“Make love not war” is still a phrase that captures the left. Tracing its origins takes us back to the medieval troubadours – specifically, to William IX, grandfather of Queen Eleanor. William IX (called “gloriously randy” by one commentator) was Duke of Aquitaine in southern France before he lead the Crusade of 1101. He is remembered for mocking the church, for having “flouted churchmen to their face”, actually – for instance, by planning the opening of an “abbey for prostitutes” near his castle. As the original troubadour poet, William also broke with a tradition of chansons de jestes, songs of war and conquest, to write poetry on love and sex in the spirit of hedonist rebellion, and – so we are supposed to believe – reverence for women.
Eleanor, William’s granddaughter, inherited his lands as well as his legacy, and was considered the “most eligible bride in Europe” of her time. As “queen of the troubadours”, Eleanor brought the language of romance into English during her reign with husband Henry II over England and much of France: the ideas and language of romance, chivalry, honour and courting became embedded in English as the “cult of courtly love” was brought to England. Eleanor was often made the object of troubadours’ songs and poems, within a body of literature that evolved into medieval classics like the Song of Roland and Romance of the Rose.
By the late Middle Ages, romance was culturally embedded, influencing the plays and sonnets of William Shakespeare and the arts of the modern era. Much later, the sexual revolution of the 1960s was almost like a return of William IX (it is no coincidence that a biopic about Bob Dylan is called American Troubadour). Like William’s, the sexual revolution in which “make love not war” became sloganised was a hedonistic rebellion against conservative norms that still prized male sexual entitlement above all. As Andrea Dworkin writes in Right Wing Women, abortion was legalised in the United States in 1973 after men joined the battle for their own reasons: to remove unwanted pregnancy as a barrier to sexual access. Becoming advocates for abortion rights last century is what made “feminists” of troubadours.
While some have suggested that the medieval trend for pampering courtly ladies with poems of longing marked a time of increasing regard for women, we know this not to be true – just as it was not true when Jackie Onassis was revered in the decade Dylan wrote his song Just Like a Woman. Today, romance does still not a post-patriarchal world make. Song lyrics and film plotlines are still overwhelmingly influenced by medieval romance, but when Anna Paquin calls Hollywood a “grooming industry”, and Rose McGowan calls it the “Cult of Hollywood”, this confirms something Melvyn Bragg says about the reality of so-called courtly “love”. The “age of chivalry”, says Bragg, was “a glorious vision that was never realised outside the pages of medieval literature”.
In fact, the 1960s sexual revolution was a period of heightened objectification and porn normalisation, with Playboy and Penthouse working their way out of the shadows – and the same is true of the medieval period. As Egyptian feminist author Nawaal El-Saadawi points out, “In one year alone, the Crusades had to pay the expenses of food and shelter for over 13,000 prostitutes.” Both the sexual revolution and time of the troubadours coincided with a normalising of prostitution. The troubadours were also not as at odds with the church as it may have appeared, in prizing the sex trade: “Many priests were engaged in running houses of prostitution during this period in Europe’s history,” writes El-Saadawi.
They weren’t altogether a prudish lot, those medieval priests. Feminist historian Max Dashu points out that the witch hunts of Shakespeare’s time were sexualised and pornified: churchmen and demonologists targeted women’s sexual parts for torture, forced women to confess to sex with devils on the racks, and raped. The period of witch hunting in Europe involved sexualised, systematic violence against women that bridges the pornography of misogynist classics like Metamorphosis, with the porn industry we know today (allowing women a life expectancy of 37, so I hear). If the troubadours of any period ever “loved” or respected women, there has never been a shortage of opportunities for them to demonstrate that by getting in the way of the targeted attacks against women. Yet they don’t – Shakespeare’s references to “witches” in MacBeth, for instance, leverage rather than problematise the stereotype.
Rather than being at odds, the witch hunters’ systematic attacks on midwives and women in women’s health, the Catholic image of the Holy Mother, the sexualised romanticising of courtly ladies, and the pornified nature of the witch hunting all belonged to the same misogynist milieu. In the medieval period, this milieu was built by men who both worshipped and mocked the church – and the same is true today.
