Posts tagged neoliberalism

Interview: Meghan Murphy on the sex industry, individualism, online feminism, and the third wave 

This interview was done for and posted (in French) on Isabelle Alonso’s website. Isabelle is a French TV personality and ex-president of the “Chiennes de garde”, a well-known feminist group in France. The interview was conducted and translated by Sporenda.

1)  The blog, Feminist Current, that you launched last year, is attracting quite a bit of attention. It won “Best Feminism Blog” in Canada and has quite a few followers. Do you explain this success only by the quality of your writing or by a increased  interest in feminism?

M: Well, I can’t say for sure. I get the feeling, based on the climate in feminism these days and from connecting with other feminists online, from around the world, that there is a lot of frustration towards and disappointment in the way feminism is represented by more mainstream or maybe third wave sources. The analysis is often quite superficial and it’s become acceptable to advance this sort of derisive attitude towards both radical feminism and the second wave. The smearing of the second wave and of radical feminism, more often than not, is unfounded and comes from those unfamiliar with the theory and the history of the movement. There’s a real lack of critical thinking and an unwillingness to make larger connections around things like the mainstreaming of porn and the sex industry to women’s status in the world and violence against women.

There’s also a kind of bullying (I realize that’s an overused term these days, so perhaps it might not feel like the ideal descriptor to some, but it sure does feel like bullying to me…) that goes on and has become acceptable online, in particular. You have to really toe the party line or risk getting blackballed. It discourages honest conversations and critical thinking. There are these trigger words (often various words attached to “phobia” or “shaming”– “whorephobia,” or “kink-shaming,” for example) that are thrown around and, once uttered, the conversation is done and people are accused of being some kind of “phobic” regardless of what’s actually being argued. Critique is repositioned as “judgement.” People seem to conflate critiques of larger systems of power with critiques of individuals and individual choices. You know, to be critical of the sex industry isn’t to be critical of prostitutes — it’s to be critical of male culture and inequality and oppression. It’s a real problem as well as an excellent way to squash critical thinking and scare people into accepting certain movement mantras and language without thinking or questioning it. It’s a bit cult-like.

So I think when I started writing about feminism online (rather naively, I must admit) back in 2010 and was critical of things that you’re not allowed to be critical of in mainstream feminism — things like burlesque, porn, stripping, prostitution, etc. — maybe people felt a little relieved? That isn’t to say that I’m the only one writing about this stuff, but I know that feeling of relief that comes when you’ve been uncomfortable or unsure about something but you aren’t sure why, and everyone else seems to be ok with it so maybe you should be ok with it too, and then you read something where someone really articulates exactly what was bothering you and it’s like, THANK GOD. You know, there are so few feminists blogging about the Nordic model, for example (in a positive way, anyway). When I learned about it, first from Trisha Baptie, and then from other feminist organizations and Aboriginal women’s groups, and I was like, yeah this is so obvious — this makes sense. But people have been taught the politically correct stance is legalization. Abolition isn’t fashionable.

There’s an incredible backlash when you are critical of the sex industry. It’s not the popular position to take these days — we’ve been so indoctrinated with this idea that if you’re critical of the sex industry, you’re critical of sex (when in reality it’s the opposite) so it’s not an easy thing to advocate for in public. You will really get shit on. So that probably discourages a lot of feminists from supporting that model and abolition in general, publicly. The more of us come out and say this stuff publicly, though, the more other women will feel free and encouraged to explore these ideas without fear of attack and being shut down. They’ll feel like, oh, ok, maybe I don’t have to like porn in order to pretend to be sexually liberated – maybe my discomfort with prostitution is justified – maybe I’m not crazy. So I think that’s why Feminist Current is growing in popularity. I think maybe it’s just a relief to see this kind of discourse happening publicly and see that other women and men want to get on side.

2) From what one reads, Men’s Rights Activists (MRAs) are big in Canada. Some of them visit your site to attack your posts and try to advance their position – that men are the real victims and are being victimized by modern women and feminists.

Why is it, in your opinion, that there are so many MRAs in Canada? What do you get about these men based on what they post on your site?

M: Oh gosh, I have no idea why Men’s Rights Movement and MRAs are so big in Canada! I think it’s partly that they’ve found a place in AVFM and CAFE, for example. So the existence of those groups, who are putting forth these ridiculously warped and anti-feminist ideas and manipulated statistics, likely reinforce the idea that it’s acceptable for men to go public about their hatred towards and fear of feminists and the feminist movement.

