A queer exploration of all things gender

Posts tagged ‘Feminism’

Book Review: Feminism is Queer – The Intimate Connection Between Queer and Feminist Theory by Mimi Marinucci

So the first thing I have to say about this book  is that I consider the title to be extremely misleading. I was – unsurprisingly – expecting a work that examined perhaps different areas of feminist thought and queer theory, and perhaps examined their tensions, agreements, and nuances. I think it’s generous to say that a quarter of the book does this. The final two chapters (7 and 8), ‘Feminism Explained and Explored’ and ‘Notes Toward a Queer Feminism’ offer a very accessible synopsis of a range of different definable branches of feminism (such as Liberal Feminism, Radical Feminism, Marxist Feminism, etc.) without assuming any existing knowledge of other gender scholars whilst introducing a few in a baby-steps capacity. Even bearing in mind these two chapters make up only 22 pages (excluding notes and references) I would still say I found simplifications and generalisations that very unsatisfactory. For example:

Although there is some disagreement about whether or not the second wave is over, those who believe a third wave [of feminism] has begun…

I find it alarming that someone could purport to write a book focussing around feminism, whilst giving the impression to readers who may be new to this area that the existence of Third-Wave Feminism is somehow tenuous or in its infancy. Whilst distinctions between Second and Third-Wave Feminism can be interesting and/or open to discussion, this implies a poor exploration of the literature given that discussion of a Fourth-Wave of Feminism certainly exists. Another textual example (also from chapter 7) that concerns me concerns a stunningly oversimplified definition.

…womanism, unlike liberal feminism, addresses intersectionality. Intersectionality refers to the simultaneous impact of race, gender, and class on the lives of Black women.

(emphasis original)

(*Edit*: It is important to note – as both I, and Marinucci failed to do – that Intersectionality as a theoretical position and tool has its origins in black feminism, and was originally particularly associated with the Combahee River Collective and the statement they produced. This scholarship, nucleated in the experiences of women of colour, has since been used to consider how multiple sites of oppression [such as gender and race originally but then also sexuality, disability, age, and innumerable additional categories] interact and produce unique discourse rather than simply being ‘additive’.)

Okay, so yes, this is an example of intersectionality – but the definition implies that only the interplay between the three categories of race, gender, and class are considered, and worse, that this might only be in relation to black women. It comes off to me like saying ‘LGBT activism is the activism of gay men who live in Chicago’. I may sound like I’m nitpicking, but in a book that makes obvious efforts to be accessible to readers who are not already entrenched in queer or feminist literature, an opportunity was lost here to produce communication on a key concept. Plus, the short definition given doesn’t manage to be properly accurate.

Sadly other confusing errors have also entered the text – most noticeable for me being a short discussion of the evolutionary history of lactose intolerance, in relation to how social processes can impact on physical bodies. For someone without any background in biology, they could be forgiven for not knowing that lactose is not “the enzyme that digests milk sugar”. Whilst perhaps a typo of ‘lactase’, this one letter change causes the entire paragraph to cease making any sense.  This is on page 70, for anyone who ever gets hold of a copy. With a background in philosophy, my sense was that Marinucci has some problematic understanding regarding scientific methodologies and epistemological objectives. Just in using turns of phrase like “contemporary science acknowledges two basic sex categories” (chapter 4) strongly implies some ridiculous notion of ‘science’ being some kind of hive-mind monolith, able to declare objective facts, with further ‘fluffy’ discussion being an outside realm.

My discussion so far has engaged only with the last two of eight chapters of this book for the most part. So what is the book about if not what the front cover indicates? This is covered in the preface, and caused my eyebrows to disappear into my fringe.

Introductory texts in gender studies, sometimes identified as women’s studies or feminist studies, address gender identity. Introductory texts in sexuality studies, sometimes identified as lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender studies (or LGBT studies) address sexual identity. Unfortunately however, introductory texts situated at the intersection of gender identity and sexual identity are rare. This book attempts to fill that gap, and could therefore serve as a text for any course of study, be it in a university setting or in the context of independent scholarship, directed towards the examination of virtually any aspect of gender, sex, and sexuality.

