it is not so much the cause of feminism to provide a shinning walk way for a female leader, so much as it is to arrive at a governance that takes issues that affect women seriously.
– Rae Story
Over the last few weeks, anti-feminist backlash has been more than evident in mainstream media, even from where I am sitting in New Zealand. Fifty Shades Darker came out, of course on Valentine’s Day, and NewsHub ran an article promoting “blood sex”, a sadomasochistic practice based on eroticised violence. While an endorsement of porn and sex robots by Cosmopolitan is no surprise, since the magazine is published by a pimp lobby that profits from online porn – this month’s cover screaming “THE RISE OF PORN FACE” is cocky in a truly 2017 sense. And as the New Zealand Herald promoted so-called ‘ethical brothels‘, Stuff and One News Tonight both ran advertorials for Playboy as well as a Burger King’s special Valentine’s sex toy Happy Meal this month. If only the latter really was laughable. What it shows is that those who profit from the porn industry really do seek to infiltrate everything, even hamburgers and right now, they can get away with it.
It is alarming that there is no organised resistance to this kind of activity in New Zealand – it can escalate unchecked. No-one points out to the Herald that selling a 19-year-old girl is never ‘ethical’, or to NewsHub that in a country where there is a domestic violence callout every seven minutes, “blood sex” is not a harmless, neutral practice. That the fetishisation of torture has its roots, as Audre Lorde and Max Dashu have pointed out, in slavery and the witch trials. Cosmospolitan carries on being available for purchase by teenage girls, even though it is dysphoria-inducing sex trade grooming literature; and no-one holds Greg Boyed to account as he smugly advertises Playboy on the news, quoting Cooper Hefner that “naked is normal”.
Part of the reason this is possible, is because sex industrialists can now appropriate language used within whitewashed, domesticated brands of “feminism”. They can make their publicity almost indistinguishable from that of so-called “sex positive” liberal feminism.
Hefner’s “naked is normal” slogan for instance, draws on the language used to promote events like Free the Nipple, which organisers say tries to normalise female nudity so that it is no big deal, no longer necessarily sexual, and women can be safe to sunbathe topless, for instance. Because neither Free the Nipple, nor the political framework it is housed in, challenges power or names male violence – Hefner can easily leverage its language of body image and “sex positivity”, to trivialise porn for the sake of profit and to sustain an industry based on exploitation.
This is no accident. It is the result of the neoliberal domestication of feminism to a consumeable “brand” that has been taking place from the 1980s. At that time, a backlash to the second wave of feminism saw the movement pushed back into an individualistic, totes sexy, middle class celebration of women’s “empowerment” (not liberation) through “choice”. “As early as 1982,” says Lierre Keith,
Ellen Willis invented the term “sex positive” to distinguish herself from radical feminists. Because we’re so negative, us radicals. Rape, rape, rape – it’s all we want to talk about.
Well, I’ll make you a deal. If men stop with the rape, I’ll stop talking about it.
Keith points out that a Google search for “torture porn” results in 32 million hits. She wants a movement for women’s liberation; an end to routine, institutionalised male violence. Yet when women began to embrace “sex positive feminism” in the 1980s, we helped to popularise an uncritical way of thinking about sex, with no real boundaries, analysis of power, or bottom lines. This brand of “feminism” leaves girls and women open and vulnerable to being taken in by the slogans of abusers like Cooper Hefner.
State-sanctioned industries that thrive off women’s objectification: prostitution, pornography, the beauty industry, advertising – create something like an invisible wall around women, a wall all of us are forced to stay behind. Of course, the stale, pale males on the other side don’t want to pay for this wall, or its constant extensions; they want women to pay. And we do. “Sex positive” feminism – that is us, women, specifically white women – fronting up with the cheque.
We do this by agreeing to stay silent about the harms of prostitution, for instance, while focussing on more “polite”, piecemeal and hard-to-move campaigns like the pay gap. By cleaning up the mess abusers leave by fundraising for women’s shelters, but without naming male violence and whilst bullying women who do, calling them ‘misandrists’. We pay when we accept the sanctioned legacy of second wave feminists as misguided, volatile fundamentalists. We pay when we promote our own subordination: prostitution, labiaplasty, sadomasochism – as nothing but our own “choice”, as though these industries weren’t designed to keep us subservient, we commissioned them.
In New Zealand, this mainstream feminism is dominated by remarkable women: talented high achievers. Activists and yoga practitioners, social entrepreneurs and urban gardeners, web developers and startup innovators, artists and writers, campaigners, journalists and broadcasters, burlesque dancers and self-appointed CEOs. These women have combined sufficient privilege, with initiative, hard work and liberal values to create a recognisable voice for themselves, exercised with eloquence and charisma. They care enough to use the platforms they build to represent women at large.
They want more women in leadership, and find ways to put them there. They want the pay gap closed, and campaign. They stage and participate in pro-life counter-protests. They hate the irony of male leaders making decisions about women’s lives and bodies, support women’s refuges, women in the arts, and consent education. They don’t like objectification in media (although, here things do get slippery), and though some may be married, they seem on the whole ambivalent about marriage.