The MRAs who comment on my site (or try to comment on my site) are mostly just kind of confused. They don’t understand what feminism is or what the feminist movement is about. They say the same things over and over again — they think feminism is about advocating for a matriarchy or that it’s all about women having power over men. They really don’t get the idea of patriarchy and the fact that it’s systemic — that it isn’t about individuals. Their arguments are always about how “Men are victims too!” or that men are the real victims in this world, not women. And it’s like, yeah, of course. Of course lots of individual men experience violence and suffer throughout their lives. And, yes, some men are oppressed on a systemic level too, via race and class. But the idea behind feminism is not that everything is rad for all individual men – it’s that women experience oppression on a systemic basis as a result of being born into and socialized based on their assigned social class of “woman.” Because in our society there are two social categories when it comes to gender – men and women – and based on the fact that we’ve decided, as a culture, that women are “feminine” and men are “masculine” and that masculinity equals power, dominance, strength, etc. whereas femininity equals submission, weakness, passivity, etc. So sure, an individual woman might have a specific kind of circumstantial power over an individual man — for example, if she is white and part of the upper class – but that doesn’t change the fact that, in our world, women as a class are subordinate to men as a group and, as a result, are prostituted, abused, murdered, raped, objectified, harassed etc. specifically because they are women and in a way that’s gendered.

MRAs pretend feminists think that being a man is consistently this amazing, perfect thing, but the fact is that patriarchy isn’t necessarily “good” for men either. Masculinity is shitty. It means you’re taught to be violent and aggressive and that you can’t have feelings, that you can’t ever be vulnerable or weak. I feel so sad for men who never learn it’s ok to have and talk about their emotions and be vulnerable. It’s awful.

This is also why things like homophobia happen — you know, because gay men aren’t properly performing masculinity. Part of the thing about masculinity is that you fuck women. If you don’t do that, you’re messing with the whole system. Women are the fuckable ones — Men are the fuckers, women are the fuckees, as it were. So when men are having sex with other men or women are having sex with other women, it challenges that system and that’s one of the reasons some people hate or fear gay people.

Fitting in to these two categories is hard. It’s not natural. We shouldn’t have to be either feminine or masculine. To fit in takes work. It’s bad for everyone. I mean, it’s worse for women in many ways, but really, it’s not easy for anyone.

3) You have underlined that, for women and feminists bloggers, posting their views on the internet can be kind of a double-edged sword, as it’s also the place where extreme misogyny is being expressed, not just through huge amounts of pornography but also through vicious attacks, harassment and threats.

Have you experienced this “free for all” on women? What does it say about men’s feelings toward women and feminists?

M: Well, yes, I experience a lot of vitriol online. Especially because of the things I write about the sex industry, as I mentioned earlier. And it doesn’t just come from men. In fact, I think women sometimes feel freer to attack me in really vicious and hateful ways – even sexist ways (you know, calling me “bitch,” “cunt,” etc.) because they’re women and so it’s ok, somehow? I mean, I get attacked by men too, all the time, but some of the worst has come from other women.

I think maybe this happens because they don’t want to name the perpetrator… It’s often women who aren’t ready or willing to acknowledge that men are the ones out there who are perpetrating violence against not only women, but also against trans folks and, actually, against other men too.

Instead they target me. I’m an easy target. You know, I’m out there, as public person, I’m not protected by an institution, I don’t work for anyone, really, I work for myself. And they know that when they start a pile on, others will be eager to join in. It’s funny, in a way. I mean I’m not exactly raking in tons of cash blogging about feminism. It’s not as though I’m the one committing violence against women, but maybe it’s easier to focus on me than it is to focus on those with real power in this world. Maybe the reality is too hard for people to face. It’s a harder problem to address – widespread violence against women and misogyny. So they tweet nasty things at me instead. I don’t know. You’d think they could come up with something more productive to do.

People want very much to believe that things are ok. That’s why there’s such a concerted effort to pretend as though sexism can be empowering. It’s easier. You don’t have to change anything or confront any of the difficult truths about what’s behind the sex industry and how deeply misogynist it is. You don’t have to acknowledge that, you know, there are probably a lot of men in your life who’ve bought sex and who watch porn and probably your boyfriend goes to strip clubs and tells you that you’re supposed to be ok with it because “all guys do it” and “you’re just jealous” or whatever other b.s. we’re fed with regard to accepting sexist behavior from the men in our lives – so we feel like we have no other choice.

We love our boyfriends and they watch porn. What do you do? Especially when your boyfriend and the world at large keeps telling you that all men do this and it’s normal and that you should be ok with it. Fuck that. First of all, all men don’t watch porn. Maybe most do, but not all of them. Secondly, in no way do you have to be ok with it. We’re told we have no other option. No alternatives. So instead we try to cope. Things like “sex-positive feminism” are coping mechanisms — so, you can pretend you’re empowered as an individual, that women in prostitution just love fucking strangers all day, that you’re objectifying yourself, rather than being objectified. If we can trick ourselves into believing the sex industry empowers us then maybe it will become true! We’re desperately trying to make “good” that which is not “good”. We’re grasping for power anywhere we can.