This made me ask three questions:

  1. How is the sweeping claim of the (I think erroneously) conglomerated gender/women’s/feminist studies being about ‘gender identity’ justified?
  2. How can introductory books considering gender identity and sexuality be considered rare?
  3. How is Marinucci defining and differentiating between ‘gender’ and ‘sex’?

Gender identity concerns one’s sense of oneself as male, female, non-binary, without gender, or any other minority gender identity. I would not say that gender/women’s/feminist studies ‘address’ this per se, as if to imply this is ‘the’ central area of investigation and discourse production in these fields. This closed statement by Marinucci left me uneasy, as the book begins with a factually-stated premise which I not only find over-simplifying but problematic. Secondly, a good range of gender studies readers exist – such as this one, this one, and this one – which contain essays covering a broad range of topics, as probably the most obvious thing about gender studies (other than it being about gender) is that it’s very multi-disciplinary. Marinucci’s book was published in 2010. Feminism is Queer doesn’t quite hark from the era completely lacking in intersectional resources.

Thirdly, well, at no point in reading the book did I feel this question was properly addressed. The book is divided into four sections – I. Sexuality, II. Sex, III. Gender, and IV. Queer Feminism. The way this played out was a first section that engages with some tired old figures to discuss the Kinsey Spectrum and discussion of philosophy and social construction in chapter 1. Chapter 2 talks about social history, and I thought actually does a pretty nice job of discussing the interplay of the work of Foucault on power relations and D’Emilio on how capitalism and wage labour allowed for the emergence of sexual identities*. A lot of emphasis was also put on the works of Mary McIntosh (who wrote an article called ‘The Homosexual Role‘ in 1968) and Alan Bray (who wrote ‘Homosexuality in Renaissance England‘ in 1982), which seemed like odd resources to focus on. In the third chapter ‘Queer Identities’, a little more Wikipediable LGB history is recounted, a rather modest nibble at the meaning of queer is attempted in the form of more history, how binary constructs are avoided, and the philosophy of underdetermination.

Two big alarms went off in my head when reading chapter 3. Firstly, Marinucci uses language like “biologically unproblematic women and biologically unproblematic men” when referring to cisgendered people. I find it very unfortunate that such painful cissexism is slipped into given that in the preface, she rightly holds her hand up regarding her possession of race and class privilege. Marinucci also demonstrates an awareness of ableist language, and also states:

I resist the use of binary language by avoiding the gender pronouns ‘he’, ‘she’, ‘him’, ‘his’, ‘her’, and I resist the use of universalizing language by avoiding the plural pronouns ‘we’ and ‘our’. I also resist oppositional language by avoiding such expressions as ‘arguably’ and ‘on the contrary’.

Sadly, this list makes me feel that whilst an effort has been made to avoid offending individuals, engagement with detailed scholarship of trans issues and language use are somewhat lacking. This feeling doesn’t come from this single example, but gnawed at me at various points throughout the book. Not least section II, which boils down to being on medical and social treatment of (binary) trans people. That Marinucci also claims in a note that:

Gender usually refers to constellations of characteristics commonly regarded as feminine and masculine, whilst sex usually refers to constellations of characteristics commonly regarded as female and male.

Left me with the sense that I was glad I wasn’t trying to make my first investigations into gender studies using this book, due to how ideas about biology, gender presentation, and identity are slooshed around together to give banality at best and downright erroneousness at worst.

