Reflections on Feminism: Gale Dines on “Neo-Liberalism and the Defanging of Feminism”

Reading a Gail Dines piece or watching her speak always makes me feel a little bit more sane.  Her radical feminism is more akin to my own, with its focus on women’s liberation that includes a Marxist critique of capitalism.  She also uses the concept of intersectionality in the proper way:  to show how women of color are fighting two battles, and that we are ill-served when we ignore that fact.  She doesn’t let that damage her focus on women-as-a-class, as so many Third Wave feminists do, but she does understand the importance it plays if we truly want to liberate all women.  She’s an academic who’s not afraid to speak like a human being, about real human problems and in real human language.  I smile every time she throws in a “fuck” or “shit” in one of her presentations, because it reminds me of the way I speak and write.  In fact, Gail is the woman who made me find relevance in Counterpunch again.  It had become the dregs of the male-dominated Left for so long.  When her writing began appearing there, a site I had abandoned four years ago became a site I checked on a daily basis again.  Gail Dines, more than any other “famous” feminist of our time, makes me feel like someone else sees the world as I do.  I can’t thank her enough for that.

Now that I’ve gotten my personal heroine-worship out of the way, I want to reflect on Gail’s lecture “Neo-Liberalism and the Defanging of Feminism”.  It was brought to my attention by one of the members on The Left Side of Feminism’s Facebook page.  While this member and I disagree on a lot, I was very happy that he brought it to the page for discussion.  It made my day a little brighter.

In this lecture, Gail hits on all the main points that make her worldview appealing to me:

  1. The idea that Marx laid the foundation for understanding and defining radical or revolutionary movements, as well as understanding how to fight for the rights of oppressed or exploited classes.  His ideas, both on economics and on social movements, are valuable to all radicals–including radical feminists.
  2. The idea that individualism will not lead women’s liberation any more than it could lead to Black liberation or workers’ rights.
  3. The idea that feminism isn’t about the “agency” or “choice” of  a privileged few, but rather about the real liberation of all women.
  4. The idea that intersectionality is important, but not int he ways that Third Wavers and other liberal feminists claim.
  5. The idea that feminism isn’t about “me”; it’s about “us”.
  6. The idea that judgement is not only acceptable, but it is required.
  7. The idea that men must be addressed when we speak of pornography.
  8. The idea that pornography, as it exists today, is a problem not because it increases rape or sexual violence.  It is a problem because of the ideas behind it and the ideas it pushes into the social consciousness.  It is a problem because of what it does to women within the industry, but also because of how it influences the minds of those who consume it.

I’m going to take each point above and expound on Gail’s feelings about it, as well as my own.  I’ve written on many of these issues before, but this presentation inspired me to think about them again.

As is custom, let’s start with point number one, the idea that Marxist analysis of classes of people is invaluable to building any radical or revolutionary movement.  This is an idea that was also central to Lierre Keith’s discussion of radicals vs. liberals.  However, there are some within radical feminism who reject any positive discussion of Marx, because he was male and didn’t evaluate the world from a radical feminist perspective.  I just don’t have much use for such a position.  Radical philosophy of any kind didn’t spring from the head of Zeus fully formed.  I also rate some views held by (most) radical feminists to be of great importance, and others to be of very little importance.  As with any philosophy, I don’t find radical feminism perfect.  I also believe there are philosophies that fall outside radical feminism that are very important to women’s liberation.  There are other philosophies that fall outside radical feminism that I find to be very important to the future of the entire human race.

As Gail points out, Marx introduced the idea that the world is made up of classes of individuals, not individuals themselves.  These classes have common problems, common goals, and common needs.  Some of his followers, like Lenin, articulated that women were a class unto themselves, and were responsible for deciding their own futures as members of that class.  Yes, in essence, Lenin argued for “women-only spaces”, where women themselves politically came together and made the important decisions about what women needed.  Sadly, it didn’t fully develop as it should, because the tough work of tearing down the patriarchy was never addressed.  That’s where both Marxism and Leninism fail.  However, there are a lot of places where both succeed, and not using or respecting the tools they provide is self-defeating and foolish.

The liberals ignore Marxist concepts of movement-building and collectivism, and that’s where they fail.  That’s where they reveal their foolish, self-defeating ways.  As Gail discusses, the Oppressor class certainly acts collectively for their collective benefit.  They don’t rely on individualism; they meet, plan and strategize as a class for the benefit of that class.  All oppressed classes must also do this, rather than cling to concepts of “agency” and “choice”.  For feminists, this means coming together as women working for women.  It can also mean coming together with what few allied men are willing to give up their male privilege and fight alongside us.  Other liberation movements have worked with some of the oppressor class, but only when those individuals were willing to truly recognize and completely reject their privilege.  If they are unwilling to fully evaluate how they have benefited from that privilege and utterly renounce it, they are not allies.  They are full-blown Oppressors, and must be treated as such.