I think that’s much of what this burlesque-is-empowering-for-women thing is about, for example. You know, it can feel good to get that kind of positive attention. I get that. I’ve been there. Everyone likes to feel desired. But the folks who are doing burlesque and calling it “feminist” or “empowering” aren’t honest about that. They aren’t honest about what’s motivating them to strip onstage for an audience. They want to pretend that it’s some kind of nouveau-feminism when of course, it’s just the same old thing. We’re used to seeing women as pretty objects to be looked at. Getting strangers to watch women strip isn’t anything new… Women get positive reinforcement for shaking their tits on stage and men are stoked that this is (supposedly) feminism! It’s empowering, they’ve been told. So it’s cool, right? I mean, no wonder people are into it. It’s no mystery.

Maybe we’ve become so hopeless about the feminist movement, because there’s still so far to go, that many women have just given up and are, like, ok, let’s just make the best of this. So we end up with “feminist porn”, burlesque, prostitution as “empowerment”. It’s about giving up on something more, something better — real power that isn’t temporary and that isn’t based on our ability to get men to pay in order to objectify us or to get positive reinforcement because we’re shaking our tits around on stage. It’s really sad, actually.

4) One of your most commented on  posts underlined that, based on a recent study done in Sweden, the Nordic model  not only reduced prostitution (by 85%) but seems to have reduced violence against prostitutes as well (48% less rapes, 38% less physical assaults according to the prostituted women who were polled). 

This goes against the prediction made by the pro-prostitution advocate –: that the penalization of johns would increase violence against prostituted women.

Not only did the media fail to relay the results of this study but a “sex worker union,” — Prosentre — even used it to assert that the Nordic model did not work, since prostitutes were verbally insulted more often now (because the johns didn’t dare physically assault them). What do you think of this silencing and twisting of facts by the media and pro-prostitution groups?

M: There is a vested interest in maintaining and promoting the sex industry as “ok” or as simply another form of work. Mostly this happens (obviously) because the sex industry is highly profitable. We live in a capitalist system, which means that anything that is profitable is defended vehemently, at the expense of human lives and of the planet, as we see via the push for pipelines in Canada. I mean, we all know full well that pipelines will inevitably be an environmental disaster, yet these projects move forward despite known consequences. Capitalism is a very powerful system. If it weren’t for capitalism, the sex industry wouldn’t exist. At least not in the same form as it does today and to the extent that it does.

“Sex worker unions” have been shown, thanks to journalists like Julie Bindel, to be little more than lobby groups for the industry. They aren’t about protecting the human rights of women, they’re about promoting the sex industry as being like any other “safe” industry – “a job like any other,” they say. But in the end it’s about profit (at the expense of women) and, of course, male pleasure.

Places like New Zealand are often used as examples by sex work advocates of how legalizing prostitution “works” – but all that’s changed in countries where they’ve legalized or completely decriminalized prostitution is that there’s more prostitution (and more trafficking). Women in the industry are still raped, abused, and murdered. Prostitutes still go missing. What it does is to create a two-tiered system, where a few very privileged women “get” to work indoors in legal brothels (which we are told is safer, despite the fact that women are abused and raped and murdered indoors as well), and everyone else – women of colour, women with mental health and addiction issues, illegal immigrants, trafficked women, etc., still work in an illegal market, most of which continues to be run by organized crime. The danger is still there and it’s still there because of male demand. The only real way to stop violence against prostituted women and to stop the exploitation is to criminalize the men who are doing the harm. Demand is what keeps the industry going, so curbing demand is the most obvious way to stop the exploitation.

The industry finds a few spokespeople – women who will say: “Oh this is great!  Everything is fine!” and then those women are touted as representative of all prostituted women. It’s quite disgusting, actually. Because those people know full well that most of the women in the industry aren’t happy and want out. They know full well that the silent women, the women who don’t get to speak their truth and to be public about their lives and experiences, are trapped in the industry – in massage parlours, trapped by poverty, addiction, abusive boyfriends/pimps, etc. To want to keep your job, I get, but I don’t get throwing all these women under the bus in the process.

5) Advocates of prostitution and porn call these Nordic reforms “anti-sex” and “moralistic” but it’s interesting to note that these laws are passed in countries (Sweden, Norway, Iceland) that are known to have the most open, relaxed  and non repressive attitude about sex. Your comments on that?

M: Yeah that’s a funny one. I mean, if we’re talking about free sexuality and a real liberated vision of sex and sexuality, you’d think you’d be advocating for consensual sex. But prostitution isn’t about female desire or “enthusiastic consent”, which is supposedly what we’re touting in feminism these days. I mean, sure, sometimes a woman “consents” to letting a man have sex with her or agrees to perform other sex acts, in exchange for money, but she isn’t “consenting” because, you know, she’s really into this guy and really wants to sleep with him. If she did, she wouldn’t have to be paid to do it. That whole argument – the one that says that feminists who are critical of the sex industry are anti-sex, shows a real anti-intellectualism and lack of critical thinking.

