On Monday, I posted the first part of an exchange with Meghan Murphy, a blogger and radio host with the Canadian F Word Feminist Media Collective. I answered five questions she had asked of me, and we each posted the same piece at our respective sites. Predictably, we both attracted critics; some of Meghan’s radical allies were incensed that she would legitimize me by engaging, while some of my liberal/sex-positive friends were equally exasperated with my decision to take part in this dialogue.
In any event, what follows below the cut is the second part of our exchange, in which Meghan responds to five of my questions about male feminists, sex work and SlutWalk. Intercourse and puppy dogs also come up for discussion, though not in the same context.
Hugo: How do you feel about men teaching feminism or taking on other leadership roles in the fight for gender justice? More bluntly, how do you feel about the role I’ve carved out for myself within the movement, as best you understand it? Would another model (Katz, Kimmel, Jensen) be better? Should I quit my job, as some radfems have asked, so that a woman can be hired?
Meghan: You know, I have mixed feelings about this. I wouldn’t argue that a man can’t teach gender studies, but to have a man teaching feminism to women? I don’t know. Certainly a man can have expertise in gender theory, that I would not dispute. But I have to admit it feels a little strange to have a man in the position of Women’s Studies teacher, though I’m not so sure I would go so far as to tell you to quit your job. I find it a little strange that a college wouldn’t hire a woman to teach Women’s Studies. Perhaps they’re in the wrong here (if there is someone in the ‘wrong’) – why haven’t they hired a woman to teach Women’s Studies? What’s behind that decision? Why wouldn’t they choose to hire a woman to teach the one Women’s Studies class offered in a college that doesn’t even have a Women’s Studies department? I wonder how you feel about this?
So in terms of you, as an individual, teaching feminism, or taking on leadership roles in the fight for gender justice, well, there are a couple of issues here. I agree with Stephen Heath’s argument in his piece Male Feminism, wherein he points out “that this is a matter for women, that it is their voices and actions that must determine the change and redefinition. Their voices and actions, not ours.” So while I do think it is ok for men to take leadership roles in the fight for gender justice and certainly I know many feminist men who have done this and do this in a way that is respectful and has challenged male domination, rather than reinforcing it I do think it depends on the approach. It is imperitive that the voices of women are not stepped on or silenced in this process and, of course, the problem is that many men already feel a sense of entitlement around their voices and their opinions so for men to speak as experts on a subject is nothing new. While men can be strong allies and even take the lead in certain areas of the feminist movement, I’m not sure they can be ‘experts’ in feminism nor do I wish to be explained, for example, by a man, how feminism works.
Jensen, of course, speaks from a radical feminist perspective and, as you know teaches feminism within his discipline of Journalism, not as a professor of Women’s Studies. A man who approaches feminism from a foundation of radical feminism is simply more legit, as far as I’m concerned. Liberal feminism does too many favours for men, it allows too much in terms of maintaining the status quo and the systems already in place. It’s hard to hear a man defend pornography or ‘sex work’ as you call it. Or to argue that women are simply making an autonomous choice and that it is no one’s business what ‘consenting adults’ do.
Just to be clear, I don’t believe that prostitution is work, I believe it is exploitative and abusive and I believe it is a legitimized form of rape. It’s not the same as providing a service like physiotherapy, nor is it the same as cleaning a toilet, as certain decriminalization advocates have implied. What other ‘job’ is so gendered? What other ‘work’ involves being called abusive words, rape or depictions of rape, the giving over of your body to another for them to do with it what they wish? This ‘work’ is very much dependant on race, class, and gender and reinforces a perception of women (not just some women, all women) as objects, not humans. Men don’t watch pornography and see full human beings, they see things, they see something which exists to provide them with pleasure, it’s all for their eyes. Prostituted women are viewed by most in our society as less than human. It is something you do when you have no other choice. What about this is autonomous or consensual? Who is able to provide consent when they have no other choice? While there are women who do ‘choose’ this work in some sense of the word, I don’t think this is representative of most women and within a culture that teaches women that their value lies in the bodies and their sexualities and their ability to please men, well, arguing this is simply an autonomous choice or a job like any other feels insulting to me.