As far as courtly ladies go, we may no longer have Queen Eleanor, but we do have Queen Bey – and we do have Lorde, Wonder Woman, and New Zealand prime minister Jacinda Ardern, who is fast beginning to resemble a kind of leftist Queen Eleanor and Mother Mary rolled into one. In November, Ardern had her first Skype meeting with Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau – and NGO ActionStation could not skip the opportunity to meme the meeting as an intimate moment with Ardern calling Trudeau “bae”, while POTUS Donald Trump is reported to have mistaken Ardern as being Trudeau’s wife. It’s clear why: as much as Ardern is New Zealand’s Queen Eleanor, Trudeau is the ultimate troubadour.
Trudeau is a troubadour for the same reasons that British Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn is a troubadour – just with more charm, hair and eyelashes. These men, as crusaders for the left, both draw on a kind of romance traceable to William IX: a sentimental vernacular of love and unity, with an apparent reverence for women veiling indifference. Trudeau sports a rather saccharine self-declared “feminism”; Corbyn, for his part, recently told the BBC that his political hero is Mary Wollstonecraft. We are supposed to swoon, but as English feminist Julie Bindel has pointed out: Corbyn is pro-prostitution; has advocated for women-only train carriages as his Victorian solution to sexual harrassment on public transport, and is currently fanning the flames of a new age of witch hunting. Just like Trudeau, and just like our own New Zealand Labour Party.
In June 2017, Trudeau celebrated the passing of Bill C-16 – which amended the Canadian Humans Rights Act and the Criminal Code to include the terms “gender identity” and “gender expression” – with the hashtag “#LoveIsLove”. To celebrate this Bill, Trudeau had to ignore the voices of women all over Canada who are witch-hunted for opposing gender as a system of sex-based oppression antithetical to “love”. The women at Vancouver Rape Relief opposed Bill C-16, and Feminist Current’s Meghan Murphy did so at the Senate, stating in her speech: “No one is born with a “gender.” We are born male or female and gender is then imposed on us through socialization.” By enshrining the gender system in law as “identity”, Trudeau has undermined his own historic appointment of a fifty per cent female cabinet. Men can fill that quota now, depending how they identify – it no longer amounts to lasting change for women.
In February 2017, the opening of the Vancouver Women’s Library was gatecrashed by transactivists insisting that a library of feminist books for women was a “transphobic” evil. This demonisation of femaleness by transactivists, also expressed in the banning of “pussy hats” at Women’s Marches, is superstitious and medieval – but that concerns neither Trudeau nor Corbyn. Corbyn’s ultimate indifference to women’s issues is displayed plainly in his support for trans-identifying “Lily” Madigan’s occupation of Labour’s women’s officer position. It makes no difference to Corbyn that Madigan is nineteen, male, and has no interest in women’s issues. Neither does the fallout for women in Labour concern Corbyn: Madigan’s occupation of the women’s officer title has seen Anne Ruzylo, a lesbian feminist, veteran Labourite, and long time trade unionist ousted from Labour; lesbian feminist Linda Bellos taking heat after being named on a “hit list” generated by transactivists in the party, and Jennifer James demonised for crowdfunding to save all-women shortlists.
New Zealand Labour Party affiliates have recently engaged in similar witch hunting. Tessa Naden, a lesbian feminist with a five-year history of Labour campaigning, was recently forced to resign as co-chair of Rainbow Labour for raising problems with sexism and homophobia within transactivism. The “cotton ceiling” is what Naden raised objections to – this being a term used by lesbian-identified men to lament the reality that lesbians refuse to have intercourse with males, even when they are dressed as women. Naden called this notion of a “cotton ceiling” homophobic, misogynist and sexually coercive. After being forced to resign, Tessa was subjected to a prolonged online harrassment campaign involving the Green Party Mana convenor Max Tweedie, and Ted Greensmith, the Young Labour executive Rainbow representative. Their association of femaleness – and lesbianism – with evil, using “TERF” as the new “witch”, is devoutly medieval. Their packaging of this demonisation in rhetoric of “respect”, “identity”, “feelings” and passion for women makes them today’s new troubadours.
Another leftist figure who fits the troubadour mould is Max Harris, author of The New Zealand Project and a predictably titled essay on The Politics of Love. His lip service to feminism is confined – as is typical – to the acknowledgment of sexual violence and the pay gap that feminists have fought to put on the table as mandatory. Women, for our part, should be wary of feeling overly indebted to men who muster little more than acknowledgement of the topics we have made impossible for them to ignore. Men who raise these issues often drop the ball straight afterward, and should not get a free pass from women.