I mean, as you say, the countries that have criminalized johns, banned strip clubs, and are considering banning pornography are the countries that are the most progressive and the most sexually liberated. The US isn’t a sexually liberated country. It’s completely saturated and obsessed with pornography while simultaneously having this huge faction of right-wing, religious groups who think sex should only happen in traditional, heterosexual, marriages for the purposes of procreation (which is, of course, about controlling women’s bodies and maintaining a patriarchal family structure). I find the whole idea that women who advocate for porn and prostitution are “pro-sex,” whereas feminists who advocate against objectification and exploitation and are positioned as “anti-sex,” kind of hilarious and, in many ways, embarrassing. I just picture the next generation of feminists looking back at the third wave with shame. I mean, all these ridiculous women parading around in stilettos and pasties, on stage, pretending they are advancing women’s rights. What a joke. That whole burlesque/sex work is empowering/feminist porn aspect of the third wave is making a mockery of the movement.

6) The proposal to ban hardcore pornography online in Iceland was discussed on Feminist Current. Do you think it’s justified to attack the principle of free speech and promote censorship to advance the feminist agenda? Do you believe pornography qualifies as free speech?

M: The whole “censorship” argument in defense of pornography is illogical. I mean, as a society, we aren’t against censorship. We “censor” child pornography, for example, and are perfectly ok with that form of “censorship.” I don’t understand why suddenly, just because a woman turns 18, it’s ok to objectify or degrade her. The concept of “consent” and the way that the feminist movement has reinforced consent as a crucial part of sex (whereas, in the past, of course, it was acceptable to rape one’s wife – meaning that “consent” didn’t always matter so much to men when it came to sex) isn’t to be scoffed at, but at the same time, it’s really oversimplified the conversation around sex and sexuality in an unhelpful way.

I called it “the tyranny of consent” in a recent post that discussed the way that “consent” is often used to limit the parameters of conversations around sex and force us to accept anything anyone agrees to, regardless of the circumstances under which they agreed. It removes context from the conversation. I mean, it’s not as though, simply because a woman signs a contract or verbally agrees to perform certain sex acts, that’s unequivocally “ok” or necessarily ethical. And, again, what’s the difference between a 17 year old woman and an 18 year old woman? A 17 year old can’t give consent ethically and an 18 year old can? What about a woman who’s been raped and abused and exploited her whole life, since she was a child – suddenly when she turns 18 her, now her life of abuse is erased and she’s simply a consenting adult and therefore her prostitution is A-ok? It makes no sense. People use consent in order to comfort themselves and in order to turn these issues – pornography, prostitution, coercion, inequality, power dynamics, objectification, etc. — into something that’s black and white – as though it’s as simple as consent vs. non-consent. But it isn’t that simple.

Regarding the “free speech” and pornography issue — please. Pornography doesn’t expand the conversation, it limits it. When do we ever talk about corporations and multi-billion dollar industries as being champions of or representative of “free speech” except when it comes to pornography? What a joke. Pornography is about sexualizing the oppression of women. Is oppression “free speech?” Of course not. If we were talking about actually liberalizing nudity and sex and if we were seeing real, feminist depictions of bodies and female sexuality on screen, of course we could talk about freedom of expression. But we aren’t. We’re talking about porn. And porn is regressive when it comes to expanding our understanding of, and the conversation around, women’s bodies and sexuality. It teaches society that women are things that exist for male pleasure – to be looked at and to be fucked. Let’s see some fucking feminist erotica. Let’s see depictions of female sexuality and women’s bodies, on screen, that aren’t objectified and sexualized for the male gaze and then we can have a conversation about “free speech.” But please. Pornography is just about men’s right to hate and profit off of women. Free speech my ass. Men are fully capable of masturbating without objectifying or exploiting women. And if they claim not to be, well, that’s a terrible insult to them.

7) The topic of “grey rape” was discussed on Feminist Current. You told a personal anecdote where a guy who took you back home and with whom you’d had no intention of having sex, finally got you in bed by insisting relentlessly and just wearing you down.

And this guy and his friends were indignant that you deemed his behavior “rapey”–  to them, this was normal behavior for a man, certainly not unethical; you were the unethical one by calling it “rapey”.

What do you make of his reaction, and of yours, and more generally, why is it so hard for women to just say a straight no to such men and  stick to it?

M: Well actually most of his friends, our mutual friends, that is, agreed that his behaviour was at least sleazy and gross, if not “rapey.” He was indignant because he was concerned about his reputation and because he refused to see his behaviour as problematic or be accountable for it. A relative of his, who I dated years later, accused me of somehow vilifying the “rapey” dude (which I really hadn’t – I’d merely shared my experience with a few friends) probably, in part, because he’d never heard my side of the story and, I imagine, because he also didn’t want to acknowledge that someone he was related to, someone he was close with, could be anything but a “good” guy. Even more likely is that he’d engaged in similar behavior himself at one point or another and didn’t want to examine that more closely.