Liberal feminists are willing to accept these Oppressors as “allies”, while some radical feminists believe that no man can ever be an ally.  I fall closer to those radical feminists in viewpoint, although I am not on-board with mandatory political separatism.  I do believe that some men can be true allies.  However, I don’t believe that men who refuse to completely reject their privilege can ever be allies, even if they speak the flowery language of radicalism when it comes to economics or racism.  These men will speak of social justice and collective action until it comes to misogyny and women’s liberation.  At that point, they insist on clinging to liberal individualism and “choice” arguments.  These are not and can never be allies.  They are all-out Oppressors.

The second point–the rejection of the individual as the focus of movements–flows from the first.  Gail spoke of how liberal feminists have attempted to redefine feminism as “whatever a woman says it is”.  There’s nothing more ridiculous.  Feminism is a movement.  In its true form, it is a radical, revolutionary movement that seeks to tear down the patriarchal father and its monstrous sons, such as capitalism and racism.  Women can be corrupted by living under the thumb of patriarchy, just as Blacks can be corrupted living under the thumb of institutional racism and the poor can be corrupted by living under the thumb of capitalism.  In the U.S., it is astonishing when members of the working class align themselves with conservative, capitalist movements.  They have been indoctrinated to believe that, if they just work hard enough, they can become part of that Oppressor class (even if they don’t identify it as an Oppressor class).  Instead of identifying with other workers or the poor, they look down on these people and look up to those on the upper rungs of the socioeconomic ladder.  That the male-dominated Left can recognize that, but don’t recognize that individual women can be corrupted by patriarchal indoctrination, reveals an ethical void in their very souls.  That liberal feminists can speak about patriarchal concepts like body image or rape culture, but don’t recognize other ways that women can be influenced by patriarchal indoctrination, reveals that they are themselves thoroughly indoctrinated.

Points three, four and five illustrate Gail’s position that radical feminists aren’t fighting for their own personal comfort.  They are fighting for the liberation of all women everywhere.  Here is where she brings in the concept of intersectionality as a radical viewpoint.  She discusses how the agency of a well-educated, wealthy, white woman who lives in the Western Hemisphere is far different than the (lack of agency) of a woman of color, a poor white woman who works multiple jobs to keep food on the table, or a woman suffering persecution in a society controlled by patriarchal religion.  When you refuse to recognize the lack of agency these women deal with in their everyday lives, you are turning your backs on anyone who isn’t just like you, who isn’t a rich, white, young Western woman running a Third Wave website.  Women aren’t entering prostitution or stripping because they have real choices.  They are entering those lines of “work” because of a lack of real choices.  They are constrained by financial difficulties, lack of education, drug addiction, and the like.  Instead of celebrating and insisting upon the “agency” and “choices” of these women, why don’t Third Wavers actually fight to increase real opportunities for women?  The importance of personal stories is to better analyze our plight as a class.  The fact that a few among us have gotten to the proverbial promised land does not mean that women are liberated, and does not mean that we don’t continue pushing for the utter destruction of patriarchy.

Point six flows out of the “choice” argument–specifically judging the choices of others.  The proponents of individualism and choice have a corollary that goes along with this, a corollary strongly built on ethical relativism.  This is the idea that you’re not allowed to judge the choices of others.  Just saying, “It’s my choice,” is supposed to be some magical shield from  being judged for your actions.  Wrong, wrong, wrong.  One of the many times I literally laughed out loud and clapped my hands was when Gail recounted her story of the Las Vegas porn convention.  When she asked a man who was there selling set lights whether he had daughters, and how he felt about working with an industry that made their world more dangerous, he defensively demanded, “Are you judging me?”  Her reply was that she was absolutely judging him.  Loved it.

The last two points have to do with dealing with pornography, that exhibition of the patriarchal conception of masculinity.  Gail makes an important point about how and whom we should be addressing when it comes to porn.  It’s not women.  We should evaluate how women are treated within the industry, and the ideas about women that are perpetuated by porn.  However, when we attack porn, the way it depicts women, and how it shapes heterosexual males’ sexuality, it’s men we should be discussing.  It’s men who primarily consume it.  It’s men who primarily make money off of it.  It’s men who primarily write, direct and produce it.  It’s men who like to see a woman on her knees with cum running down her face.  It’s men who go to sites like “Gag on my cock bitch”.  It’s men who like to see a woman’s anus shown to the camera, to prove that it’s stretched out of shape from forceful anal sex.  It’s men who like to see porn where women are verbally abused, called “bitch”, “slut”, “whore”.  It’s men.  It’s men.  It’s men.  And they need to be named as the perpetrators, just as they should be when it comes to rape and to beating women.