I may sound like I am utterly damning every element of this book. I do not mean to entirely. Whilst each chapter was started with a fairly irrelevant Wizard of Oz quotation simply for containing the word ‘queer’ (the joke gets old after being used 8 times) and the appendix is literally passages copied verbatim from the main text, some of the metaphors used (particularly regarding philosophical concepts) were useful. Any even slightly technical language was defined in the main body of the text, which is certainly more useful for students than the assumptions made by many teachers. Being led by the hand a little too much is preferable to being shoved out alone in the dark, after all. But as this book made lofty claims regarding its importance and usefulness, I critique it in these terms. Not only would a book covering such a wide range of material be unable to do a solid job in only 100 pages, much of the text is relatively commonly discussed work or narratives that has been dealt with by a scholar who has left me unconvinced that she has a masterly grasp on the range of areas touched on.

Get this book out of a library and check out chapters 7 and 8. But perhaps spend your money on other works.

*Both of these scholars are big and important names, and it would be nice to talk in detail about both of them. I won’t enter discussion on them in this review for brevity’s sake, but at some point their work will be reviewed independently.

Book review: Gender Outlaws – The Next Generation by Kate Bornstein and S. Bear Bergman

Gender Outlaws: The Next Generation is a collection of essays submitted from a wide range of people with very different experiences of gender, and very different things to say.

This book is brilliantly original. Never before have I read a book that blurs the boundaries between academic discussion, activists talking about their causes, artists talking about their passions, and humans talking about their pain, love, and needs. This coupled with things like comics, recipes, and poetry mixed in, and the introduction formed entirely of an online conversation between Bornstein and Bergman themselves. The tone struck is witty, thoughtful, relaxed, and (certainly in my case) draws the reader in.

Obviously in a work with contributions from…*counts*…52 different authors, some styles and content will speak more to any individual than others. Despite this large heterogeneity, I found the ‘tone’ of the book remarkably cohesive. Not because what the different writers say is necessarily over-similar, but virtually all inspire a wonderful state of thoughtfulness.

Each submitted piece stands alone, and all are short (2-7 pages each). This makes it extremely easy to dip in and out of, but the organisation of the essays is such that one can read straight through and stay gripped. Even accounts that may be very abstract for some readers – for example, the negotiation of gendered experience whilst being in an all-women Roller Derby league – contain powerful insights into the treatment of other people, and I would suggest offer at least a wonderful set of alternate perspectives and empathy-inducing thought patterns.

Some of the writers speak to me more than others, and I mean this to mean how much I enjoy and respect what they’re saying and their style and clarity – rather than necessarily a direct resonance with personal experience. Indeed, many of the articles are so interesting because they can cause you to think about experiences you may never have considered – but this can then shape how you consider gender in your own life. I didn’t find terminology confusing despite much specific ‘gender language’ being used by lots of different people, but this could reflect my academic privilege. I imagine this is a book that will speak most loudly to people with either an active interest in gender or those who have experience of being a gender or sexuality minority – rather than as a present for grandma. Though I would love to be wrong about this. I would imagine that not that many straight and cis readers would pick this book up of their own accord, but that the world would be a better and cooler place if more did.

The wide range of topics covered does involve a range of areas that may be distressing for some readers. As one might expect, the submissions from writers often discuss some of the post poignant (and difficult) occurances in their own lives, which may be triggering for some readers – and unfortunately each chapter does not come with trigger warnings or particularly indicative titles. Eating disorders, gendered violence, experience of chronic illness, and racism are all themes that are touched on. Though despite this, the book didn’t leave me with a sense of heaviness. Many of the writers imbue their pieces with valuable humour.

A point that may cause some controversy and disagreement very early on in the book (which is a point raised by Bergman in the introduction) is their use of the word/slur ‘tranny’. I think they produce some valuable discourse around this important and sensitive topic, but at the same time you may not like it. If the following quote gets your brain fired up, then you will probably find the book stimulating.

S. Bear Bergman: I can see the argument for outlawing “it’s so gay” better. They’re trying to outlaw bullying, but “don’t be mean” isn’t – evidently – an enforceable school rule, so they list particular meannesses the young people are not permitted to engage in.