Many men want to see themselves as the “good guy” – they want rapists to be monsters. They don’t want to look at how they might be complicit in rape culture. They want it to be easy – again, black and white – but it isn’t that simple. That’s why we tell ourselves that it’s fine and natural for men to buy sex and watch porn and go to strip clubs. We draw lines that make no sense. On one hand, we say: “Rape culture is bad. Women are human and deserve respect.” And then on the other we say: “Except for the women that aren’t fully human. Except for the women who exist to be looked at and to be fucked because god knows if men aren’t provided with orgasms on demand, they might die. OR, as some reason, they might rape the “good women” – the women who aren’t “to be fucked” — who are privileged enough not to have been prostituted.” We still seem to want to compartmentalize everything.

In porn there’s no talk of consent. Women are just “up for it” all the time – and somehow we’re still pretending that doesn’t perpetuate rape culture and that “normal guys” aren’t complicit??

I mean, it’s the same thing that happens when women talk about domestic abuse – people say: “Oh but he’s so nice. I know him! He’s so good with my kids. He helped me out when I had car trouble,” or whatever. They want abusive men to be these horrid, creepy, evil, monsters lurking in bushes or in parking lots – but abusive men are just “regular guys”, if that makes sense…

I’ve been in abusive relationships. When I came out about one situation in particular, I couldn’t believe how many people – friends of the man – just refused to believe that he would do what I said he did. They made up any and every reason to convince themselves and others that I was lying. They just couldn’t get their heads around (or didn’t want to) the fact one of their buddies, someone who gave them rides home from parties, someone who watched their kids, could be abusive.

People need to realize that it isn’t fun to go public about rape or abuse. It’s awful. And mostly people blame you and don’t believe you. There’s no reason to lie. I mean, sure, I guess it’s happened the odd time, but please — telling the world that the man you said you loved, and who you lived with and slept with and cooked for and that you called your partner was abusive? It’s embarrassing. It makes you feel hypocritical and pathetic and weak. It shouldn’t, but it does. It’s not something that’s easy to do.

As for why it’s so hard to say no, well, women are taught to be polite and not to hurt others’ feelings. And, like, often we’re attracted to the guys who date rape us – I mean, we went out with them, right? Maybe we even made out with them – but that still doesn’t mean we want to have sex. Sometimes, after a certain point, you’ve said no so many times and it’s like, “Ok fine, whatever.” And clearly I’m not advocating for that but the point is – how many times should we have to say no?? What guy wants sex because he’s had to convince and coerce and pressure a girl into it? I mean, I ask that question with the implication that no man should want that — that ideally we want to have sex with people who are enthusiastic about having sex with us – but the truth is that this isn’t what men learn. They learn to pursue. And women learn to be pursued. We learn to be passive and men learn to be aggressive. So it’s almost no wonder these kinds of situations come up so regularly. Ideas about masculinity and femininity have really messed us up.

8) What do you think of so called “pro-sex feminists”?

M: The term “pro-sex” is misleading. It implies that there is some faction of feminists that are “anti-sex”, which really describes nothing and is wrongly applied to women who are critical of the sex industry.  The reason I’m critical of the sex industry isn’t because I’m “anti-sex”, it’s because I’m anti-objectification and anti-patriarchy. Whether or not I “like” or “don’t like” sex is irrelevant.

That said, I do “like” sex. With men (Ack! Am I blowing the pro-sexer’s minds?)! And I know that porn isn’t “good” for sex. It teaches us that sexuality is about domination and subordination and it teaches women that their performance is more important than their pleasure. You know, I don’t want to think about whether or not I look “sexy” while I’m having sex. I want to focus on pleasure and on my partner and on enjoying the actual moment. I can’t have an orgasm if I’m self-conscious or if I’m worrying about what my stomach looks like. Women learn that we are to-be-looked-at and that being “sexy” has nothing to do with our own sexual pleasure. I mean, women get breast implants in order to “look sexy” and, in doing so, often lose sensation in their nipples. So we intentionally numb an erogenous zone in order to look sexy for the male gaze. We’ve made female sexuality into a performance (for men).

So I think “pro-sex” creates an imaginary dichotomy and forces women to believe that, in order to be “pro-sex” or “sex-positive” they must also support the sex industry, which is actually a pretty smart trick the sex industry is playing on us. What’s sad is that some feminists are buying into it. I mean, as we discussed earlier, countries that are far more sexually liberated then the confused and repressed U.S., like Iceland and Sweden, are the same countries that are banning strip clubs, placing restrictions on access to pornography, and criminalizing the purchase of sex. Americans’ concept of “liberated” is completely ridiculous. They think the free market will magically erase exploitation when we know full well that the opposite happens. Prostitution and pornography are not the end all be all of a free society – unless you understand freedom to exist at the expense of half of the population.

9) What are your thoughts on Femen?

Femen. Oh Femen. Well, what to say… They are a little misguided… They seem to mainly be focused on getting media attention and on shock value, which I’m afraid I don’t have a ton of respect for. They have also made some pretty ignorant and offensive statements about feminism: “We’re the new face of feminism…Classical feminism is dead,” for example. So it’s difficult for me to take them seriously or feel any allegiance with them.