Calling it ‘work’ makes everyone, but especially men, especially pimps and johns, feel at ease about what they are doing. Because pornography, prostitution and strip clubs are things that exist to benefit men, at the expense of women, I find it difficult take seriously a man who claims to be feminist but does not actively fight to end these clearly sexist and oppressive industries. I mean, OF COURSE, men support strip clubs. That’s nothing new. It’s obviously not radical. For a man to actually tell the truth about male power, lose the privilege, reject the status quo – THAT’S radical. So I tend not to entirely trust men who aren’t willing to lose the privilege, to stand with women to end sexist exploitation, and to actually challenge that which is accepted in patriarchal society (i.e. the objectification of female bodies). It doesn’t mean hating on women in the industry, it means hating on the industry. Critiquing the innate sexism in the porn industry doesn’t mean attacking the women in it. I mean, in the end, it is men who profit the most.
What would you say to my friend Alana Evans (SFW), a porn star and self-described feminist who does claim to enjoy her work? If you were debating her, what would you say about her experience? Would you negate it entirely, or simply claim that she’s a strange exception to a general rule? How do you respond to self-described sex-positive feminist sex workers when they talk about their experiences?
I would say, great. I am happy that she’s had such a positive experience. Unfortunately for many women this is not the case. The exception is not the rule. It does not mean that we should not acknowledge those exceptional experiences, but it also does not mean that we privilege them above all others and erase all those who have been degraded and humiliated and abused and raped either as prostituted women or simply because they are women. Simply because a woman is enjoying herself it doesn’t mean that the men watching don’t see her, and as a result, all women, as things.
Regardless of the individual experiences that some women have as ‘sex workers’ that may be construed as positive or non-violent, there are many, many women who are hurt in pornography or because of pornography. And no, I don’t believe that pornography invented misogyny or rape, but rather it is the manifestation of a sexist society, but I do believe that the perpetuation of these images plays into rape culture. How many times can a person jack off to a woman being humiliated and degraded without actually believing that women being humiliated and degraded is not only ‘ok’, but is sexy? And not only that, but that women like to be humiliated and degraded, they are turned on by violence and humiliation and degradation? Tell me that isn’t dangerous. Tell me that doesn’t hurt women.
All this focus on individual choice and empowerment that has infiltrated the feminist movement is dangerous, in my opinion. Simply because one individual feels good about their personal choice does not mean that women, collectively or globally, are any more free, any less in danger, any less oppressed. Often those women who do feel individually empowered by their own personal choice are also women who hold a certain level of privilege. The (horrible) truth is that many women around the world do not get to choose. This kind of discourse ignores all of those women, and it ignores the larger context of pornography, how it impacts women at large, how it impacts men even.
So I could care less, to be blunt, whether or not one person enjoys their work in the porn industry. I’m sure there are many men out there who ‘enjoy’ their work as heads of companies that destroy the planet or that (essentially) enslave the poor in developing countries just so they can get rich making Nikes or drilling for oil (and I am not comparing professions here, I am comparing arguments) – does this negate the larger impact of these actions? Does the fact that this makes them feel empowered on a personal level mean that we cannot critique? Or demand change? This isn’t an argument that makes sense in other contexts, particularly when it comes to social justice. The personal empowerment of a few does not equal political or social change.
So whether or not she enjoys her work is, in my opinion, irrelevant in the context of the feminist movement. I ‘choose’ to wear lipstick some days. Do I define this as a feminist act because it makes me feel good on a superficial level? No. In fact I think it’s kind of lame. But hey, I’m an imperfect being. I would never tell Alana that she cannot or does not or should not enjoy her work. But that experience does not represent all experiences, nor does it make sex work, as a whole, something that is empowering to women. In the end, sex work is about male pleasure. It has always been primarily about male pleasure. Women are, for the most part, the objects in pornography and that is dangerous. It is sexist. No bones about it.