Kate Bornstein: But look at what happened a generation after people were damning the word queer. Now it’s something you can major in, in college.

SBB: The think I just thought is: people are who are super-protective to police the word tranny have no real confidence in the cultural power of transpeople. They police it because they fear that if not-trans-identified people get hold of it, their power will make it always and forever a bad word. And I, we, feel find about it because we have a lot of faith in the cultural power of transfolks – of trannies – to make and be change.

If this tickles your imagination, then bearing in mind some of the other essays are about:

  • The insights being trans gave one writer into corporate politics
  • A love affair with a non-binary bathroom
  • Christian anti-gay and anti-trans actions in Singapore and activism against this
  • The experience of being a Drag Queen having being Female Assigned at Birth
  • Queer sex as performance art

I would hazard you’ll be very stimulated indeed if you pick this book up.

Why trigger warnings are essential…

Tumblr is fun. I’m still rather new to it all, but one aspect I’ve enjoyed is the ability to search by topic, using tags – and then scrolling through a whole bunch of often relevant and interesting subject matter.

I did this for ‘LGBT’ and one of the things that came up (*trigger warning* – attempted rape) was this.

In case you were not comfortable reading this but would like some context, behind the link is a short, personal account of a sixteen year old gay guy and his visceral description of nearly being raped but being rescued by some drag queens. The tone sets up a horrific situation whilst then expressing gratitude for the awesome ‘guardian angel’ ladies.

I had no problem with this story being posted. But I did and do have a problem with the fact that it went up with no trigger warning at all.

Here is a good explanation of what a trigger warning is.

I wrote a small message to the person who posted the piece, and received a quick reply. Below is what was said:

Me:

Hey – saw your post about the 16 year old’s experience and the saviour drag queens. Any possibility of a trigger warning being put on it? Due to some of my own life experiences it was pretty distressing to read. Thanks 🙂

Them:

I’m sorry it was distressing for you. I had considered putting a warning on it, but ultimately decided not to because I want people to read it and I’m afraid a warning will deter people from reading it, which ultimately defeats the purpose of me posting and now having re-posted it. Unfortunately, the very reasons that it’s likely distressing you are the same reasons it’s compelling to read.

So again, I’m sorry if you were offended, but I hope you understand my reasons for not going ahead with a warning. 🙂 (boldness added by GenderBen)

Okay… No. No no no no. Trigger warnings are there in order to protect the well-being of those people who need them. If a person is deterred from reading something because they have been informed of the content and see that it could be harmful to their well-being, this is a good thing. Whilst personally my reaction was relatively small from being disturbed from the post, it is vital to think about someone who has perhaps survived a sexual assault may feel on reading such a piece. Distress, depression, self-harm, and even attempted suicide are all very real possible outcomes from an individual being triggered. Such people are not the target audience. Wanting more people to read what one has posted ranks below people’s welfare in importance.

Also, for some people, whether a person feels like they are in an emotional place where they can comfortably read something or not be very time dependent. It may be the case that a survivor wishes to read something, but that ‘now is not a good time’. Trigger warnings act as a basic courtesy, which grants people agency. Often a clear title or subtitle can do this job, if an article is entirely or has a large focus on a distressing issue (for those who didn’t follow the link to the original post, this particular instance had no title).

A good way to think about trigger warnings is like when on TV you might see ‘this program contains strobe effects’ – a warning required to prevent triggering for people with types of epilepsy. Not having the warning there would be irresponsible, as the content can damage the individual’s health. The only difference here is the type of potential damage.

Unfortunately, the very reasons that it’s likely distressing you are the same reasons it’s compelling to read.

Hopefully without coming across as snarky, I think it’s fair to say that unless I take the time to personally discuss it with someone, they can’t know why something like this is distressing to me, or anyone else for that matter. Making assumptions is not so great.