They’ve alienated so many women and feminists with their statements and actions — their “Topless Jihad”day being a particularly insulting example of this – as though Muslim women will somehow be “liberated” by baring their breasts… It perpetuates this idea that, somehow, women in the West are completely free and liberated because, I don’t know, we’re “allowed” to dress provocatively, whereas non-Western women are all completely oppressed due to their lack of booty shorts and breasts on display. It’s not accurate and it oversimplifies the issues. It also teaches us, in the West, to not look critically at the sexism and misogyny of our own culture, instead pointing to other cultures, saying “Oh those poor oppressed women, we should teach them the wisdom of our ways”. The West has long been completely self-absorbed and obsessed with the illusion of “individual choice” epitome of freedom. Femen plays into that and simultaneously presents a vision of female liberation that looks like a sexy, naked, thin, white, blonde woman. They are making feminism palatable for the male gaze. And of course, for that reason, the mainstream media loves them – which says a lot about the integrity of their message, in my opinion.

10) What do you think of this opinion seen on AlterNet (US radical progressive site): “Feminism is something individual to each feminist”? Do you consider (as some feminists do, Gail Dines for instance) that neoliberalism is presently the biggest threat to feminism?

M: Well, I’m not sure I’ve seen that perspective on AlterNet, per se (though perhaps it has been, just saying I can’t speak specifically to whether or not that perspective is promoted by the site — they seem to publish a wide variety of viewpoints), but I’ve definitely seen that “feminism is just whatever individual women decide it is” thing in all sorts of places. Certainly I agree with Dines’ analysis with regard to neoliberalism. I mean, neoliberalism is destructive to any movement because, at its root, it’s about individualism and movements are about collective liberation (or they should be in any case – that’s why they’re called “movements” and not “this is just what I feel like doing as an individual right this second so screw you guys”).

The idea that feminism is about individual choice has come about, in part, because of an American kind of neoliberal discourse that places individual “choice” and freedom outside a context of systemic inequality and oppression. It’s like the myth of the American dream – that if you just work hard enough, you can make it, and if you don’t make it, it’s your own fault for being lazy or weak or whatever. It removes any responsibility from the state and places it on the shoulders of the individual which is, of course, the basis for the entire American system.

Privatization says “it’s all on you – it’s not our responsibility to take care of you when you get sick or lose your job or can’t feed your kids – that’s your own failing as an individual.” So that kind of thinking has infiltrated the feminist movement and it has many people believing, as a result, that feminism is just about individual women feeling good or feeling “empowered.” This has led to the idea that, for example, burlesque is feminist because “it makes me feel good in this moment.” Of course, feeling good is great but it has nothing to do with liberating women from male violence and oppression. Whether or not you “like” to dance around on stage in pasties or whether or not you “feel good” in stilettos has nothing to do with feminism. I mean, sure, do it if you feel like it, but don’t call it feminism. It’s selfish and ignorant and shows a lack of critical thinking and awareness of the world around you and the global and historical context of women’s collective oppression.

Postfeminism 

This article was originally posted at Manyfesto and has been republished with permission from the author, Taryn Fivek.

What is postfeminism? Allegedly it is the space where we can move past feminism, where feminism no longer holds appeal to women and where it can even be harmful to women. As Melissa Gira Grant writes: 

The patriarchy’s figured out a way to outsource hatred of prostitution. They’re just going to have women do it for them.

Grant, who has two last names and is a former sex worker (to be specific: a prostitute, not a pimp) claims that patriarchy, an amorphous “they” not rooted in material reality, has outsourced the oppression of women to women themselves. This is an argument made by many who claim that women are the ones who cut other women in other parts of the world, who participate in forcing early marriage or abuse other women in the family. Then Grant gets more specific:

I wouldn’t advocate for a feminism that’s buttoned-up and divorced of the messiness of our real lives. Your feelings are your feelings, but you’re not going to litigate your feelings about my body. The feminist ethics that I signed up for were respect for my bodily autonomy, that my experience is my experience, and that I’m an expert in my own life.

What is postfeminism? It is a desire for control over one’s destiny. It is the hope that someday, no one will call you any names or discriminate against you based on your sex. Yet, when this individual oppression ends – the oppression against prostitutes, against trans women, against my right to choose, against me, will this have achieved female liberation?

The postfeminism of today is deeply rooted in neoliberal atomization. A single female’s experiences are just as valid as any other female’s experience. A wealthy white woman who “makes the choice” to become a prostitute – her choice is equally valid as the poor woman of colour who “makes the choice” to become a prostitute. Postfeminism promises the liberation of individual women, but not females. These individuals are fighting against “patriarchy”, a concept that is not individualized or even rooted in material manifestations. Rather, it is as amorphous as its own concept: a male slapping a woman, a man cat-calling a woman, or a man who makes a sexist remark at work is patriarchy rearing its ugly head from the aether. Yet a culture of objectification, where women are plastered up like slabs of meat for sale in phone booths, where women dance for money, where women continue to make $.70 on the dollar; this is not considered a war against women. After all – a woman may now make the individual “choice” to engage in these acts, in these careers, may make the individual “choice” not to bear children to get ahead in business. Acts of violence against my body are crimes against women – but larger systems of oppression suddenly become more complex, more bogged down in uncertainty as we must learn to understand that these systems are made up of individuals who have the capacity to make “choices”. 