Beyond the mandatory topics, Harris does not take initiative. He does not meaningfully reconcile his prison abolitionism with the fact that a large proportion of incarcerated men are in for sexual violence. He discusses the pay gap in The New Zealand Project right before passages that render his acknowledgement of it meaningless, since they rely on a radically altered understanding of sex and gender: if gender was truly identity and not sex-based, this would necessitate a whole new measuring system for pay equality. Harris also supports the medicalisation of gender, despite this having never been good news for women, particularly lesbian and indigenous women; and he condones the no-platforming of feminists. In person, I have found Harris polite, well meaning, and gentlemanly: but the lack of integrity in his positions on women, profoundly selective hearing, and unwillingness to reason mean he is no political ally to females.
As much as it is typical of troubadours to discuss the pay gap and sexual violence, having no choice – it is typical of them to hold muddled positions on women’s issues more broadly, while demonstrating no desire to reconcile these contradictions for the sake of political integrity. They will also brush off women who present them with evidence of those contradictions.
These men have no idea of the privilege they flaunt just being able to publicly hold inconsistent views and double standards. When Jacinda Ardern is told she could not possibly give birth to a child and run the country at once, outlets like The Spinoff are quick to call this “sexism”. But consider the impacts of the transactivism that troubadours facilitate on the practice of midwifery: in the United States, MaryLou Singleton was banished from the Midwives’ Alliance of North America for insisting that midwifery is a female domain – i.e. that is sex-based. Troubadours, on the other hand, are allowed the privilege of suggesting that pregnancy implies sex one minute, while calling that very idea ‘transphobic’ in the next. By the same token, Corbyn can say that his political hero is Mary Wollstonecraft one minute, while supporting the dissolution of women’s Labour the next – as though Vindication of the Rights of Women was all about “women” with dicks, in his mind.
Another stunning example of troubadourism occurs in social enterprise, with blogger Richard Bartlett. Bartlett has condoned the bullying of feminists who understand that sex is immutable, while at the same time, has published the kind of reflections on his childhood that those women could not get away with: “Depending on your genitals you’re supposed to behave one way or another,” writes Bartlett. “So growing up as a boy, I was encouraged to show competence, and discouraged from showing vulnerability.” Harris, too, has written about the sexism at his all boys’ school, and states that he “would suggest that my experiences are also true of a much wider sample of all-boys schools around the country”, before going on later in his book to talk about maleness and masculinity within a whole alternate framing of sex and gender.
Bartlett is uniquely transparent about his motivations, and the thing that has always been most sacrosanct to troubadours: male sexual entitlement. He shamelessly believes that discussing patriarchy means detailed tracts on his own sex life, and in his essay Beyond Safe Spaces, Bartlett writes these all too telling lines:
How does eroticism fit into our organising? A lot of people want more love and more sex. When we gather for conferences and retreats, there’s usually a hidden undercurrent of people hooking up with each other. What might we learn if we designed our events intentionally for people to find new lovers? What structures would we need to make that good for everyone?
Whether he is idolising women with power like Lorde, Ardern, or Beyoncé; advocating prostitution or transgenderism, bullying lesbian feminists, or wondering how to turn safe spaces into places he can have sex: it is male sexual entitlement that troubadours hold dear.
This is male supremacy in sheep’s clothing. Leftist men get away with their hypocrisy, double standards, contradictory politics and prioritising of male sexual entitlement because of privilege, and because they wrap this package in pronouncements not only of love, care, and unity, but also their own vulnerability. They are happy to discuss their troubled boyhoods, and very often politely concede their standpoint as “cis white males” before proceeding to wax ignorant. Within abusive relationships, these tactics are called “love bombing”, and for feminists, getting real about male violence, entitlement, power games and control tactics means getting real about its public political manifestations too.
They may come across as polite – indeed, chivalrous – “nice guys”, but women need to get real about the new troubadours. The cost, if we do not, is that we facilitate the rise to power of an assembly of men who will throw us, all of us, under the bus to create their own Gilead. The demonisation of women to which the medieval troubadours contributed was escalating in the twelfth century, and we all know what happened after that.