The final thing I have to say about Gail’s lecture is that the comments section on YouTube should be avoided.  It’s overrun by the poor little white boys of the Internet.  The highest-rated comment when I was there simply stated, “Stupid cunt.”  The second-highest-rated was someone whining about Gail’s legitimate statement that whites are the ones who are racist.  I wasn’t surprised, but it still made me want to punch someone in the face.

As a note, I wanted to explain why I use Gail’s first name throughout this piece.  Some people consider that disrespectful, but it’s not meant that way.  First, I often do that when I have both affection and respect for the person about whom I’m writing; when it’s simply respect, but no affection, I usually go with the last name.  Also, when someone’s last name ends in an “s”, I’ll often default to their first names.  It’s so much easier and less clunky when you’re writing possessives.

Feminism, the Sex Industry and Sex Positivity

This piece was originally posted on Righteous Anger.

 

The traditional stereotype of feminist in this country is an unattractive woman who hates men and sex.  In an effort to combat this stereotype, a lot of younger feminists have latched onto the idea of “sex positivity”.  While I have no problem with the idea of being “sex positive,” this has many unfortunate results in both theory and practice.  Among them are the knee-jerk condemnations of many of our feminist elders who wrote about the negative consequences of sex in traditional heterosexual relationships, the blanket approval of prostitution and other sex work without any honest evaluation of its effects on women (and men) working in the sex industry, and the idea that any sexual activity is acceptable and beyond judgement.  While all of those positions have understandable underpinnings, they often go overboard and focus too much on apologizing for feminism and ignoring the motivation behind the original critiques.

The first thing to consider before getting into any particular issue is the idea of choice.  Choice is what feminism is about.  It’s not about prescribing or restricting choices for women (or men, for that matter), but about providing everyone with the chance to make their own choices.  That’s an admirable goal, and it’s one that I support.  The problem is that many contemporary feminists also take this to mean that the right to make a choice means that every choice is equally valid and equally “good” for the woman involved or women as a whole.  This would rightfully fall under the category of ethical relativism, which is in direct contradiction to women’s rights, in particular, and human rights, in general.  Ethical relativism can lead to insane places, such as the approval of murder, as explained by anthropologist Ruth Benedict:

We might suppose that in the matter of taking life all peoples would agree on condemnation. On the contrary, in the matter of homicide, it may be held that one kills by custom his two children, or that a husband has a right of life and death over his wife or that it is the duty of the child to kill his parents before they are old. It may be the case that those are killed who steal fowl, or who cut their upper teeth first, or who are born on Wednesday. Among some peoples, a person suffers torment at having caused an accidental death, among others, it is a matter of no consequence. Suicide may also be a light matter, the recourse of anyone who has suffered some slight rebuff, an act that constantly occurs in a tribe. It may be the highest and noblest act a wise man can perform. The very tale of it, on the other hand, may be a matter for incredulous mirth, and the act itself, impossible to conceive as human possibility. Or it may be a crime punishable by law, or regarded as a sin against the gods. (pp.45-46)

For example, it is still a custom in many African tribes to kill so-called mingi children to protect the tribe. Ethical relativism is a dangerous, slippery slope than can be used to justify everything from infanticide to genital mutilation of both sexes to so-called “honor killings.”  Since the wider concept of human rights and the sex-specific concept of women’s rights both hold that there are certain rights that belong to all people, no matter what their culture, ethical relativism has to be rejected by anyone who truly supports these concepts.  Unfortunately, this ethical relativist stance is taken by many feminists who argue for the validity of all “choices.”

One of the main tactics taken by many of these contemporary feminists is to try to ingratiate themselves with patriarchy by condemning so-called radical feminists of the past.  Andrea Dworkin and other anti-pornography feminists are common targets.  Andrea Dworkin is a prime target because of the out-of-context quote from one of her books equating all heterosexual sex to rape.  In an effort to show themselves as “good” feminists, these women strip that quote from all context of time and explanation.  Dworkin did make such a statement, but she also explained what the statement meant.  She was describing the traditional situation in which women are expected to trade sex for economic survival, i.e. traditional marriage.  Her question was whether it was possible for a woman to give true consent if she had no choice but to give up sex in order to gain the economic means to support herself and her children, the very means of survival.  If consent is based upon having no choice but to say yes, is it really consent?  I would say that is an important question still, especially when we consider those who argue for work in the sex industry as a valid choice.

