If there’s one thing that we can say for sure about the multi-headed beast that some call Third Wave feminism (or is it Fourth Wave now?), it’s that feminism often seems like it can be whatever the hell you want it to be. This makes it difficult for us as feminists to speak with one voice about things that are really important. And in the end, it may be hampering practical approaches to improving things. Feminism isn’t an idea, it’s a collection of a lot of ideas, and we’re free to argue them with one another. That’s healthy. But feminism needs to sort out what it’s trying to do. Right now, it feels more like a chaotic, en-masse reaction to attacks on our rights, as opposed to a positive, proactive movement.
When I first started putting my toes in the waters of feminism, I was really only interested in working on legislative activism. I wanted to roll up my sleeves and call state senators, and put out useful infographics encouraging people to email their representatives about this bill or that bill. I essentially limited my entire focus to brass-tacks, equality-under-the-law issues. And it made sense to do that. There was, and still is, so much work to be done on that front, and so many legislators trying to take away rights our mothers fought for, that it felt unproductive to get drawn into “soft” cultural issues and wrangling with feminist theory. On my best days, I am a practical gal.
The truth is, though, that it’s useful to explore cultural issues and feminist theory because it forces us to reflect on the underlying biases of the choices that we, as well as our politicians, make on a daily basis. Feminist theory is often the soft underbelly of public policy, and its thinking often colors the more “mainstream,” legislatively-oriented discourse. The problem is, the continuum of idealistic feminism often yields ideas that don’t translate well to the harsh light of day-to-day living. The policy activists and the Judith Butler disciples have to figure out how to talk to each other, because right now, it feels like a food fight: nobody’s really getting hurt, but boy is it a mess.
I recently found myself in a real, live argument with a bunch of other feminists about whether or not sex work is a particularly healthy or positive career choice. Spoiler: my position was, “Broadly speaking, no.” I was a little surprised at how unpopular a position this was. I got roundly scolded for prostitute-shaming, silencing, and even being a flat-out misogynist. It was a little mind-boggling that there was more of this than there was actual concern for the very real structural dangers and problems inherent in that industry. It may have been the moment I finally chose a label and slapped it on my sweater: call me a “practical feminist.”
“Dear lord!” I thought. “Give me back my old-fashioned public policy wonkery!” I can tell you why we need an Equal Rights Amendment, and tell you whose office to call about it. It’s straightforward. But ask me whether or not a girl should take what seem like a few smallish precautions to avoid a sexual assault…? That’s a hornet’s nest. Many feminists argue that such advice contributes to victim-blaming. I would never have thought that risk-reduction precluded teaching consent. But here we are.
You find these divides throughout feminism on a whole host of issues: Is sex work an empowering life choice? Should we specifically do things to avoid rape? Should someone tell Miley Cyrus to put some clothes on? Someone besides Sinead O’Connor? For crying out loud, we can’t even agree on how we feel about the relatively unimportant matter of sledgehammer fellatio: is it empowering or degrading? Of course it’s Miley’s right to do it. Don’t be mad though, at the feminists who can’t work up much enthusiasm about it.
Women are sexually harassed on the street, ogled at work, passed over for opportunities of all kinds, because for so many men, we can’t possibly be more than instruments for their enjoyment. So, when you, as a woman, lead with your sexuality, it can be hard for a lot of people to see that there’s a person, with talents, opinions, preferences and passions, attached to it. And it’s hard for some feminists to say, “You go, girl!” to the woman who’s choosing to do it, because it can feel like she’s perpetuating the objectification that, in spite of our best efforts to leave it in the past, is still a problem. Short version: it feels a little counterproductive to put your tits in someone’s face and then get annoyed when they aren’t looking you in the eye. But it’s a debate feminism is still having with itself, and nobody really has a good answer. And in the meantime, women and girls are still getting the short end in a lot of ways, large and small.
So practically speaking, what do I think would help it? I like policy prescriptions, so I’m likely to reach for mundane things like accurate and early sex education, a gender studies requirement at the high school level, and with any luck, a loosening of religion’s stranglehold on our morality and public policy-making. Despite the fact that the jury is 100% in on the failure of abstinence-only sex education, we’re still dealing with deeply religious policy makers who seriously believe that simply not giving kids information about sex will keep them from having it. (The irony is, most abstinence education does far more to devalue and objectify young girls than Ke$ha shaking her booty in a thong.)
Pushing for high school health classes to require a unit on consent as part of sex education would do far more to prevent rape than berating women who sometimes circulate those “how to avoid rape” lists. Pushing to decriminalize prostitution is a far more empowering step than demanding that fellow feminists affirm sex work as a positive career choice. Regulated prostitution appears, at least from a number of studies, less dangerous and damaging to the women (and men) in it than the system we have now, and it’s a move that a lot of feminists could get behind; why are we expending so much energy policing each others’ feelings about it as a life choice, when there are massive, practical, structural problems with it (risk of arrest, STIs, dangerous weirdo clients) that we could be working on? We don’t have to give 100% approval to everything in one another’s hearts, we just have to figure out how to band together on productive actions.
If we’re not all at least somewhat aligned on what it is we’re supposed to be fighting for (or against), in what sense is feminism a movement? The very nature of the term “movement” is a pretty clear. It’s supposed to move. Presumably forward. Going backwards, and even standing still, aren’t options. If we can’t coordinate, we need to at least get out of each other’s way. It would be nice though, if we could agree on some concrete things we can DO, together, or else this is just one giant online coffee klatch, and everyone’s got a bone to pick. It’s human to respond to stimuli, but if the response isn’t coupled with a plan, then that’s all it is. A response. Not a movement.
There’s work to be done, ladies, and a lot of it. Who’s with me?