Individual empowerment does not necessarily equal feminism. It certainly doesn’t radically challenge the roots of oppression. That’s neo-liberalism. It’s pretending that there’s no such thing as systematic oppression and injustice. It’s pretending that we can change our situations by reading self-help books, by thinking positive, by working harder, whatever. It’s the American Dream. And it’s a lie. What we need to pay attention to is context and the larger implications of the sex industry. The big picture. I just don’t think it’s relevant to say ‘I like my job’. Good for you. So what.
What do you like best about SlutWalks? What do you like least?
I like that this many people are talking about feminism. For me the positives pretty much end there. This so-called ‘movement’ is embarrassing. There is no cohesive message, no collective demands, and there is an unwillingness to name the problem, to address the root of violence against women. What will we gain from Slutwalk? The freedom to call ourselves sluts? The freedom to have sex with whomever we want, whenever we want? Well, we already have that. The fact that a movement which I had originally assumed to be, in the end, a protest against sexual assault and violence against women has somehow been conflated with sexual liberation is, well, confusing. Rape is not sex, it has nothing to do with sex. Rape is about power and domination, control and humiliation. The idea that we need a word to describe ‘a person who enjoys consensual sex’ is ridiculous. I don’t need to invent a word (or, in this case, redefine a misogynist word) to describe the fact that, as a woman, I deserve to be respected, that I deserve to be heard. I deserve that because I am a human being. Sex is consensual, like, by definition (unless, of course you are watching pornography, in which case there is no talk of consent because women are represented as constantly accessible and available, sexually, to men), so this should just be a given. If sex is not consensual then it’s not sex. It’s rape. Plain and simple. Ergo, if you are a person who likes sex that is consensual (which is how ‘slut’ has been redefined by several satellites) you are a human being who respects other human beings. Not a ‘slut’.If you like sex that is not consensual, then you like rape. End of story.
What legal remedies would you like to see to combat pornography? How do you propose (if you propose it) to empower the state to pursue pornographers without also empowering the state to crack down on feminist literature? How will a judicial system not famous for its sympathy to feminism use the powers that anti-pornography legislation might give it?
I’m undecided about this. On one hand, I worry, as I imagine you also do, that censorship of pornography will leak into censoring positive or subversive images or writing that actually depict real, non-sexist, non-heteronormative, non-abusive female sexuality. On the other hand, pornography is abuse. And abuse is illegal.
I feel like there is a lot of confusion coming from this supposedly ‘sex-positive’ faction of ‘feminism’. Pornography has very little to do with sex. Rather, it exists to debase, degrade, and humiliate women. We can all acknowledge, as feminists, that rape is about power, not sex. Why can’t we acknowledge this to also be true of pornography? Would anyone in their right mind argue that rape should not be illegal because it limits individual freedom or an individual’s sexuality? Of course not. Censoring pornography is not about constraining a person’s sexuality but rather is about ending misogyny, ending rape culture, and allowing space for real liberation and real, human sexuality that is not based on domination and objectification. Being ‘anti-porn’ is not about being against sex. Rather, it is the opposite. An anti-porn stance is ‘pro-sex’, if you want to call it that. Why shouldn’t we limit the commodification of women and women’s bodies?
I think what we need, and what Dworkin and MacKinnon did, was to have a definition of pornography that allows for the judicial system to impose anti-pornography legislation that does not impede, for example, feminist erotica. Interestingly, some of Catherine Breillat’s work has been censored or banned in the past, though it would certainly fit under the banner of feminist erotica rather than pornography. When so much work that simply challenges the status quo is censored, what is the big fear around censoring sexist pornography?