It astounds me that leftists who might otherwise deride the idea of free choice under a capitalist system make all sorts of room for women like Grant to write privileged accounts of the system of oppression called the “sex trade”. Broader women’s movements such as the Aboriginal Women’s Action Network  might feel as though an abolitionist stance on prostitution is right and good, but, as Grant would say, they are “privileged” in that their voices are louder than hers – the voice that enjoys prostitution believes that sex work is feminist work. Indeed, the other voices aren’t heard as loudly as the abolitionists “because they’re working”. This amorphous group of women who are pleased as punch to be working as sexual objects for sale are quiet, a silent majority cowed into silence by angry groups of feminist women who claim that 90% of women want out of prostitution.

If the voice of a “queer woman who dates women in her non-sex-work life and has sex with men for work” is not heard as much as the loud majority of feminists who want an end to prostitution, this is because women who “choose” sex work, who come at it from a political perspective of “empowerment” are in the extreme minority. But the individual reigns supreme over the masses in postfeminism just as it does in neoliberalism. When a woman demands her “right to choose”, she is demanding her right. She is situating feminism in a sphere where she does not feel fettered by her sex, where she personally has the ability to pursue whatever she wants. If she is a stripper and a man touches her inappropriately, this is a battle in the war against male domination - but the very institution that shapes his thinking is not in and of itself oppressive. Male domination is boiled down to the individual, becomes a question of one human exerting his will over another’s in an unfair way. It is no longer about systems of oppression, cultures of abuse, or industries of suffering. We are boiled down once again to our individual experiences.

A single person cannot change the world because change is the prerogative of the people. There is no such thing as a mass movement of individuals – they might all be walking in the same direction, but they are checking their smartphones and turning off onto a side street the moment they are required to check their egos at the door.

Melissa Gira Grant’s views are not just dangerous because they blame women themselves for their own oppression –  either as angry sex-negative feminists or individuals who just make “bad choices”. They are dangerous because they shift the blame away from male violence and domination and continue to trump the experiences of a privileged few over the many. Why won’t these leftist blogs and magazines run a counter article to this kind of perspective?* Anything else would be hypocritical. Perhaps it is simply not what leftist men want to hear: that their individual enjoyment is not the purpose of female liberation.

Taryn Fivek is a writer in New York City.

*Editor’s note: This article is written from an American perspective and it should be noted that there are some leftist and progressive publications in Canada who publish diverse, feminist perspectives on the issue of prostitution, such as rabble.ca

Free speech in Pornland 

No surprise here. The adult entertainment industry has followed through on their promise to file a suit against Los Angeles County, challenging Measure B, which passed in November, mandating condom-use on porn sets in L.A.

The suit, filed Thursday at the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California on behalf of Vivid Entertainment and performers Kayden Kross and Logan Pierce, states that porn companies have the right to freedom of expression and speech, which includes the right to film sex acts without a condom. (via Huffington Post)

Free speech, in the porn industry, has always had less to do with freedom and more to do with profit, male orgasms, and also profit. It is an industry that cares little about people’s actual lives (unless the life in question is a penis). That they’ve extended their warped understand of mastubatory material as ‘free speech’ to challenge a law that is intended to protect performers from STDs is unsurprising, but ridiculous, of course.

Pornography has long been defended based on libertarian ideals that sees freedom as something that only exists on an individual basis. “Freedom = My right to shoot you/fuck you/own you/use you” stands in the minds of those who are too lazy or stupid or selfish to understand that negative liberty is regressive rather than progressive.

Last year, when this debate began, I wrote that the whole thing struck me as a faux-progressive derail – as though condom-use would make the porn industry ‘safe’ and therefore ethical. While I would agree that generally, advocating for condom-use on porn sets is a good thing (Gail Dines outlines why this kind of legislation is important, very well in two articles she wrote for The Guardian), my interest in writing about Measure B and the suit filed by Vivid Entertainment is not to argue for or against condom-use on porn shoots. My aim is to point out the ways in which liberals and those who would consider themselves to be or present themselves as otherwise progressive people, are making arguments that are in opposition to the creation of a free and equitable society, and have been suckered by libertarian language that, in fact, works against our collective liberation.

Measure B has been opposed by many in the industry based on arguments such as:the porn industry will leave L.A. and film elsewherethe porn industry might lose money,condom-use interrupts the ‘fantasy’ aspect of pornthe porn industry might lose money, andlaws such as these interfere with the rights of individuals to do what they want, whenever they wantthe porn industry might lose money.

It’s shocking and depressing to see performers go to bat for their billionaire bosses — it’s like watching the lower class attack organized labour on account of some deluded, neoliberal understanding of freedom that imagines the free market and privatization will somehow, some day, work in their favour.