It may sometimes be easy to think “I don’t see how this could possibly be triggering” – you don’t need to. A little reading around and/or empathy shows the importance of trigger warnings on a wide range of issues for a wide range of people. In the grand scheme of things, not much of the huge amount of stuff that is created and posted every day needs trigger warnings, but if it’s to do with rape or sexual assault, medical conditions and description, eating disorders, racism, homophobia, transphobia/cissexism, and ableism – then it quite likely does. This list is by no means exhaustive.

Here is a whole community blog dedicated to education and awareness about trigger warnings!

The only other point I’d like to address in the response I received – I wasn’t offended, and I’m not really sure where this interpretation came from. The original post itself certainly isn’t offensive to me. This post/response is born from the importance of putting safeguards in place to avoid harm to people.

The building industry – typically macho. Does this include architecture?

A friend of mine was in an architecture lecture recently, and the lecturer asked the class of approximately 60 students to perform a simple task: name female architects. At supposedly one of the best centres for the study of architecture in the country, the entire class were only able to name 3 women. Of these 3, my friend conceded that one was only known by her classmates due to being a teacher at the institution (Sarah Wigglesworth), and another was, in her opinion, mostly known through her partnership with her more famous husband (Denise Scott Brown, husband of Robert Venturi). The third is the extremely successful Zaha Hadid, whose award winning record makes her formidable in her field in anyone’s (sketch)book. She seems to be quite exceptional as far as I can see, rather like the Marie Curie of architecture. Not to marginalise the successes of other great female architects, but as just a couple of examples, no woman other than Hadid has ever won the coveted Stirling Prize, which she has won twice (the only person to do so). Hadid has also won the Pritzker Prize, which has only been won by one other woman in its history (who shared it with her business partner).

This, along with the results of a recent survey performed by the Architect’s Journal got my friend really hot under the collar on the subject. So what’s going on in this field?

Yeah, Mattel went there. Don’t think you’d see anyone wearing a skirt on a construction site though.

I knew next to nothing about the specifics of ‘architecture culture’ before beginning research for this post. I could really easily spend this quote listing statistics, that unlike the Architect’s Journal claim, are hardly shocking at all really. They’re not shocking because they ring true with many other professions that for the longest time were regarded as ‘male professions’ – such as engineering, or medicine (though this one has come on leaps and bounds).

Some points are worth mentioning though. If one looks at who is going into architecture, one can find claims that in many architecture courses the gender ratio is nearly 1:1. This doesn’t ring true with the numbers for qualified, practising architects however – in the UK, only 14% of architects were women 7 years ago, yet made up 25% of those architects receiving job seeker’s allowance – hinting that women tend to clump at the bottom end of the profession in terms of earning potential. Add to this that in that recent AJ survey, 47% state that their male colleagues doing the same or similar jobs still earn more.

 

One could be forgiven for thinking that it seems like common sense to intuit that perhaps the attitudes of other men in the construction industry are responsible for causing women to leave the profession. We’re all familiar with the stereotype of the wolf-whistling hard-hatted gorilla and his naked-lady calenders. This runs against the experiences of British architect Vanessa Bizzell however, who says:

“I’ve been asked interview questions about how I will cope being a women on a construction site, which seems to be fairly inappropriate … Actually, some of the contractors and engineers that I’ve worked with have stated a preference for a more gender-balanced design team on site as they felt that it contributed towards a less confrontational atmosphere when solving problems” (full article here).

Arguably the way in which women are treated with regards to potentially wishing to have children, or be engaged with a young family causes far more career problems. To quote again from the Guardian article which provided the ‘14%’ statistic earlier:

It might be a thrill for a 20-something graduate with no ties to piece together models at 4am fuelled by black coffee and a take-away pizza, but for a mother or father it can be impossible. “One night it was getting to 9pm and I told my boss I wanted to go home,” recalls one London architect and mother. “Two months later he made me redundant.”

She was the only woman in the office, the only one who resisted working late and the only one made redundant.