Most have white privilege and know it – but do not necessarily understand it as something dependent on the institutionalised subjugation of black women, for instance through industries like prostitution. I would guess that for many liberal feminists, critiques of the Women’s March as “white feminism” are disorienting – but I would also guess that the same women dissociate from the exit polls released following Trump’s election, showing that half of white women voted for Trump, resting assured that we’re the good gyns.
Andrea Dworkin’s Right Wing Women is an invaluable resource to help understand those exit polls. In the book, Dworkin explores how women become conservative, by examining women’s condition in a way that effectively collapses the distinction between the right and left wing among us. Women are by and large forced to choose between two political paradigms that are both male defined. These can be summarised as the ‘Pope Lobby’, and the ‘Pimp Lobby’, which are expressed as conservative and liberal politics respectively. The former deems women private property, through institutions like marriage and the removal of reproductive rights; the latter deems women public property, through industries like prostitution and pornography. Dworkin suggests that right wing women simply opt for the former as the safer option. Both are a vote for patriarchy.
This is what I want to bring to the white, liberal women I know: a request that we work to understand what the Pimp State is and how it takes us in. This is necessary action, if we ever want to present a challenge to patriarchy or indeed our right wing sisters.
One doublethink tactic the state-funded sex trade lobby uses in New Zealand, to shut up white liberal women, is to say that questioning prostitution is ‘racist’. Maori and Pacific women are disproportionately represented within prostitution in New Zealand: while 15% of women in New Zealand are Maori, 32% of women in New Zealand’s sex trade are Maori. Are we going to accept that the inference that Pacific women are somehow predisposed to suffering the abuses of middle class, white male sex buyers? Are we going to swallow that? Because that’s exactly the kind of thing that makes a white feminist.
We need to stop for a moment. It is a quintessentially white feminism that wants to close the pay gap without discussing prostitution. It is a quintessentially white feminism that promotes the leather and whips of BDSM, not finding any of it reminiscent of slavery and eroticised torture. It is a white feminism that considers women pictured selling beer in bikinis objectifying, but women pictured selling women in bikinis a form of “choice”. It is a white feminism that says that facilitating access to prostitution for disabled men is altruism. As the invisible wall around women is built higher and higher with cuts to domestic violence programmes and reproductive rights – it is white feminism that fronts up with the cheque.
It is no surprise we do this. Women have been severely penalised for venturing up to that wall, to try to dismantle it, for a very long time. I believe our bodies know this history of persecution. Our mothers, fathers and the world teach us to stay away from that wall from when we are small, just like they teach us to stay away from the curb and the fireplace. Our bodies smart and prickle with deep memories of being trialled as witches and rebels, only to have our words and the spirit behind them erased from the record. It may not have happened to us personally. But we know about it.
We know because it is not only feminists who have been punished for their uprisings: it is all women. When the first wave feminists started to become active – angry, disgruntled, rebellious, resistant – male gynecologists worked harder to pathologise women, diagnose “hysteria”, attribute “women’s madness” to women’s bodies, perform radical mastectomies and hysterectomies, electro- and hormone “therapy”, and lobotomies. Male sexologists invented the concept of women’s “frigidity” as a backlash to the suffragists’ radical claims that women, even in marriage, should not be forced to have intercourse. “Frigid” women became seen as defective, and had to be checked out by psychoanalysts. “Sex positive” feminism is, at least in part, a result of this pathologising of women who are critical of forced heterosexuality.
The pornography industry that we know today is built on the same premises as sexology: men’s sexuality is naturally aggressive, women naturally enjoy it. There is barely any resistance, because the work of feminists gone before has been erased and distorted. The first wave analysis of male violence and sexology is entirely forgotten; suffragists are remembered as a kind of prim, buttoned-up select committee. The anti-porn activists of the second wave are remembered like a crusade of witches or escaped zoo animals, restrained again to everyone’s “relief”.
In fact, the suffragists and the second wave feminists shared something in common with the liberal feminists I know today. I know that none of the innovative, go-get-’em liberal women I described earlier believe in sending ambulances to the bottom of cliffs to fix social crises. None of them believe in band aids, short-term fixes, or treading water. They all want to get to the root of problems – regardless of how many popularising postmodern myths discourage us from doing that now, by selling us a ‘post-truth’ politics of ‘alternative facts’ where ‘nuance’ overrides systemic analysis of power, profit and exploitation.
So they could do what the radicals have always done: start by naming the problem, joining the dots, following the money, challenging power, thinking of future generations. Liberal feminists seem to have no problem doing this when it comes to things like factory farming and animal cruelty; it’s time to apply the same critical thinking processes to women’s issues. As Jonah Mix points out,
Women commit perhaps one-tenth of all murders, and less than one tenth of one percent of all mass shootings. When one removes from the pool of killers all women who struck back against abusive strangers and partners alike, only to be punished for their self-defense, the number drops further. To deny the specifically male nature of atrocity is to fool oneself.
There is one thing we can be sure of, failing this. Liberal feminists can forget about the project of “reaching” right wing women, as long as we continue to ignore, endorse and support the sex industrialists who carry on building these walls, higher and higher, around all of us.