Professor of media studies at New York University, Chyng Sun’s analysis of mainstream porn found that “physical and verbal aggression is present in 90 percent of mainstream porn scenes”. And mainstream hetero porn is growing, not shrinking, it’s becoming ever more violent and degrading, and ever more normalized and we’re derailing the conversation into one about ‘choice’ and freedom of speech? Give me a break. Hate speech isn’t freedom of speech and misogyny isn’t a ‘choice’. It’s something that happens to women, to paraphrase Andrea Dworkin. It happens to women and to hear men argue that anti-pornography legislation impedes their freedom is just insulting. What are we protecting? Pornography isn’t about variety or choice, it’s about limiting variety and choice, it’s about limiting sexuality and freedom. Not only that but porn reinforces the idea that women are perpetually available to men, perpetually available to be penetrated in any and every orifice, that they exist purely for male pleasure. Tell me this doesn’t play into rape culture? So, while I don’t feel that I am equipped to provide an answer for you in terms of specific legal remedies at this time (precisely because of these concerns about what censorship entails) I do think that this is the context within which we should be having these conversation. Not from some kind of fake ‘this impedes my individual freedom to objectify and abuse women’. It disingenuous right from the get go. Never mind insulting and hurtful. This is the opposite of liberation. If one person’s ‘freedom’ means the oppression of others it is not real freedom.
Some radical feminists reject all penis-in-vagina intercourse as fundamentally oppressive (factcheckme, etc). Others like Dworkin were more nuanced. Can there be a genuinely feminist heterosexual relationship that involves PIV? That involves reproductivity?
Oh I like to think so. I’ve only recently learned about those arguments, so I can’t speak to them with any kind of expertise. What I can get behind is the critique of this assumption that PIV equals sex. It’s heteronormative crap. Many women don’t experience pleasure from penetrative sex, and to actually define ‘sex’ in those terms is, of course, oppressive and sexist. It is a male-centered definition of sex.
So I respect those arguments, for sure, but hey, I enjoy penetrative sex with men so I have no particular interest in arguing against PIV in it’s entirety. I think that Dworkin’s argument around heterosexual, penetrative sex is pretty right on. The fact that we do, as a culture, view men as the ‘actors’ and the penetrators and women as the passive receivers of penetration does speak to the way in which male power and domination plays out in the bedroom. And the fact that we have defined sex on that basis speaks to the way in which the world around us has been largely defined by men and patriarchal ideals.
I would like to think that it does not need to be this way and really like what one of my F Word co-hosts, Nicole Deagan, had to say about this matter in our sex show; that is: switch it up! Changing the roles of who is the penetrator and who is the penetratee (if you are, indeed, interested in including penetration as part of your sex life) can really change the dynamics of a relationship, same goes for, as she suggests, putting men in lingerie instead of women. Personally I am not interested in dressing up for sex and, of course, women do this because they are taught that they are pretty things to be looked at, that they are supposed to be on display and because, often, their male partners will ask them to. But what happens if a man puts on a sexy little dress and is penetrated by a woman instead? I think there are ways of disrupting these binaries in hetero relationships in order to create a more egalitarian, feminist one. Men taking on vulnerable roles could be a way of doing this. Or you could just lose the penetration entirely. Particularly if it’s not something that a woman enjoys.
There is much to be overcome and there are no simple solutions but I think that yes, the fact that ‘real sex’ is assumed to be tied to a man penetrating a woman is very much a part of oppressive patriarchal culture. The fact that we even assume that a ‘real’ relationship must involve sex is oppressive and sexist. What about the radical act of loving? What about friendship? What about real trust? Does love not ‘count’ unless there is ‘sex’ or penetration? Just as the legitimacy of my relationship is marginalized because I don’t believe in marriage, the legitimacy of any relationship that does not involve penetrative sex is marginalized. My relationship, my version of ‘family’ (which, yes, does include my puppy dog) is marginalized also because I don’t want children. I mean, when we are realistic and honest about all these things, our society starts to look pretty conservative no? Love + penetrative sex + marriage + children. Yeesh. Let’s challenge this. That’s not to say that there are not feminists who have sex with men, reproduce, and even marry, but I think we need to work harder at challenging these norms and saying, yes! Your love/relationship/family/life is just as meaningful and legitimate as anyone’s, regardless of whether or not you and your partner have sex (in whatever form that manisfests itself), regardless of whether or not you marry (and yes, I do think that, as feminists we should be challenging the institution of marriage), regardless of whether or not you are monogamous, and regardless of whether or not you reproduce.