Whatsmore, a staggering 80% of women in architecture believe that having children puts women at a disadvantage. There exists a ‘macho’ culture of working crazy hours and sacrificing all other things in order to ‘get ahead’. Women (and indeed, men) are penalised if they do not engage with this status quo.

A fascinating insight into inequality within the world of architecture can be found in the writing of one of those three female architects that my friend and her classmates were able to name. Denise Scott Brown wrote a superbly nuanced account of her experiences, titled ‘Room at the Top? Sexism and the Star System in Architecture’. This piece was actually written in the 1970s, but kept relatively quiet due to its potential to impact damagingly upon her career. I wish I could quote the entire piece here, so I do urge you to take a look.

Some of the main points that Scott Brown articulates are that generally speaking, many fellow (usually male) architects and critics look to assign work to individuals, rather than partnerships or teams. It’s easier to wax lyrical about the design genius of a single mind, and also helps vitriolic polemics to retain a level of focus when aimed at one person. Despite both her and her husband’s insistences that their joint ventures be credited as such, time and time again she would find herself marginalised for stylised, condescending, artificial reasoning. It would even seem that one critic tried to argue that her husband’s ‘great art’ was being ‘led astray’ by his professional association with his wife – which in my mind rather echoes some of the sentiment of sexist male musicians within professional classical music circles.

It’s the same old tiresome story, when it boils down to it. There still exists parallels between the top level of (this) industry and mentalities which treat it as an old boy’s club. As Scott Brown points out, it will be extremely interesting as the dinosaurs begin to go extinct to see how this affects the willingness of corporations to be more reasonable regarding flexible working schedules, and equal opportunity that extends more than a begrudging, token nod in the direction of progress.

Can a man be a feminist?

I myself have never been able to find out precisely what feminism is: I only know that people call me a feminist whenever I express sentiments that differentiate me from a door mat or a prostitute” – Rebecca West

I have never really been able to find out precisely what feminism is either. I’m inclined to think this is because it isn’t ‘one thing’, any more than being a woman is. Personally, I like to think of feminism in its most simple terms – that people defining as women should experience the same rights as people defining as men. Thus I can sometimes find it difficult to understand why anyone would not define as a feminist. Yet, it would be at the very least inflammatory for many to suggest that the antonym of ‘feminism’ is ‘sexism’. Of course it’s pretty obvious why the majority of feminists are women, but it’s interesting to consider why many men do not identify as feminists (other than simple lack of awareness, or sad, persistent misogyny) and indeed, whether they can.

Bill Bailey

Photograph credit: Fawcett society

It has been argued that being a feminist is more than an intellectual agreement with a set of principles that then influence a person’s behaviour. It has been argued that having not lived a woman’s experiences, and/or the fact that men possess an inescapable degree of social privilege makes it impossible for men to truly identify with female struggles. Some also consider that for a man to take the label of feminist allows for the co-opting of a feminist identity, potentially resulting in less power for women themselves and the silencing of female voices. This has led to some men taking on the moniker of ‘profeminist’- agreement with feminist goals and politics, without claiming inclusion within the group of ‘feminist’ themselves.

Problems with this arise in several ways. Firstly, this understanding rests entirely on a binary model of gender with no obvious way to resolve the inclusion or exclusion of those who exist outside of this framework, or have moved transitioned from one group to another. Trans men have often lacked male privilege and have experienced a ‘female’ narrative based on how they have been treated before transition, yet do not identify as female. Likewise trans women will be experiencing a female narrative after transition, but have also arguably been privy to male privilege at some point in their lives. This reduces acceptability into the group of ‘feminist’ based on both bodies and on how gender is expressed (that is, whether one appears adequately ‘male’ or ‘female’ to ‘pass’) which is clearly problematic as infertile women, ‘masculine’ women, and indeed any other variation one cares to mention does not in any way invalidate their membership of the identity category.