It doesn’t matter whether you’re on Facebook, in the blogosphere, or on the website of a feminist organization, you’re going to find younger feminists trying to tie the sex industry and sex positivity inextricably together.  The problem is that sex work is generally that–work–not a sexual outlet.  Some 20-plus years ago, it was work I did.  Before becoming pregnant with my oldest child, I worked in several topless bars around the city for a while.  I had many other friends who worked the clubs or worked as prostitutes on the street.  As women, we had the option of the clubs or the street.  My male friends generally just had the street.  Not one of us was there for sex or because we wanted to be there.  Every last one of us was there because of an addiction to street drugs.  Every last one.  A few of the women I met at the club were there because they were very young single moms with no skills.  Taking their clothes off for cash was the only way to put food on the table.  Again, sex was not the motivating factor here, folks.  Whether it was having some creep follow us home from the club, contracting life-threatening diseases, having clients want to do violent things to our bodies, or being strip-searched by management because some rich asshole lost the cash he was flashing around the club, every last one of us experienced frightening, humiliating, dangerous, and ultimately life-altering repercussions.  It wasn’t sexy.  It wasn’t fun.  It was soul-sucking.

A couple of years ago, I lived in a neighborhood that is home to most of the city’s street prostitutes.  Many of the women would bring their boyfriends out to keep watch over them.  The man would sit a distance away.  Not close enough to scare johns away, but close enough that they could be seen.  Why?  So the john would know someone had seen him and his vehicle, should the woman not come back safely.  Sexy?  How about life-threatening, folks.

Even when a woman is working in a legal operation, either a strip club or a legal brothel, she’s not likely to be treated well by the management.  They take your money in the clubs.  In the brothels, the women are forced to undergo regular medical check-ups to keep the clients safe.  I want to know who’s making sure the clients are healthy and not giving the women diseases that could threaten their lives?  After all, it is much easier for a woman to get a sexually-transmitted infection from a man than the other way around.  This is especially true when you’re talking about blood-borne infections like HIV or Hep C.  A woman’s body is more likely to end up torn, giving the pathogen an easy entrance to her bloodstream.

Of course, the club owners, like any pimps, have no concern about the women who work for them.  Do they know that the majority of their employees are addicts?  Fuck yes, they know.  The women teach each other what make-up to buy and how to properly apply it to cover up track marks.  They teach each other which articles of clothing will work for the same purpose.  Elbow-length black gloves are a favorite of junkies who work the clubs.  The owners don’t care, as long as the marks don’t show.  Track marks were treated the same as tattoos–you can have them, as long as they don’t show.

The other issues that pro-prostitution feminists try desperately to ignore are trafficking and child prostitution.  They claim those are completely separate issues.  Ummm….no, they are not.  They are not synonymous, but trafficking and child prostitution exist because prostitution itself exists.  Not all prostitutes are children nor are they all trafficked.  However, all trafficked females and child sex workers are prostitutes.  As an Arizonan, I am well aware how easy it is to exploit those who end up in the U.S. without papers.  The exploitation and victimization is a widespread and real problem without prostitution being part of the equation.  Adding the trafficking of female bodies for the sex trade makes it mind-numbing.  The men who use these women’s bodies see it as no different than going to see any other prostitute.  In fact, they may not even know that these women are any different than any other prostitute.  Simply changing the law to decriminalize is not going to fix that problem as long as the undocumented are afraid for themselves or people back home.

And therein lies the problem with many pro-prostitution feminists:  they claim that decriminalization will fix all the current problems associated with prostitution.  They claim it will eliminate the violence experienced by so many prostitutes.  They claim it will eliminate the stigma.  I just don’t know how the hell they’re arriving at that conclusion.  This is a society that hasn’t eliminated violence against women outside the ranks of prostitution.  There are many men who go to prostitutes specifically because they are looking to inflict pain and violence on a woman.  Will the law make those men disappear?  Hell, we have attitudes within law enforcement and general society that dismiss and minimize the violence against prostitutes.  The idea that a prostitute can’t be raped is still firmly entrenched.  The unwillingness to vigorously pursue those who beat, rape, or even murder prostitutes is common.  Those are deeply ingrained in our culture.  Decriminalization of prostitution will not magically fix all those problems.  Those problems are about misogyny.