But this is what happens when we understand freedom in individualistic terms.

The porn industry has done a great job of selling this idea that pornography equals freedom of speech and have convinced many performers to toe the party line. People who understand censorship as necessarily conservative and oppressive hear sex industry advocates say the words ‘freedom of speech’ and, without thinking, leap to their defense (for the record, almost everyone supports censorship in one way or another, otherwise child pornography would be legal).

So we have folks arguing that Measure B is  ’paternalistic‘ (because grown-ups can exploit themselves if they feel like it, goddamit!).

We also have folks arguing that porn is fantasy and that what people see onscreen has no impact on our real lives (you know, like how advertising and product placement has no real impact on people’s lives and their choices as consumers). Hey, if kids learn that condoms aren’t sexy and that women loooooove double penetration and gang bangs, that’s their problem.

And then, of course, there’s the argument that the ‘adult entertainment industry’ will have to go elsewhere in order to be profitable, leaving L.A. based porn performers out of work. You know,  just like how we should work against organized labour because unions force corporations into bankruptcy (big business is the real victim here, folks!) which, in turn, causes the working class to lose shitty, exploitative, jobs that keep us exhausted, poor, powerless, and in debt.

Tricky, tricky. It’s incredible how many fall into this trap.

What it comes down to is that all defenses of the porn industry are based the concept of negative liberty, which can be easily translated to mean: “Me, me, me. My money. My gun. My property. Also, my dick. Me.” Anything that infringes on me/my money/my dick counts as an attack on freedom in Pornland. We are manipulated into believing that laws, by nature, are condescending and necessarily infringe on our rights as individuals.

While it’s pretty obvious why those who run the multi-billion dollar porn industry would oppose a law of this nature, the fact that porn performers themselves would speak out against the measure seems a little more surprising. Why reinforce the fantasy that condomless sex is the sexiest sex? Why endanger the health and lives of people working in the industry even further than they already are? We can see the ways in which people have been impacted by libertarian/neoliberal discourse to the detriment of even their own lives.

Porn actor, James Deen, who is doing the good work of opposing even the semblance of safe sex, is quoted as saying that “he was “disappointed” that sex workers were being “continually bullied and used by others.” It wasn’t his wealthy bosses that he was talking about. It’s evil organizations like the AIDS Healthcare Foundation (the group who led the campaign to mandate condom-use on porn sets) who are, apparently, intent on ‘bullying’ and ‘using’ porn performers.

And it’s not just Deen who opposed the passage of Measure B. Porn star, Jessica Drake spoke out against the bill saying: “As a performer, and also as a woman, I don’t like the idea of someone telling me what I have to do with my body.

This is not a progressive understanding of liberty, though the pro-sex feminists/libertarians/porn industry would have us believe that they are the true freedom fighters. Considering the constant accusations that feminists who oppose the sex industry are ‘in bed with the right’, it’s odd that the folks who oppose Measure B seem only to understand freedom in a completely individualistic and capitalist sense. As Dines pointed out in The Guardian:

Echoing the usual ideology of the right wing of the Republican party, the anti-Measure B campaign had three main purposes: to promote the economic benefits of the sector to the regional economy; to deny a need for governmental regulation; and to encourage workers to make their own choices, however dangerous or exploitative the conditions.

It’s also worth noting that these are the very same arguments made by those who advocate for the decriminalization of pimps and johns. Critics of prostitution are accused of meddling with jobs, free will, and of encouraging repressive, paternalistic laws which interfere with individual women’s ‘choice’ to sell sex, as well as men’s individual ‘right’ to buy it.

Dines also notes that Diane Duke, the executive director of the Free Speech Coalition (a porn industry lobby group) “is on record as saying that Measure B was not about “performer health and safety”, but rather about “government regulating what happens between consenting adults”. Sounds familiar?

“Consenting adults”: the magic phrase that ends every conversation.

“Consenting adults” erases the social conditioning that teaches women their bodies are to be looked at.

“Consenting adults” erases poverty and the growing gap between the rich and the poor.

“Consenting adults” erases the gendered nature of poverty and the particular ways in which women are impacted by poverty (which, in turn, often leads women into the sex industry).

“Consenting adults” erases the growing inaccessibility of post-secondary education and the insane levels of debt students are forced to acquire in order to attend university in North America (more and more we are hearing about women turning to the sex industry to support their educations).

“Consenting adults” erases male violence and sexual abuse (which is sexualized in porn and is part of the history of many women in the industry).

“Consenting adults” erases all circumstances and context that might lead women into the sex industry and refuses to address inequity and systemic oppression.

When you hear the words ‘free speech’ and ‘consenting adults’ being used by owners of corporations that make billions off of objectifying and degrading women, approach with caution.

When we’re actively opposing condom use because we’re afraid the porn industry might lose money, it’s time to admit that these arguments are not progressive and don’t promote freedom, liberty, or justice for anyone but those who are too stupid or selfish to care.