One can call into question whether this argument of needing to have direct experience of ‘a woman’s narrative’ is indeed valid, as what is a woman’s narrative? As the feminist writer bell hooks (deliberately not capitalised) points out that “the insistence on a “women only” feminist movement and a virulent anti-male stance reflected the race and class background of participants”, that whilst bourgeoisie white women experience sexism, they still retain more social privilege and particularly in historical contexts would be less likely to be exploited than poor, uneducated non-white men. To attempt to simplify narratives such that the intersectionality of race, class, and sexuality aren’t considered to shape the idiosyncrasies of identity experience may only serve to alienate various (poor, non-white, etc.) women from such a feminist movement. A blanket-exclusion of men also implies that experience of male privilege by men is a homogeneous thing, as is enforcement of patriarchal systems, both of which are (hopefully) patently untrue. Men (and sometimes, women) can repress and marginalise men, too. Power is sourced in more than sex.

An interesting historical perspective can be considered when examining the quest for women’s rights and recognition before feminism was established as a term or identity. The philosopher John Stuart Mill co-published the paper ‘The Subjection of Women’ with his wife in 1869. His empathy, intentions, and actions were not invalidated by his gendered position. Likewise the acts of the male abolitionists William Lloyd Garrison, Charles Lenox Remond, Nathanial P. Rogers, and Henry Stanton to sit silently with the women (who were forbidden to speak) at the World Anti-Slavery Convention in 1849 was a clear refusal to accept this element of male privilege, challenging the patriarchy in a way that is not dependent on gendered identities or bodies of the social actors.

Parker Pillsbury, 1809-1898. Pillsbury was another important early male feminist, who co-edited the women’s rights newsletter ‘The Revolution’, founded in 1868 with Elizabeth Cady Stanton.

There also exists the problem that the exclusion of men from the group ‘feminist’ places the tasks of this movement as an exclusively feminine task, arguably a hypocritically sexist circumstance. This argument clearly cannot be extended to the occupation of women-only spaces by men, as marginalised and oppressed groups have a requirement of, and a right to safe spaces. However, men certainly have at least as much responsibility in battling sexism and patriarchal structures as women, and to attempt to do this in a political environment with an extremely dubious (as race relations have taught us) ‘separate but equal’ policy, does not best serve either group.

The distinction then, between profeminism (or pro-feminism) and feminism is a construct that arguably echoes an inflexibility regarding the nebulous nature of gendered identities, as well as the interplay that exists between different facets of an individual’s personal, social identity. The complexities that exist in then grappling with the differences in stance that various interpretations of feminism can hold are another question entirely. However, I am proud to call myself a feminist, and accept with the use of that label the social reactions and judgements that follow.

To porn or not to porn? Feminist views on pornography

So today my fine perusers, we will be discussing a particular issue relevant to Feminism – but first, a quick overview. Everyone has heard of Feminism, but there is understandable confusion sometimes about what this word actually means. A well educated friend of mine once demonstrated a serious misunderstanding when telling me why she didn’t identify as a feminist in saying “well…they’re bra-burning man-haters, aren’t they?”

“You didn’t just say that did you? Oh wait…yes…you did.”

In its most basic manifestation, feminism is quite simply the establishment and defence of equal rights and equal opportunities for women. It therefore seems to me that to disagree with this is to disagree with the idea that equal rights and opportunities between the sexes is a desirable outcome. Far more people agree with these simple principles than actively label themselves as being a ‘feminist’. There’s loads of discussion that can be had on exploring why this is, but an important thing to recognise is that many people who identify as feminists will have very different ideas about what they feel the best state of affairs should be, for both men and women*.

Of  the many possible contentions and divisions that exist between different feminist philosophies and movements, today the stance on pornography will be considered. Not only is this relevant to a large number of people (far, far more than would admit it) but the issue was of such importance that the debates that raged in the late ’70s and early ’80s actually became known as:

Not even making this up. It was also known as ‘Porn Wars’ , but I don’t love you guys enough to spend that long messing around in Microsoft Paint making two of these.