So, what of the biggest money-maker in the sex industry?  What of pornography?  I’ve read and seen my share of porn, whether it was labeled as such or called “erotica”.  I can’t speak to most of the women in that industry, because I have never known anyone who worked in it.  The closest I came to knowing anyone in that part of the industry was reading Ordeal, the autobiography of Linda Boreman (a.k.a. Linda Lovelace).  It did not paint a pretty picture of her life as the star of the “revolutionary” pornographic film Deep Throat.  As much as it tried to gloss over the issues, neither did the 2005 documentary Inside Deep Throat.

Boreman talked of being beaten by Chuck Traynor throughout their relationship.  Everyone on set knew of this, as they had to cover the bruises in order to shoot the movie.  Others who worked on the film have admitted that they knew he was beating her.  They covered up and pushed on.  Of course, the movie was produced by mobsters.  The documentary Inside Deep Throat fails to mention the beatings and bruises, but they do let one thing slip:  they discuss Boreman being taken into a room full of mobsters by Traynor and told to give a couple of the mobsters blowjobs in order to get the funding.  Was everything that went wrong in Boreman’s life a result of that movie?  Of course not.  However, anyone who praises that movie without acknowledging the horrors of its production are really missing something in the way of humanity.  Unfortunately, others from the porn industry, such as Annie Sprinkle, have done just that.

Of course, no one is suggesting that every porn flick ever made was shot under the same circumstances as Deep Throat.  That would be ludicrous.  However, the actress doesn’t have to be tortured for there to be something off about the end-product.  One money shot after another is a woman on her knees having some asshole shoot his wad into her face.  The desire to degrade is obvious.  One website invites “bitches” to “gag on my cock.”  It features pictures of women with t-shirts labeling them as stupid which are linked to videos of some guy almost making them puke while calling them names and telling them that this will shut them up, like women should shut up.  It’s awful that these exist.  It’s worse that women, for whatever reason, involve themselves in this kind of verbal degradation and violent sex.  Yes, it’s a choice.  And these women are free to make it.  However, anyone who thinks that it’s not nauseating and misogynistic is a fucking idiot.

Then, we end up in the realm of BDSM.  Another choice that we’re told not to judge.  Even worse, we are told again and again that it’s actually the bottom who is in charge.  Okay, whatever.  Kind of like how Christianity isn’t about subjugating women at all.  We will even find women who say in one breath it’s empowering, then in the next admit that many female submissives have been sexually abused in the past.  Instead of admitting that this may be a way of internalizing the male violence, they suggests it’s a “healthy” way to “work it out.”  Hmmm…..I have my doubts.

If you want to believe any of that shit, feel free.  My problem with BDSM has more to do with the literature.  The latest craze, 50 Shades of Grey, has been condemned even by some BDSM devotees as a celebration of a violent relationship, found guilty of romanticizing violence.  That’s not even the biggest problem I have with BDSM literature, though, especially that purportedly written by women.  My bigger issue is that so much of it revels in the idea of women being powerless outside the bedroom.

One site, which once presented itself as “erotica for women,” has made a living off this shit.  Oysters and Chocolate is an “erotica” site started by two women.  In interviews, these women have whined that they are feminist, and how dare these mean ol’ women attack them for having an anti-feminist message.  Meanwhile, they publish series like that written by a woman named Kris Williams.  (The series has since been made into a book, so it is no longer available for reading without purchase.) In this series, the male who tortures his lover makes it clear that he hates feminists.  The author also writes that he tortures his lover because he doesn’t want her to have any power over him.  What power, you might ask?  Oh, the fact that he loves her gives her power.  So, to clear that nonsense out, he beats and humiliates her.  He revels in her fear.  That is reinforced over and over again.  Fear is key.  It’s what he gets off on.  Knowing that she is afraid of him.  The introduction of BDSM into their relationship isn’t one they have agreed on together; it’s one he enforces under threat.  That doesn’t sound like the “bottom in control” idea that the BDSM crowd is so fond of selling.  Yet, it is what the literature reveals as a driving motivation.  Tell me in what fucking way that is “feminist.”

In the end, I am firmly committed to the idea that people are free to make their own choices.  As a free speech absolutist, I will also passionately defend the rights of everyone to say and otherwise express themselves however they choose.  Holocaust denier?  Have your say.  Homophobe?  Have your say.  Woman-hating pornographer?  Have your say.  The fact that others are free to make their own choices and free to express themselves in whatever way they see fit does not, however, mean that all of these choices and expressions are worthy of praise.  It does not mean they are “sex positive.”  And it sure as hell doesn’t make these choices or expressions “feminist.”