going back to reviewing material for their Porn4Prisonersproject?
In truth, Dworkin and MacKinnon worked with whomever they needed to — some of those people were Democrats, others were Republicans. And while West plucked what she hoped would be a damning quote from an op-ed by MacKinnon, published by the New York Times in 1990, she left out, quite literally, all the important bits. West writes:
“‘Among the many legislators with whom we have worked on the ordinance,’ MacKinnon enthused in a 1990 New York Times op-ed, ‘one is a political conservative. We were honored to work with her.’”
In fact, what MacKinnon wrote was:
“Among the many legislators with whom we have worked on the ordinance, one is a political conservative. She was selected by the Mayor of Indianapolis to get the bill passed. We were honored to work with her. The ordinance was originally sponsored in Minneapolis by a progressive white Republican woman and a black Democratic man. Wherever it is introduced, liberals and conservatives vote both for it and against it. If the right supported the ordinance, we would have a lot more resources, credibility, money and votes. We have found most conservatives far more uncomfortable with sex equality than with pornography.”
The ongoing myth, proliferated yet again by West, that radical feminists are “in bed” with the right only works if you are extremely lazy or dishonest to the core. Though MacKinnon said everything she could to dispel this particular slander, explaining, “Our ‘sin’ is in building a women’s politics that is as indifferent to left and right as pornography’s harm to women is,” West omits her words, adopting the narrative provided to her by her brethren.
What the left consistently ignores in their efforts to paint feminists as uptight, anti-sex, prudes, in cahoots with the right, is that their beloved pornography, their brothels, their cries to “Stay out of my bedroom, [mom]!” place them firmly in bed with the most committed capitalists and gun-toting, private property-loving libertarians, who promote privatization across the board and abhor state funded anything, whether it be health care, education, or day care.
West claims radical feminists got everything from class to the roots of women’s oppression wrong, chastising the movement for separating capitalism from patriarchy and for prioritizing the abolishment of gender. But feminists’ analysis of class as it pertains to women (that is to say, we believe women are oppressed as a class of people, by men, as a class of people) doesn’t mean we reject the notion of class oppression under capitalism. Indeed, radical feminists are continually baffled that, while so many leftists can comprehend the concept of class, in economic terms, they refuse to entertain the notion that other groups of people are also oppressed on a class basis. There can be more than one thing, and indeed, those things can be interconnected.
All that said, yes, feminists do prioritize the plight of women in their politics. Because if leftists can’t manage to address misogyny in their own movements, there is no reason to expect an end to capitalism will result in an end to rape and domestic abuse.
And speaking of misogyny, no leftist trashing of feminism is complete without a firm nod to the evil TERF — the woman who dares say “no” to dick, not only the “consensual” dick that has paid for the hour, fair and square, but to the dick in the women’s shelter, the girls’ locker room, or at the feminist organizing meeting.
West bravely argues against “banning” in all its forms. Whether it be Latina Abuse IV or the ever-harmless male who insists he is female, despite all balls. (We can only assume this anti-banning position extends to child pornography, and that the author supports the inclusion of white people in the political spaces of people of colour as well. How open-minded!)
West (and many others) may believe I am being very rude. Many will likely join in on calls to burn her. But the reason the left hates feminists as much as the right (though they may express their hatred in different terms) is because setting boundaries defies the rule of the father. Under patriarchy, women must be accessible: sexually and emotionally, as mothers, wives, and whores. To say “no” to men — no matter how those men feel about their male bodies or status as members of the oppressor class — to speak up at all, to fight back, or to tell the truth is to commit high treason.
West concludes with what a noob might read as a call to solidarity:
“While radical feminists posit separatism as a political strategy — and for some, the goal — socialist feminists understand that our power lies in our numbers. The division between working-class men and women, between cisgender people and transgender people — these fissures are detrimental to our overall aims. They only make us weaker and our fight against capitalism that much harder.”
But we’ve tried this already. For at least 150 years, women have put their energy, their time, their heart and souls into men’s movements. Women also believed that solidarity was possible and that if they worked with men towards an end to things like capitalism and racism, men would return the favour, and join arms with women to combat things like rape, domestic abuse, prostitution, incest, and sexual objectification. But they didn’t. They told us to sit down and shut up, and when we didn’t, they called us bitches, cunts, witches, and TERFs. Women were left with no choice to abandon the left — men are to blame for “these fissures,” not radical feminists.
So dear Erica, I suggest you take this up with your brothers. The left is more than welcome to put down their laptops, and take up the fight against sexual sadism in porn. We welcome their advocacy for and efforts to fund women’s transition houses. We will stand behind them when they start naming and shaming johns. We will support their decision to stop abusing their wives and girlfriends. We cannot wait for them stop hurling sexist names at those of us who don’t toe the line; denigrating the work of women who fought for our rights when we had none; smearing, blackballing, and no-platforming those of us who say “no.” Oh boy, won’t that be grand.