On one side of the Sex War were the anti-pornography feminists. Key members of this movement include Catharine MacKinnon, and the late Andrea Dworkin. Some of the key arguments include that the production of porn involves women being coerced – either physically , psychologically, or economically. The star of the infamous film Deep Throat‘, Linda Boreman, was publicly supported by both of these women when she publicly came out to say that she had been forced and abused by her husband into making the film.

It doesn’t take someone to be anti-pornography to say that ‘hey, forcing people to perform sex acts…is bad!‘. A criticism that has been levied is that anti-pornographers can imply that sex is something that men enjoy and enforce, but women only endure, marginalising female and feminine sexualities. There have indeed been some female porn stars, identifying as feminists, speak out in saying that their careers are their own free choices and they feel a sense of empowerment and ability to express themselves sexually in their work. One counterargument to this basically runs as ‘the Patriarchy has made you think this way, you are actually being exploited‘. 

Is it just me, or is it a deliciously appropriate state of affairs that Feminism is written right down the length of a shaft?

Now, this previous statement may have caused a small snort of derision. If it did, I’m hoping it’s because of the non-falsifiability of the argument. This response could be touted whatever anyone says – no new way is offered to actually test the idea that porn stars are repressed. Anti-pornographers may rather be shooting themselves in the feet in refusing to recognise the ability of women to choose to engage in and with pornography. I hope that you weren’t thinking the bold statement was a silly thing because of how the word ‘Patriarchy’ is set up as something big and scary. It is a real thing, and it is rather crappy. Without getting hugely sidetracked, it is fair to say that not simply from a global perspective but very much here in the UK and other  culturally similar countries, women experience lower wages for the same positions, greater risk of sexual crime, the socialisation of being the ‘weaker’ ‘delicate’ sex…go hit google, have a little explore.

Whilst it’s quite easy to find problems with some members of the pornographic industry, some ‘sex-positive’ feminists argue that blanket criminalisation (as has been called for by anti-pornographers) is a greater evil, in restricting freedom of expression and freedom of speech. It also isn’t the case that all sex-positive feminists sprung up in response to anti-pornographers – some indeed write and work under the axiom that the Patriarchy mostly holds a monopoly on how women are able to express themselves sexually, and seek to change this, through support of ethical pornography, and pornography featuring ‘strong’, ‘active’ women.

It’s clearly a tricky one. On the one hand, you’ve got people who unambiguously are harmed in the manufacture of porn. The shady, seedy view that is often socially held by those who purchase such materials makes it far less embarrassing to do so with a secretive and private air – there isn’t all that much pressure from the market for responsible, ethically aware, organic, pesticide-free porno. It would be very desirable for more people to pay more attention to how the people in what they look at and watch might really be treated. On the other hand, heavy-handed legal restriction and restriction of material because it is sexual rather than harmful (admittedly sometimes a controversial distinction to make) does no-one any favours, and buys into an old-school conservative (with a little ‘c’, but also probably many Tories as well…) anti-sex, moral absolutism. Arguments have been made that exposure to pornography can cause addiction, and make men more likely to commit sex crimes against women. On the other hand, studies exist that show things like people believe porn to have had a positive effect on their lives, and sex offenders had seen less or milder porn on average than other criminals. There seems to be lots of conflicting claims, certainly enough that I’m not going to attempt to take a clear side. However, it seems to me that abstractly, women (or men, or anyone for that matter) choosing to show off their naughty parts isn’t really the problem. People being rotten to people who are quite often women (in this context) is, which isn’t something one needs to hold the label of ‘feminist’ to have a problem with.

*Apologies that the wordings so far has implied a binary mode of thinking – not doing credit to the individuals who identify neither firmly as men or as women, and others – identities which for brevity’s sake I’ll describe with the term Genderqueer. Many (though far from all) feminist discourses don’t even acknowledge the diversity possible in gender identities, which is problematic all on its own.

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